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August 21, 1999


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Indian Congressman's Birth Centenary To Be Celebrated

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R S Shankar

More than four decades after rancher and judge Dalip Singh Saund made history by being the first South Asian to win a seat in the House of Representatives, over a dozen Indians including Peter Mathews have sought to follow in his footsteps.

None of them has had success at the national level.

And yet to every aspiring Indian American politician, Saund's success is an unfailing inspiration.

"Whenever I felt low during my campaign," says Mathews, a Democrat (like Saund) who has been defeated twice by a Republican, "I thought how hard it must have been for Dalip Singh Saund to win a seat in the House in the 1950s."

"He is a role model not only to me but scores of Indian Americans who want to enter public life," Mathews says.

"His legacy reminds other immigrants from India that it is not enough for them to run successful business and create jobs for other Americans and pay taxes," Mathews says. He reminds us that by being elected and becoming a part of public life, we could become fuller citizens in the country of our adoption."

Two Indian legislators -- Kumar Barve in Maryland and Satvinder Chowdhary in Minnesota -- eagerly acknowledge the inspiration they have received from Saund's legacy.

While Saund's name is a mantra for Indian American political aspirants would you have expected his legacy to be mentioned when Gary Locke successfully ran for gubernatorial office in Washington state about two years ago? Locke is the first Asian to win the post. And who would have expected A magazine to run a story on Saund during Locke's campaign? A magazine is read mostly by Chinese Americans.

"Saund won a seat in the House in the 1950s against many odds in a very strait-laced America," said Neil Dhillon a few years ago, "I wonder why we haven't had anyone following in his footsteps." Dhillon's own bid to win a Democratic Party nomination failed. And while he works for a public relations firm today, he hasn't yet given up the dream of following in the footsteps of one of his political idols.

"He proved to us that we could all overcome odds," says Inder Singh, past president of the National Federation of Indian Associations, says.

"Today, the Indian American community has advantages Saund would have hardly imagined. So whatever fight we should wage in the name of a good cause, we should do with stronger conviction. His example should prompt us not only to aspire for political offices but while committing ourselves to our own communities to be fully part of the mainstream."

"He proved again and again that he could be true to India and Indian community but he could also fight for every American," Singh said.

Unlike today where Indian Americans help partly finance the campaigns of people like Mathews, Dalip Singh Saund had to depend on mainstream voters. Though California had hundreds of Sikh families and they did indeed support him, it was his pride that despite being an Indian immigrant and speaking with an Indian accent, he could understand and relate to mainstream issues. His passions included better deal for farmers and strong subsidies for education.

Saund has many admirers among would be politicians but his name should be a household name among all Indians Americans, says Singh.

"Knowing about him and learning from his books offers great lessons to the second and third generations of Indian Americans," says Singh. "Today we have too many divisions among ourselves, and it is good to know that his first book, My Mother India was published by the Stockton gurdwara."

Saund's book was a scholarly rebuttal of Catherine Mayo's blistering attack on India in her book, Mother India.

Singh, based in California, is talking to a number of Indian organizations to hold commemorative events, especially in view of Saund's birth centenary. Saund never failed to tell his Indian friends that it was in the gurdwaras and Indian organizations that he acquired leadership skills.

As for the men who inspired him, Saund would gladly reveal: "My guideposts were two of the most beloved men in history -- Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi."

When Saund waited in line at Ellis Island having traveled from a small village near Amritsar, an immigration inspector took him out of line, stamped his passport, and gave him a warm welcome, saying: "You are a free man in a free country."

But Saund, 20, would soon discover the reality was something else.

Though he earned masters and doctorate degrees in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1924, he could not get good teaching positions.

Some of his friends told him in private that the school principals were scared that white students would not want to sit in his class.

Many years later he would write in his autobiography, Congressman From India:

'I was aware of the considerable prejudice against the people of Asia in California and knew that few opportunities existed for me or people of my nationality in the state at the time. I was not a citizen and could not become one. The only way Indians in California could make a living was to join with others who had settled in various parts of the state as farmers.

'I had met a few Indians from Imperial Valley who had done very well, and so, in the summer of 1925, I decided to go to the southern California desert valley and make my living as a farmer.'

His wife Marian, whose parents had migrated from Czechoslavia, would tell her friends that Saund would laugh at his plight but would never give up hope.

As he saved money and began buying small agricultural property and started growing lettuce, he wondered whether it was necessary for him to a get a college degree at all. After all there were dozens of farmers from Punjab in California who could hardly write English. And they seemed to have done well for themselves.

Saund's success as an agriculturist led him to be a distributor of chemical fertilizers.

But he was not satisfied in being just a businessman. Even as his business was prospering, Saund who had been active in many Indian causes, had begun to explore the possibility of running for public office. He had worked along with his Sikh peers in Stockton for advancing Indian causes, and he had watched with great admiration the rising power of Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent movement in India. And he was also a great admirer of Lincoln.

But his best inspiration "was the memory of my wise though unlettered mother, who had loved me dearly and taught me the lessons in good living".

In 1942, Saund, who was perhaps the only Indian active in Democratic Party organizations in California, started the Indian Association of America, and joined hands with Indians in New York and Washington to plead with the Congress to allow Indians become American citizens.

After four years of intense lobbying, Saund won his first big public battle when the Luce Celler Bill was passed and was signed by President Truman into a law in July 1946.

Having become a citizen in 1949, Saund continued to be more active in many mainstream organizations such as the charitable organization, March of Dimes. He decided to contest the post of a judge in Westmoreland Justice Court.

He was dismayed that even some of his American friends discouraged him.

He learned one of them had confided in a friend: "I agree that Saund would make a good judge, but I just can't go for a Hindu for judge." Many Americans called all Indians Hindus in those years.

One day a man taunted him in public:

"Doc, tell us, if you are elected, will you furnish us turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come to your court?"

Though Saund was a clean-shaven Sikh, as were majority of the 2,000-odd Sikhs across California, many of the local people knew he was a Sikh. And they also knew that traditionally Sikhs were expected to wear turbans.

"My friend," Saund shot back. "You know me for a tolerant man. I don't care what a man has on top of his head. All I am interested in is what he's got inside it."

Saund had the last laugh when he was elected a judge in 1950. So he thought. But his opponents outsmarted him. And they denied him the seat, having discovered a tiny clause in the law that a judge should have been a citizen for at least one year before the election.

Saund, never a quitter, would not give up. And he was elected judge of the same court in 1952 and served till his resignation in 1957.

In between his judicial responsibilities, Saund continued helping the Democratic Party, made a terrific impression on the local bosses and was chosen a delegate to three Democratic National Conventions starting in 1952.

Saund was first elected to the Congress in 1958, and was a three-term Congressman. During his first campaign against a strong Republican candidate, Jacqueline Cochran Odlum, he exhorted the voters that his victory would show the world that prejudice and discrimination did not prevail in America. He won the election with an impressive 3,000 margin.

Saund's singular achievement, Inder Singh and many other Indians feel, is that he won from an election district in California that had hardly any Indians.

His political fortunes began fading in the 1960s and he was an unsuccessful candidate for re-election in 1962. A few years later, he suffered a stroke and died on April 22, 1973.

Saund, a strong proponent of civil rights legislation in Congress, wrote in his autobiography: "There is no room in the United States of America for second-class citizenship."

Mohinder Singh, a community activist in California, says the above observation should be a mantra for every minority person in America.

"When we face discrimination or prejudice, we should think of people like Saund, how he stood up for his principles, how he never gave up, and how he prevailed. Today we have many recourses to fight discrimination but imagine how hard it must have been for him to overcome those problems four decades ago."

Inder Singh echoes those sentiments:

"To any immigrant, particularly Indian Americans who are concerned about discrimination, and feel discouraged because they think the odds are against them because of their heritage," Singh says, "I would say -- read about Dalip Singh Saund."

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