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Film to shed light on turbaned ‘American’ soldier’s fight for rights

All Quiet On the Home Front, a film based on the life of Sikh American soldier Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind, is set for release during Sikhlens Film Festival in November.

Written by Divya Goyal | Ludhiana | Published: July 20, 2016 11:31:00 am
Sikh soldier, Sikh soldier in US army, movie based on Sikh soldier, Bhagat Singh Thind, World War I, India news Bhagat Singh Thind (extreme left); actor Waris Ahluwalia in a still from the film. (Photo Courtesy: David Thind)

Of the 54 years of his life that he spent in the United States of America, 19 were spent fighting the US laws to acquire American citizenship and for the rights of Indo-Americans.

Dr Bhagat Singh Thind, a Ghadar Party leader in India, born in Taragarh Talawan village of Amritsar in 1892, moved to the US in 1913 for higher education. He went on to serve as a soldier in the US army during World War-I in 1918.

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In between, in 1917, he also applied for US citizenship.

After the war, he came back ‘home’ to the US in July 1918 – only to realise that the country for which he fought did not need him. Although he was granted citizenship on December 9, 1918, it was cancelled just four days later — as the colour of his skin was not white. But Thind, instead of returning to India, decided to fight in US courts and was finally granted US citizenship in 1936. His 19-year-old legal battle remains, to this day, a ‘textbook’ of immigration rights of Indians in America.

Now, 49 years after Thind passed away at the age of 75 in Los Angeles in 1967, a tribute to him is finally being made – in the form of a narrative film — All Quiet On the Home Front- being directed by Ohio-based Harjus Singh.
Interestingly, well-known Sikh designer, model and actor based in New York, Waris Ahluwalia, who was asked to remove his turban at Mexico airport by AeroMexico last year, and an apology served to him later, is playing the role of Thind.

Speaking to The Indian Express over phone from the US, Harjus Singh, whose parents migrated from Chakwal (now in Pakistan), said, “I thought of this film because Thind is a hero here in America. But how often have you seen US heroes in dastaar (turban) and beard? It is just not a story about the man who fought for his rights but about where is home and to what extent one can go when he/she is turned out of their home.”

Bicky Singh, founder, Sikhlens Art and Films Festival in US, which is sponsoring the film, said, “We are also working on a documentary ‘Doctor Ji’ based on Thind’s life but All Quiet On the Home Front is the first narrative (non-documentary) film made on him.”

“Thind, after returning from WWI, did not return to India as he was a Ghadar leader and wanted by the British who were ruling India then. Later, British surveillance files revealed that some British officials followed and kept a watch on Thind while he was in the US,” said Harjus Singh.

After his US citizenship was revoked, Thind applied for it a second time. He was granted the same on November 18, 1920.

But again, on October 17, 1921, the US district court sent the case to the US Supreme Court for decision. On February 9, 1923, the SC rescinded his citizenship on grounds that Thind was “not a white person within the meaning of Section 2169, Revised Statues”.

He again filed a petition on September 27, 1935 and eventually gained back his citizenship on March 2 1936 – through a law that allowed non-Caucasian veterans to retain citizenship.

This case is still regarded within the US immigration legal industry as an important step towards challenging the status quo of what it means to be an American citizen. It also opened the door for more progressive immigration laws in the future.

Dr Thind in 1940 married Vivian Davies in Colligwood Presbyterian Church at Toledo and it was in June 1963 that he visited India for the first time after 51 years.

The couple was then honoured by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Dr Radhakrishnan. He was also invited to deliver special lectures at Delhi University and the Panjab University where he spoke on ‘What America Means to Me.’

The Indian Express tried to contact Thind’s family in Amritsar but learnt that his brother’s son Charan Singh Thind has moved from their native village. However, David Singh Thind, Bhagat’s son, replying to an email from California, said, “When my parents returned to India, they were honoured in several universities, including Khalsa College in Amritsar, from where my father graduated. “He was the secretary for the Ghadar Movement in Oregon. I am ecstatic that finally his story will reach the people.”

All Quiet On the Home Front is set for release during Sikhlens Film Festival in November.

“Worldwide premiere of the film will be done at Sikhlens film festival from November 17-20 this year at Chapman University’s film school. After screening at our festival it will be shown at mainstream film festivals,” said Bicky Singh of Sikhlens

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