Establishing Roots, Engendering Awareness: A Political History of Asian Indians in the United States

by Vinay Lal

[Published in Live Like the Banyan Tree: Images of the Indian American Experience, ed. Leela Prasad (Philadelphia: Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, 1999):42-48.]

The first significant presence of Indians in the United States can be traced to exactly one hundred years ago, when peasants from the province of Punjab began appearing on the west coast, seeking work in Washington’s lumber mills and California’s vast agricultural fields. Though predominantly Sikhs, they were described in the popular press as “Hindus”; and almost from the outset they were seen as inassimilable, possessed of “immodest and filthy habits”, the “most undesirable, of all the eastern Asiatic races . . .” In 1907, Asian Indians were the victims of a racial riot in Bellingham, Washington, and henceforth concerted attempts would be made by the Asiatic Exclusion League and other associations to prevent further immigration from India into the United States and to restrict the capacity of those already in the country to own property. In these circumstances, the new immigrants, whose difficulties were compounded by their high illiteracy rates and poor knowledge of English, undoubtedly imbibed their first political lessons, acquiring the skills and tenacity necessary to use the courts to their advantage, combat racism, and pursue a livelihood.

The Punjabi pioneers were followed into the United States by Indian students. Their ranks were fortified by the arrival of political dissenters who openly advocated Indian independence, and in 1913 the Ghadr (or “revolutionary” ) Party was founded in San Francisco, with a weekly newspaper, Ghadr, being at once conceived as the vehicle for the expression of seditious ideas. Adherents of the Ghadr Party set for themselves the goal of liberating India by all means at their disposal, and from the United States some returned after the outbreak of war to India, as a British colonial official might have put it, to foment trouble, consort with the Germans, and lure the peasantry into rebellion. America’s entry into the war in 1917 sealed the fate of the Ghadr movement: acting under pressure from the British, the US Government launched an intensive and successful prosecution against the Ghadrites for conspiring with the Germans illegally to deprive the British monarch of his sovereignty over India.

The political aspirations of Asian Indians were to receive further setbacks with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, which virtually barred all Asians from entering the United States. At this time naturalized citizenship was reserved for “whites” only. The Supreme Court’s 1922 decision in the “Ozawa” case, where it was ruled that “white” ought to be interpreted to mean “Caucasian”, provided only a short-lived reprieve to jubilant Indians, for in the following year the Supreme Court declared that in the “understanding of the common man”, “white” clearly denoted a person of European origins. Thus Bhagat Singh Thind, though a Caucasian of “high-caste Hindu stock,” was not entitled to naturalization. Over the next few years, some 45 naturalized Indians were stripped of their American citizenship.

Indians now also came under the jurisdiction of the Alien Land Law (1913, amended 1920-21), which prevented non-citizens from owning and leasing land. One response of Indians was to transfer land into the hands of friendly Anglo farmers and business associates; most significantly, as the literature of the times sadly suggests, Indians attempted to demonstrate that they were “of pure Aryan blood.” A feeble challenge was also mounted in the name of the Hindu Citizenship Committee, but nonetheless the Indian population began to register a dramatic decline: the 1940 census found 1,476 Indians in California, a sharp drop from the 10,000 Indians residing in California around 1914.

In the late 1930s, the India Welfare League and the India League of America renewed efforts to obtain citizenship for Indians, and similarly fought to increase the support for Indian demands for independence from British rule. Asian Indians were emboldened by the Atlantic Charter (1941), which conceded the right of all peoples to self-government, and sought to impress upon the United States Government the importance of Indian assistance in preventing the formation of a Japanese-German military axis in Asia. “America cannot afford to say that she wants the people of India to fight on her side”, wrote one Asian Indian demographer, “and at the same time maintain that she will not have them among her immigrant groups.” Indian lobbying, led by the charismatic Sikh merchant J. J. Singh, resulted in Congressional approval of the Act of July 2, 1946, which not only gave Indians the right to naturalization, but also allowed a small number of Indians, exclusive of nonquota immigrants (such as spouses and minor children of citizens), to enter the United States every year. Between 1948 and 1965, 7,000 Indians were to emigrate to the United States, and nearly 1,780 Indians, many who had been American residents for two decades or more, acquired American citizenship. Among the latter were Dalip Singh Saund of California, who was active in the struggle for Asian Indian political rights and to this day remains the only Asian Indian to have served in either branch of Congress. Elected to Congress in 1956, Saund spent six years in the House of Representatives.

