Saund, Dalip Singh
Dalip Singh Saund
The Indian American politician Dalip Singh Saund (1899-1973) was the first Asian American elected to the U.S. Congress.
An article on the IMDiversity Web site quoted Don Nakanishi, head of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, as calling Saund “the unsung pioneer of Asian American electoral politics.” His life story encompassed financial ups and downs, struggles against discrimination, and an unwavering devotion to the American ideals of freedom and equality that he had read about as a child in India—and to the universal ideals of human dignity that motivated his early activism on behalf of Indian independence and of his fellow Indian Americans. “My guideposts were two of the most beloved men in history, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi,” Saund wrote in his autobiography, Congressman from India.
Convinced Parents to Start School
Dalip Singh Saund was born on September 20, 1899, in a small village called Chhajalwadi, in northwestern India's Punjab region. He was raised in the Sikh faith and wore a turban, required of some Sikh men, for much of the first part of his life. Saund's family, relatively prosperous, was involved in farming and construction, and one of his brothers went on to become chairman of India's railway board. Saund received the best education India had to offer, attending a boarding school in Baba Bakala, near Amritsar, and Prince of Wales College in Jammu Tawi (now the University of Jammu), and graduating in 1919 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Panjab University in Chandigarh.
Although his parents wanted him to enter the service of the British government in India, Saund was determined to go to the United States. He told his parents that he wanted to study food preservation and then return to India to help develop the country's canning industry, and he promised to stay in America for only three years at the most. Saund sailed for the United States in 1920, was processed for admission at Ellis Island in New York, and took a train across the country to San Francisco, eating only milk and bread because he was unfamiliar with the American foods around him.
After a night in a bedbug-ridden hotel room in San Francisco, he settled into a boarding house in Berkeley that had been established by a Sikh temple in Stockton, California. He was almost penniless, but a fellow Indian student told him that since he had an undergraduate degree from India he could enroll at the University of California as a graduate student and pay no tuition charges. Saund studied agriculture for a year but then switched to his earlier passion, mathematics, when he discovered that his previous coursework in India would be accepted by the university. He received his M.A. in 1922 and went on for a Ph.D., mastering the French and German languages as required and receiving his degree in 1924.
Gave Speeches on Gandhi
The beginnings of Saund's career as a public speaker began while he was a student at Berkeley. Mohandas K. Gandhi (later known as Mahatma Gandhi) was gaining international fame for his philosophy of nonviolent resistance to British rule, and Americans were interested to learn more about him from an Indian native. Saund labored over his speeches, turning them into classic pieces of oratory in the Victorian English mold—but he was confounded by the rapid give-and-take necessary to deal with American questioners.
To finance his education, Saund worked over the summer in canning factories in Sunnyvale, Emeryville, and the Sacramento area. A factory superintendent in Emeryville was impressed by Saund and planned to offer him the post of assistant superintendent, but Saund at the time was hoping to gain a position as a mathematics instructor and responded with uncertainty to the manager's questions about his future plans. “It was the first time in my life that I talked myself out of a good job; but certainly not the last,” Saund recalled in his autobiography. What he had not reckoned on was a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that swept the United States, and California in particular, in the 1920s. Saund and other Indians were barred from citizenship, and after he received his degree he found that jobs, whether in food production or mathematics, were scarce.
Saund sometimes attended Sikh services in Stockton, and there he learned that other Indians had started farms in southern California's newly irrigated Imperial Valley region. With few other prospects, Saund headed south and found a job as a field foreman on a cotton farm owned by some Indian friends. During the day, with the pickers in the field, “I took advantage of the spare time I had on my hands,” Saund wrote in his autobiography. “All day, while waiting for the pickers to come in, I read books on literature, poetry, drama, [and] early American history.” A friendly librarian in the town of El Centro ordered books for him from the state library in Sacramento, and he began to familiarize himself with the workings of California's government. Saund started a pair of ranches himself, growing lettuce and hay, but he was ruined by the fall in agricultural prices during the Depression. Refusing to declare bankruptcy, he worked long hours at various jobs and paid off all his debts. He still found time to write a book, My Mother India, which was a reply to the negative portrayals of his country in Katherine Mayo's popular book Mother India.
