In 1923, the landmark Supreme Court case, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind determined that Bhagat Singh Thind and all other “Hindus” were ineligible for citizenship because they did not meet the “common understanding” of white. This article explores the debates surrounding the question “who is the ‘Hindu?’” in the United States in the early 1900s. The article depicts how the racialized category of “Hindu” was fabricated and constantly curated throughout the early twentieth century to protect the Anglo-American claim to whiteness. This challenges the idea that the category of “Hindu” was labeled as “non-white” following the United States v. Thind decision in 1923 and instead, highlights how the “Hindu” was always made to be “non-white.” Here, the article showcases the leading discourses in written media, labor, and immigration policies surrounding the racial classification of South Asian men in the United States, also known as “Hindu/Hindoos,” from 1906 to 1923. The question posed by these three American sources of discourse was not an ontological one set to explore the essence or being of “Hindu,” but rather a brutal effort to place the “Hindu” in a position to fail in American racial politics. This article examines the development of the racial category of “Hindu” in labor and immigration discourse and how it became embedded within the American “common sense.”

Is life worth living in a gilded cage?

Vaishno Das Bagai, 1928

Fig. 1.

Vaishno Das Bagai at his store Bagai’s Bazaar in San Francisco, California, 19231

Fig. 1.

Vaishno Das Bagai at his store Bagai’s Bazaar in San Francisco, California, 19231

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March 17, 1928—Vaishno Das Bagai, an Indian art dealer living in San Francisco, took his own life in protest against the United States government’s decision to revoke his citizenship following the landmark Supreme Court decision made in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923, in which Justice Sutherland claimed that “Hindus” are non-white according to “common sense” and thus, ineligible for citizenship. Bagai came to the United States in the early 1900s and was naturalized in 1921. He was an ardent supporter of the Ghadar Party before his arrival to the United States and remained an active member until his death. He settled in California’s Bay Area with his wife and children and became, as he described, “as Americanized as possible.” However, following the Bhagat Singh Thind decision, Bagai’s citizenship was revoked, rendering him stateless—unable to return to India or to exercise his civil, political, and economic rights as a United States citizen. Bagai left a letter addressed to “The World” with The San Francisco Examiner explaining his actions that was to be published following his death. In his letter Bagai writes:

But they now come to me and say I am no longer an American citizen. They will not permit me to buy my home and, lo, they even shall not allow me a passport to go home to India. Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights, we cannot leave this country. Humility and insults, who is responsible for all this? Myself and the American government. I do not choose to live the life of an interned person.…Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and bridges burnt behind.2

This article opens with the story of Bagai in order to foreground the dilemma facing “whiteness” as South Asian laborers arrived in the North American West and challenged the Anglo-American claim to “whiteness.” Vaishno Das Bagai’s story tells us how effective the racialization of “Hindus” was—so much so that it threatened to eliminate the “Hindu” himself. During this early period of South Asian immigration, “Hindu/Hindoo” was a fluid ethno-religious category that included Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs from South Asia during the early 1900s; nearly 90 percent of “Hindus” in North America were Punjabi-Sikhs of Jatt (the small landowning caste) backgrounds.3 “Hindus,” such as Bagai, posed a unique threat to “whiteness” as European anthropologists argued that high-caste South Asians were of the Aryan and Caucasian race.4 Once “Hindus” arrived at the shores of the American frontier they threatened to dilute and disrupt “whiteness” and gain access to privileged social, political, and economic rights.

This article explores the debates surrounding the question “who is the ‘Hindu?’” in the United States in the early 1900s. I depict how the racialized category of “Hindu” was fabricated and constantly curated throughout the early twentieth century to protect the Anglo-American claim to whiteness. This analysis challenges the idea that the category of “Hindu” was labeled as “non-white” following the US v. Thind decision in 1923 and instead, in this article I show how the “Hindu” was always made to be “non-white.” I present the leading discourses in written media, labor, and immigration policies surrounding the racial classification of South Asian men in the United States, also known as “Hindu/Hindoos” from 1906 to 1923. The question posed by these three American sources of discourse was not an ontological one set to explore the essence or being of “Hindu,” but rather a brutal effort to place the “Hindu” in a position to fail in American racial politics. I examine the development of the racial category of “Hindu” in labor and immigration discourse and how it became embedded within the American “common sense.” I argue that each of these areas of discourse (re)shaped the racialization of “Hindu/Hindoo” to demand exclusion and expulsion. I also argue that we must expand “exclusion” to include “failed” immigration bills, and show that prior to the US v. Thind decision, riots and “failed” exclusionist immigration bills served as effective means to racialize, exclude, and expel South Asians from white spaces along the US frontier.5 To do so I use sources from local and national newspapers in the United States and Canada, documents in legal proceedings (Hindu Immigration Hearings, 1914 and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923), and the writings of Bhagat Singh Thind.

Vaishno Das Bagai, along with other early South Asian immigrants, navigated a political, social, and economic context in which the United States created immigration policies to open the nation’s boundaries to more “cheap” labor, while also working to close borders to certain ethnic and racial groups. From 1870 to 1923, Asian immigration rose steadily, all while the United States established exclusionary laws, including the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, and the Immigration Act of 1917, among others. Despite the growing restrictions, Asian immigrants continuously sought legal access to citizenship rights. Critically, just a year prior to the US v. Thind outcome in Takao Ozawa v. United States, 1922, Japanese American Takao Ozawa applied for citizenship only to be denied by Supreme Court Justice Sutherland on the basis that “the words ‘white person’ was only to indicate a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race.”6 Ozawa’s case points to boundaries being drawn around whiteness as the US empire expanded westward and immigration from Asia increased to aid in that expansion. Manifest Destiny, the drive to create a new frontier in the ever-expanding “American West,” demanded the constant labor of foreigners.

However, each step the United States took toward the west required a redefining of boundaries, both material and ideological: “What would this new America be? Who would be American?” Immigration, written media, and labor sources from the early 1900s reveal how the United States, as a collective body of disconnected voices, grappled with these questions.

