Bill to make Diwali official holiday in New York gets closer to reality

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New York State Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar speaks on the floor of the House to introduce April as Punjabi Awareness Month in New York state. Photo: courtesy Assemblywoman Rajkumar’s office.

New York Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar introduced a new bill in the State Assembly (Bill #A7062), which establishes Diwali as a school holiday in New York. The bill appears to have a better chance of making the holiday a reality with the support it has garnered.

Rajkumar told Desi Talk she is working to get Republicans in the Assembly to lend their backing for what she says is a universally acknowledged cause. The bill will have to pass both the lower and upper house before Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs it into law.

The Empire State Building lit up for Diwali in orange Nov. 13, 2020. It was part of the Federation of Indian Association’s celebration of the festival. Photo courtesy FIA

The bill relating to the same issue has been in the New York State Senate introduced by Sen. Kevin Thomas, the only Indian-American in that legislative body.

Senator Thomas has a bill (S151) that would amend the education law to allow Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali, and Onam to be considered school holidays in districts where a considerable portion of students observe such religious or cultural days.

New York State Senator Kevin Thomas having a Zoom conference with staff from his home, holds his 16-month daughter on his lap. (Photo: courtesy NY Sen. Kevin Thomas)

Sen. Thomas’ bill also includes an important section to prevent loss of state funds resulting from observance of these traditional and religious days and have those holidays calculated as session days if necessary.

Senator Leroy Comrie who represents the 14th Senatorial District that encompasses portions of Jamaica, Cambria Heights, Queens Village, Hollis, Rosedale, Laurelton, and Kew Gardens among other neighborhoods, is listed as a co-sponsor of this bill as are Senators Andrew Gounardes (22nd District), Roxanne J. Persaud (19th District), and Jessica Ramos (13th District).

A number of Indian-Americans crowded into the Indian Consulate in New York Oct. 5, 2016 to witness the formal unveiling of the first Diwali “Forever” stamp released by the U.S. Postal Service.

Rajkumar, the first Hindu-American and first South Asian woman ever elected to State Office in New York, says the law is long overdue. If it becomes law, school districts with significant populations that celebrate the holiday could observe it as a holiday.

“Our bill is notable because it identifies for the first time every, the different groups that celebrate Diwali – including Nepalis, Bangladeshis, Myanmaris,

“As the first Hindu-American and South Asian-American woman elected to state office in New York, I take special pride in advocating for new American communities, including those that celebrate Diwali,” Assemblywoman Rajkumar is quoted saying in a press release from her office.

“The South Asian, Indo-Caribbean, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist communities are a vital part of our city’s Gorgeous Mosaic, contributing to every sector of our society,” Rajkumar said, adding, “It is long past time to honor their vibrant cultural heritage by making Diwali a School Holiday, as community leaders have advocated for years. The time has come.”

Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by people of multiple faiths, including Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists.

A major festival in South Asia and in Indo-Caribbean countries, Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.

During the holiday, Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean heritage celebrate the festival.

For decades, religious leaders and community activists have urged state administrations to make this a holiday. Smaller administrative levels in greater New York City have tried to do so on their own volition.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would approve Eid and Lunar New Year as school holidays in 2015, but he did not include Diwali. Activists then formed the Diwali Coalition of New York City to push for change, noted the press release from Rajkumar’s office.

A New York City Council Resolution (Resolution 146) back in 2018 February introduced by Councilman Daniel Dromm, stalled in committee despite having the support of 36 Councillors. It called on the New York City Department of Education to establish Diwali as a school holiday.

Local community leaders like Democratic District Leader Richard David who is of Indo-Caribbean descent and a Hindu, at that time called the result a lack of awareness about South Asian cultures and religions, reported Queenseagle.com. He and others have been vigorously pushing for years for a holiday on Diwali.

First Vice Chair of Community Board 9, Sherry Algredo, recently spearheaded the passage of a Queens Community Board Resolution calling for Diwali to be recognized as a school holiday.

The Hindu Temple Society of North America in Queens,  the National Advisory Committee for South Asian Affairs, the Federation of Hindu Mandirs, The Golden Age Community of New York, The Sikh American Friendship Foundation, and the Diwali Stamp Project, have all advocated for the festival to be declared a holiday.

In support of the NY state Assembly resolution introduced by Rajkumar, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards stated: “The thousands of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain families across who celebrate Diwali deserve to mark the Festival of Lights as a complete unit with their children. But this is about more than just a religious commemoration — it’s about the validation of entire communities who for far too long have fought for equal recognition. Queens is proud to join Assemblymember Rajkumar and all our elected officials who have signed onto this piece of legislation, which must be passed and signed into law as soon as possible.”

Assemblymember and Brooklyn County Leader Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn said, “Every student in our diverse city should have the opportunity to celebrate one another’s cultures and holidays, including this key Hindu Holiday of Diwali which means the ‘festival of lights’. By recognizing Diwali we can take one small step towards equity for the South Asian community, by embracing this holiday in the same manner we do the cultures and customs of other communities.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said, “As progressive as we believe we have been in diversifying our City’s official holiday calendar, our progress continues to leave out New Yorkers across the five boroughs who take part in Diwali.’

“I am a proud member of the coalition of community leaders who believe it is long past time we show respect to hundreds of thousands of South Asian New Yorkers and give this family festival of lights the shine and recognition it deserves. We came together to uplift Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, as well as Lunar New Year, and Diwali must be next,” Adams asserted.

State Assemblymember David Weprin said the legislation would bring about “long-awaited change” for the members of the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain communities.

Bronx Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernández noted that her borough had been celebrating Diwali for a long time. “Now is the time to take steps to ensure no person should have to choose between celebrating their faith and their education or jobs,” Fernandez added.

The Hindu American Foundation said in a statement:  “We applaud State Rep. Rajkumar for introducing this important legislation. The Hindu American community in New York City and across the Empire State have been asking the state to recognize us and our holidays so that our families and our children can celebrate our faith without punitive actions from the state or school districts. We urge the New York legislature to pass this measure and likewise urge the Governor to sign it into law.”

The Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) also made the case. “New York City is home to hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists and Diwali holds a special significance for all these traditions. Recognizing Diwali as a school holiday has been a request of these communities for a long time and thus this bill is a great first step towards achieving that goal.”

Other significant community supporters Include Ashook Ramsaran, president of Indian Diaspora Council; Pandit Ram Hardowar, president of The Federation of Hindu Mandirs; Balram Rambrich, secretary of Arya Samaj USA; Romeo Hitlal president, Richmond Hill-South Ozone Park Lions Club, among others.

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