Mobilizing the Indian American Community
By Inder Singh
Indian community activists in the United States have mobilized the Indian American community whenever major issues and concerns have arisen. Such mobilization helped to propagate information, garner support, and seek cooperation among various groups and individuals. In the early part of the twentieth century when the number of Indian immigrants in the United States was relatively small, they faced racial prejudice and hostility from the local population.
Indian students, upon graduation, failed to get jobs commensurate with their qualifications. Indians attributed discrimination and inequity to their being nationals of “slave” India. They were motivated to become part of Gadar Movement which aimed at achieving independence for India. It was the first mobilization of Indians for a cause which was dear to Indians in India and overseas. There have been many examples of community mobilization for critical issues in the past.
The most recent example of global community mobilization took place when heavy fees and penalties were retroactively applied to Indians who had not surrendered their Indian passports upon acquiring foreign citizenship. In response to the need of the Indian community, the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) initiated an on-line petition to Prime Minister of India and succeeded in obtaining relaxation of the stringent rules.
Indians started coming to the United States in the beginning of the twentieth century primarily for economic opportunities. The new immigrants found low level menial jobs, in factories, lumber mills and railroad construction. They accepted low wages and poor working conditions and sometimes traveled from place to place in search of work. The employers preferred Indians to whites due to their hard working habits, but the unions despised the immigrants. As the number of Indian workers increased, fear of job loss by white workers led to hostility and sometimes to racial riots, resulting in certain cases, to loss of life and property.
In 1907, Indians became the victims of a brutal and deliberate assault in Bellingham, a milling town in state of Washington. About 250 Indians were employed in various lumber mills. Amob of about 500 men physically attacked boarding houses and mills, forcibly expelling “Hindus” (Indians had collective identity as Hindus irrespective of their faith). The primary objective of the vicious attack was to “scare them so badly that they will not crowd white labor out of the mills.” The town had a small police force which was overpowered by the white mob. The nightmarish incident forced the Indians to leave the town in fear for their life and safety. The Indians were relatively new in the United States, were generally uneducated and were afraid of banding together to fight against injustice.
The United States welcomed qualified Indian students seeking admissions in the American universities. Upon graduation, however, several students failed to get jobs matching their educational attainments. The Indian students attributed the prejudice and discrimination to their being nationals of a subjugated country. Many articulated nationalist feelings and started advocating freedom for India from the British serfdom. They formed organizations to collectively assert their right for independence for India.
Independence for India
Taraknath Das, a student in Seattle, started publishing a magazine titled Free Hindustan in 1907, advocating armed rebellion against the British rule in India. Har Dyal had been a faculty member at Stanford University for about two years and was identified with the nationalist activities in the United States. Dyal inspired many students studying at the University of California at Berkeley and channelized the pro-Indian, anti-British sentiment of the students for the independence of India. At a meeting of some patriotic and enlightened Indians on April 23, 1913 in Astoria, Oregon, Har Dyal and others passionately advocated throwing the British out of India and securing liberation by all means at their disposal. The Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast was formed at this meeting with a major objective to liberate India from the British colonial rule. Many people enthusiastically became members and provided financial support. This was the first attempt to mobilize the Indian nationals in the United States to join on a participatory basis to achieve a common goal, to free India from the British serfdom.
The association began publishing the Gadar magazineto promote the aims, objectives and activities of the organization. Gadar, which literally means revolt or mutiny, called upon the Indian people to unite and rise up against the British rule and throw them out of India. Over a period of time, Gadar became well known among Indians and the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast itself became known as the Gadar party. Thousands of Indians returned to India to fight against the British colonialists but failed to achieve their objective. Nevertheless, Gadar leaders mobilized the world Indian community and left a major impact on India’s struggle for freedom.
