Jul. 18, 2023 By Anthony Medina
Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar was joined by Queens legislators and community leaders in Jackson Heights on Tuesday, July 18, to celebrate the passage of her bill that establishes Diwali as a holiday in New York public schools and to urge Gov. Kathy Hochul for her signature.
The victory celebration at Diversity Plaza, located at 37th Road and Broadway, near the Jackson Heights and Roosevelt Field subway station, was ideal for the first day of South Asian Heritage Month – considering the area serves as an epicenter for many South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities and businesses.
“Nothing can stop a community whose time has come. This year, our state came together with one voice to support my Diwali School Holiday Bill. With the passage of my historic bill, the state is saying to the South Asian community, ‘We see you. We hear you. We recognize you.’ People said the dream of the Diwali School Holiday was impossible, but we made this dream a reality,” said Rajkumar. “To everyone who believed in the power of the possible—whether in the legislature, the streets of Queens, or all around the world, this victory is yours.”
Rajkumar stood alongside Assembly members Catalina Cruz, David Weprin, Jessica González-Rojas and Steven Raga, as well as City Council members Sandra Ung and Shekar Krishnan, who gave impassioned speeches on the efforts it took to pass the Diwali School Holiday Bill.
“After decades of tireless advocacy, South-Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers will now finally be able to celebrate Diwali without having to sacrifice a day of school. New York City public school students who don’t observe Diwali will also now have an opportunity to learn about cultural and religious practices that differ from their own,” said González-Rojas. “I’m so proud to represent a large, diverse South-Asian community here in Assembly District 34 in Queens and I’m thrilled to stand with them today to celebrate this hard-fought legislative victory.”
Diwali is a celebration of light over darkness, good over evil and the human ability to overcome obstacles. Originating in South Asia, it is one of the most sacred days of the year for over 600,000 Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist New Yorkers.
“Next year, for the first time ever in New York City, my own kids and so many others will be able to take a day off school to gather with family, light our diyas, and celebrate the victory of good over evil on Deepavali. I’m proud to have fought alongside so many advocates to finally win this holiday for South Asian New Yorkers,” said Councilman Krishnan.
Joining the roster of elected officials were also by civic and community leaders, including Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation; Mohamed Q. Amin, founder and executive director of Caribbean Equality Project; Mazeda Uddin, from South Asian Fund For Education Scholarship and Training Inc; and Sonia B. Sisodia, executive director, South Asian Youth Action (SAYA).
“Light over darkness has prevailed! For too long our community has felt invisible in our City. Diwali becoming a public school sends a powerful message to our communities’ youngsters that they belong, that they are part of this city and that we see them and value them. What’s more, our entire City’s student body gains from the opportunity to broaden their horizons and become prepared to be global citizens,” said Seecharran.
Rajkumar first broke the glass ceiling in Albany as the first Indian-American and Hindu-American elected. She’s also won the Diwali school holiday in one legislative session. The bill was passed by the state in June after an over two-decades-long fight to have schools recognize Diwali.
Among her achievements, Rajkumar also recognized how some didn’t believe it would be possible to have Diwali become a school holiday, but it was through keeping true to her South Asian values that she persevered.
Despite a small altercation in which a shirtless man approached her touting nonsensical phrases, interrupting the press conference, Rajkumar’s excitement could not be dimmed.
“My dad would always tell me, if you want to be successful, you have to be like Arjuna in the Mahabharata. There were five Pandava brothers and only one of them could shoot the bird. And that was Arjuna. And when they asked him why, he said because I focused only on the eye of the bird. So if you want to succeed, you have to focus on the eye of the bird and that is what I did in Albany with complete focus — focused on making Diwali a school holiday, and achieving the dream of our community,” Rajkumar said.