Hardeep Dhillon

ON 6 SEPTEMBER 1915, 22-year-old Kala Bagai arrived at Angel Island aboard the SS Korea with her husband and three sons. Kala carried a material archive of her life in her luggage: gold ornaments, a portrait of herself, a sky-blue silk sari reserved for special occasions. Kala had carefully chosen the valuables, knowing her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, intended to establish a home in the United States.

After being questioned and examined at Angel Island, the Bagai family made their way to San Francisco. Sixteen days later, Vaishno submitted his declaration of intention for naturalisation. Given that a married woman’s nationality was considered a corollary of her husband’s, and a child’s nationality derived from the father’s, Vaishno’s application was important for the whole family.

Vaishno prepared his naturalisation case hoping he would secure enough evidence to prove he qualified as a White person. At the time, the United States required each immigrant to prove five years of legal residency in the country and that he was a “free white person . . . of good character.” The latter requirement, delineated by the US Congress’s first uniform law for naturalisation in 1790, succinctly captured federal attempts to mold and settle a nation with White citizens. While birthright citizenship was legalised in 1868 and the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalisation to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” virtually all other aspiring US citizens were required to legally qualify as “free white persons.” Between 1878 and 1952, US federal courts adjudicated more than fifty cases from immigrants from Asia, the Pacific, and Central and South America to determine who was White.

Indian immigrants took to the offices of county clerks and then to courtrooms to prove they were White. They argued they were Caucasian and Aryan, citing race science theories and categorisations developed by anthropologists, philologists and imperial bureaucrats. But whether Indians and other Asian migrants constituted White persons remained a contested legal question among county clerks, US judges and local populations. Religion and caste, however, cut across these concerns as Indian immigrants cited their ancestral heritage and practices of endogamy to argue their racial ancestry and families’ lack of “intermixture” proved not only their race but purity of blood over multiple generations.

To that end, Vaishno wrote to officials in India to obtain documents that would specify his caste. Vaishno secured three caste certificates from the magistrates in his home district of Peshawar through the US consul in Karachi and Bombay, as well as a letter from the headmaster of National High School in Peshawar City certifying he was a “high caste Hindu.”

Caste and religion had become central in defining race and assimilability for Indian immigrants and came to be enshrined in the sociolegal institutions of the United States. They informed how Indian immigrants such as Vaishno substantiated their own racial status, and how they saw themselves in relation to other Indian immigrants with lower socioeconomic means who they believed did not warrant the same rights and privileges in the United States.

A CENTURY LATER, US courts are adjudicating the issue of caste again. The most high-profile case in recent years is the lawsuit against the multinational conglomerate Cisco Sytems. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing recognised the claims of a principal engineer hired by Cisco in 2015, who reported that his two dominant-caste supervisors denied him various opportunities, including raises and promotions, and retaliated when he complained about being treated unfavourably because of his caste. The case is still ongoing and may set a historical precedent for the recognition of caste discrimination by US courts.

Student activism has also led US universities to take a leading role in recognising caste discrimination. In 2019, Brandeis University became the first university to ban caste discrimination. Last year, the California State University, the largest public university system in the United States, added caste to their anti-discriminatory policy. Numerous other universities, including Harvard, soon followed.

However, the increasingly public conversation on caste and inequality has also brought into view the sharp fault lines that exist among the South Asian diaspora. In 2022, Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google News, was compelled to resign after she invited Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil-rights organisation, to speak about the subject of caste discrimination as part of the company’s larger Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programming. The invitation was revoked, following protests from Indian-origin employees who sent emails to the organisation’s leadership calling Soundarajan “anti-Hindu” and “Hinduphobic.”

In the early twentieth century, caste was intimately tied to racial constellations of White supremacy in US courts, which structured the borders of rights, privileges and goods denied to “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” Indian immigration to the United States began in the late nineteenth century because the borders of other countries such as Australia and South Africa began closing off to Indian immigrants, who then heard news of their potential to earn larger sums of money in the United States and Canada. At the time, colonial India comprised present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indian immigrants, largely from Punjab, arrived by the handful in the US South, and on the Pacific Coast. Many early immigrants worked for months or years across the Bay of Bengal and Pacific Rim before paying for their journeys to the United States.

By 1907, the dozens of Indian men who had arrived in the United States rose to a few hundred, and by 1920, there were approximately ten thousand Indian immigrants living in the United States. They largely comprised men who were labourers, merchants, peddlers, students and refugees, besides a handful of women. Most families did not plan to immigrate and settle in the United States but saw migration as an avenue to secure financial stability and educational access for their families before returning to India.

