bhagat singh thind
A photograph of Bhagat Singh Thind and his wife Vivian, posing with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and another unidentified figure. (Photo courtesy of David Thind via saada.org)

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A few weeks ago, my parents —  like millions of others who immigrated to the U.S. — became naturalized citizens. As they came home from their naturalization ceremony, I was reminded of the first Indian to become an American citizen. His name was Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh from Amritsar, Punjab. 

From his struggle for citizenship and service in the U.S Army to his eventual work as a spiritual lecturer and guru, Dr. Thind’s life was truly extraordinary. He came to the U.S in 1913, and worked in a lumber mill to pay for an education at UC Berkeley. In 1918, he enlisted in the U.S army — along with thousands of young men — to fight in the first World War. Though he didn’t see any action, he was honorably discharged. 

It is here that his story takes an interesting turn. 

Not A White Man

When Thind applied for citizenship in late 1918, Immigration and Naturalization Services rejected his application on the grounds that he was not a white man. The fact that he was granted citizenship for four days is interesting too. Some anthropologists considered North Indians to be Caucasian. 

Thind next tried to attain citizenship in Oregon, where he was given citizenship because the judge was impressed with his military service. The INS wasn’t about to let this go, however. They appealed Thind’s case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

What followed was probably one of the best examples of the amorphous nature of racism, and how it adapts to anything that tries to get around it. In 1923, a judge decided that Thind did not mean a “common man’s” definition of white, and thus couldn’t become a citizen. This could quite literally mean anything — some considered Irish and Eastern European immigrants inferior at the time as well. And so, Citizen Thind became Foreigner Thind once more. 

US Army Veteran

He would have to wait till 1935, when Congress passed an act giving citizenship to all U.S Army Veterans, regardless of race. Through this incredible loophole, the United States got its first Indian American citizen. 

Bhagat Singh Thind’s story doesn’t end here. When he came to America, his true goal was to become a spiritual teacher. His spiritual thought was influenced both by Indian philosophy and Western thinkers like Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. 

Spiritual Leader

His books, pamphlets, and lectures grew immensely popular, reaching a combined audience of  5 million. Thind quoted liberally from Indic scriptures such as the Vedas. He had thousands of followers, mostly American, with whom he shared his philosophy.

He died on September 15, 1967. His son, David Thind, published his books posthumously. 

Dr. Thind’s legacy is in his works, his naturalization story, and a grainy black and white photo of a man with a turban in the U.S Army uniform. It is in these that we see the quintessential immigrant story, one that will repeat itself in others for generations to come.

Ashir Rao

Ashir Rao is a student at Los Gatos High School, CA. He likes programming and history — especially as it relates to current events. More by Ashir Rao

Ashir Rao

Ashir Rao is a student at Los Gatos High School, CA. He likes programming and history — especially as it relates to current events.