Dalip S. Saund, The First Asian in U.S. Congress
Congressman Dalip Singh
Saund was the first Indian American and also the first among Asian Americans to
be elected to the US Congress. Thus far, he is the only Indian American who has
been elected to this highly visible and honorable position. He was first elected in
1956 from 29th congressional district comprising of Riverside
and Imperial Counties
He was re-elected twice, in 1958 and 1960. While contesting election for his fourth
term in 1962, he suffered a debilitating stroke and became incapacitated. Although
he did not win his fourth term, he did set a precedent for many Asians to
follow him in the U.S. Congress. He remains a beacon of hope and an example for
many Indian Americans to succeed him.
Dalip Singh Saund was born on September 20, 1899 in village
Chhajalwadi, Amritsar, Punjab.
He went to a boarding school in Amritsar and Prince Wales
College in Jammu. He graduated with B.A degree in
Mathematics from Punjab
University in 1919. In USA,
he enrolled in UC Berkley in 1920 to study food preservation, in the Department
of Agriculture. Later, he switched to Mathematics Department and received MA in
1922 and Ph.D. in 1924.
Dalip S. Saund, as a student in India, was impressed with Gandhiji’s leadership
independence movement. He became his
ardent and active follower. At the same time, he became profound admirer of the
then American president, Woodrow Wilson whose speeches he read over and over
again. His inspiring ideas and ideals to “make the world safe for democracy”
and provide “self-determination for all people” appealed to him enormously. It
was through Wilson
that he became familiar with President Abraham Lincoln. He read Lincoln’s life story and
studied his writings that made an everlasting impression on his young mind. In
the preface to his autobiography, Congressman
From India, he wrote, “My guideposts were two of the most beloved men in
history, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi”. Since Lincoln
had influenced him so much, in spite of opposition from his family, he came to USA
for further studies.
the time Dalip Singh Saund finished his education in U.C. Berkley, he had
become enamored with the American democratic system and decided to make America
his home. However, he knew that there was considerable prejudice against the
nationals of India, and he being
an immigrant from India,
very few opportunities existed for him. Nevertheless, he tried hard to find a
suitable job, commensurate with his qualifications. At that time, most Indians
in California could make a living as farm workers, so finally in 1925, he
decided to move to Southern California
in search of a farming job, the only conceivable opportunity to make a living.
Saund started his first job as a foreman of a cotton-picking gang, a job that hardly required any schooling much
less a Ph.D. degree from a leading American university. His job required him to weigh sacks of cotton that the
pickers had picked by hand and make up their payroll at the end of the week. In
between weighing, he would read books, borrowed from the library. Many times,
he would continue his reading by the “dim light of a kerosene lamp”.
From his first job, Saund had saved some money and decided
to go into farming. But he could not buy or lease land as he was not a
citizen. He leased it in the name of an American friend and ventured into growing of lettuce in
partnership. At harvest time, the entire crop was a complete, total loss and he
incurred a debt that took him some time to repay. Three years latter, in 1930,
he again grew lettuce. This time, he was fortunate, made some profit and was
able to clear up his debt. During his farming years, he had many ups and downs
and went through the depression era of 1930s. But he refused to file bankruptcy
proceedings, like his fellow farmers did, when he suffered losses due to
harvest or market failures. For him, declaring bankruptcy was a matter of great
shame and against the very principles that he had learnt from his parents.
Saund, when at Berkley,
had joined Hindustan Association of America, which had chapters throughout the United States
in different university centers. Two years later, he became the national
president of the association, which gave him many opportunities to make
speeches on India
and meet with other groups as a representative of the Indian students at the
university. He was an ardent nationalist and never passed up an opportunity to
expound on India’s
rights to self-government. He took part in several debates and spoke before
many groups and organizations. After he moved to the Imperial Valley, he
continued to take advantage of every opportunity to speak, debate and present India’s
side, a side of democracy and a side for humanity.
