- Joined by Rep. Ro Khanna, among others, the Palestinian American legislator said “the light of lamps, lighting of lamps throughout our communities … is a moving testament to courage and faith in justice.”
This Diwali, Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) has been wrestling with the question of how we observe the festival of light at a time of such darkness. On November 15, HfHR held our second annual Multi-Faith Diwali event on Capitol Hill. The event gathered about 50 diverse guests, mostly members of the HfHR community and staffers of progressive lawmakers.
The event aimed to foster solidarity and community amid profound global unrest. Our Diwali prayers were dedicated to peace in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the entire world. Even as we gathered to pray for peace, we were shocked to learn that Capitol Police brutally and violently assaulted peaceful protesters who had gathered nearby to demand a ceasefire.
Our advisory board member Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, Senior Minister of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Congregation kicked off the event saying, “The best way to observe Diwali—a festival that honors the triumph of good over evil, of love over fear, of liberation from bondage —is to rise up for justice, equity, peace, and the rights of oppressed people everywhere, including in Gaza.”
He shared Diwali greetings from HfHR’s co-founder and executive director Sunita Viswanath, who was unable to attend the event because of a court date in New York for her arrest along with 450 other protesters during the October 27th civil disobedience action at Grand Central Station, led by Jewish Voice for Peace and others, where thousands of activists peacefully occupied the station demanding a ceasefire in Gaza.
In my remarks, I framed the event as a call to justice, based on the Hindu themes of good vs. evil: “This is a dark Diwali, and one all of us at HfHR have struggled to celebrate. We’ve all turned to the stories in Hinduism of good over evil to ground ourselves this year. And I’ve been reminded of Kali’s fight for justice and the ways my community honors the sacred, righteous, feminine anger that we celebrate during Kali Puja… This terrifying goddess is one of Bengal’s most beloved figures – a reminder that anger when it is righteous and productive, can drive us to create a better world for everyone.”
Given the ongoing violence and injustice in Sudan, Ukraine, Pakistan, Manipur, and the Gaza Strip, I emphasized the Hindu tradition of ahimsa, or nonviolence, and called on elected officials to support a ceasefire in Gaza.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, whose office helped us secure a room and organize the Diwali gathering, was prevented at the last minute from attending in person. She sent written remarks which were read by my colleague Pranay Somayajula: “This year, however, we celebrate [Diwali] in a time of great crisis, with so many of our South Asian community, including Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Hindus, feeling afraid. Many are being targeted by hate crimes as the Israel-Gaza war continues and people question if they matter and have value, just like after 9/11. That was a difficult time for our communities, but it’s also when I got my start in organizing.”
Rep. Ro Khanna attended the event and spoke of his understanding of an expansive and inclusive Hinduism based on the teachings of Gandhi: “My understanding of Hinduism is shaped by Gandhi and that means it’s a faith that is open to all people, all interpretations, against caste, for pluralism – and we need that voice and we need to be understanding that voice today, especially in this world. So I appreciate your being here, and your standing for those principles.”
In my remarks, I made a point to appreciate Rep. Khanna’s solidarity and support but urged him to join the increasing number of brave United States lawmakers calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
The highlight of our evening was the presence of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress. Her unwavering stance and brave advocacy for peace and justice in the face of incessant attacks inspire us deeply. We were so grateful that Rep. Tlaib made time to join us and share a Diwali message in a gesture of love, solidarity, and powerful validation of our work: “Wherever our background is, we all believe that light triumphs. We all need to strive to make that true in our own time. For those of us who come from communities that have suffered discrimination or disposition or just any form of oppression, it is a moving testament to courage and faith in justice as we come together. For all of us, the light of lamps, lighting of lamps throughout our communities is a reminder again of that.”
The event also featured a beautiful musical performance by vocalist, musician, and HfHR member Sathvik Nair, who performed musical arrangements of two poems from South Asian poets and activists with themes of justice and liberation.
The event was co-sponsored by Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress, Buddhist Council of New York, Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, Center for Pluralism, Dalit Solidarity Forum, Emgage, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America, Greenfaith, Indian American Muslim Council, International Commission for Dalit Rights, Interfaith Center of New York, Jewish Voice for Peace Action, Kairos Center, Muslims for Progressive Values, New York State Council of Churches, North American Manipur Tribal Association, Sadhana, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sikh Coalition, and Tasveer. – reflecting the diversity of traditions during this festival.
Ria Chakrabarty is the Policy Director of Hindus for Human Rights.