SIKHS, SWAMIS, STUDENTS, AND SPIES: THE INDIA LOBBY IN THE UNITED STATES, 1900-1946, by Harold Gould. Hardcover, 460 pages. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California.
The first half of the 20th century was not the best of times in the United States for early immigrants from South Asia. In fact, it may have been the worst of times.
Consider historian Joan Jensen’s summary of the plight of South Asians in America during that period: “Excluded from immigration, prosecuted for their political activities, threatened with deportation, excluded from citizenship, denaturalized, excluded from land ownership, and regulated even in the choice of a mate in the states where most of them lived, Indians now formed a small band of people set apart from Americans by what truly must have seemed a great white wall.” (Passage From India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America, page 269)
There were less than 5,000 South Asians in North America by 1910, but the process of political mobilization was already in full swing.
Who were the individuals behind this political awakening? What were the institutions they created? How did they go about mobilizing and organizing a nascent community to fight for their civil rights even as the doors of justice were slammed in their faces? And how did it lead to President Truman’s signature on the Celler-Luce Bill on July 3, 1946, which ended four decades of what President Roosevelt called “statutory discrimination against the Indians”?
Harold Gould, a distinguished scholar of South Asian studies, provides detailed answers in this engrossing historical narrative. Gould, who has written extensively on Indian social history and politics, reveals with uncanny insight how people from the Indian subcontinent breached the fortress of American racism and reached out for their civil rights. To the author’s credit, the contents of this impressive work is written in a manner that makes it accessible to both scholars as well as the general reader.
In essence, Gould gives details of how there gradually crystallized a mélange of dedicated and talented South Asians who “would have a significant impact at least on how some Americans in high places viewed India’s freedom struggle as well as the right of Indian migrants to the U.S. to enjoy the same constitutional and human rights that Whites took for granted.” Furthermore, he explains how they took the critical step in institution building by reaching out to sympathetic groups and individuals in the country.
Eventually their actions would lead to the ultimate political breakthrough that would persuade significant sections of the American public, a majority of the U.S. Congress, and indeed the president of the United States himself to decisively support independence for India and equal rights for Indian immigrants.
Let me state this at the outset. This is a vastly important book for desis, for all South Asians in America, to read and savor. It is their story; it is their history. It has never been told before—not so elaborately, so forcefully, or so compellingly.
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According to Gould, two separate streams of Indians were arriving in the United States around the turn of the 20th century: Jat Sikh laborers from Punjab, and Hindu students and intellectuals from Bengal, Punjab, and Maharashtra. He then masterfully maps the trajectory by which the early Indians evolved a political consciousness in response to the shabby manner in which racist Canada and the United States had treated them. Their struggle against racial bigotry and denial of their civil rights led them to ultimately make the India Lobby possible.
We know that the Komagata Maru incident served as a bitter catalyzing force. We know too that the Ghadar Party, founded in 1913 by Har Dayal, Gobind Behari Lal, Taraknath Das, Sohan Singh Bhakna, Teja Singh, and Pandurang Sadashiva Khankhoje played a key role. “It was the first manifestation of politically institutionalized resistance to colonialism and indigenous racism emanating from overseas Indian immigrants,” opines Gould.
But there is much more to Gould’s engrossing narrative. The author reveals how 18th- and 19th-century Yankee traders and the swamis who came to spread Vedanta in the 19th and 20th enabled “Indic civilization to strike roots in the intellectual, philosophical and theological world of the American literati.”
Drawn with a sympathetic pen, Gould’s historical narrative focuses on certain individuals because “they are the ones who stood out, who tirelessly endeavored to light ideological fires under their diverse countrymen and eventually enabled significant numbers of South Asian immigrants and sympathetic Americans to actively support the freedom movement in India and Indian civil rights in America.”
On the first tier were the Ghadar activists; while on the second tier were Sirdar Jagjit Singh (J.J.), Krishnalal Shridharani, Anup Singh, Syed Hossain, and Haridas Mazumdar. And Lala Lajpat Rai became the father figure who straddled both groups.
Eventually, says Gould, all these individuals and the organizations they founded, would lead to three formations with a national and international reach promoting the South Asian cause by various means: Ghadar, Lajpat Rai’s The India League of America, and the Bengali-dominated Friends of Freedom for India.
Finally, according to Gould, the India Lobby jelled and reached its climax during the war years. That’s because by then Indians had learned how to work the system more effectively. They had worked hard at becoming media savvy and constructing political networks.
Gould reminds us: “By today’s standards, of course their efforts and their accomplishments would appear to be modest in the extreme. But in the context of their time, and given the limited manpower and material resources available to them, their effort was remarkable; their accomplishments impressive.”
There was Taraknath Das, an intellectual and revolutionary with remarkable staying power—from 1906 to 1964. There was Har Dayal, who had the charisma, the intellect, and the legitimacy needed to weld South Asian immigrants into some semblance of a coherent political force. These two, along with Lala Lajpat Rai, were the pioneers who provided major organizational focus, combined with ideological zeal and direction, to the nascent India Lobby. They started the ball rolling, says Gould.
But apparently it was Rawalpindi-born Sirdar Jagjit Singh (J.J.) who emerged as the “maestro of the final phase of the India Lobby’s trek through American history.” It was he who mastered the art of fitting into the social and political mainstream. One observer has commented that J.J. “never made a nuisance of himself” yet he “covered miles in Congressional hallways.”
We learn too that all of the active participants in the India Lobby produced a torrent of political literature, which was widely distributed in the American media. Their goal: generate as much publicity, particularly press coverage, for the causes of Indian freedom and human rights.
This was also a time when the India Lobby developed a mole in the State Department. One of the newsworthy highlights of Gould’s book is that he has publicly identified the mole—an academic colleague to whom the book is dedicated and who was the source of Gould’s inspiration.
Written with a deep and profound understanding of the historical forces that shaped the destiny of South Asians in America, Gould’s study is a tour de force.
I can think of only one other book that charts the historical saga of Indian Americans with equal felicity and scholarly depth: Joan Jensen’s Passage from India, published 18 years ago.
Married to an Indian woman, Gould admits that for him India was a case of “love at first sight” and has lasted more than 50 years. “This book is a small token of my appreciation for all that this wonderful country and her wonderful people have done for me professionally, spiritually and personally.”
With his path-breaking contribution to the history of desis in America, Harold Gould has made every South Asian American indebted to him.
—Francis C. Assisi