The desire to liberate India was still a burning issue with many Indians. However, the means to obtain freedom changed from the use of arms which the Gadarites had adopted to the power of pen of the new leadership. Lala Lajpat Rai, one of the prominent movement leaders in India, who later became known as “the Lion of Punjab”, came to the US in 1914 to elicit American support for the Freedom movement. He founded the Indian Home Rule League in 1917 in New York. In 1918, he started publishing Young India magazine with a goal to reach out to individuals, groups and organizations. He started publishing articles in the American media, cultivated contacts with intellectuals and gained the support of the wider audience of Americans sympathetic towards the cause of India’s freedom.
Mubarak Ali Khan, who came to the US in 1913, had become a successful farmer in Arizona. He founded the Indian Welfare League in 1937 to gain support for India’s independence and US citizenship rights for Indians. J. J Singh came to the United States to establish business and became a successful merchant in New York. J. J Singh became president of the India League of America in 1940 and started the League’s mouthpiece India Today – a well-edited informative monthly bulletin. He also expanded its membership base to include Americans. Pearl Buck, author and Nobel Prize winner, was one of the new members and became the League’s Honorary President in 1944. J. J. Singh’s public relations campaigns and lobbying efforts convinced significant sections of the American public, including members of the United States Congress, that the time had come for India to be liberated. Dr. Anup Singh became very active in India League of America and was the editor of India Today for a few years. Anup Singh later moved to Washington D.C. to lobby for India issues more aggressively. He started the National Committee for India’s Freedom and published a monthly magazine Voice of India to disseminate the message of India’s nationalist movement.
For years, the Community activists used their writings, speeches and meetings with members of the United States Congress and people of influence, as well as the President of United States, to gain sympathy, support and endorsement of the American people, for the independence of India. They provided dedicated and committed service for the cause of India and Indians in the US. On August 15, 1947, India obtained independence from Britain and the community activists were elated and ecstatic. It was momentous and joyful occasion as India was free, at last.
Struggle for U.S. citizenship
U.S. citizenship conferred many rights and privileges. However, only Caucasian immigrants were eligible to apply in the early years. Among Asians, Indian nationals were considered to be Caucasian, so sixty-seven Indians acquired U.S. citizenship from 1908 to 1923 in different states in the USA.
Bhagat Singh Thind, a veteran of US army, obtained his US citizenship in 1920, but sadly, it was revoked just four days later. He obtained it again from another state but the Immigration and Naturalization Service challenged the court decision granting citizenship to Thind. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court which decided that Thind and other Indians were not eligible for US citizenship. As a result, many U.S. citizens, who were formerly Indian citizens, were forced to surrender their American citizenship.
There were about 2,000 to 2,500 Indians in the United States at that time. Most were Punjabi farmers who could benefit by becoming citizens of the United States. A legal challenge to the Supreme Court decision was ruled out as a possibility. The community activists felt that an amendment to the immigration laws by Congress could give them right of citizenship and was worth pursuing. Dalip Singh Saund, who later became the first Indian American US Congressman, traveled all over California to mobilize the Punjabi farm workers. Several of them owned and farmed their own land in India but were not eligible to buy land for farming in the United States. Saund mailed out thousands of hand written letters in Punjabi, persuaded them to support the suggested legislative solution and raised funds for the Indian groups in New York to lobby on Capitol Hill. The mobilization took quite some effort but it gained momentum.
J. J. Singh, Mubarak Ali Khan, Anup Singh, Haridas Muzumdar, Taraknath Das, and Dalip Singh Saund, led the national lobbying effort. They were able to successfully convince the Connecticut Republican Congresswoman, Clare Booth Luce and the New York Democrat Congressman Emanuel Cellar, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to jointly introduce a bill in Congress to grant of US citizenship to Indian immigrants. For four years, the bill languished in the Congressional Committees and Indians continued running into obstacles in finding a powerful ally to push it through Congress. In 1946, President Truman took a special interest in its passage and the Luce-Cellar Bill was enacted into the Immigration Act of 1946, conferring the right of citizenship on the natives of India. President Truman signed the bill on July 2, 1946 into law. It was a great triumph for the Indian community activists that their relentless struggle reversed the Supreme Court’s decision.