In this section, I explore the early days of South Asian immigration to Canada and the United States from 1906 to 1907 to depict their racialization in both contexts.7 I begin my examination in 1906 as this year marked the early use of language such as “invasion,” “invader,” and “menace” in association with South Asian immigrants on both sides of the border. I argue that the rhetoric of “invasion” led to rioting and the forced expulsion of “Hindus” from North American cities and towns as the only proposed remedy to the growing racial divide and the preservation of “whiteness.” The threat of South Asian immigrant laborers was not toward a specific state or nation, but rather to the “white society” of the Pacific Northwest.

Navigating the colonial economy, South Asians arrived in British Columbia, Canada, as laborers. Considered to be “cheap” labor, these early immigrants were initially received positively by mill owners and local politicians in British Columbia. Prominent mill owners and politicians alike published pieces in the local newspapers to highlight the benefits of the cheap and reliable labor provided by South Asians.8 However, the praise of cheap labor was quickly drowned out by the anti-“Hindu” sentiment of white workers and the public. Not only did local newspapers in Canada publish articles on the threat of a “Hindu invasion,” news sources in nearby US states, such as Washington, also published articles that warned readers that South Asians would become the next “Japanese invasion.”9 The usage of terms such as “invasion” and “invader” were deeply rooted in an already well-established anti-Asian sentiment that Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants faced in both local communities and in immigration policies. At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States had successfully limited immigration for Chinese immigrants with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and strong efforts were being made to expand that exclusion to other Asian immigrants as well. Similarly, in 1885, Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, which placed a significant “head tax” on those wishing to immigrate. Thus, Indian laborers entered a contentious political arena, rife with anti-Asian rhetoric in its social and legal spaces.

For example, the Seattle Star published a brief article entitled “Hindus for Laborers,” which stated that local United States “immigration officials have received word from Vancouver that a Hindu invasion is now on.” The article further stated that the officials received warning that the “turbaned men” would arrive to Seattle, Washington, soon. As the “invasion” was on the rise, the state of Washington set itself on the defense. Over the course of the next few years, South Asian laborers met numerous methods to suppress their “invasion,” including calls for exclusion through riots.

Along with being considered a threat to the white man laborer in British Columbia and the United States, in this immigration period we also see a rise in fear for the safety of the domestic white woman in the Pacific Northwest. South Asian women were not allowed to immigrate individually or alongside their husbands, causing anxiety among white men that “Hindu” men may threaten white women. In aiding the propaganda against “Hindu” immigration, white women made false reports regarding “rape” and home invasion against South Asian immigrant men.10 In one particularly interesting case in November of 1906, white women are reported to have been arming themselves against the threat of “Hindu vagrants” and the “brown heathens from the orient.”11 The “Hindu invasion” begins with the “invasion” of the labor force and ends with the “invasion” of the white family.12 Thus the “Hindu menace” is racialized and hyper-sexualized as a man whose body is considered to be fraught with disease and whose morality is similarly plagued. Effectively, this racialization and hyper-sexualization of South Asian men on both sides of the US-Canada border also solidified the category of “Hindu” as being essentially and necessarily a hyper-sexualized male and non-reproductive labor source.

While early on mill owners and politicians in British Columbia encouraged the arrival of “Hindu” immigrants and proclaimed to offer more money than ever imaginable in “Hindustan,” the reality of working in the mills and mines of British Columbia was quite different.13 The laborers recruited by mills, mines, and railways in British Columbia were not provided with any resources to help them acclimate to the harsh winters of the Pacific Northwest.14 On January 5, 1906, as the death toll of South Asians workers rose day by day, workers organized a strike at the Comox Mines in Nanaimo and demanded higher wages.15 While these strikes were usually mentioned in passing in the local newspapers, they were a frequent occurrence in the mills, mines, and railroads of British Columbia. The rise in labor tensions among workers and now with South Asian laborers striking back, pressured Canadian officials to make decisions against immigration.

On May 7, 1906, the mayor of Vancouver took matters into his own hands and detained incoming South Asian immigrants in a detention center offshore, not allowing them to land despite their valid labor contracts.16 Meanwhile he contacted the Canadian Pacific Railway and argued that not one incoming immigrant would be allowed to land until they had proved of not being at risk of becoming a public charge. The Canadian Pacific Railroad had up until this point recruited workers from Punjab through Hong Kong and brought them over with little restriction. However, with the rise in South Asian led strikes in mines and mills, South Asians increasingly strayed from their label as “reliable workers.” The Canadian Pacific Railway offered little protest and complied to the demands of both the mayor of Vancouver and a threatened white public. A few months later, on August 30, 1906, Canadian Parliament Member in Vancouver R. G. MacPherson announced that the Canadian government would check each arriving “Hindu” member to ensure they do not become a public charge.17 Soon after there was a steady rise in deportations of South Asians who were perceived to have certain diseases or were unemployed.18

Following the newly implemented immigration procedures put in place by MacPherson, many South Asians traveled across the border into Washington to seek employment. News sources in the Seattle area commented on the “Hindu invasion” in the United States. The Seattle Star reported on November 15, 1906, that the people of Vancouver tried everything in their power to restrict “Hindus” and failed, and thus “Hindus” would migrate farther south into Washington. While the “Hindu” presence was not welcome, the United States could not deny them entry as South Asians were British subjects at the time.19 By December 10, 1906, The Seattle Star considered the “Hindu invasion” to be a full-blown crisis, as described in their article “The Hindu Invasion a Menace.” The writer describes the “Hindu” to be as commonly found on the docks of Seattle as would a Chinese or Japanese laborer, placing the “Hindu” within an already existing “Asian invasion.” The crisis was thus not necessarily the presence of South Asians in Seattle, but the threat that their presence would become common.20 Similarly, The Evening Statesman describes the “Hindu invasion” as the “new immigration problem” in the United States.21 I argue that the solution to this “new immigration problem” became riots and forced expulsion.

