Click photo to enlarge
Wamil Juthani, 14, and other members of the Sahiyar Garba Dance Group rehearse their performance as Hindus celebrate Diwali festival of lights at the Bay Area Youth Vaishnav Parivar temple in Milpitas Saturday Nov. 6, 2010. (Photo by Patrick Tehan/Mercury News)

For many in the Bay Area's rapidly growing Asian Indian population, Diwali is as important as Christmas is to Christians.

Now there is a budding movement to have the Hindu holy day declared a school holiday in Fremont, Sunnyvale and San Jose, cities where Asian Indians comprise a significant portion of the overall enrollment.

While the push for a school holiday is in its infancy, Silicon Valley's Indian community is growing both in numbers and influence. For their part, local school officials say it's important to recognize that diversity -- but adding a new holiday to the school calendar can be a major headache.

One influential leader in the local Hindu community is firmly behind the idea.

"This is our Christmas," said Raj Bhanot, a state tax auditor and a co-founder of the Sunnyvale Hindu Temple, which serves about 20,000 devotees. "We want to experience our holiday at home with our families."

The 2010 Census shows the Indian population in the Bay Area has grown dramatically over the past decade, from about 150,000 in 2000 to about 250,000 last year, with about 118,000 in Santa Clara County alone. Indians now comprise 18 percent of the population in Fremont and 15 percent in Sunnyvale.

'An equal right'

Despite the increase, many, even in the Indian community, wonder about the fairness of shutting down school for Diwali, a festival of lights that falls in either October or November depending on the year. Does that mean schools should also close to celebrate the end of Ramadan for the Muslims, Vaisakhi for the Sikhs, Tet for the Vietnamese, and Rosh Hashanah for the Jews?

Go ahead, say the Diwali supporters, the more holidays celebrated, the better.

"Other communities have an equal right to ask for their holidays off, too," Bhanot said.

However, many observant Jews and Muslims simply keep their children out of school on their important holidays, without expecting schools to shut down.

That's because closing school for a day isn't so easy, said Jim Morris, Fremont Unified School District's superintendent. The calendar is set in the teachers' contracts, he said, and any change would have to be negotiated with employees. Plus, Morris said, Fremont is such a multicultural community that "we do a pretty good job so that every group is respected at school." Some teachers in Fremont, both Indian and not, dress up for Diwali and bring in sweets for the kids.

In May, Morris received a Google alert about a proposed Diwali holiday, mentioning his district. He spotted what appeared to be a news story on some Indian blogs, but the "article" turned out to be just a press release from Nevada. It was sent by 57-year-old Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hindusim and a self-described "Hindu statesman." In an interview, Zed said he was emboldened by some Diwali school closures in New Jersey and wants the same in other districts, starting with Silicon Valley because of the large Indian population here.

Neither Zed nor Bhanot have formally contacted anyone in the Fremont or Sunnyvale school districts. Bhanot said he hopes to organize a group in about two months to talk to "every elected official he could think of." Bhanot would like to target the request to folks at San Jose Unified, too. But spokeswoman Karen Fuqua said the district was not likely to entertain such a closure, especially because of the fairness to other religious groups. "We could go on and on," she said. "We would end up with a very non-instructional calendar."

Having time off for Diwali sounds good to Asha Chandra, whose 12- and 16-year-olds have attended Fremont schools.

"We have struggled with trying to celebrate Diwali when they didn't have off," Chandra said. "We go to the temple, there are traditional rituals and a lot of parties. It would be wonderful if the kids had off."

Chandra would at least like to see some recognition of the holiday: "At least there could be a reprieve on homework."

South Brunswick and Passaic City school districts in New Jersey close for Diwali.

'Celebrating diversity'

Passaic's Assistant Superintendent Lawrence Everett said the school board unanimously -- and without controversy -- voted it a district holiday six years ago, four years after Three Kings Day also was approved as a no-school day. Schools in Passaic are also closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, while schools in South Brunswick close for Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim fasting holiday, Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

Everett said the Diwali closure was in "response to our Indian population," which totals a little more than 2 percent of its 13,000-student body. "It's aligned to our district vision of celebrating diversity, not merely tolerating it," he said.

And the talk about the Diwali has piqued the interest of Sunnyvale Superintendent Benjamin Picard.

"I plan to investigate what we do to recognize this holiday," Picard said. "Because we are very diverse, and I want to make sure we're being respectful. But I think a full-day dismissal would be a very big step."

Contact Lisa Fernandez at 408-920-5002.

number of asian students in school districts, NUmber of asian Indians in cities
Fremont Unified: 16,000 Asian students, 50 percent of district.
City of Fremont: Asian Indian population, 38,700, or 18 percent, of city.

Sunnyvale Unified: 1,542 Asian students, 25 percent of district.
City of Sunnyvale: Asian Indian population 21, 700, or 15.5 percent, of city.

San Jose Unified: 4,200 Asian students, 13 percent of district.
City of San Jose: Asian Indian population 43,800, or 4.6 percent, of city.

Passaic City School District: 286 Asian Indian students, or 2.2 percent, of district.
City of Passaic, NJ: Asian Indian population 2,000 or 3 percent of city.

Source: Ed Data and Census

WHAT IS Diwali?
For Hindus, Diwali celebrates the happy return of Rama, the son of a king who was banished from his land, battled evil demons and finally comes home as well-wishers light his path with a row of lights -- which is why fireworks are often a central part of the holiday. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is also honored during this time.
Sikhs, too, celebrate Diwali, remembering it as a time when their sixth guru, Hargobind Sahib, escaped from a Muslim emperor and saved 52 Hindu kings upon his release. For Jains, Diwali marks the attainment of nirvana.
Customarily, people in India take time off from work. They paint and clean their houses. They buy new clothes and exchange sweets.
Source: Mercury News reporting