Dalip S. Saund,
The First Asian in U.S. Congress
Los Angeles, A. 2000
Congressman Dalip Singh Saund was the first Indian American and
also the first among Asian Americans to be elected to the US Congress.
Thus far, he is the only Indian American who has been elected
to this highly visible and honorable position. He was first elected
in 1956 from 29th congressional district comprising of Riverside
and Imperial Counties of California. He was re-elected twice,
in 1958 and 1960. While contesting election for his fourth term
in 1962, he suffered a debilitating stroke and became incapacitated.
Although he did not win his fourth term, he did set a precedent
for many Asians to follow him in the U.S. Congress. He remains
a beacon of hope and an example for many Indian Americans to succeed
Dalip Singh Saund was born on September 20, 1899 in village Chhajalwadi,
Amritsar, Punjab. He went to a boarding school in Amritsar and
Prince Wales College in Jammu. He graduated with B.A degree in
Mathematics from Punjab University in 1919. In USA, he enrolled
in UC Berkley in 1920 to study food preservation, in the Department
of Agriculture. Later, he switched to Mathematics Department and
received MA in 1922 and Ph.D. in 1924.
Dalip S. Saund, as a student in India, was impressed with Gandhiji’s
leadership of India’s independence movement. 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 people” 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 India, 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, in spite of opposition from his family, he came to
USA for further studies.
By the time Dalip Singh Saund finished his education in U.C.
Berkley, he had become enamored with the American democratic system
and decided to make America his home. However, he knew that there
was considerable prejudice against the nationals of India, and
he being an immigrant from India, very few opportunities existed
for him. Nevertheless, he tried hard to find a suitable job, commensurate
with his qualifications. At that time, most Indians in California
could make a living as farm workers, so finally in 1925, he decided
to move to Southern California in search of a farming job, the
only conceivable opportunity to make a living.
Dr. Saund started his first job as a foreman of a cotton-picking
gang, a job that hardly required any schooling much less a Ph.D.
degree from a leading American university. His job required him
to weigh sacks of cotton that the pickers had picked by hand and
make up their payroll at the end of the week. In between weighing,
he would read books, borrowed from the library. Many times, he
would continue his reading by the “dim light of a kerosene
From his first job, Saund had saved some money and decided to
go into farming. But he could not buy or lease land as he was
not a citizen. He leased it in the name of an American friend
and ventured into growing of lettuce in partnership. At harvest
time, the entire crop was a complete, total loss and he incurred
a debt that took him some time to repay. Three years latter, in
1930, he again grew lettuce. This time, he was fortunate, made
some profit and was able to clear up 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
his fellow 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 Berkley, had joined Hindustan Association of America,
which had chapters throughout the United States in different university
centers. Two years later, he became the national president of
the association, which gave him many opportunities to make speeches
on India and meet with other groups as a representative of the
Indian students at the university. He was an ardent nationalist
and never passed up an opportunity to expound on India’s
rights to self-government. He took part in several debates and
spoke before many groups and organizations. After he moved to
the Imperial Valley, he continued to take advantage of every opportunity
to speak, debate and present India’s side, a side of democracy
and a side for humanity.
One evening, Saund was invited to speak at the Unitarian Church
in Hollywood, where he met a young man, Emil J. Kosa who invited
him to visit his home, as his parents were interested in India.
During the course of conversation with Mrs. Kosa, Emil’s
mother, Saund found out that he was a co-passenger travelling
from Europe to New York, on the same ship with Mrs. Kosa and her
daughter, Marian. Saund became a friend of the family and soon
became a frequent visitor. He fell in love with Marian, a nineteen
years 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, born of immigrant 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. However, Indians in California resented
the book’s unjust and false interpretation of Indian culture.
Gandhiji called it a “drain inspector’s report”.
Saund wrote his book, “ My Mother India” in 1930.
In the preface, he wrote, “it was only fitting that the
Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society (Sikh Temple in Stockton),
in its role as the interpreter of Hindu culture and civilization
to America, should undertake its publication.”
Since his university days in India, Saund had been taking a keen
interest in the political system of the country. After he came
to USA and moved to the Imperial Valley, he started taking active
role in the socio-political activities of his new homeland. He
joined Toastmasters’ Club and soon became its president.
Later, he served as lieutenant governor and then as district governor.
He also started attending official meetings of County Democratic
Party Central Committee. He was welcomed as a party worker and
an active participant but not allowed to vote in the decision
making process as he was not a citizen of the United States. It
was time to gain U.S. citizenship and invest in a country that
he and his family called home.
Saund, after consulting with the board of directors of the Hindustan
Association of America in Imperial County, formed India Association
of America in 1942, of which he was elected its first president.
The main objective of the new organization was to mobilize the
Indian community and get the citizenship rights for the Indian
nationals. It was not an easy task, particularly when the Supreme
Court of the United States, in 1923, had declared that natives
of India were not eligible to U.S. citizenship. In rejecting 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 Caucasians, they
were not “white persons”, and therefore were “aliens
ineligible to citizenship”. Thus 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 an alternative worth pursuing.
The Indian farmers could buy or lease land only in the name of
their American friends who some times 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. A few farmers had married
American citizens and leased property in the wife’s name.
But, 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 the Congress
could pass a major bill aimed at upsetting a historic decision
of the U.S Supreme Court. It was not that they did not want citizenship
rights, but they had suffered so many hardships and had been knocked
about so much that it was very difficult for them to believe that
there was a chance of their winning.
