Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Evolution of an Identity Indian American Immigrants from the Early 20th Century to the Present: A Fictional Family History

The Evolution of an Identity
Indian American Immigrants from the
Early 20th Century to the Present:
A Fictional Family History

by Diya Das

The First Wave:

Clash of Cultures, San Francisco, 1917-1918

“Some push us around, some curse us. Where is your splendor and prestige today?” - Ghadr protest song

“It was here the sentiment was born that this favored land must be maintained as a white man’s country, and we are resolved that this principle shall be established as fundamental and vital.” - San Francisco Chronicle, 1907

“...the white man has two standards, one for his own use and the other for the man with the brown skin.” - Sikh, 1908

The first Indian in the United States is believed to have been a sailor who entered the country in 1790, but the first sizeable migration of Indians to the United States did not occur for more than a decade, in 1907. The “first wave” of Indian immigrants consisted of mostly poor, uneducated Punjabi farmworkers, younger sons with no land in India. They initially immigrated to California, Washington, and Oregon in the hopes of making a quick profit and then returning home with some extra money in their pockets.

Following these Punjabis, who were mostly Sikhs, came a smaller group of young intellectuals who hoped to study in the United States. While well educated in India, some of these students were not wealthy enough to pay for their education at American institutions, and they often worked alongside the Punjabi Sikhs during the summers to pay their tuition. My Californian ancestor became one of these student-farmer types on a more permanent basis when he was expelled from Stanford University for his participation in the Ghadr movement, which university officials viewed as anarchist.

The most famous of these Indian students were Lala Har Dayal and Taraknath Das, both Hindus who studied at Stanford University. In 1912, Lala Har Dayal and Taraknath Das founded the Ghadr Party, whose aim was to gain Indian independence from Great Britain. Drawing on the ideals of the American revolution and the social difficulties experienced by Sikhs in the United States, Har Dayal, the primary leader of the movement, managed to create a significantly large organization to worry British officials, who infiltrated the movement and persuaded American officials to prosecute Ghadr members on conspiracy charges. The result was the infamous San Francisco Hindu German Conspiracy Trial which lasted from 1917 to 1918 and temporarily destroyed the Ghadr movement in the United States.

[Compiled from several entries all made in January 1917]

The day of the “Hindu” laborers begins before dawn, as we leave the bare cabins to work in the fields. The white employer is amazed at our industriousness, but for us, it is nothing. In the summer, we work especially long and hard by American standards. We normally wake up at 4 am and work with their teams until 10 am, use their hoes until 4 pm, and then their teams until 9 pm. Occasionally, workers wake up at 1 am if there is a great deal of work to be done. Our eagerness for difficult labor may seem odd to an American, but the work is nothing for an Indian who needs to make a living. The words of Professor E.E. Chandler at Occidental College are typical of the white employers’ attitude toward Indians: “I do not believe the Imperial Valley is a white man’s country and I am willing to hand it over to the Hindus and Japanese.”

The first Indian immigrants came to northern California in 1907, but the majority did not come for several years afterward. Many came to escape persecution and the British rule of India. They began working in the fields, orchards, lumber mills, and railroads around Marysville in Northern California. They were especially attracted to California’s narrow farming belt, which runs the length of the entire state. The climate is similar to Punjab, and the threats of typhoid and malaria are nothing to Indians and other East Asians. Many of the original immigrants became migrant workers, passing southward as the growing season progressed.5 By 1909, Indians were farming sugar beets in Monterey Bay, Visalia, and Oxnard; celery, potato, bean fields near Holt (a town near Stockton); and the orange groves of Southern California.

Indians have been working in America for nearly ten years, but we are still stereotyped by the white community. I am a true Hindu, while the rest of my comrades are Sikhs. This model is representative of the rest of the Indian population in California; there are Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, but mostly Sikhs. Still, the small minority populations have confused many Americans, who think all of us wear turbans, but call us Hindus. We are the “turbaned tide” of “ragheads” to the newspapers. While many of us fit the white stereotype of the uneducated savage, individuals like myself are largely ignored.