The most contemporary phase of the political history of Asian Indians in the United States begins, however, with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which set a quota of 20,000 immigrants from each country. The greater number of Indians, at least in the first fifteen years, were to arrive as professionals, though subsequently many more have come under family reunification preferential categories. By 1975 the number of Asian Indians had risen to well over 175,000, and it is around this time that the question of self-representation, and how they wished to be known collectively to others, first surfaced among members of the Indian community. One American scholar who published in 1980 a study of Asian Indians in New York City reported that her informants variously described themselves as Aryan, Indo-Aryan, Caucasian, Oriental, Indian, Asian, Mongol, and Dravidian. The earlier nomenclature of “Hindus” for all Indians had long been abandoned, but their designation as “Indians” was scarcely more acceptable, since what are now known as “Native Americans” were also known as “Indians”. The term “Asian American” was not much in vogue, and in any case referred primarily to those from the Far East (and later South-east Asia); and unlike in Britain, where Indians appeared to tolerate being lumped together with Africans and Caribbean people as “black”, even deriving new political coalitions and formations in the common interest of combating oppression, in the United States the designation “black” was seen as condemning one to membership in a permanent underclass.

The aversion of Indians to being viewed as part of a “black” community no doubt owes something also to their own racism, and as one black man wrote of Indian college students in the 1920s, “the Indian wore turbans so as not to be identified with negroes; they kept their distance, wanted nothing to do with negroes.” To be assimilated into the category of “Caucasian” or “white” might consequently seem desirable, but Indians could not then claim those entitlements due to members of “minority groups” that faced the real hazards of prejudice. Where, at one time, Indians were zealous in pressing forth the claim that they ought to be considered “white”, they now sought to disassociate themselves from this identity without disavowing the category of “Caucasian”, which was seen as prestigious and having scientific credibility. Writing to the US Civil Rights Commission in 1975, the recently formed Association of Indians in America (AIA) submitted that “Indians are different in appearance; they are equally dark-skinned as other non-white individuals and are, therefore, subject to the same prejudices.”

These efforts at preserving the minority status of Indians, while allowing them a distinct identity, were to bear fruit when the Census Bureau agreed to reclassify immigrants from India as “Asian Indians”. However opportunistic the position of the AIA, there was something of a case to be made for disadvantages suffered by Indians, for as the 1980 census showed, U.S.-born Asian Indians, whose numbers were growing, had an unemployment rate “five times that of other Asian American groups.” Moreover, though among Indians there were proportionately more professionals than among any other ethnic group, with every passing year the number of Indians employed as taxi drivers, gas station owners and attendants, subway newsagent vendors, and in other working-class jobs would continue to grow, and the apprehension that these Asian Indians might have to bear the brunt of racial prejudice and ethnic jokes, whether at work or at home, was not entirely misplaced. In the late 1980s, this racism, which had taken a violent turn on previous occasions, acquired a systematic patterning. In New Jersey, for instance, a number of Indians, whose material success rendered them visibly open to attack, were murdered by young white men who came to be known as “dot busters”, a reference to the bindi or colored dot placed by some Hindu women on their forehead between the eyebrows.

