by Phil Tajitsu Nash, Special Contributor
We cannot fully gauge how far we have come as Asian Americans until we look at the world lived in by our forebears. Today, with Asian Americans representing double-digit populations on major campuses and holding prestigious jobs in academia, industry, and other venues, we forget that we were not always welcomed here with open arms.
September 20 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of an Asian American community hero, our first U.S. Congressman: Dalip Singh Saund.
In both global and national contexts, 1899 was a year of great upheaval. The “Boxers,” an anti-foreign, anti-Western organization was forming in China, Filipinos were demanding the end of United States colonialism in their homeland, and a war was raging in South Africa between the British and the Dutch-derived Boers. In this country, the racial divide had been defined three years earlier in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, where the Supreme Court had upheld the notion that there could be “separate but equal” railway accommodations for whites and blacks. This notion, which was not overturned until the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, resulted in what dissenting Justice Harlan referred to as a “condition of legal inferiority” for non-whites.
Unaware that all of this was happening, Dalip Singh Saund was born 100 years ago this week in a poor community in Amritsar, India. He was educated in boarding schools and received his A.B. from the University of Punjab in 1919. He came to the United States in 1920 to attend the University of California at Berkeley, and graduated in 1922 with both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Mathematics.
If alive today, this enterprising man might have gotten a teaching position at a prestigious school or joined the growing legions of Asian Americans in the computer industry of Silicon Valley. The early 1920s, however, were a time when anti-immigrant bills were pouring out of state and federal legislatures at a furious pace. President Harding signed the Quota Immigration Act in 1921, Congress revoked the citizenship of citizen women marrying alien men in the 1922 Cable Act, and 1924 marked the passage of the National Origins Act. Justice Sutherland , speaking for the Supreme Court in 1923, said that Bhagat Singh Thind and other Asian Indians were “aliens ineligible to citizenship” because, while designated as “Caucasian,” they were not “white.” Only whites and persons of African descent were allowed to become citizens until the passage of the 1946 Luce-Celler bill, which was to be championed by that young mathematician, Dr. Saund.
Saund was affected by these laws in several ways. His citizen wife was forced to lose her American citizenship by marrying him, he was not allowed to become a citizen until 1949, and his choice of professions was very much limited. Like many others from the Punjab region of India, he decided to become a lettuce farmer and then a distributor of chemical fertilizer in the Imperial Valley region of California from 1930-1953.
Asian Indians were first recorded in American records in 1790, but the first significant immigration of people from that country did not occur until the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1900 census, 2,050 East Indians were found in the United States, and one estimate is that the number had grown to 7,000 by 1923. A major riot occurred on September 4, 1907 in Bellingham, in what is now eastern Washington state, and the loggers who were there fled to Canada and to California. Members of the City Council maintained that the “Hindus” (although they were Sikhs) brought the action upon themselves because of their conspicuous clothes (including a turban for their long hair) and beards. Saund was concerned about the anti-Indian hysteria, and wrote a book in 1930, My Mother India, to address some of the nativist (anti-immigrant) concerns.
Fast-forward to the 1940s, and the farmer and fertilizer distributor from Punjab had formed the Indian Association of America to help amend American immigration laws to make Asian Indians eligible for United States citizenship. Working with J.J. Singh’s Indian League of America and Mubarak Ali Khan’s India Welfare League, Saund’s efforts paid off when President Truman signed the Luce-Cellar act in 1946.
By 1947, Mahatma Gandhi and the people of South Asia had thrown off the cloak of British colonialism, and many students of Indian origin started coming to this country to study (although they were not allowed to become permanent residents until after a change in the laws in 1965).
After becoming a citizen in 1949, Saund became active in mainstream organizations such as the Democratic Party and the March of Dimes. He was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1952, 1956, and 1960, and decided in 1950 to run for a judgeship in Westmoreland Justice Court.
To understand the determination of this pioneer, imagine how he felt when, after winning the judgeship in 1950, he was told that he could not serve because he had not been an American citizen for a full year before the election. Rather than quitting, he ran again in 1952, and served from then until he moved to Washington as a Congressman in 1956. He served three terms until he was defeated in 1962.
Given his many life accomplishments, what is Dr. Saund’s ultimate legacy? “I believe that Saund was prophetic in warning about lending foreign aid money solely to central governments. He believed that it would lead to corrupt practices. He spoke and led a huge fight in 1961 about the Foreign Assistance Act. Indeed, the Saund Amendment passed over strenuous objections from President Kennedy’s White House,” said Sunil Chacko, CEO of New Info Solutions.
For most Asian Indians, however, his main accomplishment is the pride he has given a new generation of young politicos and social change activists. One hundred years after his birth and a quarter-century after his death, Dr. Saund continues to inspire Asian Indian activists such as Ms. Nasim G. Memon, National Asst. Treasurer of the Indian American Forum for Political Education, because he said, “There is no room in the United States of America for second-class citizenship.” While he was a Democrat and a liberal on race issues, unlike many current Asian Indian Americans, there are fighters for liberal issues and immigrant rights such as Saswati Paul of the South Asian Bar Association and Ujjal Dosanjh, current Attorney General in British Columbia, who are following in his political footsteps.
Given his impressive achievement of being elected from a district with almost no Asian Americans in the pre-Brown v. Board of Education segregated era, why isn’t Dr Saund better known? “I believe that the lack of knowledge reflects the greater lack of awareness of Asian-American pioneers and history in general. Under the “Asian American” rubric, South Asians are further marginalized and made invisible both due to their low numbers and their racial difference from what is generally considered to be “Asian,” said Aly Kassam-Remtulla, Rhodes Scholar and former Instructor in Asian American Studies at Stanford University. Another theory, posited by Dr.Rajini Srikanth of the University of Massachusetts at Boston is that Saund’s invisibility stems from the tone of his book, Congressman from India, which is “very upbeat, very ‘gung-ho’ about the United States, and very celebratory of individual effort and resolve. Given that Asian American studies has by and large seen itself as a ‘protest’ movement, as a challenge to established systems, Saund’s optimism probably seems misguided and inappropriate. There is very little anger in Saund’s book, although he certainly records the discrimination he faced.”
Today, Dr Saund would be proud to see that distinguished Americans of South Asian ancestry include conductor Zubin Mehta, former EEOC Commissioner Joy Cherian, award-winning author Bharati Mukherjee, and filmmaker Ismail Merchant. Population estimates were 359,000 in 1980, 815,447 in 1990, and over 1.3 million today, including an estimated 25,000 medical doctors. By 1990 census estimates, Asian Indians had a per capita income of $17,777 as compared to the national average of $14,420, and high levels of educational achievement (averaging 15.6 years) and annual household income ($34,300). And, while no one has yet matched his political success, Asian Indians have served on the state level in Maryland and Wyoming, and run for office in states as diverse as California, New York, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Georgia.
Dalip Sing Saund died on April 22, 1973, in Hollywood, California, and is interred in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. An excellent documentary about the life of Saund and other Punjabi immigrants, Roots in the Sand, has been made by Jayasri Majumdar Hart, and the University of California at Davis has a web site that focuses on the contributions of early Asian Indian immigrants (www.lib.ucdavis.edu/punjab/t_usphot.html).
“He is the unsung pioneer of Asian American electoral politics,” said Don Nakanishi, head of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. “On his 100th birthday, I hope we shine a bright light on his political career and the lessons we can learn from his remarkable achievements.”
This article originally appeared in Asia Week, and is reprinted with permission of the author.