Pioneer Asian Indian Immigration to the Pacific Coast

Dalip S. Saund, The First Asian in U.S. Congress


By Inder Singh

(Contact him via email: InderSinghca@hotmail.com ; via phone: (818)708-3885)

Congressman Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American to be elected to the US Congress and to date remains the only Indian American. He was elected in 1956 from 29th Congressional district comprised of Riverside and Imperial Counties of California and reelected twice. While contesting in 1964 for his fourth term in the U.S. Congress, he suffered a stroke and became incapacitated. He did not win his fourth term. However, he did set a precedent for many Asians to follow in the U.S. Congress. He remains a beacon of hope and an example for many Indian Americans to succeed him.

Dilap Saund

Saund was born on September 20, 1899 in village Chhajalwadi, Amritsar, Punjab. He went to a boarding school in Amritsar and Prince of Wales College in Jammu. He graduated with B.A. degree in Mathematics from Punjab University in 1919. In the US, he enrolled in UC Berkeley in 1920 to study food preservation, in the department of Agriculture. Later, he switched to Mathematics and received MA in 1922 and Ph.D. in 1924.

As a student in India, Saund was impressed with Gandhiji. He became his ardent and active follower. At the same time, he became profound admirer of the then American president, Woodrow Wilson whose speeches he read over and over again. His inspiring ideas and ideals to "make the world safe for democracy" and provide "self-determination for all peple" appealed to him enormously. It was through Wilson that he became familiar with President Abraham Lincoln. He read Lincoln's life story and studied his writings that made an everlasting impression on his young mind. In the preface to his autobiography, Congressman From Indian, he wrote, "My guideposts were two of the most beloved men in history, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi". Since Lincoln had influenced him so much, he came to the U.S. for further studies in spite of opposition from his family.

By the time Saund finished his education, he had decided to make America his home. He however was aware of the considerable prejudice against the people of Asia and knew that few opportunities existed for him or for people of India, at that time. In spite of being highly educated, he decided to move to Southern California in the summer of 1925, in search of a farming job, the only conceivable opportunity.

Saund started his first job as a foreman of a cotton-picking gang at a ranch belonging to some Indian friends, a job that hardly required any schooling much less a college degree.

From his first job, he saved some money and borrowed more from friends and ventured into growing of lettuce in partnership. The entire crop was a complete, total loss and he was in debt. Slowly, he cleared his debt. During his farming years, he had many ups and downs and went through the depression era of 1930s. But he refused to file bankruptcy proceedings, like some other farmers did, when he suffered losses due to harvest or market failures. For him, declaring bankruptcy was a matter of great shame and against the very principles that he had learnt from his parents.

Saund, when at Berkeley, had joined Hindustan Association of America, which had chapters throughout the U.S. at different universities. Two years later, he became the national president of the association, which gave him the many opportunities to make speeches on Indian students. He was an ardent nationalist and never passed up an opportunity even after he moved to the Imperial Valley to expound on India's rights to self-government.

One evening, Saund was invited to speak at the Unitarian Church in Hollywood, where he met a yound man, Emil J. Kosa who invited him to visit his home as his parents were intersted in India. During the course of conversation with Mrs. Kosa, Emil's mother, Sauda found out that he was a co-passenger travelling from Europe to New York, on the same ship with Mrs. Kosa and her daugher, Marian. Saund became a friend of the family and soon became a frequent visitor. He fell in love with Marian, a nineteen-year- old UCLA student but was not sure if he could marry her. He was a foreigner in a country where the laws prevented him to become a citizen or own a home, without a secure job and no clear future. Still, he did not give up and in 1928, married Marian Kosa, an immigrant born of Czech parents. They had three children, a son and two daughters.

Since Dalip S. Saund had become well known as a speaker, the Sikh Temple in Stockton asked him to write a rebuttal to Katherine Mayo's book, Mother India, which was a sensational book and had become a best seller. Gandhiji called it a "drain inspector's report". In the preface of his book, My Mother India, published in 1930, Saund wrote that "it was only fitting that The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society (Sikh Temple in Stockton), in its role as the interepreter of Hindu culture and civilization to America, should undertake its publication."

