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IN PHOTOS: Capitol Hill celebrates its first-ever Diwali

Last updated on: October 30, 2013 12:56 IST

IN PHOTOS: Capitol Hill celebrates its first-ever Diwali

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Aziz Haniffa

The first-ever Congressional Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening was a spectacular event by any measure, with the House of Representatives Rayburn Building lobby overflowing with over 500 members of the Indian American community, scores of United States lawmakers, administration officials and well-wishers ranging from leading American business and industry and policy wonks and think tank heads from some of Washington’s premier institutions. Aziz Haniffa reports.

One had to be there to marvel at the parade of lawmakers, including the Indian American community’s own, Dr Amerish ‘Ami’ Bera and administration officials.

They were led by the newly minted Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Nisha Desai Biswal, Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, being garlanded with fresh jasmine flowers, stamped with a tilak on their forehead and then making their way to light the diyas caparisoned with more flowers of all hues and colors.

And this parade continued even as the rock-star priest -- ever since he officiated in the White House Diwali celebration attended by President Barack Obama three years ago -- Narayanachar Lakshminarasihma Digalakote of the SriSivaVishnuTemple, which co-hosted the celebrated with the Congressional Caucus on Indian and Indian Americans, recited shlokas.

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Image: Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat and the only Hindu American in the US Congress lights up the ceremonial diya
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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IN PHOTOS: Capitol Hill celebrates its first-ever Diwali

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Digalakote then wrapped colorful shawls around the shoulders of the lawmakers and the likes of Congressman Joe Crowley, New York Democrat and co-chair of the India Caucus on whose initiative this first Diwali celebration of the Hill became a reality and others, including Bera, Biswal, and Barve.

This was indeed a colorful kaleidoscope with Crowley at 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds of bone and muscle looking every inch like a newly-crowned world heavyweight boxing or wrestling champion, and each one of them thoroughly enjoying themselves and basking in this honor.

Crowley in his welcoming remarks said that while this was the first Diwali on Capitol Hill, it was only the beginning of what would be an annual event to cheers and sustained applause and whoops that seemed to reverberate through the halls of Congress.

‘I want to thank everyone who is responsible for this evening’s wonderful celebration -- light over darkness, of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance,’ he said, and declared, “What a universal and beautiful gesture that we take from our Indian friends.”

Crowley profusely thanking everyone for coming out in droves for the celebration and “for making this the first successful Diwali of several diwalis of years to come,” obviously elated over the response, added, “I cannot say how pleased I am at the turn-out this evening.”

He also expressed his appreciation to the SSVT and its board member Shekar Narasimhan and the several volunteers for helping to put the event together

Narasimhan said, “On behalf of the SriSivaVishnuTemple and the entire 3.1 million Indian American community, welcome to Diwali on Capitol Hill, and to members of the House Caucus on India, the largest caucus on Capitol Hill.”

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Image: Congressman Joe Crowley lights the diya as US Representative for California Dr Amerish 'Ami' Bera and Tulsi Gabbard look on with others
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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IN PHOTOS: Capitol Hill celebrates its first-ever Diwali

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The Republican co-chair of the India Caucus, Peter Roskam, who represents Illinois, lauded the Indian American community “for your wonderful example of being an enormous diaspora in the United States that is incredibly influential.”

“You have the ability to bring together people from both sides of the aisle in ways that are powerful and significant and.” He added, “If we look at the relationship between the US and India moving forward, it is a wonderful relationship that has great things in store."

The lawmakers were literally falling over each other to come to the podium and say a few words, many greeting the audience with the traditional ‘Namaste’ with Congressman Ed Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a former GOP co-chair of the Caucus himself, going even one better and shouting ‘Jai Hind,’ as soon as he got a hold of the microphone.

Royce, in also thanked the Indian American community “for the contributions that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, that Indo-Americans are making here in the United States,” and pointed out that “the highest percentage of advanced degrees go to your sons and daughters, and you should feel very good about that.”

He said, “The other issue you should feel good about is the relationship between India and the United States because Americans are beginning to recognise that all friendships need to be based on common values, a respect for democracy, a respect for human rights.”

“We may still be striving in that direction, we may not be perfect -- the Government of India and the United States -- but those are our goals.”

Royce said, “Our goals are political pluralism and our goals are India’s goals and our other goal should be to increase and deepen the relationship with counter-terrorism cooperation and more trade and investment, and try to make certain that we strengthen our ally, India.”

“And, that is our intention here, whether we are Republican or Democrat, our goal as Americans is to deepen this relationship,” he added, and vowed that with the cooperation of the Indian American community, “We will move forward.”

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Image: The gathering at the Capitol Hill
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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IN PHOTOS: Capitol Hill celebrates its first-ever Diwali

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Democratic leader from California, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, while wishing everyone in the room, around the country and in India, a Happy Diwali, said, “The US owes a great debt of gratitude to India because our civil rights movement was built on the non-violent movement in India.”

She noted that civil rights icon, the late Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, “Studied there, spoke there, and we are blessed not only by that legacy but by the presence of so many Indian Americans in our country and I might say, so many in the state of California.”

