On Oct. 5, 2016, the long-awaited United States postal stamp commemorating the Hindu festival of Diwali was officially unveiled at the Indian Consulate in New York City.
The announcement of the Diwali stamp sparked celebrations within the Indian American community. People across the aisle marveled at the design of the stamp, which is a photograph featuring a traditional Diya oil lamp, sitting on a sparkling gold background. But the dream became a reality following years of hard work and advocacy. Among those whose perseverance and patience played a crucial role in bringing the Diwali stamp to fruition was Ranju Batra, chair of the Diwali Stamp Project.
A year later, the Indian American activist reflects on the journey that led to the realization of this dream, and the impact of this cultural symbol.
“It was a peaceful movement which we won last year,” Batra told India-West. “I look at the Diwali stamp as a powerful civilizational bridge that has been forged between the nations of USA and India. Just like a stamp has its glue it goes on the paper, I feel our hearts and minds are glued together at this point because there is a whole lot of excitement about the Diwali stamp.”
The release of the Diwali stamp, said Batra, evoked an overwhelming response, adding that the United States Postal Service officials informed her that they had received orders from as far as Indonesia, Singapore, and India.
Recalling a meeting in Washington, D.C., with the USPS team, that had been facilitated by Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney two weeks before the dedication ceremony, Batra said: ‘They asked me, ‘You were saying all along that the stamp is going to sell a whole lot, do you still believe that so many stamps are going to sell?’ I said, ‘Of course’, and they also asked me if I’d be willing to sell stamps on their behalf.”
She did, and by doing so, she created a history of sorts when she single-handedly sold 170,000 Diwali stamps.
“No other stamp has sold as much on day one as the Diwali stamp in USPS’ 200-year history,” Batra told India-West, noting that the postal service does not authorize any single person or an entity to sell stamps on their behalf, but this was one of those rare occasions.
Batra said that in 2016, shortly after the stamp came out, she personally visited several post offices and requested them to display a sample at their respective offices.
“The stamp is so pretty, even when Americans see it, they are like, ‘Oh! I don’t use stamps as much but I’ll buy it.’ It’s a matter of pride for the Indian community,” she said.
The Diwali stamps are here to stay, stated Batra, adding that she has initiated a drive to check the availability of these stamps at every post office in the country. Her goal, she said, is to keep the light of the Diwali stamp shining bright.
“Two things are close to my heart, the Diwali stamp and Diwali holiday,” she told India-West. “I’ve already started working towards the holiday.”
Recalling the more than two-decade-long uphill battle undertaken by several Indian American community leaders/members before her to get the approval, Batra said that she was told it was a lost cause since their efforts yielded no results.
“I kept asking myself, ‘How is it possible that they are issuing other stamps but refusing to issue Diwali stamps when there are so many Indians and they are trying so hard?’ Then I found out they were trying the wrong way,” said Batra.
In a meeting with the USPS officials, arranged by Maloney, Batra said she questioned them about what could be done to set the ball rolling.
“They said, ‘Ranju, a postage stamp goes on paper.’ We were collecting signatures online. They could not care less,” Batra told India-West. “They want their stamps to be sold and we wanted our Diwali stamp.”
She then enlisted the help of other community members/organizations – who had put in years of hard work into this campaign – and started working towards a common goal.
“It wasn’t an online petition. We created paper petitions…it was going person to person, explaining them what we were doing, having their signatures, addresses…,” said Batra. “It wasn’t just Hindus or Indians. It was Christians, Muslims, Chinese, Koreans…Not a single person said they didn’t want to.”
In her final petition, which featured images of stamps celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, and Eid, among others, she wrote: “We are very happy that you have issued all these stamps, and now it’s time for a Diwali stamp.”
“I kept pushing them to issue a Diwali stamp,” said Batra. “And finally, they heard it.”
Batra said that the Diwali stamp isn’t just a stamp, it represents something much larger.
“I feel the Diwali stamp is not just a celebration of a religion or a nation but it is the spirit of inclusiveness and cultural understanding that it represents,” Batra told India-West. “I’m happy to say that Diwali stamp is here and it is here forever. This will be a matter of pride for generations to come.”
“In this digital age, a small piece of paper called Diwali stamp celebrates the heritage of over a billion people. To me, Diwali stamp gives out a message of human unity and peace. I’d say Diwali has really put its stamp on America,” added Batra.