Dr. Pankaj Jain is an Associate Professor in the department of Philosophy & Religion, at the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, University of North Texas. His teaching interests include Religion and Ecology, Asian Diaspora, and Sustainability of Religious Communities in Americas. Interested in connecting ancient practices with contemporary issues, he has been exploring the connections between religious traditions and sustainability in the USA and in India.
Recently, Dr. Jain has been engaging with various stakeholders to designate Diwali as a Professional Development Day for Coppell School District so that the learners can stay home with their families and celebrate the festival. Diwali, as we all know is an important holiday for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs. In Coppell School District, South Asian, Indian, and Hindu make up a large majority of the student population and when Diwali comes around each year, often times on a weekday, too many students are faced with a difficult decision, observe this religious holiday and risk missing important school work and activities, or forego their observance altogether because the curricular cost is simply too much. For other religions, schools often remain closed in such a scenario. For example, schools are not open on Good Friday as a “Weather Day.” A petition has been started in this regard.
In the following interview with Desi Plaza Studios, Dr. Jain shares his views on this matter.
Interviewer: “Pankajji, welcome to Desi Plaza Studios. Can you tell us about yourself in a few lines?”
Dr. Jain: “Thanks Manohargaru. My name is Pankaj Jain. I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas in Denton.”
Dr. Jain: “I live in Coppell. I have two boys, one in 12th grade, one in 5th grade.”
Dr. Jain: “We have been living in Coppell since 2010.”
Interviewer: “Wow, great. So today, we are here for a very definite reason. We will be talking about the recent petition that you filed in Coppell. Can you tell us what this petition was all about?”
Dr. Jain: “Right, so in August 2017, we met Coppell ISD superintendent to request for, is it possible to consider giving Diwali as a holiday, as a Professional Development Day for Coppell ISD students and then the petition was created. It has now generated almost 1750 signatures, all across Coppell ISD people have signed, and so that is the request to consider Diwali as a Professional Development Day, not as a holiday, but as a Staff Development Day or Professional Development Day.”
Interviewer: “Okay. Why do you think we need such kind of petitions in each school?”
Dr. Jain: “Right, so I came to this country in 1996. We were in New Jersey. New Jersey is where this has happened already, so more than six, seven, eight school districts across New Jersey, across New York is also six to seven school districts, one in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, so almost 20 school districts in Northeast have already declared Diwali as a Professional Development Day and also Chinese New Year and also Id. So these three holidays, they have accepted all these school districts to consider, to take care of the Asian demographics in their school districts. Asian students are of that significant number, so these holidays have been added in New Jersey, New York and elsewhere, so with Coppell ISD’s high numbers, almost 50% of the students are of Asian heritage. When you say Asian heritage, they are mostly of Indian heritage really speaking, so it should be, you know we are just following what other states have done in this country, not looking at India. We are American citizens here. What other American states have done, maybe something similar can be done in Texas as well.”
Interviewer: “Okay, but with this petition, what kind of support you expected from the community and what is it that you got?”
Dr. Jain: “Right. That is a great question. When we started the petition, we didn’t imagine what will happen, I mean, we couldn’t imagine, but this, I’m really very fortunate, very happy, very blessed to say that we have 1750 signatures almost. Community has, I think many of us are still new to the country. We don’t even realize what rights we have, already possible in this country, what are our responsibilities and rights towards our school system, what all we can do and what is possible under American constitution, Texas State Laws, and School District Laws, what all is possible, that awareness is spreading like wildfire because of the petition, because of the two election runs that we had, me and Vara Kuppam, your friend, we both ran, you know, year by year”
Dr. Jain: “Like first I did, then Vara did, and then this petition came. These are not the movements for any political games. There is no possibility of political games. I’m an educator, I’m a researcher of culture, I’m an anthropologist, I’m a parent, right? so that is what is driving me to do these things and to raise awareness. So in terms of awareness in Coppell ISD, it doesn’t matter Indian or non-Indian, every person in Coppell ISD knows what Diwali is?, how Diwali is celebrated? We took the Coppell ISD staff superintendent and directors and principals to the temple, BAPS Temple last Diwali. It is an amazing success of awareness. Everybody knows now just like Christians have holiday for Christmas, we all celebrate that. We celebrate Halloween, we celebrate Thanksgiving, right? Easter we celebrate. Now we need to celebrate Diwali also with equal interest, equal passion and we need to tell our teachers, we need to tell our colleagues and friends that Diwali is as important if not less. It is as important as Christmas, New Year, and Thanksgiving if we combine all that into one festival.”
