The Early Days:
The earliest recorded Indian in the USA was an
Indian from Madras, who visited Massachusetts in 1790. A number of Indians were
brought to the USA by seafaring Captains to serve in their households as
servants. Records of this period contain references to bright turbaned Indians
participating in Fourth of July parades. In the early and mid-1800's a number of
scholars became interested in Indian culture, history and philosophy. They
formed associations to discuss their interest in India. This is how the terms
"Boston Brahmin" and "Pundit" came to be used in American
The Middle Years: "The
A number of Indians immigrated into Northwest USA and Canada. Most of them were from Punjab and were Sikhs. They worked in the lumberyards. A large number of them worked in laying the railroads in the western states of the USA as well. The main reason for their being in America was to save money and send it home to their families. Most of them had to relinquish their farm-lands to the British landlords in Punjab, because they couldn't afford to pay the taxes imposed on them by the British rulers. Droughts had destroyed their crops, but they were still expected to pay taxes to the British. If they didn't, their lands were confiscated. For most of these young men their only escape was as migrant laborers, because the British had blocked all attempts at gainful employment in India.
The lumber mill owners liked the migrant Indian workers because they worked long hours for lower wages (about half) than the European workers. The workers earned more than they could in India, so they worked hard and saved money. The US consular representative in India, discouraged Indian workers from going to the US. Indians were denied permission to immigrate and pressure was applied to the British to curb the flow. Mormon evangelists were discouraged from taking Indians back to the USA. The consul said to one of them, "the Indian is not fit for the American West".
In the meantime, the number of migrant European workers was growing in the Northwest. The migrant Indian workers were seen as "not really American" and a movement was started to ban them from working in the lumberyards. This was the beginning of the "Asian Exclusion League"(AEL). Consequently, a number of Indian workers moved down to northern California and worked on the farms. They were skilled farm workers because they came from the state of Punjab in India, which is mainly an agrarian state.
A number of the Indians had saved enough money to buy some land. They were sold land that was "unfit for the white man's inhabitation". However, they were able to become very successful farmers. The US government almost never allowed Indian women to immigrate to the US because that would mean that Indians could "put down roots" in the US by marrying and starting a family. The California state government passed a law which made it illegal for non-citizens or naturalized non-white citizens to own land. The Indians got around this by organizing co-operatives, which ceded ownership to some Indian children born in America. Some of the Indians entered into agreements with white persons who were given a profit share for saying they owned the land. But a large number of such relationships ended in white partner claiming, at harvest time, that the whole crop was theirs.
The AEL gained popularity in Canada and the
northwest US. Their meetings commonly featured songs such as "White
Canada". The lumberyards were forced to lay off all Indian workers and were
banned from hiring anymore. The living conditions of the Indians deteriorated
drastically. They were forced into slums. A large number of these workers lived
in Bellingham in Washington state. In Bellingham, the AEL triggered a riot in
which a huge mob of around 500 white men attacked Indian dwellings and
workplaces. While the police stood by and did nothing, six Indians were injured
and had to be hospitalized, 410 Indians were held in the Belligham Jail for
"Protective Custody". By the end of the day of the Bellingham riot,
all Indian workers and businessmen had been forced out of Bellingham.
The mayor of the city proudly announced in the
railway station (where the Indians were herded onto trains to Northern
California or Canada) that Bellingham was free of Indians. This happened on
September 5, 1907 and was followed by similar incidents on October 2 at the
Canadian-Washington State border. A month later
the "Hindoos" were expelled from Everett, Washington. Three years
later the entire community (including the mayor, the Sherriff and the district
attorney) in Saint John, Oregon (near Portland) conspired in the forced
expulsion of all Indians.
The modern years:
A large number of Indians came from Hong Kong and
other areas in Asia too. Some Indians came as students to universities such as
the University of California at Berkeley. It was during this period that the
British and the US government started cooperating to limit Indian immigration.
This policy was tested when the British informed the US authorities that a ship
called the "Komagatu Maru" was headed to the US from Hong Kong with
about 375 Indians. When the Maru arrived at Angel Island (the port of entry
which holds terrible memories for Asian immigrants) the AEL had organized a huge
mob to prevent the off-loading of any Indians. The persons on the ship were
denied food and water for days and were prevented from landing. Finally, in
exchange for food and water, they were turned away. The Indian population in the
US and Canada grew very slowly during this period. It consisted mostly of
students coming to study at universities. These students organized themselves
into a few associations. Some of them supported the cause of Indian freedom from
the British while some were loyalists to the British. The British stationed a
full time secret agent named Hopkinson to monitor their activities and to cajole the US government into deporting the
freedom seekers. The deportees were usually prosecuted by the British in India.
Hopkinson developed an efficient network of spies and was very successful in deporting a number of Indian leaders on the pretext that they were planning a revolution in India. It was under these circumstances that the "Ghadhar party" was formed in the US to support Indian freedom. They published newspapers for distribution in India that openly called for a freedom struggle against the British. An ongoing battle of wits raged between these Indians and the British-American nexus. Hopkinson was assassinated in an American courtroom, when he was testifying against an Indian (for deportation).
A number of these Indian freedom groups
associated themselves with the German government during the second world war
because the Germans promised them help in gaining freedom from the British.
Hopkinson exposed a number of these links and a large number of these people were imprisoned in the US. After the
war, the first war collaborators to be tried and deported were these Indians.
Even the German nazi collaborators in the US were tried after these Indians. (In
a way it seems like the war provided a nice excuse for the US government to
deport these Indians.)
