In 2009, President Barack Obama became the first US President to celebrate Diwali – the festival of lights – officially at the White House and last week, US secretary of state John Kerry, celebrated the Indian festival for the first time at the state department in Washington DC. “As the days grow shorter, Diwali reminds us that spring always returns — that knowledge triumphs over ignorance, hope outlasts despair, and light replaces darkness. Diwali is a time for the revitalisation of mind and spirit,” Kerry said to the guests, who included Indian ambassador to the US S Jaishankar, assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal and USAID administrator Raj Shah.
Hindu priest Narayanachar L Digalakote from the Sri Siva Vishnu temple presided over the ceremonial lighting of the lamp. Earlier, President Obama had sent out Diwali greetings to all those who were celebrating. Official Diwali celebrations and messages from the top brass in US government are a clear signal that the 1.9 million Indian American community is growing not just in numbers but also becoming more visible in public life. “It shows that the political activism of the community is growing rapidly considering that the White House, house of representatives, different states and local governments all issue official proclamation for Diwali,” says Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US Indian Political Action Committee. USINPAC is now working with the US House of representatives and has done an outreach to the White House and several state and local governments to issue proclamations and allow their Indian American employees casual leave for Diwali.
Across different geographies, people of Indian origin have been highlighting Diwali among the mainstream communities as a festival that showcases the diversity of India. Deepak Obhrai, a Conservative member of parliament in Canada and parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, was responsible for putting Diwali on the cultural map of the Canadian government way back in 1998.
“When we first celebrated Diwali at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, it was a small event with only a few guests attending. Now it has become so big with thousands of people wanting to attend that we have moved the official event to a large auditorium in Toronto from last year to give more people the opportunity to witness and appreciate Canada’s National Diwali Celebration,” Obhrai said.
“We have come a long way from the days when as new immigrants here we got together with a few friends and had dinner at someone’s home in the evening after work for Diwali,” he adds. Early last week, Canada’s PM Stephen Harper along with many of his colleagues from government and Indo-Canadian community leaders celebrated Diwali at the Hindu Sabha Mandir in Brampton. British Prime Minister David Cameron also hosted the annual Diwali party at his official residence in London extending greetings to over 8,00,000 Hindus living in the UK and thanking them for their contribution to the country, even as UK’s Opposition Labour party, had its own Diwali celebrations where party leader Ed Miliband expressed the hope that he would be celebrating the festival as Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street next year.
“The message that the UK government is sending is that this is a tolerant, inclusive and multi-cultural country. Also, Diwali is amongst the biggest religious festivals in the world, and the UK government continues to honour the festival’s enduring traditions of light over darkness, prosperity and happiness,” says Londonbased executive chairman of Topsgrup Diwan Rahul Nanda.
Sarosh Zaiwalla, founder of London law firm Zaiwalla & Co Solicitors, too agrees that the UK is signaling that it is a tolerant, fair and inclusive society for all faiths and cultures. “The bigger Diwali celebrations also reflect the increasing number of NRIs moving to the UK, as it becomes a hub for attracting quality intellectual talent from across the world. The Indian community is now one of the largest communities in all parts of the UK,” he adds.