Bhagat Singh Thind Had His Citizenship Revoked…in 1923

The “Asiatic Barred Zone” instituted by a 1917 act of Congress

The current debate over immigration that is taking place in the United States is certainly nothing new. Much as Americans like to pride themselves on being a “nation of immigrants”, this has never been a particularly easy place to come as a foreigner and start a new life. With each new ethnic and religious group that has landed on these shores, there has been a certain amount of suspicion. I am not saying this to demonize anyone who wants to place any kind of restriction on immigration, but as a way of framing the issue I intend to address.

Way back in 1790, restrictions were put in place that limited just who could become a naturalized citizen of the United States of America (as opposed to those who became citizens by virtue of being born within our borders). The specific groups that caused concern changed over the years. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was mainly Asians who worried Americans. Congress passed a law that restricted many types of immigrants, including “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons…” One wonders what kind of test they employed to measure what constituted an “idiot”, as a good number of persons living in any country on earth at any point in history have surely deserved this label. Yet, the law was more specific in excluding,

…persons who are natives of islands not possessed by the United States adjacent to the Continent of Asia, situate south of the twentieth parallel latitude north, west of the one hundred and sixtieth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich, and north of the tenth parallel of latitude south, or who are natives of any country, province, or dependency situate on the Continent of Asia west of the one hundred and tenth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and east of the fiftieth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and south of the fiftieth parallel of latitude north, except that portion of said territory situate between the fiftieth and the sixty-fourth meridians of longitude east from Greenwich and the twenty-fourth and thirty-eighth parallels of latitude north…

Immigration Act of 1917

If you found that confusing – and you undoubtedly did – then let me put it in plain terms for you. This law barred immigrants from any part of Asia except for the Russian Empire, Japan, Korea, and eastern China. This was understandably a problem for many people of Asian descent who were planning on immigrating to the U.S.

One person who had already come here was Bhagat Singh Thind. He was born in Amritsar in the Indian state of Punjab, which was then under the control of the British Empire. Thind was a member of the Sikh religion, one of the primary minority religions in India. (These are the men you see wearing turbans and sporting beards. Contrary to popular belief, if a man is donning a turban, he is most likely not Muslim.) He was also a person of some ambition and means, moving to the United States in 1913 to pursue a college degree. When the U.S. entered World War I, Thind joined the U.S. Army and was quickly promoted to Acting Sergeant. The interesting thing about his military involvement, besides the fact that it demonstrates a certain amount of patriotism for his new land, is that Thind became the first person given an exemption to wear the Sikh turban while in uniform.

Around this time, Bhagat Singh Thind found himself embroiled in political controversy. Although he was able to immigrate before the 1917 law was passed, the Naturalization Act of 1790 had limited the right to become citizens to those who were “free white men” or “persons of African nativity or persons of African descent”. Thind, on the other hand, came from that dreaded part of the world excluded under the Immigration Act of 1917. However, anthropologists had by this time come to use the word “Caucasian” to refer to what most people deemed “white”. The difficulty was that anthropologists tended to define this race not based purely on skin color, but primarily on account of linguistic heritage, which to them suggested common descent. Thus, the peoples of northern India, whose ancestors had indeed migrated there in antiquity from places to the northwest, were categorized under the Indo-European language group and considered by many experts to be “Caucasians”.

Bhagat Singh Thind in his military uniform in 1918. U.S. Army photo

So under which standard did Thind fall? Was he a white person as defined by the 1790 law? The confusion caused him to be granted citizenship in 1918, only to have it rescinded four days later. Not one to be deterred, Thind tried again the following year in the state of Oregon. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which had previously revoked his citizenship, appealed to the judge who had jurisdiction over the matter. In an effort to discredit Thind, the INS brought up his support for the Gadar Party, an Indian nationalist group. However, the judge concluded that Thind was not in favor of violent methods, but simply desired for India to become independent of British rule. Thus, Thind was granted citizenship for the second time on November 18, 1920.

The INS was simply not content to allow this man to enjoy his American citizenship. It appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which then sent the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court for consideration. This became the case known as United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind. The High Court was asked to settle two questions:

  1. Is a high-caste Hindu, of full Indian blood, born at Amritsar, Punjab, India, a white person within the meaning of 2169, Revised Statutes?

  2. Does the Act of February 5, 1917 (39 Stat. 875, § 3) disqualify from naturalization as citizens those Hindus now barred by that act who had lawfully entered the United States prior to the passage of said act? [1]

Well, the decision was unanimous. Justice George Sutherland issued the opinion of the Court, concluding that “a high caste Hindu, of full Indian blood…is not a ‘white person’” within the meaning of the law. The reasoning for this decision was truly lawyer-worthy. Sutherland wrote that “the provision is not that any particular class of persons shall be excluded, but it is, in effect, that only white persons shall be included within the privilege of the statute”. (italics mine) One wonders if such an argument would work on an eight-year-old girl who has just found out that she is the only person in class not to receive an invitation to someone’s birthday party. While Thind had staked his defense on the meaning of the term “Caucasian”, the Court rejected any definition of race based on such anthropological analysis, reverting instead back to the exact wording of the 1790 law.

In the endeavor to ascertain the meaning of the statute, we must not fail to keep in mind that it does not employ the word “Caucasian,” but the words “white persons,” and these are words of common speech, and not of scientific origin. The word “Caucasian” not only was not employed in the law, but was probably wholly unfamiliar to the original framers of the statute in 1790.

