Herricks High School senior Riti Sunshine Bhalla was joined by five governors, three U.S. senators and two U.S. Congressman to greet people of Indian origin around the world on Aug. 15 with an enthusiastic "Jai Hind," a patriotic salutation used by Indian revolutionaries during their struggle for independence.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey were part of an array of public officials including Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, who appeared as guests on the annual program commemorating the Independence Day of India, hosted each year by Bhalla.
Bhalla started the program in 2008 when she was 13 years old.
"One of the missions behind our annual celebrations is to educate the Indian American youth about the history of India's freedom struggle," Bhalla said. "Last year, we paid homage to the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi. This year, we honored the memory of Shaheed Bhagat Singh."
Noted Bollywood actor Manoj Kumar, who produced a film on the life of Bhagat Singh in 1965, also joined the program from Mumbai and shared his nostalgia about meeting with the mother of the martyr.
Her father Varinder actually sparked the idea for the show when he encouraged his family to celebrate the annual Indian festival of Diwali, a festival of lights that is associated with various Hindu deities in different parts of their native country. Her interest in learning more about her Indian cultural and political heritage grew and inspired her to share that knowledge with the larger Indian comunity.
This year's show was telecast across the United States and Canada by Sahara One, PTC Punjabi, and JUS Punjabi networks. Sahara One also telecast it in the U.K. and 21 other countries, while Crossings TV, ITV and Eye on TV televised it in different regions of the United States.
Mangano unfurled and hoisted the Indian tricolor at the Legislature Building in Mineola - where Bhalla sang the Indian and American national anthems - and appeared on the show later in the evening.
Mangano commended the Indian American community for "what you all do to make the United States, New York and Nassau County a better place to live and raise a family."
Over the years, "The Riti Bhalla Special," named after the young host, has attracted several national leaders of America, presidential candidates - including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and John McCain - as well as congressional leaders and governors from across the United States. Last year, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, also was a guest on the program.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy made his first appearance on the show this year and honored India's Independence Day with a proclamation, declaring August 15, 2011 as "India Day" in the Constitution State. Also making her first appearance on the show was Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, who expressed pride in being part of the Indian American community.
While interviewing congressional leaders for the celebration of India's freedom, Bhalla used the opportunity to engage in serious discussions about the Indian-American community and India's role in the global community of nations.
"Only about one-third of the U.S. Senators are currently members of the Senate India caucus. What do you think that Indian-Americans can do to increase that number?," she asked Sen. Mark Warner, co-chair of the Senate India caucus.
"I do think there's an increasingly important role for Indian Americans to reach out to their senators and congressmen, to say, regardless of what party they belong to, that the Senate India Caucus and the House India Caucus are important in terms of strengthening the ties between our countries," Warner said.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, founder and the current co-chair of the Senate India Caucus and Congressman Joseph Crowley of Queens, co-chair of the House India Caucus, both regular guests of Bhalla since 2008, also participated in the celebration.
Earlier this year, state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos presented a proclamation to Bhalla.
The program is independently produced by the Bhalla family of Albertson as a public service to the Indian community.
Bhalla said is interested in pursuing journalism as a primary career or a sideline occupation
She also could have a promising future as a musical entertainer. She achieved all-county honors as a soprano in the annual competition sponsored by the New York State School Music Association in 2010 and is a member of Chamber Choir at Herricks this year.