I was educated in India under the influence of British civilization, and I came to America to study at Stanford University. It was here that I made my connections with the Ghadr Party of the United States [party for Indian independence from England, founded in the United States]. However, I soon found out that revolutionary activities are not looked upon kindly in the country of the first modern revolution. I was warned to disassociate myself from the Ghadr Party or I would be expelled. But how do you give up your ideals and call yourself a human being? Now I have no money to return home, even if I desired to, so I remain as one of the few educated agricultural workers in the fields and orchards of California. Over the past few years, I have become a close observer of the largely Sikh Indian community and of the Ghadr movement in the United States.

The Sikhs are unusual in that they are isolated from every other community in the United States. There is no friendship between migrant workers of different races, especially because they are often competing for the same jobs. Only race, not a similarity of economic situation, can forge a bond between low-paid agricultural laborers.

One such example is the situation of 1907, the first year of a considerable Sikh influx. In that year, the Japanese keiyaku-nin (labor contractors) were on the verge of forcing better wages in 1907. White farm owners would have been forced to hire the Japanese at rates close to $3 per day. Employers were in a corner until the Sikhs migrated to America. Working at first for $0.75 per day, the Sikhs formed a migrant labor force along with Mexicans and a few Greeks.9 Although many were unskilled in the fields, they worked their way up in the labor force. Now, some of them work for $4 per day, most of which they send to their struggling families on the other side of the world in Punjab. The Japanese, embittered by the loss of their near-win in the struggle for dominance, often call Sikhs “English slaves” and “poles” because of their height.

Still, despite Sikh successes, the early years of low wages have ruined the image of the Indian laborer, not to mention the 1909 U.S. Immigration Commission report’s admission that it is “practically universal to discriminate against the East Indian in wages.” In their dealings with employers, Sikh bosses often recall how surprised employers are that they and their men are competitive farmers. The white men consistently underestimate the Indian, even as they praise him. The same Professor Chandler from Occidental College once made a remark that was complimentary and racist at the same time: “The Hindu resembles us except that he is a black ‐ and we are shocked to see a black white man.” Still, many Sikhs regard such remarks as compliments. On the social ladder, they say, they are much below African Americans and Mexicans. Sometimes the darker skinned ones have even attempted to pass themselves off as African Americans to obtain higher wages, while the lighter-skinned pretend to be Mexican laborers.

Banks may praise the Sikh, but almost no one else does. Angry whites, afraid that they might lose their jobs to a race willing to work longer hours for less pay, have called them names and beat them. In one incident in early 1908, many Sikhs who had worked for a man named George Pierce were driven out of Davisville. It was one of the most publicized attacks on Sikhs. The Sikh laborers had started work as orchard pruners, but the whites were afraid of the small, but growing, number of Sikhs in their little town. The white residents beat and terrorized the Sikhs, burning their camp, robbing them of $2500, and finally driving them out of town. At the end of its account, the Sacramento Bee happily declared, “All is quiet today and there will be no more trouble if the Hindus keep away.”

Another of my gang told me of another smaller, but not uncommon, incident. “I used to go to Marysville every Saturday,” he said, “[and] buy children ice cream and talk. One day a drunk ghora (white man) came out of a bar and motioned to me saying, ‘Come here, slave!’ I said I was no slave man. He told me that his (i.e. white man’s race) ruled India and America, too. All we were were slaves. He came close to me and I hit him and got away fast.”

The Sikhs, isolated from American society, have built their own organizations. They have formed labor gangs of pindi (village-men), even if their geographic proximity in India was questionable. They have “discovered” tenuous family links so they could truly call themselves family. An extended family in India is very important, so often the gangs consist of twelve to twenty men. They are fluid organizations, with members often coming and going, and during harvest time, there are sometimes sixty men in one gang. Some “gangs” have adopted American institutions. In Vacaville, Sotham Singh is known as a Sikh labor contractor, negotiating labor contracts for large groups of workers.