Among Indian professionals, likewise, there was the sense that the discrimination that has characteristically been encountered by every immigrant group for a generation or two might also stare them in the face. This feeling began to acquire some urgency in the early 1980s and was the impetus for a formation of a number of important professional organizations. As the laws governing the admission of doctors from overseas into the American medical profession were tightened, the American Association of Physicians from India (AAPI) was formed to represent this constituency. According to an estimate furnished in 1993, Indian doctors comprised an extraordinary 4 percent of their profession, and the high profile of AAPI can be gauged by the fact that its annual convention in 1995 was addressed by President Clinton. Other broader-based organizations also emerged to enhance and safeguard Indian interests: prominent among these, other than the AIA, are the Federation of Indian American Associations (FIA), the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), and the National Association of Americans of Asian Indian Descent (NAAAID). The NFIA, together with the American Indian Forum for Political Education and AAPI, agitated against proposed legislation in 1985 that would have deeply cut Medicare funding to hospitals employing doctors with foreign medical degrees. The NFIA was also to show the way in how Asian Indians might further the interests of the Indian nation-state, when in 1987 it mobilized the Indian community, with apparent success, to persuade Congress to withdraw the sale of sophisticated AWACS planes to Pakistan. Yet Asian Indian associations have often undermined their political effectiveness by engaging in mindless back-stabbing and even internecine warfare, and it is revealing that as small an organization as the Los Angeles branch of the Federation of Indian American Associations (FIA) split into the FIA, the FHA (Federation of Hindu Associations), and the FIA-IO [Indian Origin] between 1994-97, so that in 1997 Indians in the Los Angeles area were faced with the embarrassing spectacle of two rival parades on August 15 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence.

It is at the local level that Indian community activists and organizations have done some of their most intense lobbying, not always successfully. The Little India Chamber of Commerce, in the partly Indian neighborhood of Artesia outside Los Angeles, has been unable to persuade the municipality to put up signs guiding visitors to “Little India”. Here, as in New York and Chicago, Indian businesses have been charged with lacking political acumen and cultural sensitivity, as apparently evidenced by their refusal to keep shops closed on the Fourth of July. Most often, however, the lobbying takes the form of attempts to have ‘great’ Indians memorialized. A school has been named after Mahatma Gandhi in Jersey City, and the same town recently renamed a portion of one of its streets after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the principal leader of the oppressed Dalit community and chief framer of the Indian Constitution. Statues of Gandhi are to be found in numerous American cities, including New York City and Atlanta, and the US Congress has recently approved the construction, for which the expenses will be borne entirely by the Indian government and the Asian Indian community, of a memorial to Gandhi in the diplomatic enclave of the capital city, not far from the hallowed grounds where are to be found the memorials to Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Washington.

What is most striking, however, is the manner in which the internal politics of India, and of the Indian subcontinent, is echoed in the politics of South Asian communities in the United States. When a portion of Chicago’s Devon Avenue was renamed after Gandhi, the Pakistani businesses successfully applied pressure to have an adjoining section named after Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Much more dramatic, and rife with consequences, is the support rendered to various political movements in India among their adherents in the United States. As is now well-documented, the Sikh separatist movement in the Punjab has received much institutional and financial support from Sikh militants in the United States, and the demand for an autonomous homeland, called Khalistan, continues to flourish among certain Sikh communities in this country even while it has become greatly attenuated in India. There are reliable reports of political violence within Sikh communities and even at gurudwaras, where moderate Sikhs, as in India, have been targeted by their more militant and orthodox brethren. Such violent differences can assume other forms, as demonstrated by the dispute in Northern California over whether the kirpan, a dagger-like object that is an indispensable icon of the Sikh faith, can be taken to school by children. It is entirely pertinent that this issue only arose after the advent of the separatist movement, and was always clearly intended to deliver a message of faith to dissenting or apolitical Sikhs.

While Indian Muslims in the United States, whose numbers are in any case relatively small, have not been similarly vocal in stating their views on the insurrection now taking place in Kashmir, the same can scarcely be said for those Hindus who continue to give their unstinting support to Hindu militancy in India. They rejoiced in the destruction on 6 December 1992 by Hindu militants of a sixteenth-century mosque, and have poured much money into the construction of a grand new Hindu temple in Ayodhya; and they contribute generously to the activities of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a world-wide organization set up to promote Hindu culture. It is significant that no Indian party has ever had such support among Indians in the United States as the Bharatiya Janata Party, which mainly serves Hindu interests and now governs India. That the ossified Hinduism of some Hindus in the United States, who are far removed from the complexities of the faith and its rich engagement with the multiple strands of Indian civilization, has unsavory political ramifications is nowhere better illustrated than in the activities of the Los Angeles-based Federation of Hindu Association (FHA). Instituting a “Hindu of the Year” award in 1994, the FHA at once conferred it upon Bal Thackeray, a Hindu politician in Mumbai and avid admirer of Hitler who has been responsible for instituting pogroms against Muslims, and Sadhvi Ritambara, who has openly declared that Muslims in India cannot expect to live there except on terms dictated by the Hindu community.

