By Surekha Vijh
WASHINGTON: Dozens of United States lawmakers from the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans hosted a special Diwali reception for the first time on Capitol Hill on October 29.
Diwali, the Festival of Lights, has been celebrated in the White House for many years. Traditional “diyas,” earthen lamps were lit by the Caucus leaders and the Indian Ambassador to the US.
The head priest of the Shiva Vishnu temple of Maryland, Narayanachar Lakshminarasihma Digalakote, who officiated in the White House Diwali celebration attended by President Barack Obama three years ago, initiated the prayers by reciting Vedic mantras and blessed the congresspersons and senators with colorful embroidered shawls, fresh jasmine flower garlands and vermilion marks on their foreheads, epitomizing the ancient Sanskrit paean to peace: From the Unreal, Lead us to Truth; From Darkness, Lead use to Light; From Death, Lead us to Immortality.
The evening turned into a spectacular event, with the House of Representatives Rayburn Building lobby overflowing with more than 600 members of the Indian American community, scores of beaming US lawmakers, administration officials and well-wishers, including leading American business, industry and policy wonks and think tank heads from some of Washington’s foremost institutions.
“I have come here to say Happy Diwali,” said Nancy Pelosi, Leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives.
“The United States owes a great debt of gratitude to India. Because our civil rights movement was built on the non-violent movement in India. Martin Luther King studied there, spoke there. We are blessed not only by that legacy, but also by the presence of so many Indo-Americans in our country,” Pelosi added.
California Republican Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, began his brief intro wishing ‘Jai Hind’ (Long Live India).
Confirming that the relationship between India and the United States is strengthening, Congressman Royce said, “Our goal should be to increase and deepen this relationship with counter-terrorism co-operation, with more trade and investment and trying to make sure that we strengthen our ally India. And that is our intention here, whether we are Republican or a Democrat, our goal is to deepen this relationship.”
Hawaii Democrat Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu American lawmaker, pointed out that the diversity in the Congress is indicative of the special nature of Diwali itself. “It is celebration of righteousness,” she said.
California Democrat Ami Bera, who is the only Indian American in the current Congress, calling this an incredible Diwali celebration, said, “It is great to be one Indian American in the Congress, but at our second, fifth Diwali celebration, we want to see more members of the Diaspora elected to the House of Representatives. We want to see deepening of this relationship as we move forward,” Bera added.
“This is a truly historic event,” New York Democrat Congressman Joe Crowley, who hosted the evening as a master of ceremony said.
Illinois Republican Congressman Peter Roskam said Indian Americans are an example of an enormous Diaspora 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,” he said.
“When we look at the relationship between the United States and India moving forward it is a wonderful relationship that has great things in store,” said Roskam.
New York Democrat Congresswoman Carolyn B Maloney, who is instrumental in launching a campaign for issuing a Diwali stamp, said that the US Postal Service had recently turned down the request. But they will continue their efforts. She urged the Indian American community to work together in this. “It is time to have Diwali stamp,” she added among loud cheers.
New York Democrat Congressman Elliot Engel, Ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appreciating the contribution of Indian Americans in the country said, “India and the United States have so much in common.”
The outgoing Indian Ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, also spoke on the historic occasion, along with other Congressmen including John Conyers, Mike Honda, Sheila Jackson Lee, David Price, Charles Bernard “Charlie” Rangel, and Steny Hoyer.
The Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans is the largest ethnic Caucus of its kind on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, which spearheaded the efforts to organize this unprecedented event in the Rayburn House Office Building foyer. The debut celebration took place from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.
The lawmakers were led by the newly minted Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Nisha Desai Biswal and Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar Barve.
The occasion was also marked as a sweet farewell to departing Ambassador Nirupama Rao, recognized for furthering the relationship between India and the US.
The event was organized by the two Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Congressmen Joe Crowley and Peter Roskam in recognition of increasing presence of the Indian-American community,. The occasion was also used to highlight significance of India-US relationship.
The SriSivaVishnuTemple, who co-hosted the evening, presented nicely packed traditional Indian sweets to every lawmaker and every participant.
The White House is expected to host a ceremony marking Diwali this week. Indians are hoping that the President will make an appearance as he did in 2009. And hoping Diwali will take another step closer to the American lexicon.
(Surekha Vijh is a journalist and poet based in Washington DC)