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The Election of Kamala Harris Raises Profile of Diwali in America as Lawmakers Greet Indian Americans

The Election of Kamala Harris Raises Profile of Diwali in America as Lawmakers Greet Indian Americans

Anu Ghosh
  • President Trump, President-elect Biden, Vice President-elect Harris greet the community on the occasion of Festival of lights.

As scores of South Asians, donned bright saris and chaniya cholislit diyas (traditional oil lamps) and bowed their heads in prayer across the country in celebration of Diwali on Saturday, Nov. 14, the Indian festival of lights, President-elect Biden tweeted Diwali greetings.

“To the millions of Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists celebrating the Festival of Lights, @DrBiden and I send our best wishes for a #HappyDiwali. May your new year be filled with hope, happiness, and prosperity. Sal Mubarak ,” Joe Biden wrote on Twitter.

Vice-President-elect, Harris, who is being celebrated as the first Indian-Jamaican woman to hold this office also tweeted her own greetings.  “Happy Diwali and Sal Mubarak! @DouglasEmhoff and I wish everyone celebrating around the world a safe, healthy, and joyous new year.”

Outgoing President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump too extended Diwali greetings with a photo of Trump lighting a ceremonial lamp in the White House. 

“The First Lady and I send our warmest wishes to all those celebrating Diwali this week. During this Festival of Lights, friends, neighbors, and loved ones join in fellowship to commemorate the spiritual triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance. As diyas are lit throughout homes, workplaces, communities, and places of worship, their warmth reminds us of the hope and devotion that faith and tradition bring into our lives,” read an official statement issued by the White House.

Trump added, “The United States is a deeply faithful nation, and I am proud of my Administration’s work defending the constitutional right of all Americans to live and worship according to their conscience. Wherever Americans light diyas to celebrate Diwali, our nation shines bright as a beacon of religious liberty for all people.”

And with the win of the Biden-Harris team, some supporters feel a sense of victory made more poignant by the festival. Harris’ roots in Chennai and her experience as the daughter of immigrants resonates with many Indian Americans, themselves often here for only a generation or two. Others are drawn to the glass ceiling she broke for both women and people of color. 

“This Diwali does feel a little bit more meaningful, especially when we have some hope,” Mallika Chopra, a Los Angeles-based author and daughter of author and alternative-medicine advocate Deepak Chopra told the Los Angeles Times. “It feels like lightness is coming.”

“There is no doubt that as we start Diwali, I see the parallel of light starting to shine in,” said state Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) to Los Angeles Times. “It’s hard to ignore.” Kalra also tweeted, thanking Biden for his message to the community and tweeted pictures of him celebrating Diwali with his family saying, “Happy Diwali! Lighting diyas, doing puja and then eating a lot!”

Diwali Resolution in Congress

Top U.S. lawmakers greeted Indian Americans on the occasion by introducing a resolution in the House of Representatives recognizing the religious and historical significance of the festival of lights. The resolution introduced by Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Illinois), noted that Diwali is a celebration of great importance in Indian American communities throughout the U.S. The bipartisan resolution recognized the historical and religious significance of Diwali and expressed its deepest respect for the community members and the Indian Diaspora throughout the world.

The author’s children with their divas. Top photo the author and her friends at a Diwali party in Atlanta, GA).

“For Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, the festival of Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, and in this time of challenge and uncertainty in the United States and across the world, this commemoration is as important as ever,” said Krishnamoorthi, who introduced the resolution in the House on Friday.

Many other top politicos also took to social media to wish the Indian American community for Diwali.  

In his greetings, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is also co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, said as with many other holidays this year, the pandemic will render this Diwali celebrations quite different. “But with large family gatherings on hold, we can still celebrate the abundance of good in this world. During this time of isolation, Diwali can help us focus on connection,” he told The Tribune.

Cornyn wished Texans celebrating Diwali a happy new year, as he tweeted a message along with a card. “Diwali celebrates awareness of one’s inner light and light’s triumph over darkness – good over evil and hope over despair. Even in the most uncertain of times, Diwali will help us see opportunity and good. Wishing all Texans who celebrate #Diwali a joyous and prosperous new year.”

“Our Diwali celebrations this year are going to be noticeably different than any other year. Many people are facing great challenges during this pandemic – whether it’s difficulty paying the bills, relationship problems, stress, anxiety, or loneliness,” tweeted former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), the first Hindu member of Congress.

