An Indian Pioneer's Story: Bhagat Singh Thind
Bhagat Singh Thind’s
U.S. citizenship was rescinded four days after it was granted. The case
went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his citizenship was denied due to
the color of his skin, writes Inder Singh.
top): Bhagat Singh Thind in U.S. Army uniform; (bottom):
A Sikh immigrant with other Asian immigrants in Vancouver, BC, circa 1920;
(Below): The U.S. Supreme Court, which turned down Thind’s
appeal for citizenship on racial grounds.
In the annals of Asians’ struggle for
U.S. citizenship, Bhagat Singh Thind’s fight for citizenship occupies
a prominent historical place. His U.S. citizenship was rescinded four
days after it was granted. Eleven months later, he received it for the
second time but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed
to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which sent the case to the next
higher court for ruling. Thind valiantly fought his case in the U.S. Supreme
Court, but the judge revoked his citizenship simply due to the color of
his skin. The court verdict in Thind’s case, United States v. Thind confirmed
that the rights and privileges of naturalization were reserved for “Whites”
At that time, Indians in the United States were commonly called “Hindoos”
irrespective of their faith. Thind’s nationality was also referred to
as “Hindoo” or “Hindu” in all legal documents and in the media although
he was a Sikh by faith and preserved his religious beliefs by keeping
a beard and long hair on his head and wore a turban.
Bhagat Singh was born on October 3, 1892 in Punjab, India. He came to
the U.S. in 1913 to pursue higher education. On July 22, 1918, while still
an Indian citizen, he joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War I. A
few months later in November, Bhagat Singh, a turban-wearing “Hindu,”
was promoted to the rank of an Acting Sergeant. He had not even served
for a month in his new position when the war ended. He received an honorable
discharge in December, 1918, with his character designated as “excellent.”
In those days, U.S. citizenship
conferred many rights and privileges but only “free white men” were eligible
to apply. In the United States, many anthropologists used Caucasian as
a general term for “white.” Indian nationals from the north of the Indian
subcontinent were also considered Caucasian. Thus, several Indians were
granted U.S. citizenship in different states. Thind also applied for citizenship
in the state of Washington in July 1918. He received his citizenship certificate
on December, 1918 wearing military uniform as he was still serving in
the U.S. army. However, the INS did not agree with the district court
granting the citizenship. Thind’s citizenship was revoked in four days,
on December 13, 1918, on the grounds that he was not a “free white man.”
Thind, as a soldier in the U.S. army, had all the rights and privileges
like any “white man” and was worthy of trust to defend the U.S. but America
would not trust him with citizenship rights due to the color of his skin.
Thind was disheartened but was not ready to give up his fight. He applied
for citizenship again from the neighboring state of Oregon on May 6, 1919.
The same INS official who got Thind’s citizenship revoked first time,
tried to convince the judge to refuse citizenship to a “Hindoo” from India.
He even brought up the issue of Thind’s involvement in the Gadar Movement,
members of which campaigned for the independence of India from Britain.
But Thind contested this charge. Judge Wolverton believed him and observed,
“He (Thind) stoutly denies that he was in any way connected with the alleged
propaganda of the Gadar Press to violate the neutrality laws of this country,
or that he was in sympathy with such a course. He frankly admits, nevertheless,
that he is an advocate of the principle of India for the Indians, and
would like to see India rid of British rule, but not that he favors an
armed revolution for the accomplishment of this purpose.” The judge took
all arguments and Thind’s military record into consideration and declined
to agree with the INS. Thus, Thind received U.S. citizenship for the second
time on November 18, 1920.
The INS had included Thind’s involvement in the Gadar Movement as one
of the reasons for the denial of citizenship to him. Gadar, which literally
means revolt or mutiny, was the name of the magazine of Hindustan Association
of the Pacific Coast. The magazine became so popular among Indians that
the association itself became known as the Gadar Party.
The Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast was formed in 1913 with
the objective of freeing India from British rule. The majority of its
supporters were Punjabis who had come to the U.S. for better economic
opportunities. They were unhappy with racial prejudice and discrimination
against them. Indian students, who were welcomed in the universities,
also faced discrimination in finding jobs commensurate with their qualifications
upon graduation. They attributed prejudice, inequity and unfairness to
their being nationals of a subjugated country. Har Dyal, a faculty member
at Stanford University, who had relinquished his scholarship and studies
at Oxford University, England, provided leadership for the newly formed
association and supported the pro-Indian, anti-British sentiment of the
students for independence of India.
