New York city mayor refuses to grant Diwali as a school holiday

Dear Editor,

New York City officially celebrates Diwali on Wednesday (November 11) with the suspension of parking rules and an excused absence for those public school students and staff who take the day off – no dispute among Hindu leaders on the date for city recognition. As in Guyana, some Hindus (and mandirs) celebrate Diwali on Tuesday, but the bulk of the mandirs (including South Asians) celebrate on Wednesday. It is not an official holiday in which government offices or schools are closed, although that was the demand from Hindu leaders. The demand for school closure was (and still is) supported by most of the city council as well as members of Congress and the state legislatures from among those lawmakers who represent the city. Several activists, myself included, lobbied for an official holiday, but the Mayor denied us a holiday saying it would be very costly to the city. It so happens that this year Diwali falls on Veterans Day, and, as such, schools are shut and all government offices nationally are closed. But that has not prevented community leaders from fuming at the Mayor of NYC for refusing to include Diwali on the list of school closure holidays.

The Mayor (Bill de Blasio, an Italian) has found himself facing the ire of Hindus as well as many non-Hindus (in solidarity with the Hindu community) and representatives from around the five boroughs of the city for refusing to include Diwali in the list of public holidays. Educators and city legislators say since Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (and the Chinese new year) have been recognized with holidays, Hinduism should be included in the list to grant religious equity. The Mayor included Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha in the list of school holidays for this academic year and going forward.

He initially denied the Chinese New Year and the Hindu New Year of Diwali. He later backpedalled following pressure from the large Chinese (and other Asian) community and included the Chinese New Year as a holiday. But he has refused to yield on Diwali saying students would miss out on important instruction; there are some ten other religious days in which schools are closed.

Hindus and Indians in general (as well as Chinese and other Asians) voted for De Blasio two years ago to be Mayor. In refusing to include Diwali as a holiday, the Mayor denies recognition and respect to a large and growing community of over 600 thousand Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and others in the city who celebrate the festival. He forgot they voted for him and they have told him they will not forget in the next mayoral election two years hence.

Congresswoman Grace Meng, a Chinese, from the Sixth District in Queens (with tens of thousands of Hindus) was disappointed with the Mayor’s refusal to sign the law to recognize Diwali. Meng served in the NewYork State Assembly sponsoring a new law that required NYC to consider closing schools for Id ul-Adha, Id ul-Fitr, Lunar New Year and Diwali. Congressman Greg Meeks from the 7th District with the largest Guyanese population in America numbering over 100,000 and an additional 50,000 Trinidadians plus 100,000 South Asians had also supported Diwali as a school holiday in the city.

A broad-based coalition of Indo-Caribbeans including myself, Ramesh Kalicharran, Vishnu Mahadeo and other Guyanese and South Asians (from over 40 organizations) joined together lobbying the Mayor to include Diwali in the list of public holidays.

There were countless meetings with city officials and petitions urging the mayor to reconsider his decision. But he would not budge, similar to the way in which his predecessor Mike Bloomberg refused to grant parking suspension for Diwali; the 51 member city council eventually unanimously overrode his veto making it law.

Members of the Indo-Caribbean community and Hindu American Foundation (HAF) expressed deep disappointment with De Blasio’s non-designation of Diwali as a public holiday. Uma Mysorekar, President of the South Asian Ganesh Temple in Flushing, was also critical of De Blasio saying “students should not have to worry about missing school work or exams in order to practise their faith” by absenting themselves from school on that day.

But the battle for a Diwali holiday in NY is not over. The activists plan to revisit this issue early next year petitioning the city council and Mayor to reconsider his refusal not to recognize Diwali with a school holiday.

Separately, the Caribbean Diwali motorcade was held on Liberty Avenue on Saturday evening with dozens of floats lightening up the area drawing thousands of spectators and celebrants including South Asians and people of diverse ethnicities.

Several mandirs hosted Diwali concerts over the weekend. Celebrants were attired in colourful traditional Indian garb. There was kirtan (choral) chanting of mantras from the scriptures, sari tying, a puja ceremony, music, dancing, and refreshments.

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram

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