Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

07 Mar 2023, 12:13 p.m.

Dalip Singh Saund, A Fascinating Historical Figure

[Last month was the 100-year anniversary of US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which declared that no person of Indian origin could become a naturalized US citizen. I'm cross-posting/archiving here a post I made to MetaFilter several years ago about one of the people who was affected by that policy -- and then helped change it.]

Immigrant, math Ph.D., farmer, and judge Dalip Singh Saund wasn't just the first Asian American elected to the US Congress. He was also a cofounder of the India Association of America and an activist whose work helped lead to the 1946 passage of the Luce-Celler act, which allowed immigrants from India and from the Philippines to be naturalized as US citizens. Ten years later, he won Burbank, California's seat in the House. "In the winter of 1957 I was able finally to keep the promise I had made in the campaign that if elected to Congress I would go to India and the Far East and present myself as a living example of American democracy in practice."

Dalip Singh Saund (previously on MetaFilter), who came to the US to study food preservation and canning at UC Berkeley in 1920, finished a Ph.D. in math in 1924 (while working summers in canneries), then started farming in the Imperial Valley -- and was excluded from owning or even leasing land in California, because of the Alien Land Act (pushed by the Asiatic Exclusion League), plus the 1923 US Supreme Court ruling against Bhagat Singh Thind saying Asians couldn't be citizens. (This news item features gross quotes about the desire to limit how much acreage Indian-Americans held.)

Harcourt, Brace & Co. published Katherine Mayo's book Mother India in 1927, which appalled many pro-independence Indians with assessments like "India has no electorate, in any workable sense of the word, nor can have one the present basis for many generations to come." and "The British administration of India, be it good, bad, or indifferent, has nothing whatever to do with the conditions above indicated." and "the [Indian] princes know well that if Britain were to withdraw from India, they themselves, each for himself, would at once begin annexing territory". Stockton's Sikh community asked Saund to write a response. The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society published his book My Mother India in 1930. It's dedicated to Bhagat Singh Thind.

The Japanese, Chinese, and Hindu immigrants to the United States were chiefly agriculturists. In the early days of California these frugal, honest, hard-working people contributed materially to the development of agriculture. And the fact cannot well be denied that the intensely hot regions of the Imperial Valley and the mosquito-ridden, swampy northern counties were brought under cultivation almost exclusively through the initiative of the Japanese and Hindu farmers of California.... But the simple, peace loving, industrious, and retiring Asiatics who toiled to make the name of agricultural California great are barred by law from making even an honest, meager living through farming on a small scale.

Saund married a white woman (who had to give up her US citizenship upon marrying him, because of the Cable Act), fathered children, joined Toastmasters, came close to bankruptcy and worked his way out. He co-created the campaign that led to Filipino and Indian immigrants being able to apply for citizenship (the Luce-Celler Act, in 1946). He was among the first newly eligible residents to apply for US citizenship. He then ran for a local judgeship and won:

One day, just three days before the election, a prominent citizen who was opposing me bitterly saw me one morning in the town restaurant. There must have been some fifty people in there having their breakfast when he came up to me and said in a loud voice: "Doc, tell us, if you're elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in, order to come into your court?"
"My friend," I answered, "you know me for a tolerant man. I don't care what a man has on top of his head. All I'm interested in is what he's got inside of it."
All the customers had a good laugh at that and the story became the talk of the town during the next few days.

Then, in 1956, he ran for Congress from Burbank, as a Democrat. His opponent was Jacqueline Cochran-Odlum, a woman who'd flown fighter jets, known Amelia Earheart, and beat several men to get the Republican nomination. Saund won, becoming the first Congressmember of Asian descent.

And in 1957 he went on a tour of 15 other countries -- and everywhere he went, they asked him about Little Rock and segregation. (Also, along the way, he did some farming methods assessment: in the Philippines: "I could see immediately how some of the fields were suffering from the lack of nitrogen".) And when he visited his old hometown in Punjab they threw a massive welcome.

Burbank re-elected Saund again and again. As he started campaigning for a fourth term in 1962, he suffered a severe stroke, and eventually left Congress. He died in 1973.

His autobiography (Congressman From India, 1960) is fascinating. Jayasri Hart's one-hour 1998 documentary Roots in the Sand (trailer ), about Punjabi men who immigrated to California (and in many cases married Latinas), aired on PBS. Heritage Series produced a 36-minute documentary film about Saund in 2014: Dalip Singh Saund: His Life, His Legacy (trailer includes Rep. Ami Bera, Rep. Mark Takano, and archival footage of Rep. Saund). And Tom Patterson's June 1992 California Historian piece "Triumph and Tragedy of Dalip Saund" discusses the discrimination Saund and his family faced (in particular what his wife ran into with other neighborhood white women). Saund's grandson, Eric Saund (mentioned in this thread) hosts a site about his grandfather that includes audio clips. And the South Asian American Digital Archive has even more.

(The title of the MetaFilter post -- "At the beginning I never thought of becoming a candidate myself" -- is from the chapter of his autobiography where he discusses his initial run for Congress.)

I haven't re-checked all the links above, so I'm sorry in advance if some don't work anymore.

In the comments on MetaFilter, I said:

Sarah Taber noted: This guy started out sharecropping [in] CA. By the way, in this time period CA was as reliant on POC sharecropping as the Jim Crow South- with the attendant hurdles to ownership, naughty banks, & violence.


I suspect that [activists'] work might have been far slower if it hadn't been for Truman (and other high-up folks in the US government) wanting to make the transition of Philippine independence easier ("As the Philippines became independent from the United States in 1946, Filipinos would have been barred from immigrating without the Act."), and then the existing "what about Indians?" campaign piggybacking on that. And, heck, given what had just happened during World War II, as Japanese internment caused farm productivity on the West Coast to drop precipitously, maybe this was partly also a thank-you to the Indian farmers who'd kept ag going? I really ought to find out more!
And since [the commenter I was replying to was] into Indian cinema: the 1957 film Mother India is one of the many works Indians made in response to Mayo's book.
Honestly I would really love a lush 10-episode prestige cable miniseries period drama about that 1956 election. It got national attention at the time, so there's contemporaneous material to work from, and both Cochran-Odlum and Saund were pretty fascinating people!

Well, a filmmaker is now trying to make a documentary about that election! I confess I have not yet watched Mridu Chandra's talk from last year about her effort, but if you're reading this, you might like to.