One evening, Saund was invited to speak at the Unitarian Church
in Hollywood, where he met a young man, Emil J.
Kosa who invited him to visit his home, as his parents were interested in India.
During the course of conversation with Mrs. Kosa, Emil’s mother, Saund found
out that he was a co-passenger travelling from Europe to New York, on the same ship with Mrs. Kosa
and her daughter, Marian. Saund became a friend of the family and soon became a
frequent visitor. He fell in love with Marian, a nineteen years old UCLA
student but was not sure if he could marry her. He was a foreigner in a country
where the laws prevented him to become a citizen or own a home, without a
secure job and no clear future. Still, he did not give up and in 1928, married
Marian Kosa, born of immigrant Czech parents. They had three children, a son and two
Since Dalip S. Saund had become well known as a
speaker, the Sikh Temple in Stockton
asked him to write a rebuttal to Katherine Mayo’s book, Mother India, which was a sensational book and had become a best
seller. However, Indians in California
resented the book’s unjust and false interpretation of Indian culture. Gandhiji
called it a “drain inspector’s report”. Saund wrote his book, “ My Mother India” in 1930. In the
preface, he wrote, “it was only fitting that the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan
Society (Sikh Temple
in Stockton), in its role as the interpreter of
Hindu culture and civilization to America, should undertake its
Since his university days in India, Saund had been taking a keen
interest in the political system of the country. After he came to USA and moved to the Imperial
Valley, he started taking active role in the socio-political
activities of his new homeland. He joined Toastmasters’ Club and soon
became its president. Later, he served as lieutenant governor and then as
district governor. He also started attending official meetings of County
Democratic Party Central Committee. He was welcomed as a party worker and an
active participant but not allowed to vote in the decision making process as he
was not a citizen of the United
States. It was time to gain U.S. citizenship and invest in a
country that he and his family called home.
Saund, after consulting with the board of directors
of the Hindustan Association of America in Imperial County,
formed India Association of America in 1942, of which he was elected its first
president. The main objective of the new organization was to mobilize the
Indian community and get the citizenship rights for the Indian nationals. It was
not an easy task, particularly when the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1923, had declared that
natives of India were not
eligible to U.S.
citizenship. In rejecting an appeal of
Bhagat Singh Thind (to whom, Saund dedicated his book, My Mother India) about revocation of his U.S.
citizenship, the judge held that while persons from India were Caucasians, they were
not “white persons”, and therefore were “aliens ineligible to citizenship”.
Thus legal solution was ruled out as a possibility. An amendment of the
Immigration laws with a special bill to be passed in the Congress of the United States
appeared an alternative worth pursuing.
The Indian farmers could buy or lease land only in
the name of their American friends who some times exploited them and even
deprived them of their harvest. Grant of citizenship rights would nullify the
effect of California Alien Land Law, which prohibited Indians to own or lease
land and property. A few farmers had married American citizens and leased
property in the wife’s name. But, some landowners didn’t like leasing land to
an Asiatic’s wife for fear of violating the Alien Land Act. There were about
2,000 or possibly 2,500 Indians, who could benefit by becoming citizens of USA.
But they were very skeptical that the Congress could pass a major bill aimed at
upsetting a historic decision of the U.S Supreme Court. It was not that they
did not want citizenship rights, but they had suffered so many hardships and
had been knocked about so much that it was very difficult for them to believe
that there was a chance of their winning.
Saund had a different vision. He knew that it was a
major undertaking to convince the elected representatives of the American
people to introduce a bill in the Congress for the grant of U.S. citizenship to a handful of
Indian nationals. But, with the help of some dedicated Indians, he made several
trips to all parts of California, mobilized
the Indian community, mailed out thousands of letters, mostly in Punjabi, raised
funds, and furnished financial assistance to Indian groups in New York to lobby at the Capital Hill. The
mobilization took some effort but soon it gained momentum and Indians in the USA
were ready for all-out effort to re-gain citizenship rights. They were able to
convince Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce from Connecticut
and Congressman Emanuel Cellar from New
York who jointly introduced a bill in Congress.