Pelosi added, “Wherever you are from, all of you, let’s all light a candle in our house, and get ready for the visit -- Happy Diwali.”

The loudest applause seemingly was reserved for Bera who said, “Isn’t this an incredible Diwali celebration -- what an amazing turn-out.’

He said, “It’s great to be an Indian American in Congress, but at our second, and our fifth Diwali celebration, we want to see more members of the diaspora elected to the House of Representatives and we want to see a deepening of this relationship as we move forward.”

“This is a great day for the Jain, the Hindu and the Sikh community,” Bera said. “Diwali brings us together, but let’s continue to move forward as a diaspora and let’s see where we go and this is a remarkable Caucus under Joe and Peter’s leadership and Ed Royce. We want to see this relationship between United States and India just continues to grow and blossom.”

He reiterated, “What a wonderful day, what a wonderful turnout.”

Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat and the only Hindu American in the US Congress, was also a popular figure among the guests to kept pouring in, and in her remarks after the initial ‘Aloha’ and ‘Namaste’, observed, “Today, around the country, there are people who could not be here tonight, who are celebrating and applauding the diversity that is represented in this room, on this historic occasion.”

 

She said, “What is happening here, if you look around -- the diversity that is reelected not only among yourselves but among the leadership in Congress -- is indicative of the special nature of Diwali itself.”

Gabbard acknowledged that it’s a fun celebration, “But more importantly for us, during these times, it is a celebration of righteousness over wrong, of the lightness over darkness, and as we go forward we can take this lesson with us and light the lamps within our hearts to make the changes in our lives and in our work.”

Congressman Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a co-founder of the India Caucus nearly two decades ago, said, “The India Caucus has grown and grown, and there’s a reason that it has grown. It’s because the US and India have so much in common -- two great democracies -- and the great contributions that Indian Americans of all walks of life have made is something to really behold.”

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Image: Guests dig in to Diwali goodies
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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Also on hand to participate in the celebration was Indian Ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, who is soon to be succeeded by S Jaishankar, currently India’s ambassador in China.

Crowley, in introducing Rao, said, she had “Contributed mightily toward the advancement of our two nations working cooperatively together in this world.”

Rao said, “This is an occasion for us to light lamps, to dispel the darkness and to pledge to work for greater friendship and cooperation between India and the United States -- two great democracies.”

“I am so happy to be here on Capitol Hill today for what is truly a milestone in the history of this partnership that we are celebrating Diwali,” she said.

Rao also noted that “Diwali is really a universal festival. It belongs to each and every one of us, regardless of which ever religion or faith we belong to,” and exhorted everyone “to light lamps, wherever we go.”

Crowley also introduced Major Kamaljit Singh Kalsi and spoke of how this Sikh American ‘has served our country as a member of the United States Armed Services.’

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Image: Dr Ami Bera lights up the ceremonial diya
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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“He has not only saved lives in Afghanistan, he has won numerous awards for his service and I believe it is time that we let all Sikhs serve in our United States Armed Services,” he said.

The irony of the message of Diwali -- of light over darkness, and good over evil -- in the wake of the recent federal government shutdown, which relegated the approval rating of the US Congress to unprecedented and historic lows, almost dipping to single digits and prompting late night comedians to joke that the American public could tolerate hemorrhoids more than they could members of Congress --  also apparently not lost on some of the lawmakers.

The iconic Asian American lawmaker, Mike Honda, California Democrat, said, “This is a wonderful place to have a celebration of the festival of lights because we in Congress are supposed to be…talk about good over evil, light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance.”

“And, you will add all these great things to our country,” he said.

Congressman Gerald Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said, “Had we this festival a few weeks ago, I know with the festival of lights, we never would have shut down the federal government.”

Echoing similar sentiments, not without a touch of irony, Congressman Charlie Rangel, New York Democrat, said, “You couldn’t have picked a better place to celebrate this beautiful holiday because our United States Congress needs your prayers now more than ever.”

“It really shows that the United States and indeed the world, the quality of love and peace and working together in harmony is something that God wanted all of us to do,” he added.

Rangel said, he hoped that, “All of us are able to share each other’s cultures, songs, its religion, but most of all, to share its love.”

Amid all of the celebration, there was a tinge of disappointment too, when Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, New York Democrat, informed the audience that the US post office had once again rejected her decade-long quest to have a special stamp commemorating Diwali.

Maloney said, “This is the first celebration of Diwali on Capitol Hill…but we need to celebrate all year long, and for 10 years I have been trying to get a Diwali stamp and convince the postal service.”

But she bemoaned, “They just turned us down for the 10th year. So, I want to urge you to write the postal office, and the Citizen’s Stamp Committee and the Post Master General that it’s long past time for a Diwali stamp.”

Maloney pointed out that "we have stamps for every major religion except for Diwali and it’s time to have the Diwali stamp. So, join with me to get this done."


Image: Guests admire the Diwali decorations at the Capitol Hill
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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