United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923)

United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923)

“The decision of the United States Supreme Court that Hindus are not eligible to American citizenship , is most welcome to California.

“The decree in a test case brings Hindu holders of land in this state , and likewise all descendants of Hindus, within the mandatory provisions of the California anti-alien land law.

“There must be no more leasing or sale of land to such immigrants from India.

-Hindus too Brunette to Vote Here , The Literary Digest, March 10, 1923

Linked to the anti-immigration laws that were passed, such as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, was the further question of who upon permission to enter would be allowed to become naturalized as American citizens. The 1790 Naturalization Act had provided that only “free white persons” could be naturalized. In 1870 an amendment was made to include ”persons of African nativity and descent”. While the law made it pretty evident that Asians were to be excluded, some Indians were able to become naturalized because of varying interpretations in certain jurisdictions (most notably New York, California and Washington) of the term “free white persons”. The lower courts in these states took the view that Indians, as “Aryans”, were Caucasian and therefore “white” and eligible for citizenship. States such as Pennsylvania, however, denied “white” status to Indians.
The matter was finally settled in the verdict by the Supreme Court in the case of the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) in 1923. Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh, had immigrated to the U.S in 1913 and worked in various jobs as a laborer while studying at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1918 he enlisted in the United States army, the first Sikh to work for the American military, and was honorably discharged in 1920. In 1919, he applied for citizenship in the state of Oregon and was granted the same in 1920. However, the Immigration and Naturalization and Service (INS) appealed and the case finally reached the Supreme Court.

In 1923, in a verdict that was a huge setback to Indians for decades, Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland declared that although Indians were Caucasian, they were not white, “in accordance with the understanding of the common man”, and therefore ineligible for citizenship. In his ruling he declared,
“We are unable to agree with the District Court, or with other lower federal courts in the conclusion that a native Hindu is eligible for naturalization under. . . . The words of familiar speech, which were used by the original framers of the law, were intended to include only the type of man whom they knew as white. The immigration of that day was almost exclusively from the British Isles and Northwestern Europe, whence they and their forbears had come. When they extended the privilege of American citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person,” it was these immigrants—bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh—and their kind whom they must have had affirmatively in mind. The succeeding years brought immigrants from Eastern, Southern and Middle Europe, among them the Slavs and the dark-eyed, swarthy people of Alpine and Mediterranean stock, and these were received as unquestionably akin to those already here and readily amalgamated with them. It was the descendants of these, and other immigrants of like origin, who constituted the white population of the country when § 2169, reënacting the naturalization test of 1790, was adopted; and there is no reason to doubt, with like intent and meaning.(…)

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“It may be true that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today; and it is not impossible, if that common ancestor could be materialized in the flesh, [that] we should discover that he was himself sufficiently differentiated from both of his descendants to preclude his racial classification with either”.
The ruling was applied retroactively and Indians who had become naturalized prior to the ruling now saw their citizenship rescinded. Worse, in some parts of the country, land could be owned only by citizens, and that included California, where most Indians lived. As a result, many Indians lost their property. A good number returned to India and the number of Indians in the U.S. dwindled even below the previous modest numbers. In 1940, only 2405 Indians remained in the United States.

Bhagat Singh Thind petitioned for naturalization once again in 1935, after Congress passed the Nye-Lea Act that made World War I veterans eligible for naturalization regardless of race. He finally became a citizen, because of his service in the US military, 20 years after he first petitioned for it.

It was in 1946, with the passage of the Luce-Celler Act, that citizenship was extended to Indians. The Luce-Celler Act was signed into law by President Truman, despite opposition from the American federation of Labor, and Indians who lived in the country were once again eligible for citizenship. A small number of Indians – 100 – were also allowed to enter the country every year. However, it was the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act that really opened the doors to most Asians including Indians.

Shefali Chandan
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