Sirdar Jagjit Singh had been living in New York for almost two decades when he was made president of the India League for America in 1941. The League was a non-profit organisation funded by private individuals that discussed Indian philosophy and literature. A tall, handsome, and self-assured man in his late 40s, Singh had moved to New York from Rawalpindi in the 1920s. Over the years, he had made a fortune selling imported luxury products from India at his shop in Manhattan. Having been involved in the nationalist movement while in India, Singh strongly believed that the India League for America needed to be more politically driven.
Within months of his leadership, the League had changed its discourse. It was now the voice of the small 4,000-member Indian community in America, with a monumental task before itself, that of citizenship rights for Indians. In the early decades of the 20th century, not only were Indians immigrating to the United States faced with hostility from the citizens, but they were also met with unfair legislation that eliminated any prospect of naturalisation by the government on racial grounds.
Singh’s fervent lobbying changed this substantially. Finally, in June 1946, president Harry Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act that paved out an immigrant quota for South Asians in the USA, and enabled those already residing to acquire citizenship rights. The Act was instrumental in carving out a future for Indians in the US.
With Kamala Harris becoming the first American with Indian descent to run for the post of vice-president, alongside presidential candidate Joe Biden, the Indian-American community appears to have come a long way since these early days of political advocacy.
Early Indians in the US: farmers, peddlers and labourers
The earliest recorded instance of an Indian immigrant appears to have been a man from Madras who traveled to Masachusettes in the 1790s. Most Indians in the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries were brought to work as servants in the households of seafaring Captains who worked for the East India Company.
“By 1910, the number of Indian immigrants slowly rose to 3,000, having settled on the Pacific Coast as agricultural workers,” writes historian John P. Williams, in his book, ‘Journey to America: South Asian Diaspora Migration to the United States (1965–2015)’. He explains that most were Sikhs from Punjab who were out to seek a better fortune. “The vast majority of them were former soldiers who had served in the British colonial army in East Asia. While many Indian labourers came as “sojourners” rather than as settlers; they lived frugally, and their sole object being to return to Indian with their savings,” he adds. Most of these early Indian settlements were in the West coast.
In the East coast, on the other hand, a different group of South Asians were making a home for themselves. These were Muslim traders from Bengal who established themselves from the 1880s as peddlers in ‘exotic’ Indian products such as embroidered silk, perfumes, rugs and the like. Writer Vivek Bald in his book, ‘Bengali harlem and the lost histories of South Asian America’, explores this set of immigrants, and how their integration into American life was done through collaborative existence with the African-American population. “As they accessed white consumers with fantasies from India, their pathway into and across the United States was a pathway through working class Black neighbourhoods,” he writes.
The most important neighbourhood in this regard was New Orleans’ Treme. “Here some of the Bengalis married and started families with African-American women, who were part of recent Black migration into the city, or with Creole of Colour women who had deep generational roots in Treme,” writes Bald.
They were followed by a wave of immigrants who had escaped into America from British steam ships. “Beginning around the time of the First World War, hundreds of Indian maritime workers, men who laboured in the engine rooms and kitchens of British steam ships, escaped into the crowded waterfronts of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore in search of less brutal and captive work and better wages onshore,” explains Bald. While a majority of them were from East Bengal (currently Bangladesh), there were others from Pakistan-Punjab, the Northwest Frontier province and Kashmir as well.
In New York City, which was the largest port of entry, many of these escaped ship workers, found jobs in the service economy, working as cooks, dishwashers, elevator operators etc.
Unwelcome to the United States
In the 18th and 19th centuries when South Asians started immigrating into the United States, they were faced with large scale xenophobia. Primarily they were seen as competition for labour, willing to do jobs at a low pay.
Xenophobia against Indians amounted from racist slurs being hurled at them to episodes of organised violence as well. Bald writes that when hundreds of Punjabi workers arrived in California and the Pacific Northwest in 1904, white citizen groups and labour unions had already lined up against them. They whipped up a moral panic across the country by calling the immigrants ‘tide of turbans’ that threatened to shake the status of white America.
In December 1907, the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in San Francisco. At its inception three years earlier, the league targeted Japanese and Korean. Later, however, they decided to include South Asians and Chinese in their list of unwelcome immigrants as well. They set up branches across the Pacific coast of North America and used violent methods to ensure no rise in Asian population in the West coast. Consequently, they described ‘Hindus’ (all Indians were collectively referred to as Hindus in the 18th and 19th centuries), as ‘enslaved’, ‘effeminate’, ‘caste-ridden’, and ‘degraded’.