During this period a large number of Indians
started to apply for naturalization. At this point US law only allowed whites to
become naturalized citizens. But most judges couldn't decide how to classify
Indians and a large number of them granted Indians citizenship. A New Orleans
judge wrote about how dis-concerting it was to see a "dark white man"
- the Indian - before granting him citizenship. A number of southern Europeans
looked like Indians as well, so Indians benefited from this similarity.
A number of Indians were also getting married in
the US. A few of the farm workers in California married Hispanic women. However,
most of these marriages ended in divorce because of the cultural and religious
disparities. The children that these couples had constituted a small
Indian-Hispanic population which was quickly integrated into the Hispanic
community because the children usually stayed with the mother after divorce. A
few Indians married white women as well.
At this point the movement to formalize the exclusion of Asians from America was gaining momentum. The Chinese had already been excluded through the Chinese exclusion act in the late 1800's. A senator from California mounted a very popular campaign to exclude Indians. However there was a problem because Indians were immigrating to the US, not just from the Indian mainland but from other countries in Asia as well. But the US government was determined to stop them. Congress passed the "Immigration Regional Restriction Act" in 1917
over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson. It
basically drew a line around the areas in Asia from which Indians and Filipinos
were immigrating and banned them. Of course there was a provision to allow
Europeans born in this region to immigrate.
The exclusionists had achieved most of their goals by now. Asian and Indian immigration was virtually banned. However, this wasn't enough. A movement was mounted to deny citizenship to the Indians in the US, take away the citizenship from Indians who had already been
granted citizenship and to apply the Regional
Exclusion Act retroactively to deport all Indians in the US. It worked
partially. A large number of Indians left. Many of them were denied citizenship,
with the supreme court upholding one such decision that was challenged. On
February 19, 1923, with Justice George Sutherland delivering the opinion, the
Supreme Court held that East Indians were not eligible for United States
citizenship because they could not be considered white or caucasian. A few
Indians lost their citizenship. One interesting case was that of an Indian
lawyer in California who had married a white woman. Under the law, if a man lost his citizenship, his wife automatically lost
hers too. He challenged in court that if his citizenship was revoked his wife
would lose hers too and then she would have nowhere to go because she was a
white American. He retained his citizenship.
The 1920's were the period of the most
immigration to the USA. Virtually all immigrants came from Europe. A large
number of Americans trace their ancestry to these immigrants. Asians however,
were banned from immigrating by law.
The new age:the "iron curtain" lifts:
Towards the end of second world war, President Roosevelt started to lift immigration restrictions on Asians. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. The Indian Regional Exclusion Act was however, stuck in the congressional committee web. Roosevelt had to send his personal envoy to the hill to lift the ban on Indians. However, Indian immigration didn't pick up until after the immigration reform act was passed, making immigration a little less racist and a little more equitable.
Indian immigration picked up considerably in the
late 1960s and early 1970s with a number of Indian doctors immigrating to fill
the shortage of doctors created by the Vietnam war. The momentum gained during
this time has led to the continuing increase in Indian immigration through the
1980s and the 1990s.
An Indian gentleman was elected to congress for
two consecutive terms (from California) in the 1960s. Congressman Saund's
eligibility to run for congress was challenged in court because he hadn't been
an American citizen "long enough". However, the California Fourth
District Court of Appeals ruled that by January 3, 1957, when Saund would take
office, he would have been a citizen for the requisite amount of time. The
Indian congressman's (Dulip Singh Saund) term ended with his death. Currently,
there are a few Indians running for Congress (Peter Mathews - leading in polls,
Neil Dhillon - lost his primary due to very negative adverstising by his
opponent, Kumar Barve. Raj Uppulluri - lost his primary).
Most Indians currently immigrating to the US are
either the family of US citizens or professionals. The Indian community in the
US is currently the most well educated and prosperous one. Close to 89% of
Indians in the US have completed high school, 65% have completed college and a stunning 40% have
completed Masters or doctorate degrees. Their per capita income is the highest
in the USA.
Indians have held positions such as the sheriff
of a county in Maryland, a member of the coaching staff for the San Francisco
49ers, etc. Zubin Mehta, as a conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is one of
the most renowned Indians in the US. Ismael Merchant is a well established movie
producer. Freddie Mercury (alias Farhud Balsara) of the rock band Queen was part
Indian. Other established rock bands with Indians include Seven Mary Three, No
Doubt (Tony Kanal-bassist) and Sound Garden (Kim Thayil). The founder of Gupta
Technologies and the co-founder of Sun Microsystems are a few
among a number of other pioneering Indian entrepreneurs. Close to 3000 Indian
Americans work in the New York MTA, contributing to the management of the
world's largest transit system. Miss Teen USA for the year 1994 is Miss Ratna
Kancherla, an Indian American from Georgia.
I could go on and on about the variety of professions and fields that Indian Americans have contributed to, but it should suffice to say that Indian Americans have consistently contributed a great deal to the economic, social and cultural prosperity of the United States of America.
As you have probably learned from this document about the history of Indians in the USA, Indians are not new to this country and have been an integral part of the American mosaic for a long time. Most of the historical facts stated here are almost never taught in American schools and are generally ignored by the media. Since the number of Indian Americans is growing rapidly, it is essential that more of the American populace know this history. It can lead to more acceptance and integration of Indians into American society. A good understanding of this relationship between Indians and the USA may also serve as a foundation for better relations between India and the USA. It is about time two of the greatest democracies in the world started co-operating and working together. Perhaps with a better understanding of their past, Americans of Indian origin can contribute resolutely to developing friendly relations between the USA and India. The social, cultural and economic benefits to both countries could be immense.
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