Like the critics of South Asian immigration in Canada, those in Washington also believed that the “Hindus” were lazy workers, had questionable morality, and carried disease. The “Hindu question” became one debated in all arenas. In Everett, Washington, Reverend W. E. Randall gave a sermon to his congregation in which he stated that hiring Hindu laborers was “unpatriotic.”22 Randall’s sermon wove together the anti-“Hindu” agenda from the labor and political arena and presented it to the white Christian citizen of the Pacific Northwest. It is interesting to note how seamlessly the racialization of “Hindus” as “menace” fit within the everyday life of the white public. With the “Hindu question” permeating into all aspects of life in the Pacific Northwest, it became a matter of time when long-term solutions were demanded.

Riots as Remedy

The rise in labor and racial tensions along the border of Canada and the United States erupted in the small town of Bellingham, Washington, in 1907. In the late night and early morning of September 4and 5of 1907, nearly three hundred local white mill workers in Bellingham, Washington, raided a “Hindu” settlement and issued threats.23 The South Asian laborers left their beds and ran out of their cabins, described as half-naked, and hid among the lumber piles while chased by the white workers. Threatening to use violence, the white workers demanded that if the “Hindus” came out, they would be allowed to gather their belongings, but must agree to leave town. The riots raged on and by 10:00 a.m. nearly two-hundred-and-fifty police officers were summoned and placed on duty to try and control the uprising. The rioters demanded that not only the “Hindus” be driven out of town, but they wanted the expulsion of Japanese and Filipino laborers as well. This shows how this moment of violence is part of a larger anti-Asian sentiment. Fearing that these riots would affect the United States’ relationship with Britain, the mayor of Bellingham, Mayor Black, claimed that he would offer the South Asians full protection, even if it meant calling in federal troops.24 Though the Anti-Oriental Riot was considered the worst race riot to its date in the Pacific Northwest, federal troops were not involved. The riot lasted about three days and ended with over one-hundred-and-fifty South Asian laborers leaving Bellingham by September 6, 1907. Only one-hundred-and-twenty-five South Asians remained and issued a statement that they would leave once they gathered their belongings.25 By the following day, there were reports that not a single “Hindu” was left in Bellingham and the riots were “successful.”26 Many South Asian laborers reportedly returned to British Columbia or left to seek employment in Oregon and California.

Media reports following the riots argued that the riots were not about race and instead, the central motivation behind the rioting was to loot the labor camps. They insisted that this was a class issue, not a “race issue.” The Spokane Chronicle reported that the chief motive behind the riots was looting as many South Asian laborers claimed to have their belongings, including money and gold stolen by the rioters.27 The article, like others published in the aftermath of the uprising, attempted to shift the conversation regarding race to a labor competition issue. In doing so, it singles out the riot as a spontaneous looting action, rather than a deep-rooted result of the racialization of South Asians over the past few years.

Reponses from the public to the riots varied. Some sympathized with the South Asian laborers, including one op-ed writer at The Seattle Republican who claimed that white folk are “always ready to riot” and “whether it be North, South, East, or West in the United States, it is always safe to bet that the white man is ever ready to do violence to some class of human beings if they happen to have darker skin than their own.”28 However, most of the statements issued in United States’ news sources celebrated the expulsion. Writers at the Washington State Journal reacted positively and claimed that hundreds of “Hindus” had taken the place of white men at the sawmills and needed to be outed.29 The mass of articles and opinion pieces commending the rioters reveal how an anti-“Hindu” sentiment extended beyond the city lines of Bellingham to a wider American audience. Had this simply been a looting issue, there would not have been such a positive reaction to the violent nature of the expulsion. The synchronous anti-Hindu sentiment among media and public opinion in response to the riot exposed how violence was seen as means to achieve racial and economic justice. By extension, the way in which the riots were reported reveal that this was in fact a race and class issue and a response to the “new immigration problem” in the American West.

The “successful” expulsion of South Asian laborers from Bellingham, Washington, became inspiration for the development of the Anti-Oriental League by the Everett Trades Council in Everett, Washington, where some South Asians were employed in local lumber mills.30 State Organizer Young of the American Federation of Labor led the union’s anti-Oriental group toward the abolishment of “Hindu” and Japanese labor.31 Young passionately argued that rioting was the only way to drive out “oriental” laborers. The labor union at the time had four-hundred-and-fifty white members and Young asserted that each of them would have to make a choice between “the Hindu and the white man.”32 The plan was that once the anti-Oriental League had enough members, they would approach mill owners and demand the discharge of “Hindu” laborers or else threaten to riot. While the League also attempted to garner the support of Mayor Jones of Everett, they claimed that public opinion would be their best ally.33

On November 3, 1907, the Everett police arrested thirty-four white union members who were planning out the riot. The police learned about the organizing and acted before the rioters could go through with their agenda. Despite Mayor Jones’ warning to them about rioting and in protest to the arrests, two-hundred white workers gathered around South Asian labor camps that night. In response, Mayor Jones further warned that he would call the militia if needed.

Eventually, the white laborers subsided, and rioting was avoided. In comparison to the two-hundred workers ready to riot, there were only forty South Asian laborers in Everett at the time. The Everett example of a post-Bellingham riot is simply one of many occurrences. Similarly, on October 26, 1907, twenty South Asian laborers were stoned out of the city of Danville, Washington.34 In the St. Johns suburb of Portland, Oregon, in the spring of 1910, over two-hundred white lumber mill workers at St. Johns’ Lumber Co also attempted to expel the three-hundred South Asian laborers employed at the mill. Accusing the South Asian laborers of “taking the place of white men,” the rioters proceeded to corner and savagely beat several South Asian workers. While the mayor of St. Johns had initially claimed he would use his influence to get rid of the “Hindus,” after the riot on March 21, 1910, he talked the rioters down.35 Fearing a repetition of the violence that occurred in Bellingham and other small towns, many South Asians left St. Johns to pursue work in Portland or California.