Indian immigrants experienced a huge backlash when they arrived in the United States. Nativists in the United States alleged that Indian and other Asian migrants undermined American standards of living and threatened the racial composition of the United States. The earliest years of Indian immigration to the United States were coterminous with restrictions against other Asian immigrants. By the 1850s, the United States increasingly restricted the rights of Chinese men and women. Chinese immigrants were prevented from testifying in court, paid heavier taxes, disenfranchised from certain land purchases, and, by 1875, Congress agreed with nativist sentiments to thwart the arrival of Chinese women in the United States. In 1878, Ah Yup, a Chinese immigrant, unsuccessfully argued that Chinese people were White on the basis of anthropological classifications before California’s Ninth Circuit Court, which determined that “a native of China, of the Mongolian race” was not White. The United States eventually banned all labour immigrants from China for a ten-year period, which it later extended, and restricted all Chinese persons from US citizenship in 1882.

Other immigrants from Asia were increasingly restricted from entry. States across the United States rapidly expanded citizen-only laws, preventing “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from purchasing or leasing agricultural property, holding business licenses, most professional occupations, home ownership and membership in numerous organisations and associations. These laws were designed to use legal status as a way to code race into law, in order to establish substantive socioeconomic barriers for Asian immigrants.

RELIGION BECAME A CRITICAL COMPONENT of adjudicating race in US courts far earlier than Vaishno’s case. The first major concern related to religion emerged with Indian immigrants who wore turbans and other religious head coverings to court. In January 1907, Veer Singh, Dakam Chand and Fukur Chand travelled to the federal court in Oakland, California to file their first papers for naturalisation. Both men marked themselves as White and were ready to swear their allegiance to the United States but, before they could, JR Ford, a deputy county clerk, instructed them to remove their turbans. Veer Singh refused. Cook responded by denying his first papers. Dakam Chand and Fukur Chand obliged, removed their turbans, and Cook accepted their first papers. However, as a local newspaper reported, Cook was soon notified by the United States immigration commissioner that “Hindus are not entitled to become American citizens under any circumstances.”

The next year, things went smoothly for some Indian immigrants at federal courts in the US South. In 1908, Bellal Houssein and Abdul Hamid—Muslims—were among the first Indians naturalised. The two men were naturalised in Louisiana, where Asian immigrants’ proximity to whiteness was a part of a larger effort to continuously differentiate the rights of Black Americans from others in the South. Abba Dolla, a man considered to be of Afghan descent born in Calcutta, also successfully naturalised in Savannah, Georgia after citing Hamid’s case as precedent and allowing the judge to examine whether his veins were visible through his skin to prove he was White.

The matter came to a head in 1920, when Phil Swing, a judge in California’s Imperial County, prohibited wearing turbans in court. Local immigrants swiftly responded to Swing’s edict. Hari Singh Besra, a young Sikh immigrant in southern California, wrote to the court:

I have been requested by the leading Sikhs farming in the Imperial Valley to bring this matter to your attention. That the wearing of turbans is a part of the religion of the Sikhs. … I beg you to grant me an interview so I may furnish conclusive proof that the wearing of turbans is a part of the religion of the Sikhs, and the order compelling them to remove them in courts is a great wrong which ought to be righted.

Despite protest from immigrants and calls for exemptions on the basis of religion, county clerks and judges continued to employ their discretionary authority to grant or deny Indian immigrants wearing religious head coverings in and to court. This extended to Parsi immigrants. In 1917, the same year that Congress passed a sweeping federal law barring immigrants from a wide geographical area, including most of Asia, Dinshah Ghadiali, a Parsi immigrant then resident in New Jersey, was physically thrown out from court during his naturalisation ceremony because he refused to remove his religious head covering. His refusal made headlines with the New York Times, which insisted Ghadiali had refused to remove his “turban hat.”

Indian immigrants wearing religious head coverings were also discriminated against in worksites and public spaces. Some cut their hair while others retained turbans, often wearing hats that covered their unshorn hair. As one White settler in Imperial County later recounted to the local press, immigrants hired on her farm, such as Baboo Singh, wore hats over their unshorn hair to avoid the routine ogling by White men, women and children, and the violent threats of the local storekeeper, Bill Brailey, who cursed and yelled at every Indian immigrant who visited his store. Sudhindra Bose recounted similar forms of racism against him as a student in his 1920 publication Fifteen Years in America. As a student, Bose left his turban in a college cloakroom only to find it was “coldly assassinated—literally hacked and butchered to pieces.” Others had their turbans slapped off or pulled off in physical altercations when they were beaten by a small group or mob of White men.

