New York – The United States Postal Service this week announced its plans to “commemorate the joyous Hindu festival of Diwali with a Forever stamp,” on October 5, Wednesday, when it would hold the first-day-of-issue dedication ceremony at the Consulate General of India, New York. With community leaders of all hue and color, proclaiming their victory and contributions to the effort, Indian American Times (IAT) reached out to Ranju Batra, the leader who strived for years with unflinching efforts along with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and pursued the dream of a Diwali Stamp till the end. IAT editor Tejinder Singh spoke to Ranju Batra about the journey along the way to the finale.
Congratulations on the successful completion of your long journey to make Diwali Stamp a reality. Can you tell us when, how and why this journey started?
For me, this journey started in 2010. Over the number of years, with my children born here and going to school, I was well aware that of all the major religions were warmly celebrated; only Hinduism was unrecognized and excluded in school and mainstream society. Like all Americans, we celebrated the happy symbols of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and Eid – and wished Diwali to become an American holiday too. For almost ten years, I was the cultural chair for the Diwali celebration in New York City, and then president of AIA-NY for two years, 2011-12. During my presidency, I uplifted the Diwali celebration to such heights that New York Times recognized my efforts by reporting that “over 200,000” people attended in 2011. In 2010, I discussed the idea of a Diwali Stamp and had conversations with many community members about getting the Diwali Stamp and learned that many before had tried, and all had given up. So in 2010, I decided to focus on getting the Diwali Stamp and not stopping until it was achieved – and put in the same hard work and effort I was giving to uplift the Diwali celebrations to heights never before or since reached, I devoted to the Diwali Stamp.
With your unflinching faith, which doors did you knock on and how did you keep the momentum?
Originally I started with both, paper and online petitions, and got every major office holder in New York to sign our paper petitions. Then, I sat with my husband, Ravi Batra, to solve this puzzle: how to actually get the Diwali Stamp. After discussing about many members of Congress, some who are family to us, both Ravi and I agreed that Carolyn Maloney was the one – who I was going to partner with: I would do the grassroots effort and she provide the national political leadership. Ravi & I met with Carolyn Maloney – who was always a great supporter of my efforts and came to the Diwali celebrations yearly – and to our great delight she agreed to provide that vital national leadership. True to her word, Carolyn introduced H.Res#47 in January 2013 – it was a political banner all like-minded supporters of the Indian-American community and India could sign on, and they did. Ravi & I even visited Congress and got other members of Congress to sign on – like the Civil Right giant John Lewis, Eliot Engel, Greg Meeks, Grace Meng, and later, Ami Bera and Tulsi Gabbard signed on.
Carolyn got the prior Postmaster General’s rep. to meet with us – we had that meeting – and I took samples of different Diwali Stamps to the meeting. We informed him that we were doing paper petitions and online petitions. And then I asked him what more can I do and with a smile he answered- You are asking the Postal Service to issue a stamp which does not go on emails and online activities isn’t our business – we need paper petitions because that’s where you use a stamp, and more petitions the better. I had my answer: I took that to heart, and focused on paper petitions only and got many more people involved to ask all their friends to sign. I got tens of thousands of these paper petitions and regularly sent them to USPS’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee.
Then Carolyn arranged a meeting with Deputy Postmaster General Stroman – and I brought well over a thousand paper petitions for “presentment” to DPMG in Carolyn’s Office overlooking the Congressional Dome.
Still, it was taking time, and years were passing. While Carolyn and I were at the Indian Consulate for a Diwali Stamp update, we invited then-consul general Dnyaeshwar M. Mulay to write a poem – He authored a very powerful one and instantly became the Official Poem of the Diwali Stamp Project!
in 2014, Carolyn and I had informed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about our efforts. In 2015, during UNGA, with PR Asoke Mukerjee and Ravi present, I asked PM Modi to support the Stamp with US President Barack Obama. Then Carolyn, Ravi and I wrote to President Obama, as well as to the prior Postmaster General.
What are the major hurdles you faced and who were the pillars of support?
There was no major hurdle I faced, once I had the key to success: which was paper petitions. The support I got from the community – mainstream and Indian-Americans – kept me going. It was a movement of the people. Besides my husband Ravi, my son Neal and my daughter Angela were always there for me. There were times of frustration, as I got tired of giving “updates” on the progress for Diwali Stamp.
This journey has been a full blown partnership between Carolyn and I, with Ravi’s constant support. Many important people have helped, and they include: Rep. Grace Meng, Rep. Eliot Engel, Rep. Ed Royce, Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Greg Meeks, Rep. Mike Honda, Rep. Yvette Clarke, then-Rep. Mike McMahon, Public Advocate Tish James, City Controller Scott Stringer, Council Member Inez Dickens, Assemblyman Daid Weprin, Council Member Mark Weprin, then-Permanent Representative Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, Ambassador Lakshmi Puri, Ambassador Manjeev Puri, Ambassador. Vijay Nambiar, Officers and staff of the Indian Consulate, Ambassador Prabhu Dayal, Rep. Joe Crowley, Rep. Greg Meeks, Rep. Nita Lowey, Ambassador Mulay, Prime Minister Modi, President Obama, community leaders, including, Shiv Dass, Surinder Kathuria, Neeta Jain, Neeta Bhaseen, Sudhir Vaishnav, Raj Sharma, Shashi Agarwal, Prof. Inderjeet Saluja, Kamlesh Mehta, Sunil Hali, Tejinder Singh, Lalit Jha, Yoshita Singh, Narain Lakshman, Yashwant Raj, members of tri-state FIA (Ramesh Patel, H.R. Shah, Srujal Parikh and team), Penny Yogiraj Sandhu, Rohit Vyas, Vikas Nangia, Jay Singh, Renee Lobo, Ashok Vyas, Rajiv Bhambri, Sudhir Parikh, Bank of India, Bank of Baroda, State Bank of India, Air India, India Tourism and many more who contributed with open heart. .
Did your business and family commitments suffer from this time-consuming effort?
Not at all. My husband, Ravi, supported me fully, and with total confidence. I did everything I needed to do for family and work, only thing suffered was I did not get as much sleep as I needed.
What is the significance behind getting the Diwali Stamp and what is the role this festival plays in one’s life?
Now, after getting the Stamp, I can tell you my spirits are uplifted as getting the Diwali Stamp after seven long years is a relief and a celebration! Issuance of a Diwali Stamp means Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists the world over have a home in USA. For Indian-Americans who celebrate Diwali, it means we are accepted as being loyal and good citizens – that this is our nation, our society, and we have got to make sure America is the strongest ever, and the greatest ever.
Now with one dream becoming a reality, what is your next venture for the Community?
I would like to see Diwali as a Holiday in the US – thereby making all of us feel included in the American Fabric in full measure. A little over a year ago, NYC Councilman Daniel Dromm announced that he had introduced a bill in city council to make Diwali a holiday for 1.1million NY City school kids – and we were present and voiced our strong support of the Diwali school holiday bill. Many years earlier, Ravi & I had supported then-council member John Liu, chair of the NYC Council’s Transportation Committee, with support of then-Finance Chair David Weprin and an overwhelming number of their colleagues, to make Diwali a New York City Parking Holiday.
A person’s journey may end but a community’s journey is endless. Our Indian-American community in decades and centuries to come will be recognized as loyal and patriotic making America even greater and stronger. Diwali FOREVER USA 2016