Some community activists such as J. J. Singh, Anup Singh, Haridas Muzumdar, Taraknath Das and Dalip Singh Saund, demonstrated continuous enthusiasm and used it all to mobilize the Indian nationals. They provided testimonies in the U.S. Congress, sought support from the American people and media for issues and concerns of the Indian community, primarily for India’s independence and citizenship rights for Indian nationals. For many years, these pioneers provided dedicated and committed service for the cause of India and Indians in America and played the role of Indian community emancipators in the United States.
The mobilization and continued efforts for two ambitious projects – right for US citizenship and independence for India – were successful and the objectives were achieved. Some of these community activists, who were committed literally on full time basis and had put their careers and professions on hold, were prepared to seek ways to contribute to the society in various other ways.
Taraknath Das had come to the United States as a student around 1905 from Calcutta. He earned a Ph.D. degree from the University of Washington in political science. He obtained U.S. citizenship around the beginning of the World War I and fought hard to retain it when the U.S. government later tried to revoke it. He was involved in the Gadar Movement and was convicted for his Gadar activities. He taught at various colleges and universities in the U.S. and Europe and died in 1958.
Haridas Muzumdar came to the United States in 1920 in pursuit of higher education. He received his M.A. in 1926 from Northwestern University and his Ph.D. in Sociology in 1929 from the University of Wisconsin. He was heavily involved with both the issues of the community. He became a US citizen in 1947. He unsuccessfully ran in 1956 for the US House of Representatives from the second district of Iowa. He taught at various colleges and universities and retired after serving as Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Dean of Arts and sciences for a decade.
Dr. Anup Singh received his PhD in Political Science at Harvard University. He, along with J.J Singh, led the fight for citizenship for the Indian nationals and was one of the three Indians invited to the White House to witness President Truman sign the Luce-cellar Bill on July 2, 1946. After India’s independence, he became Public Relations Officer in the Indian Embassy in Washington DC. He did not apply for his US citizenship and returned to India where he was member of the Indian Parliament (Rajya Sahba) for several years. He died in a car accident in Cairo, Egypt, while on deputation for Afro-Asian Solidarity Council meeting on 28th January 1969.
J.J. Singh was a member of the Indian National Congress before coming to the United States to establish business and became a successful merchant in New York. He developed friendship with many Americans, some powerful and influential. The Time magazine editor and his wife Republican Congresswoman Clara Booth Luce were his personal friends. He extensively lobbied for India’s independence and wrote frequent articles for publication. J.J. Singh had come to the US as a bachelor and married Malti Saksena, daughter of India’s ambassador to Canada in 1951. He did not become a US citizen but went back to settle in India in March 1959, at the age of sixty-one after living in New York for thirty three years. New York Times in its issue of January 18, 1959 wrote, “US Loses ‘Envoy’ to Call of India.”
Dalip Singh Saund came as a student and obtained an MA and PhD from University of California at Berkley. He got his first job as a farm laborer and later became a farmer. He was involved with the struggle of Indians for US citizenship. He mobilized the California Sikh farming community and raised funds for the lobbying efforts in the United States Congress in Washington, DC. He became US citizen in 1949. He was actively involved with the Democratic Party and was elected a judge in 1952. He was the first Asian American to get elected as US Congressman in 1956 and was re-elected twice. He suffered a stroke and was paralyzed while contesting for his fourth term and died in 1973.
Liberalization of Immigration Laws – Community Grows Rapidly
Up until 1965, the US immigration quota allowed only 100 Indians to migrate to the United States. In 1965, Immigration laws were liberalized, allowing immigration of up to 20,000 people from any single country. Indian immigrants, particularly Indian professionals – engineers, doctors, nurses, etc. – took full advantage of the opportunity and their population started increasing rapidly. As per 1980 Census data, Indian Americans numbered as many as 361,544 which more than doubled by 1990 and the growth rate continues unabated till this day. The Indian American population is expected to exceed 2.8 million when the Census 2010 figures are released.
