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.
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.
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.
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.
This thread is for Non-resident Indians in America that support the #CAA
Today I want to tell you the story of a man called Bhagat Singh Thind.
He was born in 1892 in colonial Punjab. In 1913 he went to the US for higher education and enlisted as a soldier for the US Army
— Vasundhara Sirnate (@vsirnate) January 7, 2020
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.