Official legal and immigration responses to the increase in South Asian immigration and the subsequent rise in anti-“Hindu” sentiment among white laborers in both the United States and Canada was to attempt to ban South Asian laborers; however, neither nation was able to fully restrict immigration. In November 1907, United States Immigration Commissioner J. H. Clark investigated the South Asian immigration issue and reported that “the brown men from the Ganges were becoming a menace to white labor on the coast” and recommended immediate exclusion.36 Clark’s investigation had little effect and was unable to generate any South Asian restriction laws. Meanwhile, following similar riots and racial uprisings in British Columbia, Canadian officials also acted to restrict South Asian immigration; however, they were unable to do so. Instead, with the help of some British officials in India, measures were taken to deter Punjabis from migrating to Canada. This effort included a circulation of pamphlets that discouraged immigration in Punjab’s districts where many immigrants seemed to be coming from. Other attempts were made to raise the cost of passage.37 While the Canadian government was unable to explicitly ban South Asians, in 1908 they passed the order-in-council PC 920.38

While rioting seemed to be an extreme method to expel “Hindus” from a given space and community, the steady rise in racial tensions and labor disputes in both Canada and the United States led to the forced exodus of South Asians from Bellingham and other small towns. Media reports and official responses regarding the aftermath of these riots were indifferent in nature and emphasized the sporadic nature of a riot—a spark of violence that erupts and dies in a moment. However, the riots were far from sporadic; instead it was the steady stream of rhetoric, such as “invasion” and “menace,” that came to define “Hindus” as the “new immigration problem” and rioting became a remedy to this problem. While the efforts surrounding the legal exclusion of South Asians led to some restrictions by the Canadian and US governments, they were unable to ban South Asian immigration in its entirety in that moment. Thus, the public became a key player in implementing the exclusion of South Asians, particularly through riots. In examining the histories of anti-“Hindu” sentiment, we need to look beyond the laws and policies of nations as methods of exclusion. The media and white public’s success in exclusion through riots shows a different way to view restriction, exclusion, and racialization.

While the threats of rioting were initially successful in some small towns, other major railroad companies and labor camps did not cave under the threats from white workers. In December 1908, the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad employed its first batch of “Hindu” laborers. A Los Angeles Pacific Railroad official reported that they would continue to employ “oriental” laborers until much of the rough work on the trolley system was done by “these people.”39 Despite the strong anti-“Hindu” sentiment among white laborers across the new frontier, major industries grew immensely in this period and required the steady and “cheap” labor provided by South Asian workers. However, as we see in this section, while South Asian immigration steadily increased, so did the efforts toward restriction and exclusion.

Ghadar in Oregon

Following the riots and the growing threats of anti-“Hindu” violence in Washington and Oregon’s lumber mills, in 1913 we see a substantial attempt at political organizing on behalf of South Asian (largely, Punjabi) laborers across the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, Astoria, Oregon, became the center of a rising radical Punjabi labor population. With strong racial tensions in city centers such as Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, the remote lumber mill town of Astoria allowed space for Punjabi laborers to freely meet and discuss future political plans.40 The increasing threats of riots led to the development of more tight-knit South Asian labor communities and the establishment of “Hindoo-towns” and “Hindoo-colonies” across the Pacific Coast.41 In addition to the advantages provided by rural landscapes to revolutionary movements, the state of Oregon also attempted to repress riots more ardently and efficiently than Washington officials, and there was a stronger anti-violence stance taken by their public and media outlets.

This may have been because there were fewer South Asians in Oregon and that it was more distant from the heavily surveyed Canadian border.42 While this did not exclude anti-Asian sentiment from rising among Oregon’s white citizens, Astoria was a unique town in that there was no reported anti-Asian communal violence up to 1913. Historian Johanna Ogden argues that this may have resulted from the particularly diverse population of the small lumber mill town. By 1910, nearly half of Astoria’s 9,600 residents were foreign-born, with a mix of peoples who were South Asian, Chinese, and Finnish.43

The discussions that motivated the establishment of the anticolonial Ghadar Party were led by Punjabi laborers and activists who had prior experience with the economic and social oppressions imposed by the British Raj and the racial discrimination that South Asians faced in the United States and Canada. Co-founder of the Ghadar Party Sohan Singh Bhakna was one such activist who in 1912, while working at the Monarch Lumber Mill in Portland, wished to combat the oppressions South Asians were facing in a transnational context. As a laborer, Bhakna was quite familiar with the rising threat of riots along the West Coast as he had been at St. Johns, near Portland, during the anti-“Hindu” riot of 1910.44 Another important organizer in the area was Kanshi Ram, who worked as a labor contractor in Northern Oregon’s lumber mills. Ram was also present during the St. Johns riot and had advocated for the South Asian laborers to the mill owners.45 Finally, G.D. Kumar, a Seattle-based South Asian anticolonist and coeditor of the radical periodical Free Hindustan, was a central figure in the founding of the Ghadar Party. Recognizing their aligning interests, Ram, Bhakna, and Kumar met in March of 1912 in Portland to establish an organization that would meet every Sunday to discuss the economic, social, and racial issues South Asians faced in the United States, Canada, and India. The organization would publish a newspaper that outlined these issues and spread an anticolonial message to other South Asians. They called themselves the Hindustani Association of America. A second branch of the Association was opened in Astoria later that year.

The organization received interest and positive responses from other South Asians in the area. The group wished to meet to create a concrete identity and plan for more active measures to fight imperialism and its affects. Nearly a year after their initial meeting, the Hindustani Association of America met again in St. Johns and invited Har Dayal, a philosophy professor at Stanford University and South Asian activist to participate. After a heavy debate, the group of activists and laborers decided to take on a more radical anticolonial agenda and work toward freeing India of the British Raj. They collectively decided to establish the Ghadar Party and Ghadar Press (mutiny) to publish their anticolonial message that they planned to spread all over the British colonies and the United States. Over the next few weeks, the leaders of the Party organized meetings across mill towns in Washington and Oregon letting laborers and activists know of their agenda. With a significant backing from Punjabi laborers in the Pacific Northwest, the Party met on May 30, 1913, in the Finnish Socialist Hall in Astoria. The meeting covered the new proposed plan to overthrow British rule in India and Har Dayal provided a special keynote speech. Later that year, the Ghadar Party and the Ghadar Press relocated to San Francisco and Stockton.

