Madina Toure, Politico, June 2, 2023
State lawmakers are making a renewed push at the behest of the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean community to get a school holiday in New York City for Diwali, the festival of lights.
The bill’s sponsors at the state Capitol said they are hopeful they can get the measure approved before the end of next week when the six-month session ends, saying its passage would illustrate the community’s growing political and cultural influence across New York.
The bill received the key backing last month from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who said in a statement that the Assembly intends to pass legislation to observe Lunar New Year and Diwali as holidays in New York state before they leave Albany. He also said they’d continue discussions with stakeholders “as to how this affects the school year calendar.”
Assemblymember Jenifer Rajkumar — the first Hindu American and first South Asian American woman elected to state office in New York — said the bill would remove “Anniversary Day,” which dates back to the 1800s and honors the first Christian Sunday schools founded in Brooklyn so that it can be replaced with Diwali.
If the bill is passed, Mayor Eric Adams would be able to designate Diwali as a school holiday for the more than 200,000 city residents who celebrate it. The bill was first introduced in 2021 and reintroduced in October 2022.
The bill and its potential approval has been years in the making. Adams had pledged to try to make Diwali a school holiday a day after he was elected in November 2021, trying to make good on a push for the holiday during the de Blasio administration.
In early October, advocates and parents expressed concerns about the fact that it still did not occur and put pressure on him to deliver on his promise.
That month, Rajkumar and Adams announced a city-state partnership to make Diwali a school holiday. Michael Mulgrew, who heads the city’s teachers union, also signaled his support.
When de Blasio was in office, organizations coordinated sending multiple letters asking him to recognize Diwali — which is celebrated by Hindu, Jain, Sikh and some Buddhist communities, typically in October or November — after he announced school holidays for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha and for the Asian Lunar New Year.
They held rallies and press conferences and lobbied lawmakers, according to Aminta Kilawan-Narine, co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.
De Blasio said he would not recognize any more holidays due to the state’s requirement that schools provide at least 180 days of instruction.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, she said, has shown her commitment to Asian American Pacific Islander communities at large so she’d be shocked if she did not sign the bill and pointed to support from leadership in the Assembly and the Senate.
As to whether she’s optimistic Hochul will sign the bill, Rajkumar noted Hochul hosted the first-ever gubernatorial Diwali celebration last year and that Hochul has told her that she is “excited” about the Diwali holiday.
Avi Small, a spokesperson for the governor, seemed to hint at her support.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) announced legislation last week that would make Diwali the 12th federally recognized holiday in the U.S.
The South Asian and Indo Caribbean community has been fighting for the holiday for more than 20 years. Lawmakers and advocates say the endeavor gained traction due to an increase in the number of Asian lawmakers in the state Legislature, and the community being more galvanized across New York — along with Adams’ support.
Assemblywoman Grace Lee, co-chair of the New York Assembly’s Asian Pacific American Task Force, said she’s worked closely with Rajkumar on the bill to help get it done. She pointed to a historic number of Asian American legislators in the state Legislature — six in the Assembly and four in the state Senate.
“It’s a demonstration of what Asian Americans can do when they have a seat at the table and when they are able to use their voices to advocate for their communities, and I really feel that this year in particular, we have organized in an incredible way to make sure that our Pan-Asian communities are being heard at the state Capitol,” Lee said.