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 Asian American Activism in History
Dalip Singh Saund: An Asian Indian American Pioneer

By Phil Tajitsu Nash (First pub. in Asian Week, 9/99; rev. 5/02)

Just over a hundred years ago, in 1899, Dalip Singh Saund was born in a village in Punjab Province, India. In 1956, after immigrating to California, he became the first Asian American elected to the United States Congress.

Early Years
In both global and national contexts, 1899 was a year of great upheaval. The "Boxers," an anti-foreign, anti-Western organization, was forming in China; Filipinos were demanding the end of U.S. colonialism; and a war was raging in South Africa between the British and the Dutch-derived Boers. This country's high court had affirmed segregation three years earlier in Plessy vs. Ferguson, in which it upheld the notion that there could be "separate but equal" railway accommodations for whites and blacks. This notion, not overturned until the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954, resulted in what dissenting Justice John Harlan referred to as a "condition of legal inferiority" for non-whites.

Young Dalip, though, was largely isolated from much of this turmoil, having been educated in boarding schools and received his bachelor's degree from the University of Punjab in 1919. He came to the United States in 1920 to attend the University of California at Berkeley, and graduated in 1924 with a master's degree and a doctorate in mathematics.

Historical Context
He entered the society of the early '20s — a time when anti-immigrant bills were pouring out of state and federal legislatures at a furious pace. In 1921, Warren G. Harding signed the Quota Immigration Act and the next year signed the Cable Act, which revoked citizenship for American women who married foreigners. Saund's American wife lost her citizenship by marrying him.

Justice Sutherland, speaking for the Supreme Court in 1923, said that Bhagat Singh Thind and other Asian Indians were "aliens ineligible to citizenship" because, while designated as "Caucasian," they were not "white." Only whites and blacks, in fact, could become citizens — even though Asian Indians were first recorded in American records in 1790. By 1900, 2,050 people of East Indian descent were reported to be living in the United States.

On Sept. 4, 1907 in Bellingham, Wash., violence broke out among Indian loggers, many of whom fled to Canada or California. Members of the City Council maintained that the "Hindus" (although they were Sikhs) brought the action upon themselves because of their conspicuous clothes (including a turban for their long hair) and beards. Fighting such anti-Indian prejudice became key for Saund, who addressed the conflict in his 1930 book, My Mother India.

Agricultural Career
By 1923, the number of Asian Indians in the United States had grown to some 7,000, but possibilities for citizenship and the American Dream seemed dim. Had he been born 50 or 60 years later, this enterprising man might have gotten a teaching position at a prestigious school or joined the growing legions of Asian Americans in the Silicon Valley. Instead, like many others from the Punjab region of India, he become a lettuce farmer and then a distributor of chemical fertilizer in California's Imperial Valley from 1930 to 1953.

Politics Beckons
In the '40s, Saund formed the Indian Association of America to help amend American immigration laws to make Asian Indians eligible for citizenship. His efforts, along with those of J.J. Singh's Indian League of America and Mubarak Ali Khan's India Welfare League, paid off when President Harry S. Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946, which permitted citizenship to Asian Indians but not necessarily others.

Until 1946, Saund was affected by these laws in several ways. His citizen wife was forced to lose her American citizenship by marrying him, he was not allowed to become a citizen until 1949, and his choice of professions was very much limited.

By 1947, Mahatma Gandhi and the people of South Asia had thrown off the cloak of British colonialism, and many students of Indian origin started coming to this country to study (although they were not allowed to become permanent residents until after 1965). After becoming a citizen in 1949, Saund became active in mainstream organizations such as the Democratic Party and the March of Dimes. He was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1952, 1956 and 1960.

Political Victories
In 1950, he ran for a judgeship in Westmoreland and won — only to be told that he could not serve because he had not been a citizen for a full year before the election. Rather than quitting, he ran again in 1952, and served from then until he moved to Washington as a congressman in 1957. He served three terms representing the Imperial Valley. Early in his campaign for a fourth term, he suffered a stroke and was defeated in November 1962.

Legacy
Given his many life accomplishments, what is Dr. Saund's ultimate legacy? He helped to break down the entrenched opposition to citizenship rights for immigrants of Asian ancestry. He also was prophetic in warning about lending foreign aid money solely to central governments. He believed that it would lead to corrupt practices. He successfully championed the Saund Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 over the objections of the Kennedy Admninistration.

To most Asian Indians, however, Saund's main accomplishment is the pride he gave future generations of politicos and activists. A century after his birth and a quarter-century after his death, Dr. Saund continues to inspire Asian Indian advocates. Nasim G. Memon of the Indian American Forum for Political Education still remembers Saund's immortal quote: "There is no room in the United States of America for second-class citizenship."

Given his impressive achievement of being elected from a district with almost no Asian Americans in the segregation era, why isn't Saund better known? Perhaps the lack of knowledge reflects the greater lack of awareness of Asian American pioneers and history in general. Under the "Asian American" rubric, South Asians are further marginalized and made invisible both due to their low numbers and their racial difference from what is generally considered to be "Asian," said Aly Kassam-Remtulla, Rhodes Scholar and former Instructor in Asian American Studies at Stanford University. Another theory, posited by Dr. Rajini Srikanth of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is that Saund's invisibility stems from the tone of his book Congressman from India — a "very upbeat, very gung-ho" tone about the United States, and very celebratory of individual effort and resolve. Given that Asian American studies has by and large seen itself as a protest movement, as a challenge to established systems, Saund's optimism may come across as inappropriate and the lack of anger he professed as misguided.

Asian Indians Today
In any case, Saund today would be proud to see that distinguished Americans of South Asian ancestry include conductor Zubin Mehta, former EEOC Commissioner Joy Cherian, award-winning author Bharati Mukherjee, and filmmaker Ismail Merchant. According to government estimates, there were 359,000 Asian Indian Americans in 1980, 815,447 in 1990 and more than 1.3 million today, including some 25,000 medical doctors. By 1990 Census estimates, Asian Indians had a per capita income of $17,777 as compared with the national average of $14,420, and high levels of educational achievement (averaging 15.6 years) and annual household income ($34,300).

Though only one Asian Indian [Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) was elected in 2004] has yet matched Saund's success, Asian Indians have served on the state level in Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Wyoming, and run for office in states as diverse as California, New York, South Dakota, and Georgia.

Dalip Singh Saund died on April 22, 1973, in Hollywood, Calif., and was interred in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif. Said Don Nakanishi, head of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center: "On his 100th birthday, I hope we shine a bright light on his political career and the lessons we can learn from his remarkable achievements."

 
 
 
 
 Congressman Dalip Singh Saund

Congressman Dalip Singh Saund

 The Saund for Congress Campaign

The Saund for Congress Campaign

 Congressman Saund with President Kennedy

Rep. Saund with President Kennedy

 Dalip Singh Saund campaign ribbon
 
In 1956, Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American to win a seat in U.S. Congress

 Dalip Singh Saund

Saund in an early photo

 Congressman Saund with his family

Congressman Saund with his family

 Mr. and Mrs. Saund

Mr. and Mrs. Saund

 
Images courtesy Dr. Eric Saund, the Saund family, and Dr. Jayasri Majumdar Hart, whose PBS documentary Roots in the Sand included Congressman Saund's story.
 
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