Courts also differentiated Parsi Indians from other religious communities in India, believing their ancestral heritage made them more proximate to whiteness than other Indian immigrants. In 1909, the case of Bhicaji Franyi Balsara, an elite Parsi immigrant in New York who arrived in the United States as a cotton buyer for the Tata group, drew the attention of the country. In 1909, Emile Lacombe, a judge in the Second Circuit Court, granted citizenship to Balsara, ruling “he appears to be a gentleman of high character and exceptional intelligence” and of “the purest Aryan type.” Lacombe added that the naturalisation of Parsis created legal grounds for “Afghans, Hindus, Arabs, and Berbers” to naturalise as US citizens. Lacombe’s decision was purposeful. At the time, the department of justice actively undermined the cases of many Indian immigrants for naturalisation. District attorneys, many of whom held racist opinions toward Asian immigrants, routinely followed the cases of Indian immigrants and challenged them if they received naturalisation. Balsara’s naturalisation was successfully appealed by the justice department.

In May 1910, the case made headlines across the United States as the Second Circuit agreed to review the case. The New York Tribune carried coverage of the case on its front page headlining the issue as a “Scientific Battle over Parsee’s Rights.” The paper feared that the case would establish “a loophole for the naturalization of little brown men and big brown men.” Balsara successfully retained US citizenship but on grounds that distinguished Parsees from other Indians given their ancestral proximity to Europe.

The court ruled that the “Farsees emigrated some 1,200 years ago from Persia into India, and now live in the neighbourhood of Bombay, to the number of about 100,000. They constitute a settlement by themselves of intelligent and well-to-do persons, principally engaged in commerce, and are as distinct from the Hindus as are the English who dwell in India.” The ruling established precedent to distinguish Parsees as a separate group of Indian immigrants eligible for US citizenship.

Three years later, Bengal-born Akhay Kumar Mozumdar brought another aspect of religion into court to prove he was White. Mozumdar testified that he was a “high caste Hindu of pure blood” and a member of the Aryan race to combat the naturalisation examiner’s declaration that he was Asiatic and not White. Mozumdar substantiated this argument by insisting that an invasion of India by Aryans occurred in ancient times and that this group of Aryans maintained their racial purity through caste practices of endogamy. It is unknown whether Indian immigrants independently introduced the idea of caste within the legal sphere to prove racial purity or whether judges inquired about it first. Mozumdar testified that he was Indian and “a high-caste Hindu of pure blood, belonging to what is known as the warrior caste, or ruling caste.” He then argued:

The pure-blooded Hindus are divided into three castes—the priestly caste, the warrior or ruling caste, and the merchant caste. The blood is kept pure by rigid rules of exclusion. Anyone who marries outside of his caste is ostracized, and is disinherited by the native law. Hone of the high-caste Hindus will have anything to do with him … The great bulk of the Hindus in this country are not high-caste Hindus, but are what are called Sihks, and are of mixed blood … The high-caste Hindus are of Brahmin faith, and in India are clearly distinguished from all of the other inhabitants, including the aborigines of the country, or the hill tribes, and also the descendants of the invaders, those of the Mohammedan faith.

Caste provided an avenue for Mozumdar to prove racial purity by underlining the endogamous nature of upper-caste communities. Applicants and judges used caste as an avenue to delineate racial purity which was central to preserving whiteness in the United States. At the time, the one-drop rule classified any person with African ancestry as Black, and miscegenation laws prohibited and criminalised interracial intimacies and marriage. The district court judge in charge of the case differed with Mozumdar on whether high-caste status ensured racial purity but still naturalised him.

Following Mozumdar’s 1913 case, caste became an integral component in federal deliberations of whether Indian immigrants classified as White persons. Members of the anticolonial diasporic Ghadar movement, who advocated against the racist governance of the British Empire, including Bhagat Singh Thind and Godha Ram, used caste to argue they were White.

The Bagai family was aware of these legal struggles. The family read and collected news accounts related to the condition of Indian migrants, including those who sought US citizenship. Vaishno’s documents stated he was a “high caste Hindoo from the Aryan origin.” In March 1921, Vaishno was naturalised and the Bagai family, including his wife Kala and three sons, became US citizens.

The different precedents established by federal courts on whether Indian and other Asian immigrants could naturalise as US citizens eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court. The question before the court in 1923 was: “Is a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood, born at Amrit Sar, Punjab, India, a white person?” The applicant before the court was Bhagat Singh Thind, a young Sikh immigrant from Punjab, who had served in the US army and advocated for India’s independence.

For the justice department, Thind most likely represented the perfect test case to try the boundaries of whiteness. Thind was not as affluent as others who were naturalised. He spoke English but lacked graduate degrees from acclaimed universities and was not as active in White networks compared to many others, like Mozumdar. He also wore a turban, which served as a physical marker of distinction beyond the colour of his skin.

William R King, a former justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, argued Thind’s case in the Supreme Court in January 1923. King relied on the work of US and European ethnologists such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, James Drummond Anderson, Thomas Henry Huxley and Max Mueller, arguing that humans were divided into five races and that Punjabis like Thind were part of the Aryan race and, therefore, Caucasian. King relied on the assumption that “Caucasian” and “white” were synonymous legal terms and cited a series of court cases previously approved by judges across the United States on the eligibility of Indian migrants to naturalise as US citizens. King then argued that Thind’s racial purity was maintained through caste: “The high-class Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint. The caste system prevails in India to a degree unsurpassed elsewhere … With this caste system prevailing, there was comparatively a small mixture of blood between the different castes.”

Thind attached an appendix to King’s brief claiming he was a “free white person,” in which he emphasised the relationship between caste, blood and race in his claims to racial purity and whiteness, like many Indian migrants who had sought US citizenship before him. He insisted that he was of pure Aryan blood, since ancient texts from India, specifically the laws of Manu, prohibited intercaste marriage.

The US Supreme Court unanimously denied Thind citizenship on almost every legal basis Asian immigrants had previously presented to support their cases to be classified as White. Justice George Sutherland penned the court’s unanimous ruling, noting Indian immigrants were of “Asiatic stock” and could not establish racial purity based on caste because “intermixture” was still possible, “even in the case of the Brahman caste.” The Supreme Court’s ruling further noted, “What we now hold is that the words ‘free White persons’ are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only as that word is popularly understood.” The ruling denaturalised Thind and rendered all Indian immigrants ineligible to naturalise as US citizens, marking them as a community of permanent aliens in the United States.

Following United States v Bhagat Singh Thind, the Bureau of Naturalization released records to district attorneys across the country and encouraged them to rescind the naturalisation of all Indian migrants on grounds that they had procured US citizenship by fraud. It was likely the first large-scale effort by the United States government to denaturalise a migrant community. Indian migrants learned of the efforts when attorneys general in California, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington initiated denaturalisation proceedings against them. The notices were first mailed in April, two months after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Thind, using addresses on file. The denaturalisation notices informed Indian immigrants they were being charged with illegally procuring US citizenship on the account that they were not free White persons, and needed to immediately “refrain and be enjoined from ever after using or enjoying any of the rights, privileges or benefits” of US citizenship. Each person had sixty days to respond to the state’s bill of complaint or they would be denaturalised by decree.

Most Indian migrants were denaturalised by decree. Many immigrants such as Vaishno refused to return their naturalisation certificates or tried to appeal the attorney general’s decision in court. Only a handful were able to retain US citizenship. Parsi and Muslim Indians with financial means employed arguments around religion to differentiate themselves from Hindus and Sikhs.

Many Muslim and Parsi Indians who could trace their ancestry to regions more proximate to Europe and distant from India insisted they were still White and not Asiatic. Their legal arguments emphasised how distance from eastern Asia became an integral component of Indian communities as they sought to retain US citizenship in the face of denaturalisation. John Muhammad Ali, a retail merchant, former lecturer and father of two interracial children, had previously naturalised as a “high-caste Hindu” in 1921. In his denaturalisation case, Ali unsuccessfully argued that his ancestors had “invaded” India but kept their Arabian bloodline pure by intermarriage within the family and that his heritage could be traced back to the prophet Muhammad. His line of argument borrowed from British imperial understandings of Indian history which had repeatedly situated the Mughals as Muslim invaders. Other Indians situated themselves as long-term migrants of India with Persian origins. Qamar-ud-Din Alexander, a Parsi born in Rawalpindi, unsuccessfully argued he was of Persian descent and that his ancestors had immigrated to India six to seven centuries earlier.

