Remarks at Diwali Celebration

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
October 23, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Nisha, thank you very, very much. Welcome, everybody, to a celebration, and happy Diwali to all of you. It’s nice to be here.

AUDIENCE: Happy Diwali. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. We are really pleased to be celebrating this tonight, and I’m particularly grateful for Nisha, both for her generous welcome to all of you and to me, but more especially because she’s making really critical efforts in a key part of the world, obviously, as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. And I was delighted to select her for that job, and she has not let me down. She is persistent, tenacious – where are her parents? Where are the parents? (Laughter.) Raise your hands. Where are the – where are your parents?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Right here. Right over here.

SECRETARY KERRY: Hooray for you. Well done. (Applause.) Thank you. Well, I want you to know she’s doing a terrific job. (Laughter.) I didn’t just single you out to tell her how bad she is. I mean – (laughter) – but she’s doing fabulous. And she left India when she was only six years old, and today, literally in just a few decades, she’s become one of the important leaders in American foreign policy. And her odyssey, if we call it that, really speaks to the power of the American dream. It shows how aspirations and traditions and histories from all over the world come together still in this melting pot, and they revitalize and they renew our nation.

And that’s really what makes America different from every other place. We are not defined by one race or one ideology or one history. We are defined by the idea of all people being created equal and being able to come and exercise their right to pursue a dream here in the United States, but to become very American in doing so. And Nisha has obviously described the way she does that.

I also want to thank Priest Narayanachar, who in a few moments is going to lead an invocation and light the diya, the traditional Diwali lamp. And Priest Narayanachar helps to lead one of the largest Hindu temples in the United States at Sri Siva Vishnu, and it’s difficult to believe that this is a community that began with only a few recent Indian immigrants who celebrated occasions like this one in their own homes. And less than four decades later, the temple not only serves as a spiritual home for thousands of Hindu Americans, but it provides support and outreach for people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

So as we celebrate Diwali this evening, we also hail the accomplishments of the many hundreds of thousands of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jain Americans who live now all across our country in every community. And we honor their faith and their traditions, and the indispensable contributions that they make every single day to our prosperity, to our freedom, and to our culture – to this new chapter of American history that they are helping to write. And today, the South Asian diaspora is a pillar of every aspect of American society. South Asians sit in the executive suites of some of our country’s most successful companies, or at the very helm of all of them. They launch startups and earn graduate degrees at several times the national average. They are a driving force behind American leadership and science and innovation, and in the history of our nation – and we are a nation of immigrants – it is hard to find any group of Americans who have achieved more in such a relatively short period of time. (Applause.)

Now, as everybody here knows better than anybody in the world, India is, of course, a country of enormous energy and power. It is by far the largest nation in South Asia, and last month during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States, we had an unforgettable chance both to build on the already deep ties between America and India, and many of you were here when Vice President Biden and I welcomed the prime minister right here to this very stage. The prime minister’s visit was a moment when Indians and Americans could get a real sense of what our two nations are able to accomplish together by working together, by fighting against terrorism, by creating opportunity for our young people, by combating climate change, to achieving greater progress by pushing back the boundaries of science and technology. And we are determined to build on that moment that was so well defined here in the prime minister’s words and in the Vice President’s words, so that the world’s oldest and largest democracies can realize the truly extraordinary, boundless potential of our relationship.

India and the United States – and I discovered this really back when I was in the Senate. I think as a senator I took the first Senate business mission, if you will, with a whole bunch of businesses to India very shortly after then Finance Minister Singh had announced the economic reforms. And that was a time when it was still breaking through the prior years of some suspicion and a certain hangover from the Cold War.

And we worked hard to prove that we were, in fact, natural partners, which I believe we are. We are two optimistic nations who believe that history doesn’t shape us, but that we have the power to shape history. And that spirit of hope and optimism is really at the center of the Diwali celebration. As the days grow shorter, the Diwali reminds us that spring always returns – that knowledge triumphs over ignorance, hope outlasts despair, and light replaces darkness. Diwali is a time for the revitalization of mind and spirit. And just as critically, it affords a chance to reflect on how we can bring light to others. It is an opportunity for us all, regardless of our own traditions, to renew a shared commitment to human dignity, compassion, and service – and it is a commitment, I think, at the heart of all great faiths.

So just last week, I hosted a celebration for the diplomatic community commemorating Eid al-Adha. Earlier in the year we marked the Nowruz celebration. And tonight, thanks to the good efforts of Shaun Casey, who I did bring in here to create the first ever Interfaith Office within the State Department, we are now appropriately celebrating Diwali too. (Applause.) It’s important to note that these special celebrations are celebrated in communities all across America and in India and in other countries. And it’s an indication of how our mutual commitment to religious tolerance and pluralism helps to define and to strengthen our two democracies.

President Obama and Prime Minister Modi had a chance to celebrate these shared values last month when they crossed the avenue from the White House and together went to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial. And everybody near knows how influenced Dr. King was by Mahatma Gandhi. The two leaders stopped to read a few words from Dr. King, words that cautioned all of us, and still do, against the tendency for violence to fuel future violence. And he warned us all: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And as Dr. King testified so often, life is a constant struggle between the better and lesser angels of our nature. Tonight, as we come together in the spirit of the Diwali festival, we need to, all of us, think about how to reaffirm our shared commitment to the light. And this is particularly a moment as we look at the events around the world where that commitment could serve all humankind.

So in closing, I want to thank all of you for joining us at the State Department’s first ever Diwali celebration. I guarantee you it will not be our last. (Laughter and applause.) And it is important in many ways for all of us on occasions like this to be able to come together and celebrate the diversity of our backgrounds, the diversity of our beliefs, to count our shared blessings and our responsibilities, and to do so as sisters and brothers, as mothers and fathers, as members of a community, as citizens of a nation, and as stewards of our planet.

So I am pleased now to introduce one of the leading members of the diplomatic corps here in Washington, a distinguished public servant, and he’s a terrific representative of his country. He’s also a passionate advocate for the stronger ties between the United States and India. And I am talking, of course, about Ambassador Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Thank you. (Applause.)