Saund consulted with the board of directors of the Hindustan Association of America in 1942, of which he was elected first president. The task to get citizenship rights was not an easy one particularly when the Supreme Court declared that natives of India were not eligible to U.S. citizenship. In rejection of an appeal of Bhagat Singh Thind (to whom, Saund dedicated his book, My Mother India) about revocation of his U.S. citizenship, the judge held that while persons from India were Caucassians, they were not "white persons", and therefore were "aliens ineligible to citizenship". Thus thr Legal solution was ruled out as a possibility. An amendment of the Immigration laws with a special bill to be passed in the Congress of the United States appeared and was alternative worth pursuing.

The Indian farmers could buy or lease land only in the name of their American friends who sometimes exploited them and even deprived them of their harvest. Grant of citizenship rights would nullify the effect of California Alien Land Law, which prohibited Indians to own or lease land and property. Saund had been leasing property in his wife's name as she was an American citizen. However, some landowners didn't like leasing land to an Asiatic's wife for fear of violating the Alien Land Act. There were about 2,000 or possibly 2,500 Indians, who could benefit by becoming citizens of USA. But they were very skeptical that a major bill aimed at upsetting a historic decision of the US Supreme Court could be passed by the Congress. It was not that they did not want citizenship rights, but they had suffered so many hardhsips and had been knocked about so much that it was very dificult for them to believe that there was a chance of their winning.

It was a major undertaking to convince the elected represntatives of American people in Congress on one hand and on the other to mobliize the Indian community. Saund, with the help of some dedicated Indians, made several trips to all parts of California, raised funds, mailed out thousands of circular letters, mostly in Punjabi, and furnished financial assistance to Indian groups in New York to lobby at Capitol Hill. They were able to convince Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce from Conneticut and Congressman Emanuel Cellar from New York who jointly introduced a bill in Congress. However, selling this concept to the members of Congress was an uphill task, more so, as its passage could open the door for other Asians who were similarily deprived citizenship rights. Indians continued running into roadblocks in finding a powerful force to push it through. Luckily, in 1946, President Truman took special interest in its passage. After four years of waiting, the Luce-Cellar bill was finally passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Truman on July 3, 1946. It was a great triumph, and truly, 3rd of July was the Independence Day for those Indians in United States.

Dalip Singh became a naturalized citizen on December 16, 1949 and was ready to take more active part in the political process of his adopted homeland. The primary election was a few months away, in June 1950. A close friend, Glen Killingsworth was judge in Westmorland, with whom Saund had worked unofficially for many years in Democratic Party affairs, encouraged him to run for a seat on the Imperial County Democratic Central Committee. Saund's first political victory was without any opposition.

A few weeks after the election, Judge Killingsworth suddenly died due to a heart attack. It was a great personal loss for Saund, for he had watched him closely in his work as judge for many years and had admired the office and the way his friend had filled it. Saund decided to become a candidate for that office in the general election in Novemeber, 1950. He personally knew nearly all the voters in the judicial district. So he started a vigorous campaign by ringing doorbells, meeting people and asking for their support.

Dalip S. Saund was elected Judge solely due to his exemplary grasssroots campaigning. No other foreigner had by then been elected to any high office in Imperial County. But the judgeship was denied to him as he had not been a citizen for one full year by Elecion Day. Saund's friends started circulating a petition addressed to the County Board of Supervisor who were to appoint a judge. More than twice the number of voters than had originally voted for Saund, signed the petition. Most of the mayors of cities in Imperial County, the presidents and leaders of different civic and professional organizations, including the charimen of both the Democratic and Republican county central committes had signed a separate petition. The daily newspaper in the county urged the Supervisors through their editorials for appointment of Saund as a judge. But he lost his first political battle through that minor technicality.