Sotham Singh has taken the place of the boss man in the traditional Sikh labor gang. The bosses negotiate labor contracts for the whole group. Sometimes, Hindus even join the groups because the work requires an extra laborer. Sharing living expenses and wages, the workers form gangs for a mutual support system, creating almost a collective organization. Each group of workers also takes care of an older man useless for field labor, and they pay him equal wages to serve as their cook. Gangs pay for weekly groceries, and when necessary, a funeral for their pindu (village-mate). They are often the only link to a past life in India, and it is for this that I stay with my gang, even though they are of a lower class and a different religion.

[Compiled from entries of February 1917]

There was another Ghadr meeting tonight. Increasingly, the leadership of the Party has struggled to stay in control of the meetings. The Sikh farm laborers have begun complaining more often about discrimination in the fields and the orchards. As soon as one man mentions how he is paid less than another worker of say, the African race, the others join in with a chorus of righteous exclamations.

The fools cannot keep their mouths shut about their difficulties in America. Ghadr Party members are forced to spend precious time listening to their complaints at a meeting of a political party designed to change the political, social, and economic balance in India.20 Their social complaints about life in America would be better addressed at one of their gurdwaras, those Sikh temples that house religious social service organizations.

Despite their social concerns, the quality of life in America is not as important as whether the laborers are able to earn a living. Most plan to return to India after they have earned a sufficient sum of money to support their families. The men here are mostly younger sons who have come to seek their fortune and return home. The Ghadr Party is merely a political organization founded in the United States for the benefit of the sojourners, who are supposedly able to do more to win Indian independence in America.

Rather than formulating plans to achieve Indian independence, the peasants spend the meetings telling stories. A select group of Hindu intellectuals founded this movement five years ago with the name “Revolution.” Some translate it “mutiny.” The name itself is Punjabi, and strangely enough, the farmers seem to have forgotten their native tongue.

It is most likely with the dissent in mind that Ram Chandra officially began the meeting with the singing of a particular Ghadr song, to remind the Sikhs of our purpose:

The time for prayer is gone.

It is the time to take up the sword.

Empty talk does not serve any purpose.

It is time to engage in a fierce battle.

Only the names of those who long

for martyrdom will shine.

The next textual items on the agenda were quotes from the works of Thomas Jefferson and others of his generation, who have long been regarded as the founders of the first modern democracy. They are one of the reasons why we dare to foment rebellion half a world away from our families and all things familiar: this is America, the land of freedom and opportunity, where, more than a century ago, another group of men declared their freedom from the British Empire. They fought a war and won the right to form their own nation; what better place to start a revolution than here?

If there is any doubt about the purpose of the Ghadr movement, the American Declaration of Independence justifies our actions:

But when a long train of abuses & usurpations pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government, & to provide new guards for their future security...The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries & usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.

In contrast to the American situation, the British have been abusing Indians for nearly three centuries. The first armed rebellion to our resistance movement caused the formal transfer of power from the British East India Company to the British crown, and there have been no other rebellions of note since. Only a collision of unbearable circumstances has forced us to rebel. In the early part of this century, many of us fled India for America because of famine and disease. Epidemics ‐ cholera, smallpox, the plague ‐ swept across the country. In the midst of the deaths, the British seized our land, annexed the state of Punjab, and forced us into poverty. Granted, subdivisions of land below profitable levels has increased the number of landless farmers because of foreclosures, but the loss of Indian land is not the first instance of British tyranny. The British have been physically torturing and tormenting our people in various ways since the day they entered our country. There is no justice: if a native Indian does have an opportunity to testify at a trial, he cannot afford to leave his home. In “The Rights of British America,” Thomas Jefferson describes the American situation under British rule, which is similar to the subjugation of Indians:

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.