With the increase in population of immigrants from India, cultural, religious and regional organizations mushroomed at a rapid speed, particularly in big cities, some organizing themselves into regional and national bodies. The first major organization, the Association of Indians in America (AIA), was formed in New York in 1974. Although, the organization reach was limited yet its achievement of getting (Asian) Indians recognized as a separate category for the US Census to-date is history making. In 1978, Dr. Thomas Abraham formed an umbrella group – Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) in New York. In 1980, he launched the National Council of Asian Indian Organizations (NCAIO) at the First Convention of Asian Indians in North America, held during the Memorial Day weekend in New York. NCAIO was renamed National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA).
He travelled to many cities and urged the Indian community activists to form regional umbrella groups similar to FIA of New York. In several cities, NFIA affiliated umbrella groups were formed during the 1980s, predominantly to celebrate India’s Independence Day, India Republic day, etc. These umbrella groups spread all across the United States, made NFIA as the true national body of Indian Americans. NFIA also organized regional and biennial conventions which were its major vehicle of community mobilization. In 1989, NFIA, headed by Inder Singh, convened the First Global Convention of People of Indian Origin under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Abraham. At the convention, the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) was formed to take up the human rights violations of persons of Indian origin (PIOs) and lobby for the rights and issues of global Indian Diaspora.
In 1982, Dr. Joy Cherian who was appointed to a sub-cabinet level position as the US Commissioner of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1987, formed Indian American Forum for Political Education. The Forum used voter registration drives, special White House briefings for Indian Americans, Congressional reception and luncheon, etc. for mobilizing the Indian American community. The Forum also networked with several Asian American groups and helped form the Asian American Voters Coalition (AAVC) which included several key Indian issues as Asian issues of concern for mobilizing the Asian community.
American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) was formed in the mid 1980s to fight for the recognition of their foreign medical degrees. It claims to represent over 60,000 physicians of Indian Origin. Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) was formed in 1989 to collectively fight discrimination from the banks and insurance companies. It has become powerful and influential body with membership of over 10,000 people in hospitality industry. Besides these, there are several language, religious, caste and region based organizations which mobilize a large number of people for their annual conferences in the US. Also, new organizations and associations continue to be formed, intending to serve the interests and aspirations of groups which form them. At the same time, some formerly well recognized and well intentioned organizations lost their respectability for lack of engagement with the community issues.
Although there were several organizations during the 1980s and 1990s, yet only three Indian American organizations – AIA, NFIA and IAFPE – worked jointly to represent, protect and promote the interests and aspirations of Indians in America. During the 1980s, there were immigration reform bills proposing drastic reduction in the quota for family reunification. These three national bodies fought against reduction in the family reunification quota of the Immigration law. They reached out to the Indian community in the US, joined hands with the other immigrant communities, collected thousands of petitions opposing the new bills, and worked with many members of the Congress sympathetic to the cause. After a long campaign, the US Congress yielded to the combined strength of the Indian immigrant communities, accommodated the new realities and kept the family reunification clause of the old law in the new bill which was enacted into law. It was a victory worth relishing; Indian Americans can still sponsor their relatives.
In 1987, the US aid package to Pakistan included supply of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and other highly sophisticated arms to Pakistan. The Indian American leaders again mobilized the community for the security of their motherland, brought busloads of Indian Americans to Washington D.C. from the neighboring states including New York & New Jersey, and paraded the halls and corridors of world power centers, the US Congress and the White House. They waged an impressive and vigorous campaign of opposing the supply of highly sophisticated military equipment to Pakistan, educated the members of the US Congress about the potential dangers of such supplies, and testified before the Senate sub-committee, a rare honor. History is witness that the massive effort was successful: Pakistan did not get sophisticated military hardware.
