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Obama's Diwali celebration upsets Indian-American community

By Aziz Haniffa
October 14, 2009 11:10 IST
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Aziz Haniffa reports from Washington, DC on how the Obama administration has upset the Indian-American community.

There is deep concern among Indian-American community leaders and activists that the Obama administration is discontinuing the exclusive traditional Diwali celebration hosted by the White House for the past six years, and have instead diluted the event to a 'Diwali observance' by President Obama that will be accompanied by his signing of an executive order on Wednesday, restoring the White House Commission and Interagency Working Group to address issues concerning the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

One senior community activist, who had been involved with organising the past six annual Diwali events hosted by the White House during the Bush administration who did not wish to be identified -- told, "Nobody seems to know what's happening."

"I did write at least two letters to President Obama, and I also wrote to Valerie Jarrett (Obama's influential friend, who is designated Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement), and then I followed it up with six or seven communications with Kal Penn (the actor, who is Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House) and I made several phone calls also to him, but he never responded," the activist said.

"Only one time, he (Kal Penn) sent me a brief e-mail that said, 'Diwali will happen,' but when I asked, what is the date, are community leaders invited, do you need any help, etc. I got absolutely no response," he added.

The activist said that in his letters to the White House he had said that 'I wrote that we appreciate the White House's inclusiveness and praised the President and said that as much as the White House will be celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, etc, we hope that the Diwali celebration will also continue, and that this was the plea we made to the then President that led to the White House deciding to host Diwali.'

"I gave all the dates for Diwali, and all of the information and background about Diwali and what it is all about and requested that the tradition be continued and it be institutionalised and wrote this all in a very nice, polite fashion, but received no response at all."

This activist, several other community leaders and even some Indian-American White House officials in the Obama administration said they became aware that there will be some kind of Diwali acknowledgment only when they saw a White House media advisory which said that President Obama would sign an executive order restoring the White House Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders and that 'at the East Room ceremony, the President will also observe Diwali, or the Festival of Lights, a holiday celebrated across faiths.'

Several community leaders bitterly complained that not only had they been snubbed, but that the celebration of Diwali had been diluted as it was being "tacked as a secondary function to the Asian American and Pacific Islander executive order signing and then an observance of Diwali would occur."

They also said that unlike in past years, when Diwali was an exclusive function where several hundred Indian Americans would be invited, this time "there will be a wholesale invitation to a group of Asian Americans and we have no idea how many Indian Americans are being invited or have been invited to what was essentially in the past six years a desi event."

"This is all very hurtful to all of us because this is diluting Diwali since these are two separate events," another community activist said, "and somebody in the White House did not realise the significance of Diwali to have simply tagged it on to this other event."

But while all of these community leaders and activists belong to the older first generation, Toby Chaudhuri, a second generation Indian-American activist and Democratic Party strategist, told that "this ceremony will mark the first time Diwali will be observed in the White House itself."

Chaudhuri, director of communications for Campaign For America's Future, a progressive think-tank in Washington,DC, pointed out that "the Bush administration traditionally celebrated Diwali in the Indian Treaty Room in the Old Executive Building, next to the White House, but this is the first time, a sitting president is actually going to be there at the Diwali observance."

He said "(President George W) Bush did (host) the (Diwali) celebrations, but he wasn't actually present," and reiterated, "it's the first time it's moving into the White House building itself from the Old Executive Office Building."

Chaudhuri also took strong issue with the arguments that the Diwali observance was being diluted by riding piggy-back to the executive order signing by President Obama, contending that "this is a historic occasion for our community because this is a Commission that will help to solve problems facing our community."

He said the Obama administration, by restoring this Commission was meeting the concerns and issues faced by the community "with deeds -- it's not just a ceremony and not just a one-time a year celebration."

"The restoration of this White House Commission is going to be there to serve the community," Chaudhuri said. "It's going to be a Commission that will offer solutions to the concerns and issues of the community."

Several sources told that this event was "essentially Kal Penn's event. He is the coordinator and he is in charge of this. So all the invite list, everything is going through Kal's desk."

But the sources acknowledged that no one seemed to know about the event till the media advisory went out first on October 9,and after that everybody, including Indian Americans working in the administration, including in the White House were scrambling to be invited and "we got in touch with the Office of Public Liaison and communicating with them asking them what's going on and all that, and sending in our names and other information to be on the invite list."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC