Dalip S. Saund, The First Asian in U.S. Congress

By Inder Singh


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 of California. 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 of India’s 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.


By 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.


Dr. 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 daughters.


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 publication.”


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 majority.


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 indersinghusa@hotmail.com