However, selling this concept to the majority of the members in the U.S.
Congress was an uphill task, more so, as the passage of the bill could open the
door for other Asians who were similarly deprived of citizenship rights.
Indians continued running into roadblocks in finding a powerful force to push
it through. Luckily, in 1946, after four years of continuous struggle, President Truman took
special interest in its passage and Luce-Cellar bill was finally passed by both
houses of Congress and signed by President Truman on July 3, 1946.
It was a great triumph and truly 3rd of July was the
Independence Day for all Indians in United States.
Saund became naturalized citizen on December 16, 1949 and was
ready to take more active part in the political process of his adopted
homeland. The primary election was a few months away, in June 1950. A close
friend, Mr. Glen Killingsworth who was a judge in Westmorland, with whom D.S.
Saund had worked unofficially for many years in Democratic Party affairs,
encouraged him to run for a seat on the Imperial County Democratic Central
Committee. Saund’s first political victory was without any opposition.
A few weeks after the election, Judge Killingsworth died
suddenly due to a heart attack. It was a great personal loss for Saund, for he
had watched him closely in his work as judge for many years and had admired the
office and the way his friend had filled it.
Saund was persuaded to become a candidate for that office in the general
election in November, 1950. He personally knew nearly all the voters in the
judicial district. So he started a vigorous campaign by ringing doorbells,
meeting people and asking for their support.
Dalip S. Saund was elected Judge solely due to his
exemplary grassroots campaign. No other foreigner had by then been elected to
any high office in Imperial
County. But the judgeship
was denied to him, as he had not been a citizen for one full year by Election
Day. Saund‘s friends started circulating a petition addressed to the County
Board of Supervisors who were to appoint a judge. More than twice the number of
voters than had originally voted for Saund, signed the petition. Most of the
mayors of cities in Imperial county, the presidents and leaders of different
civic and professional organizations, including the chairmen of both the
Democratic and Republican county central committees had signed a separate
petition. The daily newspapers in the county urged the Supervisors through
their editorials for appointment of Saund as a judge. But he lost his first
political battle not because of lack of public support or popularity among
voters but through that minor technicality.
Saund was disappointed but by no means discouraged.
He wrote in his autobiography, “I harbored no bitterness against my opponents.
Throughout 1951 and 1952, I continued my activities in support of Community
Chest drives, the Boy Scouts, and particularly the March of Dimes for which I
was the chairman for two years.” All
these community activities kept him in very close contact with the people of
his district. When he ran for the
position of judge in 1952, he ran against an incumbent who was appointed by the
County Board of Supervisors, was an established
businessman and a member of the church board. The campaign also had taken a
racial overtone; some people would not go for the “Hindu for judge”. But most
of the people had felt that injustice was done to Saund last time and now was
the opportunity to correct it. Saund won the election and served as judge for
four years until his election to the Congress of the United States in 1956.
In 1954, Judge Saund was elected chairman of the
Imperial County Democratic Central Committee and became a member of the
Democratic Executive Committee of the state of California. In the same year, Mr. Bruce
Shangle of Riverside
County became the
Democratic nominee from the 29th congressional district. He knew
that he had to campaign hard in Riverside
County to win as 80% of
the voters resided in that county. So, it fell on Judge Saund to manage the
campaign of Mr. Shangle in Imperial
County and speak on his
behalf to various service clubs and Candidates’ forums. Mr. Shangle did not win
but it gave Judge Saund a very valuable experience into the workings of a
congressional office and the duties that a congressman has to perform.