In 1988, the US Census Bureau wanted to eliminate various sub-categories under “Asian” in the census form for the 1990 census. The issue was a major concern for all the Asian groups. Indian American community leadership, by now, had gained experience in voicing their concerns about the bills presented in the US Congress. So, there lurked another fight on hand, another opportunity to mobilize the Indian community, and another push for a signature campaign. The Asian people are the only major group of US population for which statistics by their country of origin are collected and maintained by the US Census Bureau. The campaign was successful: Another victory for the mobilized Indian community.
There were many more issues, such as, hate crimes against Indians in the US, India bashing bills in the Congress, etc. which required community pressure through mobilization and continuing education of elected officials about India specific concerns. The community leaders also collaborated and built alliances with individuals and groups within and outside the community to find resolutions to the issues and concerns of the marginalized and yet rapidly growing Indian community.
The frequent interaction of the Indian community activists with the members of the US Congress led to the formation of Congressional Caucus on India & Indian Americans in 1993 with the objective to push the Indian American community's agenda on the Capitol Hill. Congressmen Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Bill McCollum (R-FL) took the lead and served as Co-chairmen until October 1998. They were succeeded by Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and James Greenwood (R-PA). The India Caucus is the largest country caucus in the US Congress with as many as 152 House Representatives as members.
The natural calamities in India such as Maharashtra and Gujarat earthquakes shook the conscious of the Indian American community. Many Indian organizations mobilized the community for funds for the victims. NFIA raised funds and contributed $50,000 for a school building in Maharashtra in earthquake devastated area. The Gujarat earthquake in 2001 gave birth to American Indian Foundation (AIF) which raised millions of dollars for rehabilitation of earthquake victims. Former President Clinton had agreed to be its patron and help raise funds. AIF has become premier Diaspora philanthropic body and continues to support several charitable activities.
The US-India civil nuclear cooperation deal was initiated during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US in July 2005 and re-affirmed during President George Bush’s visit to India in March 2006. The deal involved transfer of nuclear technology and material from the United States to India.
A bill was introduced in the Congress to obtain Congressional approval for the nuclear deal. In the beginning, some Congressmen openly supported the deal while many prominent lawmakers conspicuously stayed silent on the issue. The Indian American community played a proactive role to ensure the passage of the bill. A large majority of the lawmakers in the House and the Senate, finally voted to approve the bill, including those who initially were non-committal. The Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 required India to comply with the provisions of the new law including obtaining the approval from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). India signed an agreement with the board of governors of the IAEA and received approval on Aug 1, 2008.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is the exclusive nuclear club that controls global atomic trade. The United States proposed waiver of rules to allow nuclear material and technology transfers to India. The 45-nation NSG gave unprecedented exemption to India which had not even signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The landmark waiver ended years of isolation enforced in the wake of the 1974 Pokharan nuclear tests.
Some American companies were anxious to sell nuclear fuel and technology to India but needed approval of US Congress. In September, 2008, a bill was introduced in the US Congress to achieve that objective. The US India Business Council (USIBC), a trade group with more than 300 US companies, worked actively with pro-India members of the US Congress and Indian American community activists to ensure the passage of the bill. Indian community activists again mobilized the community but the task was comparatively easier as the beneficiaries were US businesses. The US Congress approved the landmark civilian nuclear agreement allowing American companies to sell nuclear fuel and technology to India.
Several Indian organizations including AIA, NFIA, IAFPE, GOPIO, AAPI, AAHOA, Indian American Friendship Council, the US-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) as also some leading Indian American activists, Dr. Thomas Abraham, Inder Singh, Piyush Agrawal (all three from GOPIO), Swadesh Chatterjee, Ramesh Kapur, Krishna Srinivasa, Sant Chatwal, Sanjay Puri, Rajen Anand, Ashok Mago and several others continued massive campaign for three years to educate, convince and influence the US law makers for the passage of the two bills (2006 and 2008). The Indian community displayed unprecedented unity for this landmark deal.