Interviewer: “But considering that more or less, we don’t talk about the next generation that was born here, but when we talk about ourselves, we are all immigrants and we are into this new land. Aren’t these kind of petitions making us uncomfortable living in this country because definitely the other cultures might look at us in a different way that why these people coming from other countries are trying to push their culture on us?”
Dr. Jain: “Right. It is a long-term visionary step that we need to take as parents and tax payers to the Coppell ISD. Coppell ISD as you know is one of the highest property tax school district. The reason it has such high property tax is because of the school system is so nice right? to maintain the school system so nice, we all work very hard, parents work very hard, students work very hard. Now in addition to acknowledging the diversity of the school population, student population, what are the ways that are not just for our generation, but what are the ways that our culture can be safeguarded for all the next generations. This can be one humble step to start with. It is not the end, but it is a start, so Diwali should be acknowledged more, what other things can be done to make sure that nobody, no student born in this country feels that he is oppressed, he/she is bullied, there should not be any discrimination, how can we make sure that we have this great opportunity where such a diverse group of students are present in Coppell ISD, Plano ISD, Frisco ISD, what we can do to make sure that North Texas truly emerges as a truly pluralistic community where every culture is respected, all festivals are celebrated equally, and everybody feels welcomed, truly welcomed. It shouldn’t be just a hollow slogan. Diversity is not just a hollow slogan, we need to really embrace the diversity, we need to practice what we preach.”
Interviewer: “Okay. So, do you think this petition that you filed was filed quite early? Maybe you could have taken another couple of years and you would have got more support to get it approved or something like that?”
Dr. Jain: “Manoharji has been asking me this question many, many times, but I keep telling you Manoharji, this support that we received is amazing. It is mind-blowing. I told you there are 1750 signatures. I’m a researcher. I have looked at the petitions for Diwali in New York, New Jersey. None of the places got even 500 signatures and it was approved. Here we have 1750 signatures, and here it will take time, I guess it is a little bit different culture in Texas compared to New York and New Jersey, but somewhere, somebody has to start, take a first step, it will take a few years. Even New York, New Jersey, it took three years, four years to make it happen. Nothing happens overnight. It is a start, it is a great start. Everybody knows now about Diwali, what Diwali is and it is a very, very important festival for our community and for every community now. So it is a start, and somebody somewhere has to start. The idea came to me when I was writing, I’m still writing my book on History of Hindus in North and South America.”
Dr. Jain: “Did you know that in Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean countries, Diwali is a national holiday? with only 25% Hindus, there is a national holiday for Diwali. Suriname is a country in South America where Hindi is spoken, now those Indians, those Hindus came to those countries about 150 years ago, but they kept their language alive, they kept their festivals alive, so the future generations can still celebrate. It is a national holiday with only 25% of population. Coppell ISD has almost 50% student population with that heritage, why can’t we dedicate just one day when we have other festivals. We celebrate Good Friday, we celebrate Christmas, there are holidays for those festivals, why not Diwali?
Interviewer: “Okay. So definitely the petition that you filed may take a while, but you have been standing in elections in Coppell School District.”
Dr. Jain: “Just one, just once”
Dr. Jain: “Yeah.”
Dr. Jain: “Never again. I’m not going to run again.”