Judge Saund by now had become quite well known in Imperial County. In October, 1955, he decided to
be a candidate from the 29th Congressional district. He was
confident of loyal support from the County
Democratic Party but was not sure of
similar support from Riverside
County. Mr. Bruce Shangle
who ran unsuccessfully in the last election assured his full support
Judge Saund’s Democratic opponent was a well-known Riverside County
attorney, active in California politics and at
one time had been a candidate for attorney general of the state of California. He tried to
get Judge Saund disqualified on the technical grounds that he had not been a
citizen for seven years before he could become a member of the U.S. House of
Representatives. First the Appellate Court and then the Supreme Court of
California dismissed the petition on the grounds that the sole judge of the qualifications
of a member of the House of
Representatives is the House itself.
Judge Saund had not yet become a familiar name to
the voters in Riverside
County. But they read his
name on the front pages of every newspaper in the district, not one time but
three times, first when the appeal was filed, second time when it was turned
down by the lower court and third time when the Supreme Court rejected it. No
money could have bought him as much
publicity and name recognition as these news reports. But his Democratic
opponent did not give up. He, in his newspaper and radio advertisements,
attacked Saund of his being an Indian and not an American and quoted passages
from his book, My Mother India, out of context. Even his name Dalip Singh was
boldly printed and Saund in small letters to draw attention of the voters that
Judge Saund was really not an American. All the tactics used against Judge
Saund apparently did not hurt him; he won the primary with a tremendous
In the general election, Saund faced Jacqueline
Odlum, recipient of many prizes in the field of aviation, leader of women
fliers during World War II and wife of a
multimillion financier. She was contesting from a district that has
always elected a Republican in its entire history. She had rich supporters and
was personal friend of the President of
the United States.
At her barbecue rallies, people not only would come to see the invited
celebrities, such as Bob Hope but her also, a celebrity in her own right. She even had then Vice President Nixon come
to Riverside to
speak for her.
Judge Saund faced formidable handicaps but was not
intimidated. His friends and neighbors with the help of Democratic groups in Riverside County, began to sponsor a series
of free barbecues which gave him an opportunity
to meet people and communicate his message. His whole family, his wife, three
children, his son-in-law and daughter-in-law and score of volunteers kept busy
ringing doorbells and passing out literature. He did not have funds to buy
space on commercial billboards, so his volunteers made homemade billboards on
4x8 foot plywood sheets. He put up these billboards throughout the district and
they apparently turned out to be very effective. His wife and daughter
organized and carried out an intensive campaign of registration of voters and “passed out 11,000
Saund circulars” before the election. They
had visited thousands and thousands of homes with the help of dedicated
volunteers and made a definite impact on many voters. Much after the election,
people would come up to Saund and say, “I met your daughter”,……..or “your
son-in-law called at my house….. and that
is when I decided that I was going to vote for you.”
Judge Saund had farmed for twenty-five years in Imperial County and was thoroughly acquainted
with the problems of the farming communities in both counties. He believed that
farmers needed government protection in
order to get a fair share of the economic reward. So the farmers in the 29th
district were confident of his
representation of them in the U.S. Congress. But, it was from the cities, that
he was trying hard to get a fair share of votes. His hard work did bring him
enough votes that in the general election, in November 1956, “the first native
of Asia” was elected to the United States
Congress with a 3% vote margin.
There were very few Indian Americans registered to
vote in the 29th congressional district. There were not many ethnic voters either; the large majority
being Caucasian Americans. He did
not adopt a new religion in his new country nor did he Americanize his name to
sound less ethnic. His opponents repeatedly tried to exploit his being an
Indian. But he had completely assimilated with mainstream America while maintaining his
heritage. He actively participated in Democratic Party activities and rose to
be a delegate in three conventions starting in 1952. He represented grass-roots
philosophies and identified with
middle-class values, the values of the people he lived with.
Today, Indian Americans, seeking political office
invoke Saund’s name, much the same way, as Saund himself invoked Gandhi and
President Lincoln’s name. Like them, he
is a source of inspiration and a worthy role model to look up to.
Inder Singh is President of GOPIO, Global
Organization of People of Indian Origin and chairman of Indian American
Heritage Foundation. He was NFIA president from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96.
He was founding president of FIA, Southern California. He can be reached at