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The Pioneers

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July 2006
The Pioneers

Being an Indian-American today is easy and even exciting. But how was it for those who sailed across the oceans in the early to mid 1900s?

A hundred years ago, not many people from the Indian subcontinent – or, for that matter, any other non-Caucasian region – would have found living in the United States a pleasant experience. Buggies were the common mode of transportation even in cities, and at the turn of the twentieth century, New York alone had 120,000 horses. The streets of densely populated urban areas must have been littered with manure at all hours. With only 8000 cars in the entire nation, auto accidents accounted for 96 deaths; but lynching, on the other hand, claimed 115 victims. With the average life expectancy still below 50 years for both males and females, the population peaked at 76 million in the first decade. But change – sometimes rapid and unexpected – came with the twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt, who had a rather poor opinion of Asians, became the first American president to ride in a car. That milestone, though, was just a start. He was also the first president to travel by plane, have his own telephone at home, and go abroad on official visits. And on one historic occasion, he invited Booker T. Washington (a former slave who became known for his leadership) to the White House.

A pre-modern, largely pre-urban country was undergoing a dramatic transformation, giving way to the technological society we're now familiar with. The homogenous population also started changing, causing upheaval, as immigration picked up speed on the East Coast. When these Jewish and Catholic newcomers, mostly from eastern and southern Europe or Russia, began altering the predominantly WASP character of the nation, there was considerable tension and resentment. On the West Coast, meanwhile, migrants from Asia continued to trickle in and work as manual laborers in the Pacific Northwest. These were mostly East Asians, however, and the relatively small number of Indians before 1906 consisted of merchants, students and other travelers.

According to the census figures of 1900, there were roughly 2050 Indians (including those of mixed parentage) in the U.S. Apart from the obstacles travelers would have faced back then, Hindus were traditionally barred from crossing the ‘black waters' to seek their fortunes abroad. This, of course, didn't stop tens of thousands of indentured laborers from settling in the British colonies; but then again, those Indians had little choice in the matter.

Punjab to the Pacific Northwest

The migratory pattern finally changed when, a century ago, Punjabi laborers began arriving on the West Coast of North America. The majority were Sikhs, but regardless of their religious affiliation, all Indians were called Hindus or Hindoos. At first, because of the colonial connection, it was easier for them to go to Canada, where there was a great need for cheap labor in the lumber mills, farmlands and railroad industry of the Pacific Northwest. From Calcutta's Diamond Harbor, the ships went westward via Hong Kong, taking a month to complete the entire journey. For racial, economic, religious and cultural reasons, the welcome these migrants received was anything but friendly. Political demagoguery and scurrilous stories in the media about a "Hindu invasion" compounded the problem, causing fear and leading to a vicious backlash. As Roger Daniels notes in his History of Indian Immigration to the United States, "Hordes of Hungry Hindus Invade Vancouver City," "Fiendish Crime Done by Hindus," "Masked Hindu Sandbags Vancouver Woman," and "Get Rid of Hindus at Whatever Cost" were some of the typical, inflammatory newspaper headlines at that time.

A series of incidents brought things to a head, eventually shifting the migratory flow to California. Most prominently, a riot against these laborers in Bellingham became the catalyst for a larger outbreak of violence in this region. Accusing the migrants of driving down the wages and stealing jobs, a mob of 400 to 500 Caucasians attacked the terrified Indians in their ghettos, where many were beaten and much abuse was heaped on them.

Though the ostensible reasons were economic, race and religion were ever-present motives, given that there was no shortage of jobs in the booming Pacific Northwest.

The Komagata Maru crisis, involving a Japanese ship carrying 376 would-be immigrants with valid passports from India to Canada, also highlighted the animosity directed against Indians. After a failed rebellion by the frustrated passengers who'd been quarantined in Vancouver Harbor for two months, the ship was sent back to Calcutta, where some of the captives were killed during a clash. This notorious incident, though it happened in 1914, continues to resonate today. Ali Kazimi retells the story in a documentary titled Continuous Journey, which bagged the Golden Conch at the Mumbai International Film Festival this year. Another Canada-based director, Deepa Mehta, is exploring this affair in an upcoming film called Exclusion. Also in the planning stages is a film called Passage Against the Tides, which focuses on several generations of an Indian family that settled in California's Imperial Valley.

In the meantime, California's Angel Island had become a new entry point for Indians coming to North America, although the welcome they got here was no better. This former immigration station has none of that evocative, sentimental aura that Emma Lazarus bestowed upon Ellis Island with her stirring poem, "The New Colossus," which, adorning the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, acted as a beacon of hope for those fleeing poverty or persecution. The name Angel Island, on the other hand, carries the sting of unintended irony. Calling it Devil's Island would have been more appropriate, given that Indians, along with other Asian Americans, were often harassed and prevented from entering the U.S. for flimsy reasons. Roger Daniels points out that of the 1600 Indians kept out in a four-year period, minor medical criteria were used to exclude 600, while about 750 were barred on the basis of a highly subjective "likely to become a public charge" clause. He adds, "A basic assumption was that ‘the East Indians on the Pacific Coast are almost universally regarded as the least desirable race of immigrants thus far admitted to the United States'."

The Great Wall of America

Nonetheless, even in those early years, a few brave Americans such as Hart North (to give one good example) defied the prevailing notions and took a strong pro-Asian stance. Being an immigration inspector, North was able to let in a lot of Indians, but after a public outcry from the likes of the fear-mongering Asian Exclusion League, President Taft suspended him in 1910. A series of reversals followed, sealing the fate of Indian migrants (and would-be migrants) for the next several years. The Alien Land Law (1913) prevented them from owning land and the Barred Zone Act (1917) effectively curtailed immigration from India. Even long-term residents had a difficult time, since a verdict in 1923 (United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind) denied citizenship (and the consequent rights) to non-Caucasians such as Indians. Reflecting on the National Origin Act (1924), the final nail in the coffin, Joan Jensen, in her Passage From India, writes, "Excluded from immigration, prosecuted for their political activities, threatened with deportation, excluded from citizenship, denaturalized, excluded from land ownership, and regulated even in the choice of a mate in the states where most of them lived, Indians now formed a small band of people set apart from Americans by what truly must have seemed a great white wall."

It was during this grim era that Dalip Singh Saund, a gifted and ambitious young man from rural Punjab, outraged by the 1919 massacre in Amritsar, decided to leave British India and start a new life in the New World. Saund's rise in the U.S., though he faced numerous challenges and faced much discrimination, is striking because it all happened before the tectonic shifts of the 1960s – brought on by the civil rights movement and the repeal of the National Origin Act – changed the country irrevocably. His success in climbing all the way to being a U.S. Congressman, in a sense, symbolized the slowly changing attitudes towards non-Caucasians and foreshadowed the astonishing transformation of American society in the last few decades of the twentieth century. The post-‘60s climate couldn't have been more different, and Indians, along with other ethnic groups, could finally feel that they too belonged in the fabled ‘Nation of Immigrants' (to borrow the title of John F. Kennedy's influential book from the ‘50s).

But when Saund arrived on these shores in 1920, the invisible white wall must have seemed like a formidable barrier that would never crumble. As Joan Jensen puts it, "The attitudes of white workers were bitter and would remain so into the 1920s." Dubbed the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties, this period before the Great Depression and World War II was a heady time for many Americans. Giddy at the prospect of making easy money from the booming stock market to sustain their lavish lifestyle, they were clueless about the tragic fate that awaited them. For the marginalized Indians, however, it really didn't matter because they were living in the Dark Age rather than the Jazz Age. These actions against the immigrants didn't go unnoticed outside the country. For instance, as Srirajasekhar Bobby Koritala notes in an article about the Indian-American experience, they "led Mahatma Gandhi to declare that ‘America had nothing to give India and India, for the present, had nothing to give to America'." Koritala also points out that Rabindranath Tagore, while refusing an invitation from The Atlantic magazine in the States, criticized the ‘utter lack of freedom with which the atmosphere is charged'. Unlike Gandhi, who never came to the U.S., Tagore did visit many times; but on his very first trip, despite having won the Nobel Prize, American immigration officials gave Tagore a hard time.

It was during the traumatic ‘40s, particularly after World War II ended, that cracks began to appear in the white wall. Immigrants like Dalip Singh Saund and Sirdar Jagjit Singh, to give just two prominent examples, were by now actively working to bring about political change in the U.S. and India. The time was ripe. Almost two generations had passed since Teddy Roosevelt's presidency and attitudes were gradually changing. President Franklin Roosevelt, who died in 1945, had even been quite sympathetic to India's struggle for freedom from colonialism. In that sense at least, one might say, the two Roosevelts were polar opposites. Not only had the U.S. population risen to over 132 million by the ‘40s, but the life expectancies of both males and females had also gone up to above 60 years. The number of deaths cased by automobile accidents, reaching 34,500 that decade, may seem like a slightly morbid statistic; yet it does show how the Auto Age had replaced the Buggy Age, turning America into the highly mechanized and mobile society we now inhabit. Major inventions such as the computer and television from that era have had a tremendous impact on the way we live.

Hard work and persistent lobbying paid off when, in the summer of 1946, Indians finally became eligible for citizenship and a small immigration quota was set aside for what would in a year become independent India. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Emmanuel Celler (Democrat) and Clare Booth Lace (Republican), was passed despite opposition from Southern and Midwestern senators. That same year Indian immigrants were given the right to own land. And there were more positive changes later on, including the repeal of California's anti-miscegenation laws and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which permitted entire families to move here. Here it's appropriate to mention that Indian immigrants did have plenty of friends in this country, although the list of what Koritala aptly calls the Rogues Gallery was much longer until the second half of the twentieth century. But besides Hart North in those early decades, there were other effective American friends such as attorney Gilbert Roe, who helped Indians facing deportation, and anti-colonialist Moorfield Storey, president of the Anti-Imperialist League. In fact, as the struggle for India's independence gathered steam, a rising number of Americans became sympathizers and supporters. Margaret Sanger, the women's rights activist, was just one important figure of the Friends for the Freedom of India (FFI) campaign. And media tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Harrison Gray Otis favored the progress of Asian immigrants.

Indian influences

It's not just because of anti-colonial politics and basic civil rights, however, that the plight of immigrants from India struck a chord with certain Americans. In the nineteenth century, long before there was a noticeable Indian presence here, members of the so-called Transcendental Club (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman) were profoundly influenced by the philosophical and spiritual traditions of India. One of Walt Whitman's better-known poems is called "Passage to India," a title that E. M. Forster later used for his most successful novel. Inevitably, as some scholars point out, when these complex views percolated down to popular culture, there was much misunderstanding and distortion. "The first motion picture on India was called Hindoo Faqir (1902)," writes Vijay Prashad in The Karma of Brown Folk. "It was followed by a host of films that portrayed the subcontinent as the home of fatalistic spirituality and sensuality; Oriental Mystic (1909), Soul of Buddha (1918), The Green Goddess (1923), Mystic India (1944), Mysterious Ceylon (1949), among others." This emphasis on exoticism was also apparent in other genres, with the movies featuring Sabu (The Jungle Book, Song of India) being especially popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

At the same time, it's true that the scholarly advances made in Indology by the orientalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had a powerful and continuing effect on Western intellectuals. There was a "great mental change in Europe," Tagore once stated, "at that particular period through the influence of the newly discovered philosophy which stirred the soul of Germany and aroused the attention of other countries." This included not just philosophy but also the other humanities. Newly rediscovered and translated literary works of classical India, for example, attracted considerable attention. Amit Chaudhuri, in a recent essay on Tagore to commemorate his 145th birth anniversary, mentions the far-reaching influence of Kalidasa's Shankuntala and Meghadutam. He also notes how popular works like Edwin Arnold's biography of the Buddha, Light of Asia, which was reprinted eighty times after its initial publication in 1879, made a huge impact. And the culmination of all this interest in that century, as far as the U.S. was concerned, came with Swami Vivekananda's 1893 visit to Chicago, where his appearance at the World's Parliament of Religions had an electric effect on the audience. Ironically, his widely quoted speech expressing the hope that "this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism" was given on September 11th. That same decade, not long before his death in 1902, he established the Vedanta Society and the Ramakrishna Mission, both of which continue to flourish today.

It was the California-based Vedanta Society, in fact, that built the first Hindu temple on American soil in 1905. Displaying an amazing eclecticism that's reflective of the Vedantic tradition, this landmark building in San Francisco incorporates Hindu, Muslim and even Gothic architecture. And the eagle on top of the three-story structure can be seen as a tribute to the host nation in the New World. But by and large, until our own era, gurdwaras and temples in the U.S. were not elaborate and they didn't enjoy the kind of financial support we take for granted nowadays. With the majority of Indians in this society leading marginal lives, there were few affluent benefactors, and it's also true that the beliefs and practices of these early immigrants were more often than not met with outright derision. These institutions, however, played a crucial role in keeping the community together, often providing spiritual solace and even material help. Free food – and in many cases a place to stay – was provided to struggling or indigent migrants. They also functioned as meeting places for other social and political activities, sometimes hosting leading visitors from India. California's Stockton Gurdwara, whose official dedication was in 1915, making it perhaps the oldest Sikh temple in the U.S., became one such important center. Sarojini Naidu, among others, gave a talk there.