Interviewer: “Okay, okay, okay, okay”
Dr. Jain: “I’m not a politician, I did that also for first year just to make people aware that this is possible. It is possible to join the school board. See, as I said, we have to learn from other cultures, other immigrant groups. Latinos in our neighboring districts, Grand Prairie, Irving, Flower Mound and other places, everywhere there is a Latino in the school board. How did it happen? It does not happen miraculously right? People work for it. People file lawsuits. Every school district, every city council including Irving where we are sitting right now, Latinos have filed lawsuits against the city councils and against school boards to make sure that the voting system is reformed. Right now, the election system is at large, what is called as at large. Now at large was reformed because of these lawsuits and at large was divided into sub districts, so wherever Latinos are in majority, one person from Latino background, preferably he/she runs and Latinos vote for him and that’s how Latinos are in all these school districts. So this is exactly what we need, I think. In the long-term, maybe without the lawsuit probably, it is not the best way to go. I mean, we are not into confrontation and so on, but unless we have our own representation at city councils and our school boards, it is a possibility at least, so by my running in 2016, there was this awareness that somebody can actually join the school board for Coppell ISD, Plano ISD, Frisco ISD and can, you know, make sure that all cultures are treated with respect and equality and mutual trust, that is the effort.”
Interviewer: “So what is your vision and goal for Coppell ISD in future? Do you want to be part of it and do something for the community?”
Dr. Jain: “I will remain a professor. I will remain a researcher. I will remain a parent for many years still because my younger son is still in fifth grade, so I will be here forever.”
Dr. Jain: “So my goal is simple, like all parents I want all of our kids to gain good education of course from Coppell ISD which we are already getting. Coppell ISD is a great school system, but we need to share our culture with all the humbleness, with all the politeness, and nothing. The kids should be proud of their heritage. This is the heritage that gave us Gandhi. Gandhi gave nonviolence to Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement was launched after he went to India. Dr. King actually visited the home of Gandhi in Mumbai and he came back and he launched the civil rights movement. Because of his work, immigration laws were changed and we are here. Otherwise, we were not even included. Did you know that in 1923, Indian citizens were robbed off their citizenships? Citizenship was taken back from Indians and they were deported. Even citizens in 1923, and in 1965, the laws were changed eventually and eventually laws were relaxed and Asian people could come to this country again. Otherwise, they were prohibited. So we are all grateful to Dr. King’s battles. Because of that, we are here and we need to continue to, you know, request for all civil rights. All cultures should be treated with mutual trust and respect.”
Interviewer: “So Pankajji, it was nice talking to you about, but definitely there was a small step back with the denial of Coppell ISD for a holiday on Diwali. I hope this tradition or trend will keep coming up in coming years where you will again request this to the board, but what is your final take on the refusal and then your conclusion?”
Dr. Jain: “Yeah, refusal is just a start. As I said even New York, New Jersey took three years to make it happen, so we have right now petitions going on for Diwali as a Professional Day for Coppell ISD, Plano ISD, Frisco ISD, Allen ISD, Southlake ISD, and Lewisville ISD. So whoever is living in those areas, please go to change.org website, Google for “Coppell Diwali change.org”, “Lewisville Diwali change.org”, “Frisco Diwali change.org”, “Plano Diwali change.org”, “Southlake Diwali change.org,” and “Allen Diwali change.org”. Please sign those petitions in your respective neighborhoods and please spread the word. This is nothing, you know, there is nothing drastically or radical that we are asking. We are only asking what has already happened in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Nothing different we are asking, so please you know sign the petitions, spread the word, and please go to those board meetings in your respective school districts, and request your board members to recognize very valid request, very legitimate request, because we are the tax payers and we make the school district run and we are only requesting for equality for all cultures. Nothing radical, nothing different.”
Interviewer: “Thank you Pankajji for all this effort and we thank you from Desi Plaza. Hope we get success in coming years.”
Dr. Jain: “Sure. Thank you.”
Interviewer: “Thank you.”
Interview was conducted by DesiPlaza TV, a local TV channel in Dallas area, Texas.