The census in the United States is taken every ten years and is a count of everyone living in the United States. Asians are recognized as a separate group on the Census Form and recognition of Indians as a separate sub group within the Asian group, mandates the Census Bureau to collect, maintain and provide data with respect to the Indian Americans in the United States. The Census is a number-dependent game. The increased numerical strength can translate into more clout for the community. It can also result in more political appointments at federal, state and city level for Indian Americans.
For Census 2010, the Census Bureau launched multicultural and multilingual outreach campaign, advertised heavily in Indian media, both print and TV, hired Indian Americans for Census related work and encouraged formation of the Complete Count Committees (CCCs) of volunteers to increase awareness. Indian print media published articles and news about the census frequently to create awareness. Indian TV stations based in the US used their public forums to advise Indian Americans to return the Census 2010 Questionnaire promptly.
In the past, Indian organizations have played a significant role in spreading the Census message. During the last ten years, the number of Indian Americans has increased and so has increased the number of regional, cultural, social, religious and professional organizations. The leadership of Indian organizations should have taken community mobilization more seriously and urged Indian Americans more aggressively for one hundred percent response to the Census Questionnaire. Third generation Indians from Caribbean countries, though technically not Indians, checked “Asian Indian” box in the Census Form yet under the guidance of GOPIO Executive Vice President Ashook Ramsaran. The action could increase the final count of the “Asian Indian” sub-category.
In the middle of May 2010, Indian Consulates, all over the world, started demanding ‘surrender certificate’ from Indians who had become naturalized citizens of other countries. The new rules were enforced by denying consular services including visa for travel to India until the last-held Indian passport is surrendered along with payment of fee of $175 and applicable penalties.
On May 23, 2010, the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO International) initiated an on-line petition, titled “Opposition to Retroactive Enforcement of New Rules for Surrender of Indian Passport”. GOPIO appealed to the global overseas Indian community, through special GOPIO Bulletin, to sign the petition.
Community activists, organization heads, individual volunteers, and global Indian media, all condemned the retroactive enforcement of the new rules for obtaining “surrender certificate.” Their individual and collective efforts created quick and informative awareness against the retroactive enforcement of the new rules. The campaign for the petition drive became a collaborative community campaign. The global response was immediate and overwhelming in opposition to the enforcement of the new rules. The number of people signing the on-line petition increased rapidly by the hour. In ten days, the number of signed petitions had reached 30,000. It was truly a people's campaign which GOPIO Chairman Inder Singh and Executive Vice President Ashook Ramsaran initiated. They provided the platform to the expatriate community to vent their feelings and frustrations with their comments against the new rules.
On May 28, 2010, GOPIO International sent a letter to Prime Minister of India, together with the first batch of over 19,000 signatures of people supporting the petition, requesting “reconsideration of the retroactive enforcement of the new rules as many thousands of people could suffer undue and unnecessary hardship for no fault of their own and to reduce the service fee from $175 to a reasonable amount.” On June 1, the Government of India relented and stopped retroactive enforcement of the new rules and reduced fee from $175 to $20 and eliminated penalties. GOPIO took up a very critical issue on timely basis and emerged as the lead organization addressing issues of concern of the global Indian community. GOPIO acknowledged and appreciated the massive level of support from the global Indian community and Indian media from all corners of the world.
The Community leaders have mobilized the community whenever the occasion demanded. However, they should not take the past laurels for granted. They should unite to pursue their common objective boldly, passionately and collectively, irrespective of their ethnic, religious, cultural, language, and regional distinctions. Their passion for an issue facing the community should transcend any hiccups or perceived differences which the leaders may have towards one another. Indian American community is rapidly growing and cannot stay marginalized. The community leaders and activists will be failing in their responsibility if they do not voice the community concerns logically and forcefully to those who have the power to change the old laws to accommodate new realities. They should work in collaboration and address issues of interest and concern to the community on timely basis. There should not be any time for inaction and timidity.
Copyright © Inder Singh, 2010
Inder Singh regularly writes on Indian Diaspora and is Chairman of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO). He was GOPIO president from 2004-2009, NFIA president from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of FIA, Southern California. He can be contacted at his email address: email@example.com.