While the motivations for the formation of the Ghadar Party are deeply rooted in establishing home rule in India, I argue that it was also in response to the rising threats of riots. Specifically, the party was responding to how effective riots became as motivations for formal restrictions and exclusions of South Asians in the Pacific Northwest. In choosing to meet in St. Johns, a space of immense racial hatred and violence, the Punjabi labor community found possibility of freedom in a space of precarity. In conjunction, I also argue that the riots were an effect of the colonial and imperial politics of the time and the rhetoric surrounding the “Hindu invasion” was pushed forth by immigration officials in Canada and the United States, along with the race-making project curated by the North American media, immigration officials, and its white public. One of the most compelling aspects of the establishment of the Ghadar Party was its search and demand for freedom. However, to fully understand what the movement meant by freedom, we also need to expand the boundaries of restriction and exclusion, to recognize the broad range of these practices during the early twentieth century.

Racial Ambiguities and New Restrictions

As the Ghadar Party began organizing in 1913 to fight colonialism and imperialism in British India, other South Asians in the United States were slowing edging toward civil and social rights through other means; the calls to further exclude and restrict “Hindus” rose concurrently. In 1913, Akhay Kumar Mozumdar applied for naturalization in the state of Washington and received it, sparking outrage all along the West Coast.46 In particular, the outrage shared by immigration officials and the US media regarding the “Hindu” edging toward whiteness was made apparent in the debates surrounding the “Hindu’s” racial classification.

Labor exclusion became a critical means through which to exclude South Asians from civil and political rights and also to aid in the further racialization of the “Hindu.” Commissioner General of Immigration A.J. Caminetti built his prospects toward the California Governorship on the platform of excluding “Hindus.” I argue that though Caminetti’s “Hindu” exclusion immigration bill failed, his anti-“Hindu” campaign was successful in imposing new forms of restriction and exclusion. Caminetti’s efforts brought together multiple arenas of organizing, which facilitated the growth of the anti-Hindu logic behind the US v. Thind decision.

A high-caste, Hindu-Bengali spiritual leader and member of the New Thought Movement, Akhay Kumar Mozumdar, presented his case for citizenship to United States District Judge Frank H. Rudkin in Seattle, Washington, on the grounds that he was a “free white person.” Mozumdar had applied for citizenship for the past two years and was denied the right once before. However, in this case, Mozumdar argued that his “high-caste” background ensured the purity of his “Aryan blood,” making him a “white person.”47 Judge Rudkin agreed and claimed that certain peoples of India were in fact of the Caucasian race and made Mozumdar the first “Hindu” American citizen in the nation.48 Though the true intentions behind Judge Rudkin’s decision may never be known, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times considered his decision to be a “public service,” as the legal determination of “Hindus” as white may prevent any further violent instances in the “Hindu war scare.”49 By setting a new precedent, Mozumdar’s case provided South Asians in the United States with the opportunity to apply for citizenship. Following Mozumdar’s success, by September of 1913 nearly one-hundred-and-seventeen South Asians applicants for citizenship and sixty-three were passed.50 However, his case also complicated the means through which citizenship rights were achieved by bringing caste dynamics into the racial system and immigration policy of the United States. Thus, while this was a moment of progression toward the attainment of social, political, and economic rights for South Asians, it also introduced further means of restriction.

Though Mozumdar’s case provided a window of opportunity for South Asians in the United States, immigration and government officials saw the decision as an immediate threat to “whiteness.” Following the case, media reports questioned the decision on the grounds of The People of the State of California v. George W. Hall, 1854, which determined “Indian” peoples to be “non-white.” However, Judge Rudkin argued that the decision categorized “blacks, mulattos, and Indians” as non-white and in that case “Indian” had referred to “the Native Americans as found by Christopher Columbus.” Instead, “Indians” from India were in fact Caucasian.51 Other instances of questioning what future lie for “whites” in the United States arose. Articles with titles such as: “Who are White People?” and “Hindus Seek to be Declared White: It’s Not Hereditary, Its Tan” took over the front pages of California newspapers. The questions surrounding the “Hindu” now also included questions of “whiteness.”

While the uncertainty surrounding whiteness was important, a more critical question was posed by a small newspaper publisher in Pendleton, Oregon. On August 8, 1913, the East Oregonian, published an article entitled, “Can Hindus as a Race be Barred from the US?”52 The article briefly surveys the actions of Immigration Commissioner General A. J. Caminetti of California, who was working to deport twenty-five South Asian men held at Angel Island. The question of whether US immigration and government officials could officially bar “Hindus” as a specific and distinct racial group was first brought forth by this rather small, but important publisher in Oregon. Soon, other papers across the United States’ Pacific Coast picked up this headline along with detailed accounts on the actions of Caminetti, aiding in the development of a new campaign to exclude South Asian immigration. The San Bernardino County Sun also saw Caminetti’s deportation actions as a means to help the Pacific coast avoid furthering the racial complications that Mozumdar’s citizenship decision had sparked.53 At this time the white labor unions looked to exclude Japanese immigrants, however, the US government was keen to maintain good relations with Japan. Caminetti argued that “special-relations” need not be maintained in the case of “Hindus” and they should and could be excluded. Caminetti made the argument that since the British government did not provide equality to South Asians, the United States did not need to provide access to equal rights either.54 Caminetti gained both legal traction and a popular following for his anti-“Hindu” agenda.