Soon after the formation of the Gadar party, World War I broke out in
August, 1914. The Germans, who fought against England in the war, offered
the Indian Nationalists (Gadarites) financial aid to buy arms and ammunition
to expel the British from India while the British Indian troops were fighting
war at the front. The Gadarite volunteers, however, did not succeed in
their mission and were taken captives upon reaching India. Several Gadarites
were imprisoned, many for life, and some were hanged. In the United States
too, many Gadarites and their German supporters were prosecuted in the
San Francisco Hindu German Conspiracy Trial (1917-18) and twenty-nine
“Hindus” and Germans were convicted for varying terms of imprisonment
for violating the American Neutrality Laws.
Thind had joined the Gadar movement
and actively advocated independence of India from the British Empire.
Judge Wolverton granted him citizenship after he was convinced that Thind
was not involved in any “subversive” activities. The INS appealed to the
next higher court — the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which sent the
case to the U.S. Supreme Court for ruling on the following two questions:
“1. Is a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood, born at Amritsar, Punjab,
India, a white person within the meaning of section 2169, Revised Statutes?”
“2. Does the act of February 5, 1917 (39 Stat. L. 875, section 3) disqualify
from naturalization as citizens those Hindus, now barred by that act,
who had lawfully entered the United States prior to the passage of said
Section 2169, Revised Statutes, provides that the provisions of the Naturalization
Act “shall apply to aliens, being free white persons, and to aliens of
African nativity and to persons of African descent.”
In preparing briefs for the Ninth Circuit Court, Thind’s attorney argued
that the Immigration Act of 1917 barred new immigrants from India but
did not deny citizenship to Indians who were legally admitted like Thind,
prior to the passage of the new law. He argued that the purpose of the
Immigration Act was “prospective and not retroactive.”
Thind’s attorney gave references of previous court cases of Indians who
were granted citizenship by the lower federal courts on the grounds that
they were “Caucasians.” (U.S. v. Dolla 1910, U.S. v. Balsara 1910, Akhay
Kumar Mozumdar 1913, Mohan Singh, 1919). Judge Wolverton, in granting
citizenship to Thind, also said, “The word “white” ethnologically speaking
was intended to be applied in its popular sense to denote at least the
members of the white or Caucasian race of people.” Even the U.S. Supreme
Court, in 1922, in the case of a Japanese immigrant, US vs. Ozawa, officially
equated “white person” with “a person of the Caucasian race.”
Thind was convinced that based on Ozawa’s straightforward ruling of racial
specification and many similar previous court cases, he would win the
case and his victory will open the doors for all Indians in the United
States to obtain U.S. citizenship. Little did he know that the color of
his skin would become the grounds for denial of the right of citizenship
by the highest court in the US.
Justice George Sutherland of the Supreme Court delivered the unanimous
opinion of the court on February 19, 1923, in which he argued that since
the “common man’s” definition of “white” did not correspond to “Caucasian,”
Indians could not be naturalized. The Judge, giving his verdict, said,
“A negative answer must be given to the first question, which disposes
of the case and renders an answer to the second question unnecessary,
and it will be so certified.”
Shockingly, the very same Judge Sutherland who had equated Whites as Caucasians
in U.S. vs. Ozawa, now pronounced that Thind, though Caucasian, was not
“White” and thus was ineligible for U.S. citizenship. He apparently decided
the case under pressure from the forces of prejudice, racial hatred and
bigotry, not on the basis of precedent that he had established in a previous
The Supreme Court verdict shook the faith and trust of Indians in the
American justice system. The economic impact for land and property owning
Indians was devastating as they again came under the jurisdiction of the
California Alien Land Law of 1913 which barred ownership of land by persons
ineligible for citizenship. Some Indians had to liquidate their land holdings
at dramatically lower prices. America, the dreamland, did not fulfill
the dream they had envisioned.
The INS issued a notification in 1926 canceling Thind’s citizenship. The
INS also initiated proceedings to rescind American citizenship of other
Indians. From 1923 to 1926, the citizenship of fifty Indians was revoked.
The Barred Zone Act of 1917 had already prevented new immigration of Indians.
The continued shadow of insecurity and instability compelled some to go
back to India. The Supreme Court decision further lead to the decline
in the number of Indians to 3,130 by 1930.
was little sympathy for treating Hindu Thind shabbily but there was a
concern for the poor treatment of the U.S. Army veteran Thind. Thus in
1935, the 74th U.S. Congress passed a law allowing citizenship to U.S.
veterans of World War I, even those from the “barred zones.” Thind finally
received his U.S. citizenship through the state of New York in 1936, taking
oath for the third time to become an American citizen. This time, no official
of the INS dared to object or appeal against his naturalization.
