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Photo: John Moore/Getty Images/AFP
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images/AFP

Déjà View | Aryans in America

It is not easy for aliens trying to find a place in societies that are so great that they are terrified of assimilation

Now that we are all tanned and rested and ready, it is time for us to hear the story of a man called Bhagat Singh Thind.

Thind was born on 3 October 1892 in Taragarh Talawa village, in Amritsar district of the state of Punjab. After graduating from Amritsar’s Khalsa College, Thind’s interests swung towards spiritual matters. He immersed himself not only in the Sikh religion, but also in the metaphysical writings of the Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. So much so that, in July 1912, he sailed from Calcutta, bound for the US. Thind arrived in Seattle on 4 July 1913, after a nine-month stopover in the Philippines.

He enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, and then paid for it by working in a lumber mill. Later, he would briefly serve in the US Army during the First World War, returning to his studies in December 1918 after leaving the uniform with an honourable discharge. Amid all this, Thind also found the time to become one of the early members of the Ghadar movement, an association of mainly Punjabi immigrants in North America who sought to topple the British Raj. (The extent and nature of Thind’s association with the Ghadar movement is somewhat unclear.)

All of which is good but not particularly unique given that many Ghadarites were Berkeley students.

What is truly interesting about Thind is that between 1918 and 1936, he became a citizen of the US three times. Along the way, Thind was involved in what must be one of the more bizarre cases to be ever presented in front of the US Supreme Court.

Thind’s persistence to be naturalized may have been rooted in his desire to become a lawyer, a profession that at the time was restricted to US citizens. His first application was successful and he was granted citizenship on 9 December 1918. Four days later, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) issued a letter revoking his citizenship. The reason given was that Thind was racially ineligible to apply for citizenship.

Let us pause for a moment here. At the time, US citizenship laws only allowed applicants from two races. “Free white persons" and, after the Civil War, “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent".

So what about Indians? Or Chinese? There was much ambiguity. And some Indians took advantage of this ambiguity by convincing the authorities that upper-caste Hindus were, in fact, white people of the Caucasian race.

Thind, perhaps, was hoping to leverage this loophole with his first application. And he almost made it. Only for the INS to intervene.

Then, a year later, Thind applied again. The INS objected again, and the case went to court in 1920. This time there was a political angle in addition to the racial angle. The US was pressured by the British to deny citizenships to anyone involved in the Ghadar movement. The US government obliged, but the District Court of Oregon did not. Thind was granted citizenship for a second time.

Unrelenting, the US government escalated his case to the Supreme Court. They reverted to the old racial issue.

Thus, in 1923, the US Supreme Court was faced with the question, and I quote, “Is a high-caste Hindu, of full Indian blood, born at Amritsar, Punjab, India, a white person… ?"

The strategy chosen by Thind’s lawyers was to convince the Supreme Court that an Aryan invasion of India had taken place in ancient times, whereby a Caucasian race had swept into the country and subjugated the aboriginal Dravidians. These Aryans later became the upper-caste Hindus, of which Bhagat Singh Thind was an excellent example. (Yes, yes, Thind was a Sikh and not a Hindu really. Wink, wink, nudge.)

The terms and tone in which Thind’s lawyer describes the lower castes—“aboriginal Indian mongoloids"—is not pleasant.

Sadly for Thind, the court didn’t buy it. It mostly dismissed the Aryan theory. And then went further: “This children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry."

In the landmark judgement, the court is careful to say that it is not a matter of racial superiority or inferiority. Just that “the great body of our people instinctively… reject the thought of assimilation".

His application was rejected. Only for Thind to apply again in 1936 and secure citizenship, this time under a new allowance for aliens who served in the US Army.

Thind went on to have a long and prosperous life in the US as a spiritualist and writer. He married an American woman with whom he had two children.

Thind, who died in 1967, appears to have been a nice man. Except for that brief bit of nastiness in the Supreme Court. But I suppose one must cut him some slack. It is not easy for aliens trying to find a place in societies that are so great that they are terrified of assimilation.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

Comment at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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