The racial landscape in 1913 was highly complicated and exclusion on the basis of race would not have been easily granted. Representatives of California were aware of this issue and had previously attempted to tread this track before while advocating for exclusion with little success. For example, if taking the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as a framework through which to pass a “Hindu” exclusion law, it would have to be done through a discourse of labor, not race. Though the Chinese Exclusion Act explicitly names race, it operated by excluding Chinese laborers and maintained open boundaries for trade. Following the effort to center “labor” in exclusionary policies, the Alien Land Law of California, 1913, was passed primarily targeting the rising success of Japanese farmers in California. Representative of California Sisson appeared before Congress in defense of the Law on May 23, 1913.55 Sisson made the case that the unrestricted admission of aliens would ruin the “American farmer.” Fully aware that at that moment, the United States government would not administer a bar on Japanese immigrants as it would put their political relationship with the Japanese Empire at risk, Sisson instead argued that cheap “Hindu” labor was affecting the independent “American” farmer and could potentially drive “Americans” out of farming. The Representative’s seemingly sensationalist argument for barring “Hindus” based on race was not positively received by the Congressional committee, nor was his argument that cheap labor was hurting the US economy appreciated by industrial leaders.

Meanwhile Caminetti’s successful effort to deport twenty-five South Asian men off Angel Island became highly popular, leading him to tour across the Pacific Coast and build upon his anti-“Hindu” platform. Caminetti’s popularity among other California Representatives and white communities throughout the Pacific Coast as a “man of action” was tremendous. I argue that the success of his anti-“Hindu” platform was due to the following four reasons: (1) Caminetti worked toward establishing the “Hindus” as a distinct class in immigration policy, not as a race; (2) he advocated for the extension of the preexisting Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which excluded Chinese laborers, to also exclude “Hindu” laborers; (3) he sought the support of railroad owners, one of the leading employers and contractors of South Asian laborers; (4) advocated for union support, whom had already established anti-“Hindu” leagues and had a track-record of organizing riots. Commissioner Caminetti’s anti-“Hindu” campaign reached multiple platforms and while racially motivated, it utilized the discourse of labor as means to exclude and restrict South Asian immigration. His propaganda furthered the fabrication of the “Hindu” in the United States as now an “undesirable” laborer.

By mid-December of 1913, Caminetti’s propaganda to convert the entire Pacific Coast into “exclusion societies” had garnered a tremendous amount of support from state representatives and the white public.56 California Representative Raker proposed a new immigration bill which sought to exclude all laborers from the “Asiatic” region.57 This of course would include South Asians, however after considerable debate the bill made sure to remove any discussion of Japanese immigrants as to not challenge the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 between the United States and Japan. As the United States entered 1914, the Hindu Exclusion Bill received support from white labor unions and some government leaders.

After a considerable debate between the months of March and April of 1914, the Hindu Exclusion Bill was defeated. Though the bipartisan Immigration Committee was sympathetic to Caminetti and Raker’s arguments, the Bill still seemed closely linked to the sensitive immigration agreement between the United States and Japan. Through a close-reading of the transcript of the Hindu Immigration Hearings Before the Committee on Immigration the question of the Japanese situation arose quite consistently.58 In the end, President Wilson did not support any anti-“Hindu” legislation as it put his relationship with Japan at risk. Though these trials have been written on briefly in the past by scholars, such as Sarah Isabel Wallace, the trajectory of Caminetti’s immigration and political career and the outcomes of the hearings have not yet been explored as a means to further the project of racializing the “Hindu” in the United States prior to the US v. Thind decision. Caminetti’s play on racial politics and labor tensions led not only to the Hindu Exclusion Hearings, but also had drastic consequences for South Asians in the United States. I argue that we must expand our scope of analysis beyond the defeat of the Bill to locate the other ways in which Caminetti’s actions furthered restrictions and exclusions for South Asians in the United States.

Almost immediately following the defeat of the anti-“Hindu” immigration bill, Ganesh Pandit became the first South Asian in California to become naturalized on May 6, 1914.59 Despite Pandit’s success at his immigration hearing, South Asians faced new forms of restrictions following Caminetti’s hearings. The restrictions that faced South Asians in the United States were centered around both labor and immigration policies. First, following the defeat of the Bill, industries began to close their doors to “Hindu” workers.60 The second outcome of the Hindu Immigration Hearings was the rise of new politicians along the Pacific Coast also adopting similar anti-“Hindu” agendas to garner public support. While Ogden had described Astoria as free of anti-Asian riots in early 1913, by late 1914 anti-“Hindu” sentiment was on the rise. As a rising political leader in Astoria, Oregon, Dr. C. J. Smith delivered a speech to local white laborers in which he declared that he was vehemently against South Asian immigration. He further stated before a crowd of “hundreds” of white laborers that, “I would rather have Oregon in that primaveral state than to have its development due to that class of people.”61 Caminetti’s argument that “Hindus” were the most undesirable laborers and immigrants did not work to achieve an immigration ban in 1914; however, he was successful in convincing employers to terminate their contracts with South Asian laborers and in deterring them from establishing new ones.

While the Hindu Immigration Hearings were still in process in February of 1914, Caminetti issued a statement through the press in which he expressed his desire to run for Governor of California. He followed his statement with a strong claim to restrict “Hindu” immigration.62 Though he did not run for Governor in California, perhaps due to the defeat of his bill, he continued to work as the Commissioner of Immigration following the Hearings. Despite the outright exclusion of “Hindus” in the United States no longer being on the table, Caminetti worked toward improving the methods of deportation to ensure the United States Immigration Service could deport more individuals, more efficiently.63 While Caminetti’s early motions toward “Hindu” exclusion did not pan out in the form of an immigration exclusion bill, it did set the stage for both the immigration bar of all “Asiatics” in 1917 and the US v. Thind decision in 1923. Championing the anti-“Hindu” agenda as one of his life’s passions, Caminetti died in November of 1923, nearly nine months after the US v. Thind decision had declared all “Hindus” non-white.

Following the defeat of the Hindu Exclusion Bill in 1914, the next three years offered South Asians across the Pacific Coast the opportunity to apply for naturalization. In 1916, Judge Franklin J. Cole of El Centro, Imperial County, ruled that “Hindus” were eligible for US citizenship if they could prove they were of high-caste.64 Concurrently, the District Court of Washington and Federal Judge M. T. Dooling of San Francisco both made similar rulings. Each ruling argued that if the “Hindu” applicant could prove that he was high-caste, he would be recognized as “white” and thus be eligible for citizenship. According to Judge Dooling, “ethnologically, all the upper classes of India are Aryan and therefore eligible to American citizenship.”65 It is particularly interesting to note the ways in which the caste-system becomes a logical ground through which to grant naturalization in the United States. Caste is both a concerning and a non-assimilable quality for some,66 while within the legal system it was also translated as a hierarchical system that relates high-caste to “whiteness.”

Because the high-caste “Hindu” was now eligible for citizenship, the majority of Sikhs migrating from Punjab who were jatt (a landowning caste in South Asia) applied for citizenship only to be met with further concern surrounding assimilation. Upon swearing into citizenship, turban-wearing Indians (most of whom were Sikh) were now required to shave their beards, remove their turbans, and cut their hair. The turban was believed to be a continuing roadblock for Sikhs on the path toward assimilation. However, while some agreed to this demand in order to attain citizenship, others refused.67 One source stated, “It was the same son of India, who wishing to become a citizen of the United States, refused to remove his turban while taking the oath and so remained a British subject. Always the turban remains, the badge and symbol of their native land, their native customs and religion.”68 It is interesting to note, that the author of this newspaper article concludes that the Sikh man had chosen to keep his turban, and thus his status as a British subject, however, he does not acknowledge that the man chose to retain his Sikh identity. While there are many Sikhs who do not wear the turban, this man obviously felt compelled to keep it, even if his chance at US citizenship is revoked.

Though the path to citizenship was bittersweet for some South Asians in the United States, it was still a possibility that was greatly desired. The protections offered by the United States, specifically against the British government, were immensely valuable for anticolonial organizers. The United States offered a space from which they could criticize the British Raj without the severe consequences they would have faced in India. However, the sense of safety the Ghadar Party organizers felt in the United States proved to be an illusion. The Ghadar Party had worked closely with the German Consulate in both San Francisco and Germany throughout 1914 and attained support in the form of weapons and funding for a revolt against the British Raj. Mutineers had left the United States in massive numbers69 to fight against the British in India. The Germans had agreed to send arms and ammunition on a ship, which was to meet with the revolutionaries off the coast of Karachi. However, the German ships were intercepted and the Ghadarites landed without any weaponry. Meanwhile plans for the revolution had been leaked to British officials and the Ghadarites were arrested. Those captured in 1914 were tried in the Lahore Conspiracy Trial of 1914.

Consequently, one day after the United States entered the First World War, on April 7, 1917, Assistant Attorney General Charles Warren instructed US District Attorney John Preston to have Ram Chandra and twelve other Indians arrested for violating the US’ neutrality laws for conspiring to organize a military expedition against a country with which the United States had been at peace.70 The Ghadar headquarters in San Francisco were raided by US authorities and they managed to collect a running list of members of the Ghadar Party from across the world. Documents were also collected that related to the Ghadar Party and the Berlin India Committee’s collaboration with the German counsels to overthrow the British Raj. The Hindu-German Conspiracy Trial, 1917, in San Francisco revealed an interesting collaboration between the US and British empires and was of great focus to the American public, as it was the most expensive trial to date. On April 23, 1918, the jury found all but one of the remaining defendants guilty of conspiracy to violate the neutrality laws of the United States. The trial both served to fraction the movement and to generate a warning against further radicalism in the United States. After the sentences were delivered, US Attorney John Preston remarked that the verdict demonstrated that, “we must teach the non-assimilable, parasitic organizations in our midst that while this is a land of liberty, it is not a country of mere license.”71 As Preston borrows anti-“Hindu” language in his statement, here, we see the “Hindus” as undesirable due to their political nature.

Immediately following the trial, the United States continued its efforts to suppress both the “yellow peril” and the “red scare” through various new laws and policies. In 1917 and 1918, Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition Act, as well as the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1918. While the Espionage and Sedition Acts allowed the federal authorities to punish any appearance of disloyalty to the US government, the Immigration Acts effectively excluded Indian immigration as they came from the now “Barred Zone.” The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, issued literacy tests on immigrants and barred immigration from the Asia and Pacific Zone. The Immigration Act of 1918 sanctioned guilt by association and lifted the statute of limitations for deportation for post-entry criminal conduct in immigration proceedings. This act both excluded and expelled immigrants who were deemed anarchist by practice or association. While anticolonial and anti-imperialist efforts continued in the United States, these new legal stipulations made it much more difficult for Ghadarites to organize. The brief period between 1914–1918 was one of immense precarity and possibility for the “Hindu” in the United States, while many were naturalized and provided with the social, economic, and political rights that accompany citizenship in the United States on paper, the political outcomes of the Hindu-German Conspiracy Trial of 1917 established strong restrictions on immigration and political freedom.

Despite the new restrictions and exclusions placed on South Asian immigration, those in the United States still applied for citizenship rights as the “Hindu” was considered “Caucasian” within the racial spectrum in the United States. One such individual was Bhagat Singh Thind, a Punjabi-Sikh man from the Amritsar district of Punjab, British India. At twenty years of age, Thind arrived in Seattle, Washington, on July 4, 1913. After working in Seattle as a dishwasher and a laborer in local lumber mills, he eventually settled in the small town of Astoria in the neighborhood known as “Hindoo Alley.” For the next three years, he worked in the Hammond Lumber Mill, alongside other South Asian immigrants. Thind was a founding member of the Ghadar Party and an avid supporter of the fight against British imperialism. He was appointed the secretary general of the Ghadar Party for the state of Oregon and delivered passionate speeches throughout the state advocating for India’s independence. Thind’s radicalism did not go unnoticed as he was quickly placed under the surveillance of the British Intelligence agency known as MI5 and labeled “a dangerous extremist.”72 In the surveillance file dated June 1916, Thind is reportedly described as “the soul of the revolutionary movement in Astoria.”73 As the movement fractured after the Hindu-German Conspiracy Trial of 1918, Thind attempted to take control of the Ghadar Press and moved to San Francisco. However, seeing the severe divide that followed the aftermath of the trial, Thind disengaged and returned to Oregon to become the first Sikh to be inducted into the US Army when he enlisted on July 22, 1918.