“Society is becoming more and more divided. Everything is politicized as we’re pitted against each other along battle lines of race, class, religion, gender, age, or values. Unity has given way to tribalism. The good of the whole has been replaced by “what’s in it for me or those like me?” But it doesn’t have to be this way,” she added.

Wishing millions of people around the world celebrating the Festival of Lights, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) said, “Let us turn our own efforts so that goodness and righteousness guide us toward a better future in which light sustains and nourishes us even in the bleakest of times.” 

Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) said, “It is my hope that we take the spirit of Diwali with us as we move forward from this dark period in our country and into the light. I wish a safe and happy festival of lights as family and friends celebrate during the coming days.”

Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-New York) and Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif) also extended their Diwali greetings to the community.

As wishes poured in from the highest offices in this country, many South Asians, in the face of the pandemic resorted to creative alternatives to celebrate in lieu of public prayer and gatherings.

The Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, Queens, will conduct online pujas while allowing limited worshippers and following social distancing rules, Ravi Vaidyanaat, who is overseeing events, told NBC Asian America.

One of the biggest celebrations is New York City’s Diwali in Times Square, which has been organized by event manager and host Neeta Bhasin since 2013. This event draws a big crowd and features dance and musical performances, mouth-watering food, colorful lights, appearances by Indian American and Bollywood stars as well political figures, pivoted this year to a three days of online event according to NBC Asian America.

The virtual celebrations, broadcast live on the event’s social media platforms, include a lamp-lighting ceremony from Times Square, a recorded message from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and concerts with renowned singers from different parts of India, including Usha Uthup, Jankee, Nakuul Mehta, Sunita Bhuyan and the voice behind “Ek Tha Tiger,” “Aashiqui 2,” “Kick,” and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo — Palak Muchha.

Bhasin said that even at a smaller scale, she hoped the festivities could elevate the significance of the festival — the triumph of light over darkness — especially since the lockdown has caused so much anxiety and isolation.

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The Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) of the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the leading umbrella diaspora organization in the U.S., partnering with the Empire State Building, marked the festival of lights by illuminating the iconic Manhattan landmark in orange on Friday.

“Happy #Diwali from NYC! We’re joining @FIANYNJCTorg in celebrating the festival of lights by turning our own lights all orange tonight!” a tweet by the Empire State Building social media account said.

Across the country in Belmont, California, instead of a festive celebration, former “MasterChef USA” contestant Hetal Vasavada told NBC Asian America that she will be on a Zoom call with family. They’ll celebrate with care packages she sent out with handmade treats like Gulab Jamun Bundt cakes and Orange Tutti Frutti cookies, a mix of Indian and Western delights.

Different Reasons for Diwali

Diwali means different things to different communities depending on where you come from.

If your family comes from North India, your Diwali story lifts a page from the epic tale of Ramayana. It marks the victorious return of its royal protagonist, Rama, after he defeats the evil Ravana and rescues his wife, Sita. The people of his kingdom light oil lamps — diyas — to guide him back home.

If your family is from the South, Diwali plucks from the other great epic, Mahabharata, telling the story of Krishna, defeating demon Narakasura, ending his unjust reign and ushering in peace on Earth. It is celebrated as Divali in the Caribbean, Deepavali in Sri Lanka, Tihar in Nepal.

If you’re from the East, Bengal to be specific, you grew up worshipping the goddess Kali on Diwali. That’s the goddess with dark skin and wild hair and a necklace of skulls (actually bad-dudes-whom-she-has-vanquished skulls) around her neck.

But, whichever interpretation you follow, on this day people across India and around the world celebrate the festival by decorating their houses with colorful rangoli (designs in chalk powder), exchanging gifts, and offering prayers in order to commemorate the “victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.”

And although this year, the large and rambunctious celebrations that usually mark Diwali were largely missing, fireworks were replaced with quieter pujas and large family gatherings with their lavish spread turned to intimate meals with zoomed-in friends and family, there was a sense of hope with a Biden-Harris win. 

“I think it will take it to the next step,” M.R. Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora, an organization dedicated to the advancement of South Asians told Los Angeles Times. “Once COVID subsides, look for something big in November 2021 in D.C., absolutely!”

Rangaswami had co-hosted the 2016 Diwali party at Vice-President Biden’s official residence Number One Observatory Circle, on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington. Former President Obama was the first to host an official Diwali reception in the White House in 2009, a gesture welcomed by the Indian community.


Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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