The loss of land rights, voting rights, access to US passports and the ability to marry across racial lines, among other rights and privileges, were grave hardships for those who were rendered ineligible to citizenship. The British government’s India Office and its consuls in the United States did very little to help Indian immigrants beyond requesting additional time for them to sell their land and property.

The pain was unbearable for Kala Bagai’s husband. Over the span of a few years, Vaishno Das Bagai acquired several life-insurance policies in his name totaling $75,000. In early 1928, Vaishno traveled to Lands End with the intention of jumping from a cliff. He was restrained by his wife but less than two months later, Vaishno rented a room in San Jose, ignited the gas stove and escaped all that hounded him. He left behind three letters to his family, including one informing his wife of the couple’s accounts. Vaishno wrote his fourth and final letter to the US public, explaining, “I came to America thinking, dreaming and hoping to make this land my home. … But they now come to me and say, I am no longer an American citizen. They will not permit me to buy my own home, and lo, they even shall not issue me a passport to go back to India. … Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind.” Two generations later, his granddaughter told me she continued to witness the tears that settled onto the rims of Kala Bagai’s eyes when she spoke about her husband.

SUBSEQUENT REVISIONS in immigration and naturalisation law were based on the idea that Asian aliens were worthy of citizenship due to their value to the United States during the Second World War and the Cold War. The civil-rights movement in the United States also played a role in highlighting the question of race in Congress, where immigration reform was widely debated.

Bills to eliminate racial prerequisites emerged in 1940—advocating that the right of a person to naturalise should “not be denied or abridged because of race, color, creed or national origin”—but failed in Congress. Having failed at garnering support for substantial reform, many Asian American communities lobbied for piecemeal legislative reform instead.

The Magnuson Act in December 1943, passed after substantial advocacy by Chinese Americans and Chinese diplomats, signaled the possibility that naturalisation and immigration reform was possible on the smallest scale for immigrants who could prove their value and contributions to the nation. The Magnuson Act allowed some Chinese immigrants residing in the United States to naturalise as US citizens each year and permitted upto 105 new entry visas per year.

Two years later, Congress debated reform for Indian and Filipino men. Before the Philippines gained independence in 1946, Filipinos found themselves reconfigured as alien unless they naturalised in the United States, and were targeted by state repatriation and deportation campaigns. However, the role of Filipinos during the Second World War led Congress to reconsider their eligibility for US citizenship.

The same year, Indian immigrants represented by groups such as The India League for America, India Welfare League and India Association for American Citizenship argued for immigration reform and naturalisation based on the idea that India and Indians contributed to the financial prosperity and geopolitical needs of the United States.

The bill most widely supported by American officials was HR 173, which followed the pattern of the Magnuson Act. The attorney general, the state department and the US president at the time, Franklin D Roosevelt, pledged support for the bill because of India’s “great services” during the war and its ability to “furnish substantial amounts of raw materials” for and after the war. They also assured that Indians posed “no real danger” to US employment. The British government’s support for the bill, which emerged as India approached independence, was also cited, underscoring how imperial considerations remained central to the making of US citizenship. In July 1946, Congress passed the Luce-Celler Act on the basis of the Magnuson Act and permitted a hundred “persons of races indigenous to India” and the Philippines to immigrate to the United States per year. The act also allowed Indian immigrants residing in the United States to naturalise.

Indian immigration to the United States began in the late nineteenth century because the borders of other countries such as Australia and South Africa began closing off to Indian immigrants, who then heard news of their potential to earn larger sums of money in the United States and Canada. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Together, the changes to immigration and naturalisation law that emerged over two decades bolstered the idea that legislative changes should be gradual—and small in scale and scope—and assessed according to the value aliens and their homelands added to American racial capital and geopolitical interests. The legal bar on non-Whites to naturalise as US citizens came to an end soon after the war through the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952. The act retained a system of immigration based on national quotas, thereby continuing the coding of racial provisions through national origin, and creating yet another set of racial asymmetries in US immigration and naturalisation law.

A companion piece to this article titled the “The Making of Modern US Citizenship and Alienage: The History of Asian Immigration, Racial Capital, and US Law” is forthcoming in the journal Law and History Review.

Hardeep Dhillon completed her doctorate in History at Harvard University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the American Bar Foundation. She will join the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania this Fall.

https://caravanmagazine.in/history/immigrants-us-caste-race. Please consider subscribing to The Caravan and supporting it.

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