Sutherland then said the following to those who accused the Court of applying a “racial test”.

The term “race” is one which, for the practical purposes of the statute, must be applied to a group of living persons now possessing in common the requisite characteristics, not to groups of persons who are supposed to be or really are descended from some remote common ancestor, but who, whether they both resemble him to a greater or less extent, have at any rate ceased altogether to resemble one another.

Here we can see that the Court’s definition of race relied on what they held to be the “common speech” meaning of the word, which was based entirely on physical resemblance. They declared that “a common linguistic root buried in remotely ancient soil, is altogether inadequate to prove common racial origin”, when in fact common linguistic roots at the very least prove that groups have come into contact with one another and lived in close proximity.

Bhagat Singh Thind is shown in this picture with his battalion at Camp Lewis in 1918.

Justice Sutherland insisted that, “It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference…” This rather reminds me of an experience I had at a restaurant last Friday, when I overheard a white waitress say to the black couple at the table next to me, “I’m not racist, but…” I was immediately afraid of what this woman was going to say, because the sad fact is that many of the people who are the most racist are those who spend the most time protesting that they are not racist. (My personal belief is that every one of us is racist, but just to differing degrees – an extension of familial identity and the fact that we feel most comfortable around those who are most similar to ourselves.) Well, you can decide for yourself whether this part of the Court’s opinion is racist:

In the Punjab and Rajputana, while the [Aryan] invaders seem to have met with more success in the effort to preserve their racial purity, intermarriages did occur producing an intermingling of the two and destroying to a greater or less degree the purity of the “Aryan” blood. The rules of caste, while calculated to prevent this intermixture, seem not to have been entirely successful.

In determining that Bhagat Singh Thind was not a “white person”, the Supreme Court denied citizenship not only to him, but also to other people of Indian origin who had already completed the citizenship process. Although Thind was able to secure his citizenship upon his third attempt in 1936, it was not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that the law with regard to immigration from Asia substantially changed.

Immigration from India has heavily increased in the past few decades, and by any common measure, they have been very successful in this country. According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, 70% of Indian Americans age 25 and older hold college degrees, which is 2.5 times higher than the national average. Not only that, but 40.6% hold graduate or professional degrees. Median household income for Indian Americans is $88,000 per year compared to $49,800 for all U.S. households. They are particularly well represented in scientific and technical fields, and anyone who has seen the Scripps National Spelling Bee in recent years knows that Indian Americans are darn good spellers. (If you have to be stereotyped as something, it might as well be that you are smart.) Part of the reason for this level of affluence is that a high percentage of immigrants from India have been granted entry because they are skilled workers or students: the majority are from India’s middle and upper classes rather than the lower ones. There are few spheres of American life in which people of Indian descent have not made their mark.

Although we often focus on discrimination against African and Hispanic Americans – not without good reason – the fact is that Asian Americans have also faced an uphill battle to be treated as equals. The case of Bhagat Singh Thind shows how deep the prejudice ran against an entire continent of people: the most populous on planet earth. As shown most graphically in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, it was often assumed that a person’s ethnicity, or more crudely the way they looked, would make them more likely to commit criminal acts.

In the year 2017, the direct correlation between race and criminal activity is still present in the minds of many. This is a fine line, because the socioeconomic factors present in some minority communities do make crime more likely, but that does not mean that it is their ethnicity that makes crime more likely. That is an important difference.

But this is only in regard to those already living in America. When it comes to immigration from overseas and the granting of U.S. citizenship, people seem far more worried about religion than ethnicity, although the two issues can at times become conflated, as in the assumption that Muslims are Arab and vice versa. (The majority of Muslims are not Arab, and many Arabs are not Muslim.) There is a kind of odd parallel in the way that the INS officials went after Thind, trying to link him to a violent political movement. Yet, Thind’s views were not actually violent: they were simply not Western.

The big, happy Mantravadi family at our wedding.

The Immigration Act of 1965 that opened the door to some immigration from Asia was very significant for me personally. It allowed my father-in-law, a native of India, to come to this country and eventually gain his citizenship. As a result of this opening to immigration, my husband was born. He has an Indian American father and an American mother of European descent. The extended Mantravadi family includes people who are white, black, Asian, and combinations of the three. It includes many people who were not born in the United States. We are an immigrant family. We are an interracial family.

I myself am not Indian American, though I am happy to be in any way associated with this group. The fact that my husband is only half Indian makes things a little less cut and dry. For example, what group does he identify with on the census? When I asked him, he told me that he just checked “Asian American” last time around, whereas he could have selected the option for more than one race. I asked him once, “Do you think we’re an interracial couple?” and he answered “yes”. I’m personally not sure if we fit that definition in the same way as some other couples. Perhaps it is best simply to say that we love each other and we’re stuck together.

The case of United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind was a watershed moment in a negative way for Asian Americans. Yet, in fighting for the right to be an equal citizen of this great country, Thind did lay the groundwork for better days in the future. I look back on his efforts with admiration, knowing that he helped pave the way for the family I am part of today. In these turbulent times, his is a story that deserves to be told.

[1] At this time, the Court was using “Hindu” to refer to any person of Indian descent and not only those who practiced the Hindu religion.