Community leaders joined local elected officials and residents for a rally in Richmond Hill on Sunday, Nov. 7, during which they called on the city, yet again, to make Diwali an official public school holiday.
Their message was loud and clear: “What do we want? Diwali! When do we want it? Now!”
Members of the South Queens Women’s March, the Caribbean Equality Project, Jahajee Sisters and the United Madrassi Association were gathered across the street from Sybil’s Bakery, located at 132-17 Liberty Ave.
According to organizers, it’s been a decades-long fight to have Diwali — a five-day festival of lights celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists across the world — recognized as a holiday in New York City.
“The last administration promised that they would do it, and that administration is coming to an end, and we are still celebrating Diwali at our desks,” said Vijah Ramjattan, founder and president of the United Madrassi Association, which promotes unity in the community. “Our children should not have to choose between their faith and an education.”
A major festival in South Asia and in Indo-Caribbean countries, Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. During the holiday, families decorate their homes and illuminate them with lights, and partake in family feasts and gift-giving.
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with South Asian and Indo-Caribbean Heritage celebrate the festival.
When Mayor Bill de Blasio approved the Muslim holidays Eid Al-Fitr and Eid-Al Adha and the Asian Lunar New Year celebrations joining the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with Christmas, on the city school calendar, but not Diwali, activists formed the Diwali Coalition of New York City to push for change.
This year, Diwali, also known as Deepavali or Deepawali, was celebrated on Nov. 4, a school day and also a parent-teacher conference afternoon for thousands of New York City elementary schoolchildren.
For Aminta Kilawan-Narine, founder and director of South Queens Women’s March, it should be a basic right for educators, parents and children to observe Diwali at home.
“When I was a kid, my mom worked all day long, came home and made her sweets, and made sure we had time to light our diyas,” Kilawan-Narine said. “We didn’t have time to clean; we would have to clean our home the weekend before because we knew we wouldn’t get the day off.”
Community advocate Albert Baldeo echoed Kilawan-Narine’s sentiments.
“Diwali is part of our fundamental right that we deserve and have a right in America, which has also been observed in other parts of the world, and thank God that we are getting there,” Baldeo said.
As de Blasio’s term comes to an end, advocates are hoping that Mayor-elect Eric Adams will fulfill his promise of signing Diwali into a holiday after he takes office on Jan. 1, 2022.
Mohamed Amin, founder and executive director of the Caribbean Equality Project, said they’re holding Adams, as well as their community leaders, accountable to ensure that Diwali does become a holiday.
“Oftentimes, elected officials and candidates will come to our community and make promises and tokenize our vote and they will tell us what we want to hear so we can vote for them, and when they get in office, they will forget us. That will not happen this time,” Amin said.
District Leader Richard David, who is a member of the Diwali Coalition of New York City, reassured the community that he will see that Richmond Hill is served at every level of government.
“There are many people who tell you all kinds of things before they get into office, and that’s why it’s so important for this community to never give up,” said Richards, who also urged residents to register to vote. “The fight ahead of us is going to be getting Diwali, Gifted & Talented programs and communities that are overburdened by taxes. It’s going to be for all of us, and we are going to need you in that fight.”
The community is also receiving support from Queens lawmakers such as Congress members Carolyn Maloney and Gregory Meeks, Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar and Councilwoman-elect Joann Ariola.
Maloney and Meeks on Nov. 3 announced the Deepavali Day Act, which would make Diwali a nationally recognized federal holiday.
Meanwhile, Rajkumar, the first South Asian-American woman ever to be elected to a state office in New York, was proud to say one of her first bills introduced in the state Capitol was to make Diwali a public school holiday.
“The time has come. We are going to make it happen,” said Rajkumar, who presented proclamations to the United Madrassi Association and Ramjattan for his leadership. “It’s not the end of representation, as I have introduced a resolution at the state level to celebrate Indian Arrival Day in New York state. Next year will be the first time we celebrate it in New York, and this will be the last time we will be standing here rallying for Diwali to be a school holiday.”
Ariola said it’s an honor to be elected into the City Council to serve the community and to see that legislation is signed into law making Diwali a holiday for New Yorkers to celebrate it the way they should.
“It is a wonderful holiday — a holiday that brings joy, love and light. It shouldn’t have to be rushed and it shouldn’t have to be a day a child loses at school,” Ariola said. “And when children go to school, they should be asked, ‘How was your holiday?’”