Thind had come to the U.S. for higher education and to fulfill his destiny
as a spiritual teacher.
Even before his arrival, American intellectuals had shown keen interest
in Indian religious philosophy. Among them were author and philosopher
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), poet Walter Whitman (1819 – 1892), and
writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-62).
Emerson had read Hindu religious and philosophy books including the Bhagavad
Gita, and his writings reflected the influence of Indian philosophy. In
1836, he wrote about the “mystical unity of nature” in his essay, “Nature.”
In 1868, Walt Whitman wrote the poem “Passage to India.” Henry David Thoreau
had considerable acquaintance with Indian philosophical works. He wrote
an essay on “Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience” in
1849 advocating non-violent resistance against unethical government laws.
Years later, Mahatma Gandhi adopted a similar methodology, satyagraha,
or non-violent protest to defy the law to gain Indian rights in South
Africa in 1906. He quoted Thoreau many times in his paper, Indian Opinion.
In 1893, Swami Vivekananda came to Chicago to represent Hinduism at the
World Parliament of Religions. He spoke eloquently and made a lasting
impact on the delegates. For four years, he lectured at major universities
and retreats and generated significant interest in yoga and Vedantic philosophy.
He also started the Vedantic Centre in New York City. In 1897, he published
his book “Vedanta Philosophy: Lectures on Raja Yoga and other subjects.”
The first part of his book included lectures to classes in New York and
the second part contained translation and commentary of “Patanjali.”
Swami Vivekananda’s constant teaching,
lecturing and addressing retreats increased the number of Americans who
became keen to learn about India, Hindu religion and philosophy.
After Swami Vivekananda left, other religious leaders came to fill the
void. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda came as India’s delegate to International
Congress of Religious Leaders in Boston. The same year, he established
the Self-Realization Fellowship and continued to spread his teachings
on yoga and meditation in the East coast. In 1925, he established an international
headquarters for Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles. He traveled
widely and lectured to capacity audiences in many of the largest auditoriums
in the country such as New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Thind had started delivering lectures in Indian philosophy and metaphysics
before Yogananda came here. He was influenced by the spiritual teachings
of his father whose “living example left an indelible blueprint in him.”
During his formative years in India, Thind read the literary writings
of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau and they, too, had deeply impressed him.
After graduating from Khalsa College in Amritsar and encouraged by his
father, he left for Manila, Philippines where he stayed for a year. He
resumed his journey to his destination and reached Seattle, Washington,
on July 4, 1913.
Bhagat Singh Thind had gained some understanding of the American mind
by interacting with students and teachers at the university and by working
in lumber mills of Oregon and Washington during summer vacations to support
himself while at the University of California, Berkeley. His teaching
included the philosophy of many religions and in particular that contained
in Sikh Scriptures. During his lectures to Christian audiences, he frequently
quoted the Vedas, Guru Nanak, Kabir, and others. He shared India’s mystical,
spiritual and philosophical treasures with his students but never persuaded
any of them to become Hindu or Sikh. He also made references to Emerson,
Whitman, and Thoreau to which his American audience could easily relate
a new vista of awareness to his students throughout the United States
and initiated thousands of disciples into his expanded view of reality.
One of his devoted disciples, Rose Elena Davies, introduced her daughter
Vivian. Vivian and Bhagat Singh got married in 1940.
Thind, who had earned a Ph.D, became a prolific writer and was respected
as a spiritual guide” He published many pamphlets and books and reached
an audience of at least several million.
In “Radiant Road to Reality,” Dr. Thind reveals to the seeker how to connect
the soul with the Creator. “There are many religions, but only one Morality,
one Truth, and one God. The only Heaven is one of conscious life and fellowship
with God,” he writes. Thind was working on some books when suddenly he
died on September 15, 1967. He was survived by his wife, Vivian, daughter
Rosalind and son David, to whom several of his books are dedicated. He
never established a temple, Gurdwara or a center for his followers but
lived for a long time in the hearts of his numerous followers.
Thind said, “You must never be limited by external authority, whether
it be vested in a church, man, or book. It is your right to question,
challenge, and investigate.” And he lived his life by that statement.
He was a man of indomitable spirit and waged a valiant struggle for citizenship.
He extended the boundaries of his fight by challenging prejudice based
on race and color.
His son David Thind has established a Web site www.Bhagatsinghthind.com
to promote the books and the philosophy for which Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind
spent his entire life. He has also posthumously published two of his father’s
books, “Troubled Mind in a Torturing World and Their Conquest,” and “Winners
and Whiners in this Whirling World.”