Men without Women

The absence of female companionship was a problem for these early migrants from India, since they had the lowest man-to-woman ratio among all the immigrant groups. Interracial marriages were banned in many parts of the country, and for a long time it was forbiddingly difficult to bring over spouses from India. Some Indians did circumvent the ban to marry Caucasians – Saund being a prime example – but a much larger number ended up with Mexican wives. These mixed or ‘Mex-Indian' marriages were not always successful due to cultural differences, and in fact, the divorce rate for these couples (20 percent by one estimate) was higher than it was for mainstream Americans at that time. And not surprisingly, though many of these alliances of convenience did survive and even thrive, a good percentage of the early migrants had to remain single. For instance, according to a University of California exhibit catalog on South Asian pioneers, numerous bachelors in northern California lived in communal groups on ranches that they either leased or owned. Usually a hired cook prepared typical Indian meals, often using the vegetables grown on the property. Heavy drinking was routine, leading to brawls, but there was also much camaraderie and the residents were not averse to splurging on luxuries, although most of them did stay within their means.

"Some even bought gramophones and sent for records from India," adds the exhibit catalog. "Movies were also an occasional treat and the bachelors at Van Tiger Ranch had pictures of Indian movie actresses on their walls. They were fond of modern vehicles, starting with bicycles, then moving on to Fords, and finally up to Buicks and Dodges."

Long before those we now call Indian-Americans used their skills to establish a dominant presence in Silicon Valley, California had been known for its Hindu Alley. There was more than one, actually, and these self-sustaining communities were that era's version of Little Indias, although some weren't so ‘little' – a famous example being Yuba City, which still exists and is home to the oldest Indian community in this country. Politics, whether it involved immigrant rights in the U.S. or the freedom struggle in India, played a big role back then, particularly among the better-educated Indians in places like Berkeley, where the relatively large number of foreign students helped to create a fertile ground for radical activism.

Let Freedom Ring

The first of many political parties was formed exactly a hundred years ago. As Roger Daniels points out, "That honor seemed to go to the Pan-Aryan Association founded in New York City in 1906 by Samuel Louis Joshi and Maulavi Barakatullah." Among the more widely known activist groups, the Gadar Party is worth a mention. Founded in 1913 by Har Dayal and others, this Bay Area-based organization advocated the overthrow of the British Raj. People such as Gurdit Singh and Taraknath Das, along with his wife Mary, were also leading participants during that period. It was Singh who chartered the Komagata Maru for its ill-fated trip to Canada, whereas Das was jailed for almost two years after a famous "Hindu Conspiracy" trial ended the activism of the Gadar Party. But the organization did survive in a low-key manner until India gained independence in 1947.

Following the political and social changes of the late ‘40s, both in the U.S. and India, the quality of life for Indian immigrants began to improve, especially since America as a whole was quickly prospering in the postwar era. In addition, it had emerged as a superpower and the leader of the non-Communist world, which included India. A highlight of the quieter ‘50s was the meteoric rise of Dalip Singh Saund. A brilliant student who'd earned two master's degrees and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, he'd by now established himself as a political force.

In 1956, well before the civil rights movement got under way, Saund became the first immigrant from Asia to be elected to the U.S. Congress. He won not just one but three successive terms as a Congressman and had to step down only because of a stroke that incapacitated him for the rest of his life. A remarkable but not frequently mentioned fact is that Saund had been elected as a Democrat from what was then a predominantly Republican district! Among other achievements, including his earlier efforts to secure citizenship rights for Asian immigrants, he is known for the Saund Amendment, which promotes American foreign aid to developing nations. Earlier this year, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Saund's election to office, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized the commissioning of his portrait. In a fitting tribute, it will be unveiled next year and gain a permanent position in the rotunda of Capitol Hill.

Sweeping changes in the ‘60s, including a landmark immigration legislation that permanently abolished the national origin quota system, ushered in a new era. Life would never be the same again for Indian-Americans and other ethnic groups in this country. This happier story, made possible by the transformation of American society, has been told many times. And though the earlier, less familiar story may not seem as relevant today, it remains just as important, mainly because of the struggles and triumphs of these pioneering immigrants.���

Writer's Note: In addition to the references mentioned in this month's cover story, other secondary sources were consulted while researching the topic.���

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By Murali Kamma


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