Saund had a different vision. He knew that it was a major undertaking
to convince the elected representatives of the American people
to introduce a bill in the Congress for the grant of U.S. citizenship
to a handful of Indian nationals. But, with the help of some dedicated
Indians, he made several trips to all parts of California, mobilized
the Indian community, mailed out thousands of letters, mostly
in Punjabi, raised funds, and furnished financial assistance to
Indian groups in New York to lobby at the Capital Hill. The mobilization
took some effort but soon it gained momentum and Indians in the
USA were ready for all-out effort to re-gain citizenship rights.
They were able to convince Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce from
Connecticut and Congressman Emanuel Cellar from New York who jointly
introduced a bill in Congress. However, selling this concept to
the majority of the members in the U.S. Congress was an uphill
task, more so, as the passage of the bill could open the door
for other Asians who were similarly deprived of citizenship rights.
Indians continued running into roadblocks in finding a powerful
force to push it through. Luckily, in 1946, after four years of
continuous struggle, President Truman took special interest in
its passage and 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 all Indians in United States.
Saund became 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, Mr. Glen Killingsworth who was a
judge in Westmorland, with whom D.S. 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 died suddenly
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 was persuaded to become a candidate for that office in the
general election in November, 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
Dalip S. Saund was elected Judge solely due to his exemplary
grassroots campaign. 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 Election
Day. Saund‘s friends started circulating a petition addressed
to the County Board of Supervisors 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 chairmen of both
the Democratic and Republican county central committees had signed
a separate petition. The daily newspapers in the county urged
the Supervisors through their editorials for appointment of Saund
as a judge. But he lost his first political battle not because
of lack of public support or popularity among voters but through
that minor technicality.
Saund was disappointed but by no means discouraged. He wrote
in his autobiography, “I harbored no bitterness against
my opponents. Throughout 1951 and 1952, I continued my activities
in support of Community Chest drives, the Boy Scouts, and particularly
the March of Dimes for which I was the chairman for two years.”
All these community activities kept him in very close contact
with the people of his district. When he ran for the position
of judge in 1952, he ran against an incumbent who was appointed
by the County Board of Supervisors, was an established 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 1956.
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,
Mr. Bruce Shangle of Riverside County became the Democratic nominee
from the 29th congressional district. He knew that he had to campaign
hard in Riverside County to win as 80% of the voters resided in
that county. So, it fell on Judge Saund to manage the campaign
of Mr. Shangle in Imperial County and speak on his behalf to various
service clubs and Candidates’ forums. Mr. Shangle did not
win but it gave Judge Saund a very valuable experience into the
workings of a congressional office and the duties that a congressman
has to perform.
Judge Saund by now had become quite well known in Imperial County.
In October, 1955, he decided to be a candidate 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.
Mr. Bruce Shangle who ran unsuccessfully in the last election
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 the state 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 a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. First the
Appellate Court and then the Supreme Court of California dismissed
the petition on the grounds that the sole judge of the qualifications
of a member of the House of Representatives is 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 and
quoted passages from his book, My Mother India, out of context.
Even his name Dalip Singh was boldly printed and Saund in small
letters to draw attention of the voters that Judge Saund was really
not an American. All the tactics used against Judge Saund apparently
did not hurt him; he won the primary with a tremendous majority.
In the general election, Saund faced Jacqueline Odlum, recipient
of many prizes in the field of aviation, leader of women fliers
during World War II and wife of a multimillion financier. She
was contesting from a district that has always elected a Republican
in its entire history. She had rich supporters and was personal
friend of the President of the United States. At her barbecue
rallies, people not only would come to see the invited celebrities,
such as Bob Hope but her also, a celebrity in her own right. She
even had then Vice President Nixon come to Riverside to speak
Judge Saund faced formidable handicaps but was not intimidated.
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 commercial billboards, so his volunteers made homemade
billboards on 4x8 foot plywood sheets. He put up these billboards
throughout the district and they apparently turned out to be very
effective. His wife and daughter organized and carried out an
intensive campaign of registration of voters and “passed
out 11,000 Saund circulars” before the election. They had
visited thousands and thousands of homes with the help of dedicated
volunteers and made a definite impact on many voters. Much after
the election, people would come up to Saund and say, “I
met your daughter”,……..or “your son-in-law
called at my house….. and that is when I decided that I
was going to vote for you.”
Judge Saund had farmed for twenty-five years in Imperial County
and was thoroughly acquainted with the problems of the farming
communities in both counties. He believed that farmers needed
government protection in order to get a fair share of the economic
reward. So the farmers in the 29th district 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.
His hard work did bring him enough votes that in the general election,
in November 1956, “the first native of Asia” was elected
to the United States Congress with a 3% vote margin.
There were very few Indian Americans registered to vote in the
29th congressional district. There were not 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 an Indian. 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.
Inder Singh is President of GOPIO, Global Organization of People
of Indian Origin and chairman of Indian American Heritage Foundation.
He was NFIA president from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96.
He was also founding president of FIA, Southern California. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other articles on Indian American heritage from the same author:
Struggle of Indians for US Citizenship
Bhagat Singh Thind: Legacy of an Indian Pioneer
Gadar – Overseas Indians Attempt to Free India from British