One of the most violent episodes of racist attacks against Indians was in September 1907, when a group of white lumber-mill workers rampaged through the town of Bellingham in Washington, rounding up Indians from their jobs and homes.
The efforts of white citizen groups to exclude South Asians from integrating into American society led to legislative acts being passed. The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, prevented all Asians except those in jobs with high literacy requirements, from entering into the United States. Williams explains that the Act led to about 1,700 Indians being deported and close 1,400 left voluntarily.
In 1923, the Supreme Court ruling in the United States vs Bhaga Singh Thind case, added another layer of exclusion against South Asians. Thind, who had served in the US military during the First World War, had appealed to the Supreme Court for US citizenship. However, the court ruled against him on grounds that he failed to meet the definition of a ‘white person’, ‘a person of African descent’, and an ‘alien of African nativity’.
Following the judgment, the government took away the right to naturalisation from all Indian immigrants and even stripped those of citizenship who had already been naturalised. “The combination of the 1917 and 1923 Immigration Acts effectively throttled immigration from India- the few who trickle in were largely students who managed to stay behind,” write authors Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh, in their book, ‘The Other One Percent: Indians in America’.
“Some immigrants returned to India, unable to bear the racism and limited opportunities. As a result, the Indian population in the United States dwindled to 2,405 by 1940,” they add.
The fight for citizenship
In his fight for citizenship in the 1940s, Singh invoked several moral, economic, and strategic considerations behind why Indians should cease to be excluded from American society. “The people of India have no desire to ask for any special privileges or treatment. They do not seek unrestricted immigration into the United States, but they do wish and ask that the stigma of inferiority be removed,” he wrote in his proposal. “Democratic and freedom loving Americans are certainly not shedding their blood for the continuance of racial discrimination, racial intolerance, racial superiority, which are Hitlerian theories and must result in wars,” he added.
But Singh was not alone in this fight for equality. There were others as well who were lobbying in the Congress for the redressal of Indian exclusion. Mubarak Ali Khan was one among them. Having settled in Arizona’s Salt River Valley in the 1910s, Khan along with a few farmers from the Indian subcontinent had turned hundreds of acres of land fit for producing rice. His approach towards ensuring Indian inclusion was slightly different. “It sought naturalisation rights for the roughly three thousand Indians who were estimated to have settled in the United States prior to the Supreme Court decision of 1923,” writes Bald. He adds that “most of these immigrants were farm and factory labourers – exactly the population of ‘undesirable aliens’ that the 1917 immigration Act had sought to keep out of the country.”
Though different in their approaches, the two men made similar arguments, emphasising on achievements made by Indians in the field of academia, medicine, science etc. Khan spoke about the injustice that the immigration laws did to the hundreds of farmers who could not own the same land they had made productive. Both of them stressed on the unfair treatment being given to those Indians who wholeheartedly participated in the American military during the Second World War.
Bald in his book describes in great detail the efforts of yet another man, who, unlike Khan and Singh, was representing the cause of the South Asian workers in the East Coast. This was a Bengali from New York City named Ibrahim Choudhury. In his letter to the committee on immigration and naturalisation, he wrote that he represented the cause of those working-class Indians who had helped build the destiny of America.
“I talk for those of us who, by our work and by our sweat and by our blood, have helped build fighting industrial America today. I talk for those of our men who, in factory and field, in all sections of American industry, work side by side with their fellow American workers to strengthen the industrial framework of this country. . . .We have married here; our children have been born here. . . . I speak for such as myself, for those of my brothers who work in the factories of the East and in Detroit. . . . I speak for the workers and the farmers of our community whose lives have been bound to this country’s destiny for 23 years or longer.”
Ultimately though, when president Truman did sign the Luce-Cellar Act of 1946, it was the arguments made by Singh and Khan that were given priority. The Act put an end to South Asian exclusion, but favoured immigration of Indians who were scientists, engineers, doctors, and those in other skilled professions.
Though the Act made the working class Indian in America invisible, it did carve out the future of Indian identity in America to a large extent. Currently, about three million Indian-Americans reside in the US, making them the second largest immigrant group after Mexicans. With Trump and Biden-Harris, both bringing up India in their campaigns, the Indian-American vote has acquired newfound importance in the upcoming American elections. Quite expectedly, for the Indian immigrant in the USA, this is a moment of pride and the culmination of a long drawn battle for equality.
The Other One Percent: Indians in America by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh