Dalip Singh Saund, a Man to Remember, to Honor, and to Emulate

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This series of three articles introduces the life and legacy of Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian-American, Indian-American, and Sikh voted to the U.S. Congress.  February 2014 a documentary short about Congressman Saund is scheduled to be released.

I remember another time being angry at a classmate. One of the village elders overheard me muttering and cursing. The old headman listened to me for a while and then said, “Son, come here; I want to show you something.” I followed him as he climbed up a few steps onto the platform of a well and said, “Son, sit here, look down into this well, and repeat what I say.” I did. “Son say “Good morning, sir, how are you this bright day?” The well echoed back, “Good morning, sir, how are you this bright day?” Then the headman said, “Say, `You damn fool, you look silly and crazy to me.'” I repeated the same and the echo came back, repeating my words. The headman said, “Son, that is how, when you grow up, you will find the world to be. In contact with people you will hear your own echo as you heard it from this well.”D. S. Saund, from “Congressman from India

DSSaund_1Dalip Singh Saund, 1956 Official Congressional portrait,Library of Congress

Dalip Singh Saund was born September 20, 1899, in Chhajalwadi, near Amritsar in the state of Punjab. His parents, though illiterate, placed a high value on education as well as spiritual development in the beliefs of the Sikh religion. Dalip was one of seven children and studied hard at school, ultimately completing a B.A. in Mathematics at the University of Punjab. But he soon determined to study in the United States.

As an impressionable student, Dalip recalled hearing the speeches of Woodrow Wilson. Inspired by Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and ultimately – Abraham Lincoln, Dalip felt strongly that the injustices of British-ruled India were absent in the American democracy. He applied and was accepted for graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1920, Dalip sailed from Bombay to England, and from England to the United States; and by train crossed from New York to San Francisco. His intention was to study canning at the School of Agriculture, but after his first year he changed his major to his love, Mathematics, and ultimately earned a PhD.

DSSaund_2Dalip Singh Saund, approximately 1925 Courtesy of the Saund family

Dalip was active in both social and political enterprises; he lived in a clubhouse maintained by the Sikh Gurdwara in Stockton, California and was elected national president of the Hindustan Association of America. In that capacity, he wrote and published a book, “My Mother India” in which he directly addressed the professed opinions (that were not factual) of a popular book, “Mother India” by Katherine Mayo.

DSSaund_3“My Mother India”  Copyright, ©, 1930, Dalip Singh Saund

Originally published by The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society, INC. (Sikh Temple) Stockton, California.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 30-013748


Dalip regularly gave speeches on Indian independence and participated in campus groups of foreign students. He wanted to provide a clear picture of the people of India to the American and global audience.

While a student, Dalip was very aware of the social and legal racism against all Asians – Chinese, Japanese, and Hindus (all Indians at that time were referred to as Hindus, though that was incorrect for Muslims and Sikhs such as Dalip).

The Asiatic Barred Act of 1917 stopped Asians from specific countries (including India) from immigrating and becoming citizens in the United States. And the California Alien Land Act restricted land purchase or leasing to citizens only. This meant that while Dalip was legally allowed to stay in the United States, he could not become a citizen. And for him personally, that meant he could also not get teaching positions, even with a PhD from UC Berkeley.

But Dalip was undeterred and decided to set his future course by staying in America. He had heard of other Indians who had done well as farmers in Southern California, so in the summer of 1925, with little more than his bright mind and bold aspirations, he moved to the desert of Imperial Valley.

Next: A family, a livelihood, and growing political involvement.


For further information about this article and the documentary, please contact Anastasia Walsh at [email protected]. The documentary is the first of a series and part of the Asian Pacific American Members of Congress History Project.  This program is produced by the Heritage Series and their production partners Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (USCHS).

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