Still, as one considers the gamut of Indian political activity in the United States, there is reason to be hopeful as well. Some Asian Indians have undoubtedly contributed to the various movements, which vigorously affirm the rights of cultural, religious, and ethnic minorities, that have energized the American landscape. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force was for some years led by an Asian Indian woman, Urvashi Vaid, and prominent Asian Indian academics like Gayatri Spivak, who teaches at Columbia University, have forcibly lent their voices not only to the feminist agenda but to critiques of American global hegemony. There is room, as well, for progressive periodicals such as Samar, the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection, and Trikone, which is the organ of the Asian Indian gay and lesbian community. At the institutional level, while organizations such as the Network of Indian Professionals (NETIP) have, at least until recently, disavowed any significant interest in political questions, there are also explicitly politically minded organizations such as the Forum of Indian Leftists (FOIL) and the Committee on South Asian Women (COSAW), as well as organizations, where second-generation Asian Indians with an eye to the American (rather than Indian) landscape often dominate, notably the India Abroad Center for Political Awareness and the Indian American Political Awareness Committee (IAPAC). If these organizations have rarely impacted American politics, it may also have to do with the fact that their membership is drawn largely from the academic world, just as links between Asian Indian intellectuals and the wider community remain tenuous if not negligible.

The prominent public presence of Asian Indian conservatives of the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, who have held up Asian Indians and other Asians as “model minorities” that African-Americans (in particular) should emulate, does not serve to improve relations between the Indian community and other minorities. Having arrived in the United States after the passage of the civil rights legislation in 1964, Indians have had little invested in the immense struggle waged by African-Americans to be granted the dignity of citizens, and their largely professional status has inhibited them from entering into coalitions with working-class people. That Indians are amply capable of forging wider political alliances (as they have done more frequently in Canada), is amply demonstrated by the work of the Lease Drivers Coalition, a South Asian cab drivers association, itself a part of the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), that addresses issues of violence, police harassment, and unsafe working conditions in New York City. Nevertheless, there is perhaps more than a grain of truth in W.E.B. DuBois’s observation, in 1938, that “India has also had temptation to stand apart from the darker peoples and seek her affinities among whites. She has long wished to regard herself as ‘Aryan’ rather than ‘colored’ . . .” It is encouraging that recently the Coalition for an Egalitarian and Pluralistic India, which is one of the few Asian Indian community-based organizations of its kind in the country, was able to attract to one of its events in Los Angeles, jointly marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the much respected African-American community leader, civil rights campaigner, and political activist, the Reverend James Lawson.

It was for long a truism that Asian Indians were seldom involved in the political life of the nation, and for some years they have remained the only ethnic minority group that, as a whole, supports the Republican party. Nor does it augur well for their political awareness that, as Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), they appear to be more agitated and consumed by developments in India than they do by politics in the United States, however long their period of residence in the country that gives them their living. In recent years, there have been a number of Asian Indians who have unsuccessfully stood for election to Congress, and they show some signs of wanting to have greater involvement in American public life. But one hopes that Asian Indians will not confine their political activities to fund-raising for indistinguishable Democrats and Republicans, or accept the illusory mantra that elections equal democracy. The “glass ceiling” that has prevented the ascent of all Asian Americans to the highest political, managerial, and executive positions may have dimmed their political enthusiasm, but its real presence must not be allowed to obfuscate the recognition that Asian Indians have not shown themselves overly inclined towards political action and reflection. In this respect they might be partaking in the more general apolitical climate of the United States, but the numerous legacies of the Ghadr movement, the struggle for Indian independence, and the civil rights movement should stir them to a greater political awareness.