Just as the Japanese field workers call us “English slaves,” Indians are verbally insulted everywhere we go. As one Ghadr song states,

The whole world calls us black thieves, The whole world calls us “coolie.”

This abuse from those outside of our community ought to unite us in purpose, since the first step toward improving social conditions everywhere is respect from the rest of the world; that is, we must fight and win a war against the British in India. However, Sikhs have filled every Ghadr meeting for the past two years with complaints about the movement’s failure to improve their lives. There was a time, at the founding of our blessed organization in this country, that this tension between Hindus and Sikhs was not as apparent. However difficult relations between Hindus and Sikhs may be in India, in California in 1912, we all were able to ignore religion for a greater and nobler purpose: the freedom of India from the British Raj.

Our first newspaper, printed in San Francisco on November 1, 1913, proudly displayed an editorial written by Lala Har Dayal to describe our purpose:

Today there begins in foreign lands, but in our country’s tongue, a war against the British Raj...What is our name? Mutiny. What is our work? Mutiny. Where will mutiny break out? In India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink.

The patriotism of the movement, partly due to America’s own revolutionary history, led us for a year or so. Then, Lala Har Dayal, the Punjabi Hindu who founded the organization, was forced to flee to Germany, after he was arrested by American officials for preaching anarchism.

The movement nearly collapsed after Lala Har Dayal left the United States. He placed Ram Chandra, another Hindu, in charge of the movement. Ram Chandra is not a Punjabi like Har Dayal, and even more prejudiced against the Sikh farmers than I could ever possibly be. In only three years of his leadership, Ram Chandra has managed to alienate almost every Sikh member of the Party. He has reorganized the Party to exclude all Sikhs from administrative or organizing positions. Ram Chandra has also openly disparaged the Sikhs, calling them all sorts of filthy names, while at the same time using their money for Party activities. Many have broken away and under Bhagwan Singh, have formed a new Ghadr Party with the same name and newspaper. Now there are two organizations claiming to be the real Ghadr Party.

The same year that Har Dayal left, four hundred of our revolutionaries returned to India to start the freedom fight. The meeting before they left was a celebratory one, in anticipation of the coming victory. We passed around old copies of the Ghadr, reading aloud the messages that had led to this final send-off, such as one editorial proclaiming:

Enough: Wake, O Hindus and rub your eyes. Open your minds. Store your wealth in the Ghadr office and register your name in the army of the Ghadr. Cleanse your blood. How long will you remain seated in lethargy? Be ready to spring like tigers.

The initial call for mutiny in India was painted on one wall of our meetinghouse, just as it had been printed in the newspaper several months before:


Fearless, courageous soldiers for spreading mutiny in India

Salary: Death

Reward: Martyrdom and Freedom

Place: The Field of India

Although many Ghadarites did succeed in rousing the peasantry, a large number failed and were arrested by British spies. The rebellions were quickly put down, and the initial failure caused morale to drop sharply in America. Since then, we have worked to rebuild the Party in America, but the arrests have cost us support.

March 3, 1917

It seems that the Ghadr movement has attracted more attention than anyone had anticipated. In the middle of the Great War, a combination of envy and distrust has served to make us the subject of an investigation. For a few brief months in 1914, we had begun communications with German intelligence through the agent C.K. Chakraverty. We broke off relations as soon as the war began, but still the relationship with the Indian National Committee in Berlin has been exaggerated in the press. Some have accused us of disloyalty and treason because we sought to better the economic and social status of our people.

March 18, 1917

The Party has suffered a significant loss. Several members have been arrested on conspiracy charges. The newspapers describe it as “the Hindu German Conspiracy,” but there is little truth in that statement. There have been no communications with the Berlin Indian National Committee since the official declaration of war, when the United States entered the war against Germany, but anything deemed “un-American” has been under suspicion since that time. The American newspapers have changed the German names of streets, foods, and everyday household objects, and anything remotely connected with Germany is under suspicion. The bad reputation of the arrival of the Sikh laborers as the “invasion” of the “turbaned tide” has not attracted much sympathy for the Ghadr cause. British spies have infiltrated our movement, and the agent Hopkinson has supplied false information about Ghadr activities to the American government. The newspapers are only too happy to supply fictional accounts of our monstrous doings to satisfy the appetite of the American public.

