HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — A bill recognizing a major South Asian holiday called Diwali as a state holiday in Pennsylvania is on track to reach the governor’s desk later this year, with versions of the bill passed by both the House and the Senate.
The Senate bill passed unanimously. In the House, it passed 200 to one.
Sponsors said the goal is to recognize and celebrate the growing Indian community in the Commonwealth.
“Seeing the importance of Diwali, not only to the Hindu community but to the South Asian community as a whole, it was really an opportunity to try and bring some representation,” said Rep. Arvind Venkat, who sponsored the House version of the bill.
For Venkat, Diwali was part of his childhood, but most people did not even know the holiday existed.
“I remember going to celebrations with family and friends,” he said. “When I was growing up, it wasn’t something that people knew about outside of the Indian American community.”
Venkat said the passage of bills marking Diwali as a state holiday is a sign that has changed.
“My colleagues were very open to this because they knew members of their communities who celebrated Diwali,” he said. “This is part of recognizing how the South Asian community in Pennsylvania has become integrated into the wider fabric of the Pennsylvania community.”
The effort to recognize Diwali started in the Senate with Midstate Sen. Greg Rothman.
“There’s a very large, vibrant community in my district, in Cumberland County of Asian Indians who I’ve gotten to know,” Rothman said, adding, “My youngest daughter was delivered by an Asian Indian doctor, my dentist is an Asian Indian American.”
During his campaign, Rothman promised to make this his first piece of legislation.
“I hope it sends a message to the Asian community, but then all immigrants that Pennsylvania is a welcoming place and we appreciate cultural diversity, and we appreciate you coming here,” he said.
In the Hindu religion, Diwali, or the Festival of Lights, celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The story comes from an ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana, in which the god, Vishnu, reincarnated as a prince, Rama, defeats an evil demon.
“Lightness over darkness, we need to celebrate that in Pennsylvania,” Rothman said.
In the Ramayana, when Ram returns to his kingdom, people light the way with thousands of lamps. That tradition continues today as people often celebrate Diwali with fireworks and leave all their lights on.
Many other South Asian religions, not just Hinduism, also celebrate Diwali.
The bill recognizing the holiday does not require any governments, businesses, or schools to close for the day. Sponsors said it is just important everyone feels welcome in Pennsylvania.
“They are so much part of the fabric, and I love how they have assimilated, like every other immigrant group does when they come to the United States, but then they have this great focus on the culture,” Rothman said.
Many Indians in the Midstate are celebrating this recognition.
“The telephone has not stopped ringing,” said Deep Gupta, founder of Asian Indian Americans of Central Pennsylvania (AIACPA).
For Gupta, a longtime leader in the community, this is a testament to the work South Asians have done over the years.
“That tells the growing power or popularity of [the] Indian community,” he said.
Next, the the Senate bill has to pass the House, or the House bill has to pass the Senate before heading to the Governor’s desk. The bills are identical, so lawmakers said this should be a fairly simple process.