In 1928 Saund married Marian Kosa, the daughter of a Czech immigrant, who lived with her family in Los Angeles. Under the terms of the Cable Act of 1922, she lost her American citizenship when they married. They moved to Westmorland, California, and raised three children, Dalip Jr., Julie, and Eleanor. The children of the mixed marriage were discriminated against and put in a segregated all-black school, and Marian and the three children eventually returned to Los Angeles in 1942. California writer Tom Patterson, in an article reproduced on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Web site, wrote that a relative of his was told by Marian “that she hadn't realized what the prejudice could be and that the children wouldn't be accepted.” The family remained close, and Dalip Jr. served as a U.S. military officer during the Korean War.
Still mostly engaged in farm work, Saund maintained an interest in American political life and, although he was not a citizen and was unable to vote, he joined the Democratic Party after being inspired by the activism of President Franklin Roosevelt on behalf of farmers hard hit by the Depression. With few outlets for his erudition and speaking abilities, he joined a current events club and then a Toastmasters group in the town of Brawley. He won a district contest in San Diego with a speech on Gandhi. In 1946 Saund had the chance to put his skills to work. He formed the Indian Association of America, one of several Indian-American organizations that lobbied for passage of the Luce-Cellar Act, which would open citizenship to Indian immigrants. His efforts were rewarded when President Harry Truman signed the bill into law that year, and Saund promptly applied for citizenship. He became a U.S. citizen in 1949.
By the early 1950s Saund was well known in the Westmorland community as the proprietor of his own company, D.S. Saund Fertilizers, and as a member of organizations such as the March of Dimes. He became chairman of the Imperial County Democratic Central Committee, and in 1952, 1956, and 1960 he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He seemed to be a logical candidate for higher office, but he had hurdles of discrimination to clear before he achieved that goal. In 1950 he ran for the position of Justice Court Judge in Westmorland and was elected, only to have his election overturned on the technicality that he had not been a citizen long enough before taking office.
Saund ran again in 1952, and his ethnic background was again very much an issue in the campaign. One opponent, as Saund recalled in his autobiography, accosted him in a restaurant and asked, “Doc, tell us, if you're elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves, in order to come into your court?” Saund's mild rejoinder was, “My friend, you know me for a tolerant man. I don't care what a man has on top of his head. All I'm interested in is what he's got inside of it.” His remarks were repeated around the community, and helped him win election once again. He took office in January of 1953. Working on several more political campaigns and taking a hard line against Westmorland's reputation as a red light district, Saund accumulated political and community goodwill, and in 1955 he launched his campaign for election to the U.S. House of Representatives from California's 29th District.
That campaign, too, was heated in both the Democratic primary (in which his opponent once again tried to have him disqualified on a citizenship technicality) and in the general election in November of 1956; Saund's Republican opponent, aviator Jacqueline Odlum, ran newspaper advertisements emphasizing his ethnic background, running ads in which the “Dalip Singh” portion of his name was set in large type, while the more ambiguous “Saund” was much smaller. The district had been solidly Republican in previous elections, and Vice President Richard Nixon was one of a host of celebrities who showed up to campaign for Odlum. Nevertheless, with the help of a grassroots effort marked by a massive doorbell-ringing campaign by Saund supporters, he emerged victorious in the November election by a margin of three percentage points. He was reelected convincingly in 1958 and 1960, publishing his book Congressman from India during the latter year. Saund was the first Asian American in Congress and the first American of Indian descent elected to any major U.S. political office. He remained the sole U.S. Congressional representative of Indian descent until the election of Bobby Jindal in Louisiana's First District in 2004.
Saund's time in Congress was marked by his support for efforts to improve U.S.-Asian relations, efforts Saund saw as critical to stemming the spread of Communism. He argued for increased development aid as a way to foster citizen support for Asian governments, and in 1958 he made a tour of several Asian countries, including India. Observers in his home region reported that he still spoke the Punjabi language elegantly. Beginning with his first term in 1957, Saund was chosen as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, an unusual honor for a freshman representative.
Saund's political career was cut short by a massive stroke in May of 1962 that left him unable to walk or speak. Although he attempted to keep his name in the running for reelection in 1962, he was unsuccessful. Cared for by his wife at the couple's home in Hollywood, he eventually learned to walk again. Saund died in Hollywood on April 22, 1973.
Notable Asian Americans, Gale, 1995.
Saund, Dalip Singh, Congressman from India, Dutton, 1960.
Saund, Dalip Singh, My Mother India, 1930.
New York Times, April 24, 1973.
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