The first people arrested have been only those directly involved in the dropped India-Germany link, not active members of the main Ghadr movement. The agent Chandra Kanta Chakraverty has been arrested, along with the Germans Franz Bopp, Ernst Sekuna, E. H. von Schack, and William von Brincken.36 So far, none of the main body of the Ghadr Party has been affected by these arrests, but I can only assume that many of us will be dragged into this mess before it disappears, through the association of the arrested men with the Ghadr Party.

November 4, 1917

I have spent this long summer and most of autumn in hiding, disguising myself as a Mexican migrant worker. The Mexicans looked at me strangely when I first joined their group, but they have been surprisingly sympathetic, allowing me to hide my Indian identity.

American officials have arrested Ram Chandra and one hundred and five of our fellow Party members since March, the time of the first arrests. Their trial begins in a week or two, and I have elected to remain in San Francisco to hear the fates of my comrades. Unquestionably, the Ghadr movement has been shattered in the United States. Most of the leadership either has fled the country, or is lying in God-knows-what condition in a filthy jail cell. I cannot visit the jail myself, but a few of my more adventurous Mexican comrades have taken their chances to peer inside the high-barred windows of the jail. They do not return with the same smile on their faces as when they had left, but they will not tell me anything.

Despite the dangers, I occasionally manage my own foray into town, although I am careful to stay several hundred feet away from the jail. It is not difficult to hide in San Francisco at this moment. Larger than usual crowds wander in the streets to catch sight of the new imprisoned attractions. Journalists from all over the United States are crowding around the courthouse and the jail, trying to catch a glimpse of those inside. They shout questions day and night at my miserable comrades cramped inside their prison cells.

May 1, 1918

It seems that it has been ages since my comrades first went on trial in the San Francisco courthouse, but it has only been a little over one year since the arrests began. On November 20, the first day of the trial, I finally dared approach the building to stare in through the windows, along with so many others who could not get a seat inside. The authorities had cracked open a few windows, so that the voices of the lawyers carried outside, and nearly all was silent in the streets as many people pressed up against the courthouse windows.

Inside, the dark, filthy, disheartened faces of the arrested Hindus and Sikhs on one side of the courtroom contrasted with the best clothes of the town officials and the handsome suits of the Washington diplomats. The prosecution was mostly calm and collected, confident of their ability to win, while my comrades were calm as well, but out of resignation rather than assurance of winning their case.

The trial began surprisingly with a reference to the esteemed Har Dayal. The U.S. Attorney said in his opening statement:

This conspiracy had its inception surrounding this one individual. This man, Har Dayal…was a rank, out-and-out Anarchist; he believed in a combination and consolidation of all Anarchistic forces in the entire world for the purpose of social, industrial and all other kinds of revolutions of the rankest character.

After this dramatic proclamation, the trial dragged on for weeks, which then turned into months. I cannot remember now when anything happened, but only what did happen. The highlights of the trial proved to be short bursts of drama, as the case took unexpected turns.

Sometime, days or weeks from the start of the trial, one of the former members of the Ghadr Party came forth to testify for the prosecution. His betrayal provoked the first reaction from the defendants, as they all stared in surprise and then glared at his reappearance. Jodh Singh was one of the four hundred Ghadarites who had left to stir up protest in India in 1914. The last the Ghadarites had heard of him, he had been arrested by British officials in Bangkok.40 It was obvious, now, that British agents had shipped him from Asia to betray the Party. Then, surprisingly, he refused to testify when he took the witness stand, shouting, “I will die with my own countrymen!” Officers removed him from the witness stand. I left the window to find something to eat, and to mull over Jodh Singh’s sudden changes of allegiance. I decided to return to work, and it was several weeks before I came to the courthouse again.

