A few weekends ago, yours truly had the pleasure of viewing a documentary made on the life of three time, US Congressman, Dilip Singh Saund from California—the first Asian and the only one, thus far, from the Sikh community elected to the US Congress. Local Congressman Mark Takano representing Riverside county and film maker Samantha Cheng were in the audience and took questions after the viewing.

The racial struggles and blazing success of Saund’s life as a young immigrant to the United States in the early 20th century and his election to the US Congress from the 29th District of California (representing Riverside county) are known to most in the Indian community and may not be repeated here. What did come through, unequivocally, during the viewing and emphatically so, in the Q&A that followed, was Saund’s perseverance despite racial prejudice at both institutional and personal levels without him playing the victim card. In his political career, Saund’s polemic was strategic not shrill, his campaigns were not built around victimhood but on merit and his dedication to serve his constituency. Running on the Democratic platform, Saund came across as a compelling speaker and a consummate politician who repeatedly beat his better funded Republican opponents by wide margins.

Even before being elected to the House of Representatives, Saund began his political activism by seeking naturalization for immigrants from Asiatic zones from US lawmakers- an effort that succeeded in 1946 with the passing of Luce-Celler act. The Civil Rights era that immediately followed Saund’s tenure (which, unfortunately, ended abruptly in 1962 due to a crippling stroke), brought about more inclusionary change for women and minorities and extended his activism towards greater equity and fair play in the American society. With each passing decade, while institutional prejudice has waned, instances of personal discrimination exist even today, ranging from outright violence (as witnessed in Wisconsin gurudwara incident three years ago) to subtle ones denying employment and economic opportunities to immigrants even in the very diverse state of California.
During the Q&A session, yours truly, as a recent Indian immigrant to the United States, also expressed disappointment at the lack of political initiative by California’s Indian community and at our long hiatus of 50 years in the US Congress from the end of Saund’s term in 1962 until Congressman Dr. Ami Bera’s election in 2012. The political landscape in the State of California offers several thousand elected positions to City Councils, State Assembly and at Gubernatorial level for the Indian community to elect its representatives and send them to City Halls, State Capitol and Washington DC. However, few brave hearts have come forward to take on the challenges facing our community despite our stellar accomplishments in many other fields. The highly educated and economically vibrant Indian community desperately seeks representatives amongst its fold to have its voice heard and to set its own agenda at the highest levels of governance since it wishes to pursue the American Dream and by its future generations.
Saund’s legacy, therefore, is one of a continuum; of seeking better opportunities for immigrants and the banishment of prejudice from all walks of life – publicly and privately and to make America the most immigrant friendly nation in the world and have her live up to the ideals of her founding fathers.