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Bhagat Singh Thind’s story is a harsh lesson for NRIs in US supporting CAA

In light of the hardships faced by non-white immigrants for citizenship, the support of Indians in US for the CAA is rather ironic. 

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New Delhi: On 7 January, a group of Indian-Americans held a rally in support of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Boston. They gathered around the ‘historic’ Harvard Square and thanked Prime Minister Modi for enacting the CAA. Amidst such wide-spread support from the NRI community for the Citizenship Amendment Act, the story of Bhagat Singh Thind becomes all the more pertinent.  

In 1918, Thind demanded American citizenship claiming that he identified as an ‘aryan’ and thus, must be ‘caucasian’. The NRI gathering in support of the CAA is ironic considering the way Thind and other non-white immigrants struggled with American citizenship and the grounds on which they demanded it. The CAA, which seeks to grant citizenship on grounds of religion, is operating on the same fundamentals as the ‘racially motivated’ US citizenship laws during Thind’s time. 

Also read: Citizenship law shows tension between BJP’s Hindutva and Modi govt’s economic goal

Bhagat Singh Thind was born in Punjab in 1892 and he went to the US  in 1913. He worked in an Oregon lumber mill and managed to pay his way through the University of California, Berkeley. As US entered World War I, Thind became the first turbaned Sikh to fight in the US army. 

He was discharged from the Army on 16 December, 1918. Once he was back from the War, he applied for American citizenship. Thind was granted citizenship on 9 December, 1918, only for it to be cancelled four days later. This was on the grounds that Thind didn’t meet the “legal criteria for naturalisation” which proposed that applicants had to be “free white persons” or “of African descent”. 

Thind’s struggle from here holds a very important lesson for non-resident Indians in Trump’s US supporting Modi’s CAA. His battle for citizenship lasted 19 years and remains a textbook example of Indian immigration rights in the United States. 

Also read: How citizenship will be granted under new law and what role a state govt plays

Thind’s claim to citizenship

Around the time that Thind requested ‘naturalisation’, the US was engaging with ‘racist narratives’ about non-white immigrants. According to a Scroll report, “Migrant labourers feared the wrath of Asian Exclusion Leagues that threatened to run them out of town — once the work season was completed, of course.”

The struggles faced by non-white immigrants in the US provides some insight into Thind’s explanation for ‘naturalisation’. While identifying himself as a “high caste Hindu of full Indian blood, born at Amritsar, Punjab, India,” he maintained that since he came from “… the original home of the Aryan conquerors…, it must be held that (he) belongs to the Caucasian or white race.” 

To this, the US Supreme Court responded that the Hindu is “of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognise it and reject the thought of assimilation.” The court also argued against Thind’s ‘racial logic’ and stated, “the term ‘Aryan’ indicated a ‘common linguistic root buried in remotely ancient soil’ which was ‘inadequate to prove common racial origin’.” 

More than the Supreme Court’s rejection, Thind’s justification of the grounds on which he must be given citizenship are striking. The choices he made to justify his claim to citizenship are telling of the fact that he didn’t challenge the racist notions of claims on citizenship. Rather, he played along with these notions to his advantage. 

Finally in 1936, Thind secured citizenship after  Congress decided that Veterans of World War I should be eligible for naturalisation. Soon after, he completed his PhD from Berkeley and continued to lecture on non-violence, spirituality and metaphysics. 

Also read: Citizenship law protests could spook investors looking to do business in India

The irony of NRIs supporting CAA

Polis Project co-founder, Vasundhara Sirnate spoke out against the NRI community supporting the CAA and said, “So when you support the CAA you basically tell every single India that is fighting for a secular and progressive India, that none of what happened back then mattered. But it did. Specifically, it mattered for YOU the NRI who is now marching about with his placard in San Francisco.” 

“Thind made an absolute casteist argument in the US Supreme Court and obviously also reflects the current contradictions with the NRI community where they hold on to manuvaad while voting for democrats in the US,” she added. 

Through these past Supreme Court statements, George Lipsitz argues that one is made witness to “possessive investment in whiteness”. Simply put, these are just the structural and material benefits that have historically empowered the Whites, while the South Asians were left to struggle. 

In light of the hardships faced by non-white immigrants for citizenship, the support of non-resident Indians in US for the CAA seems rather ironic. NRI support for the CAA is telling of the fact that they have come a full circle, one which they can’t spot. 


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  1. अगर किसी भी देश का नागरिक या किसी भी धर्म का हो क्या ऐसे नागरिकौ को जो दूसरे देश में जाकर रहना चाहते तो क्या उनको उस देश का सम्मान और क़ानून का पालन नही करना चाहिए। मैं भी जर्मनी में जर्मन क़ानून का दिल से पालन करता हूँ अगर कुछ बचपन में कमी रह गई या नही सीख पाये तो मेरा फ़र्ज़ और दायित्व बनता हैं कि जिसे जिस देश में रहना हैं तो उसका पालन करना हैं ये इतना आसान नही हैं इन्सान लालची लाल हैं केवल लेना जानता हैं जब देने का नम्बर आता हैं तो उसका निजी क़ानून तलता हैं जब किसी देश में सभी के लिए क़ानून बन गया हैं तो कुछ लोग आगर नया क़ानून नही माँग सकते हैं क्योकि देश और सरकार क़ानून से तलती हैं । हम भारत से आते हैं तो हमें विश्व के किसी देश में समस्या नही होती हैं क्योकि हम दिल से रहना और स्वंय को बदलना चाहते हैं ऐसा नही कि हम किसी से कमजोर हैं आज भारतीऔ ने IT क्षेत्र में भारत को सम्मानित किया हैं । क्या भारत सरकार को देश में बाहरी लौंगों से भारतीऔ की सुरक्षा देने का अधिकार नही हैं ऐसा नही हो सकता हैं भारत हर इन्सान को शरण दे । क्यो कि भारत को स्वंय ही समस्या हैं ऐसा जब होता हैं जब किसी देश में जन मानव की जरुरत हो । जो लोग स्वंय देश को छोड़ कर आते हैं क्या ऐसे लोग अपने देश में योगदान नही दे सकते हैं । फिर समस्या इस बात की भी हो सकती हैं कि कौन क्या हैं वह क्या चाहता क्या वह देश में शान्ति से रहेगा कि दंगा करेगा .
    भारत की राजनीति में या सरकार जो कर रही हैं तो देश की सुरक्षा के लिए । हम हिन्दु क्या ग़ुलाम बने रहने के लिए पैदा हुए हैं । नही क़तई नही । अगर भारत में किसी भी से हिन्दु आता हैं तो उसका स्वागत हैं क्योकि हिन्दुऔ की संख्या दूसरे देशों में कम हुई कहाँ गये क्या हुआ क्या कभी मानव अधिकार वालौ में कश्मीरी हिन्दुऔ के बारे जानने की इच्छा की या अन्तरराष्ट्रीय समुदाय में पूछा कि कश्मीरी पंडितों के साथ जो अन्याय हुआ हैं क्या ये मानव अधिकार यही सिखाता हैं कहाँ गया ऐमेस्टी इन्टरनेशलन ।
    बताऔ भाई चर्चा कपो न कि CAA,
    मुझ से जब सरकार / सरकारी कागज माँगती हैं तो मुझे भी देने पड़ते हैं । भारत सरकार नें सभी की ज़िम्मेदारी का ढेका नही ले रखा हैं ।
    जय हिन्द

  2. The analogy is incorrect. Nonmuslims are not denied citizenship in the CAA. Only time for citizenship is different. Also the difference is between legal and ilkegal immigants. The actal name for the CAA should have been illegal immigrant amnesty act. This is no different than the way illegal immigrants from sifferent groups are treated around the world

  3. Harish, u r dead wrong, pal. You are a literate, educated individual who could muster all the “right docs” with which u can prove u came into the USA legally. But, do you indeed believe millions of poor, destitute, uneducated, God forsaken Indians, citizens indeed with claim to the soil of India more solid than any claim you can ever muster over the soil of America if not for America’s welcoming law, have that luxury?Therefore, the primary problem is how does your Modi intend to find out who indeed is genuine Indian citizen. Well, he actually has a simple plan to meet his Hindutva goal. Hindutva’s goal is to get rid of Islam in India altogether and it is your goal as well. Modi would simply sift out Muslims who cant produce the right docs while he wud allow everyone else without docs to remain as citizens. So, you see, u r fooling nobody here.

  4. More intellectual calisthenics by authors looking to malign certain members of the diaspora, in this instance, by equating them to those that institutionalized racial supremacy. A bit of a stretch.

    The sub-continent was divided for political reasons by group A, claiming to represent the religious interests of millions of people. This resulted in a state sponsored, and institutionalized, cleansing of groups B-Z, from certain geographical areas; trickles of which continue to date.

    Is the author actually advocating for groups B-Z to consider giving Naturalization status to illegal migrants from group A, as a one time remedy?

    If so, it would be constructive to provide a framing reference, or an example from history rather than scolding individuals who clearly think groups B-Z were violently othered, and hence deserve fastracked Naturalization so they can move-on.

    • why hide behind A/B-Z and distort history? The closest parallel is with early Nazi Germany – remember Hitler also came to power through democratic means. The point is that we need to learn from the “good Germans” of those times who did not realize the dangers of Hitler. Now of course Germany has compensated many-fold for the heinous mistakes of the past, and giving citizenship to Jews of any extraction is one of these measures. Let us hope India does not have to go through all that to understand the dangers of raising hate against any section of society. NRIs, especially those who are vocal about Indian affairs, are as responsible as those who live in India for ensuring that India 2020s does not become Deutschland 1930s.

      • Comparisons to the Holocaust are disrespectful to what happened to the Jewish and Roma people.

        However, it seems like you’re focusing on imagined ethnic cleansing in the sub-continent rather than recognizing the actual cleansing that is well documented in history and experienced by many till date, either in person, or through intergenerational trauma.

        Mustn’t overlook the fact that India continues to offer political asylum and recognize political refugees from all neighbouring countries.

  5. NRIs in the US like me are here legally and are patiently waiting for our turn to get permanent residency. We didn’t come here illegally in pursuit of economic opportunities. If I’m asked to provide documentation for my legal presence in the US, I can produce all the paperwork needed in 5 minutes. So it is not quite the same to compare us to an illegal immigrant who is seeking sanctuary in India. I sympathize with their position – but your comparison is not quite accurate.

    • Read more.
      There are around 4.5 Lakh of indian illegal migrant in USA.

      Your might be privileged. Your bigotry could harm these Lakh people.

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