At the time of my arrival, there seemed to be an even larger drama than that of Jodh Singh’s reappearance unfolding inside. When I asked the watchers what was happening, they all told me in not-so-complimentary terms to be quiet. Phrase by phrase, I managed to hear the controversy through the courtroom windows. Apparently, one of the defendants was complaining of inadequate legal representation. The other Indian defendants shouted, “Give us justice--this is a farce!” It was at this point that I realized how long this trial could potentially last without any useful arguments being made.

The trial proceeded in a strangely comic manner over the following months. Each bizarre occurrence received the generally expected response, but for a few surprises. For example, one day, the agent Chakraverty decided to confess to his participation in a German-Indian alliance. The revelation caused a furor on the side of the defense, as all defendants vehemently denied any connection.

Sometime after Chakraverty gave his confession, another Ghadarite accused Ram Chandra of selling him and five others into slavery to the Germans for $10,000 and alleged that Ghadr rules stated that he ought to be killed for exposing secrets to the public. The prosecution also made further ridiculous comments on the Ghadr agenda, suggesting that party members plotted to bring Rabindranath Tagore, the famous Indian poet and philosopher, to the United States as part of a conspiracy. They brought forth evidence of a letter which they had “decoded” to read that Chakraverty had played a role in Tagore’s visit to the U.S.45 The prosecution also brought forth other decoded messages that supposedly indicated that Ghadr agents stationed in countries such as England, Germany, France, Japan, and China, as well as those on Pacific islands, were agitating for Indian independence as per orders originating from the United States. While it is true that the Ghadr movement does have sister movements outside of the United States and India, any communication between these groups has been strictly between leaders, with no involvement of the large body of Party members. Still, the newspaper reporters scribbled furiously, attempting to record every one of these ludicrous statements.

In the midst of all these accusations, however, the defendants managed to cause a small furor in the courthouse. One of the defendants subpoenaed an American, William Jennings Bryan, who has written a book about India. The newspapers speculated that the defense lawyers might attempt to use Bryan’s book to show that the German link was not the cause of revolutionary activities, but rather the conditions in India. Regardless of the controversy excited by calling upon an American man in defense of a foreigner, the situation soon resolved itself and the trial continued its slow march to a verdict.

The trial finally appeared to be coming to a close early this year, when the most unexpected event happened. The court had just announced a recess, when out of nowhere, Ram Singh, one of the defendants, shot Ram Chandra, who was also on trial. It appeared that the trial had succeeded in killing the American Ghadr movement. Newspapers based as far away as the Washington Post reported the incident:

Ram Chandra arose and started across the room. Ram Singh also arose. He raised his revolver and began firing. Ram Chandra staggered forward and fell dead before the witness chair, with a bullet in his heart and two others in his body.

At the same moment Ram Singh fell. Holohan [a U.S. Marshal] had shot once with his arm high over his head, so that the bullet should clear nearby counsel. The shot broke Ram Singh’s neck.

Everyone had scrambled for safety after the first shot was fired. There was great disorder in the courtroom, and it took the judge some time to restore order. The judge ordered everyone out of the courtroom, except for the law officials. The crowd returned home in a subdued manner, and all of us watching through the windows followed.

One week later, Judge Van Fleet has handed down the final verdict. Twenty-one of the 101 defendants left have been convicted of conspiracy in a fabricated court case. Their sentences are light, from one to eighteen months of jail time, but the loss still hurts the Ghadr Party. No one speaks of achieving equal status with whites in the United States, and there is little talk of revolution. The media has dispersed, but there is no talk of a Ghadr meeting or even a Ghadr newspaper. I suspect that after their jail time is over, many will return to India, or at least leave California. I myself have decided to return to India, taking whatever savings I have and finding a job there to support my family. America is no longer the land of opportunity for the Indian immigrant.

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