Saund was disappointed buy by no means discouraged. When he ran for the position of judge in 1952, he ran against an incumbent who was appointed by the County Board of businessman and a member of the church board. The campaign also had taken a racial overtone; some people would not go for the "Hindu for judge." But most of the people had felt that injustice was done to Saund last time and now was the opportunity to correct it. Saund won the election and served as judge for four years until his election to the Congress of the United States in 1958.

In 1954, Judge Saund was elected chairman of the Imperial County Democratic Central Committee and became a member of the Democratic Executive Committee of the state of California. In the same year, Bruce Shangle of Riverside County became the Democratic nominee from the 29th Congressional district. He was confident of loyal support from the County Democratic party but was not sure of similar support from Riverside county. Shangle assured his full support.

Judge Saund's Democratic opponent was a well-known Riverside County attorney, active in California politics and at one time had been a candidate for attorney general of California. He tried to get Judge Saund disqualified on the technical grounds that he had not been a citizen for seven years before he could become member of the U.S. House of Representatives. First the Appellate Court and then the Supreme Court of California dismiss the petition on the grounds that the sole judge of the qualifications of a member was the House of Representatives in the house itself.

Judge Saund had not yet become a familiar name to the voters in Riverside County. But they read his name on the front pages of every newspaper in the district, not one time but three times, first when the appeal was filed, second time when it was turned down by the lower court and third time when the Supreme Court rejected it. No money could have bought him as much publicity and name recognition as these news reports. But his Democratic opponent did not give up. He, in his newspaper and radio advertisements, attacked Saund of his being an Indian and not an American. All the tactics used against Judge Saund apparently did not hurt him; he won the primary with a tramendous majority.

In the genral election, Saund faced Jacqueline Odlum, winner of many prizes in the field of aviation, leader of women fliers during World War II and wife of a mutimillion financier. She was contesting from a distict that had always elected a Republican. She had rich supporters and was personal friends of the President of the United States. At the barbecue rallies, people not only would come to see the invited celebraties, such as Bob Hope but her also, a celebrity in her own right. She even had the Vice President Nixon come to Riverside to speak for her.

Judge Saund faced formidable handicaps but was not intimdated. His friends and neighbors with the help of Democratic groups in Riverside County, began to sponsor a series of free barbecues which gave him an opportunity to meet people and communicate his message. His whole family, his wife, three children, his son-in-law and daughter-in-law and score of volunteers kept busy ringing doorbells and passing out literature. He did not have funds to buy space on billboards, so his volunteers made homemoade billboards on 4x8 foot plywood sheets. He put up these billboards throughtout the district and they apparently turned out to be effective. His wife and daughter organized and carried out and intensive campaign of registration of voters and "passed out 11,000 Saund circulars" before the election. They had visited thousands of homes with the help of dedicated volunteers and made a definite impact on many voters.

Judge Saund had farmed 25 years in Imperial County and was thoroughly acquainted with the problems of farming communities in both counties. He believed that farmerd in the 29th distrist were confident of his representation of them in the U.S. Congress. But, it was from the cities, that he was trying hard to get a fair share of votes. Thus, in general election in November 1958, "the first native of Asia" was elected to the United States of Congress with a 3% vote margin.

There were very few Indian Americans registered to vote in the 29th congressional district. In fact there were barely 2500 people of Indian origin in the entire United States. He did not have many ethnic voters either; the large majority being Caucasian Americans. He did not adopt a new religion in his new country nor did he Americanize his name to sound less ethnic. His opponents repeatedly tried to exploit his being Indian American. But he had completely assimilated with mainstream America while maintaining his heritage. He actively participated in Democratic Party activities and rose to be a delegate in three conventions starting in 1952. He represented grass-roots philosophies and identified with middle-class values, the values of the people he lived with. Today, Indian Americans, seeking political Office invoke Saund's name, much the same way, as Saund himself invoked Gandhi and President Lincoln's name. Like them, he is a source of inspiration and a worthy role model to look up to.

Source. India Journal valley supplement August 18, 2000. With permission.

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Contact T.S. Sibia, tssibia@sikhpioneers.org

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Shields Library
University of California
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02/17/2004