Based on the previous cases that granted citizenship to South Asians, in July of 1918 Thind applied for citizenship and served in the army as he awaited the decision of the state of Washington. He served in the Army at Camp Lewis in Clatsop County, Washington, and though he was only in the military for a few months, he managed to be promoted to the rank of acting sergeant. Thind convinced army officials to allow him to retain his turban and beard throughout his service. As the war ended in December of 1918, he received an honorable discharge for his service the same month. Afterward, he reached out to his fellow Ghadarites who were being held in a prison on McNeill’s Island off the coast of Tacoma, Washington. Thind provided translation services to those who needed it; however, he refused his comrades’ requests that he run the Ghadar Press.

Upon leaving the army, Thind was informed that he was granted citizenship and he went to receive his certificate in full-dress military uniform on December 9, 1918. Soon after, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Examiner Thomlinson disagreed with the court’s decision and revoked Thind’s citizenship on December 13, 1918, on the grounds that he was not “a free white man.” While disheartened, Thind returned to Oregon and took up a job with the Western Oregon Lumber Company and reapplied for citizenship with the state of Oregon on May 6, 1919. Thomlinson was still serving with the INS and requested to argue against Thind’s case in court before Judge Wolverton. Thomlinson presented evidence of Thind’s involvement with the Ghadar Party as reason to decline rights to citizenship. Judge Wolverton looked over the evidence and claimed, “[Thind] is not a subversive…[and Thind] stoutly denies that he was in any way connected with the alleged propaganda of the Ghadar Press to violate neutrality laws of this country, or that he was in sympathy with such a course. He frankly admits, nevertheless, that he is an advocate of the principle of India for Indians, and would like to see India rid of British rule, but not that he favors an armed revolution for the accomplishment of this purpose.”74 Deciding in his favor, Thind received citizenship for a second time on November 18, 1920.

While Thind celebrated the decision, the INS had appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case to the United States Supreme Court on October 17, 1921, for a ruling on the following two questions:

  1. Is a high-caste Hindu of full Indian blood, born at Amritsar, Punjab, India, a white person within the meaning of section 2169, Revised Statutes?

  2. Does the act of February 5, 1917 (39 Stat. L. 875 Section 3) disqualify from naturalization as citizens those Hindus, now barred by the act, who had lawfully entered the United States prior to the passage of said act?75

The INS demanded the Supreme Court evaluate the “Hindu” in terms of his or her relationship to “whiteness” and to rescind the right toward citizenship under the (Asiatic Exclusion) Immigration Act of 1917. Thind’s attorney argued that the Immigration Act of 1917 was “prospective and not retroactive,” thus not applicable to the US v. Thind case.

However, the issue of “whiteness” generated a considerable debate. Thind had made the case that he was a “high-caste Aryan” and therefore eligible for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1890. Also, Thind argued that previous anthropological studies had claimed high-caste “Hindus” to be Caucasian due to the linguistic similarities between Indo-Aryan speakers. However, Justice Sutherland, who presided over the case, argued that linguistic similarity was not enough to prove racial denomination, rather physical characteristics should be given priority in proving common racial origin. Specifically, the court stated: “‘Free white persons,’ as used in that section, are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian.’”76 Furthermore the court claimed that the term “race” must be applied to a group of living persons now, rather than groups having a similar ancestry. Thus, in response to the first question presented by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court decided that though not an issue of racial superiority or inferiority, the “Hindu” was simply non-white in terms of common sense due to the color of his skin. In relation to the second question posed by the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court agreed through the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, Congress obviously viewed “Hindus” to be “Asian” and they would never accept a class of persons as citizens, whom it rejects as immigrants.77 The US v. Thind decision thus not only determined Bhagat Singh Thind to be non-white within common sense, but also declared that all South Asian citizens have their citizenship immediately revoked.

A.K. Mozumdar, who had been the first South Asian immigrant to be granted citizenship in 1913, was the first to have it revoked. Hundreds of others were also affected. Furthermore, the decision now placed South Asians in the United States under the purview of the California Alien Land Law of 1920 because of their status now as a class of immigrants who cannot apply for naturalization. Many media outlets celebrated the US v. Thind verdict. In particular, agricultural centers such as Sacramento, Fresno, and Imperial, California, approved of the decision as many South Asian farmers would have to forfeit their land. According to the Sacramento Bee, “The decision of the United States Supreme Court, that Hindus are not eligible to American citizenship, is most welcome to California.…There must be no more leasing or sale of land to such immigrants from India.”78 Though the statistics are debatable, news sources state that in 1919 there were 2,600 “Hindus” residing in California and they owned approximately 2,099 acres of land in the state and leased up to 86,340 acres of land.79 After the US v. Thind decision, efforts were made for “Hindu” landowners and leasers to escheat their property to the State of California. Attorney General of California, Ulysses S. Webb, stated in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that “Hindus” will be forbidden from farming their land upon leaseholds or contracts. He further stated, “This will affect large tracts of land in the interior valleys, ‘where the menacing spread of Hindus holding our lands will cease.’”80 The US v. Thind case then effectively halted the economic advancement of South Asians in California through farming by placing them back within the perimeters of the California Alien Land Law of 1920.

The decision made by Justice Sutherland in the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923, case not only restricted the access of South Asians to the economic, social, and political rights granted through US citizenship, it also solidified the racialization of “Hindus” as non-white—a racialization project that had begun as early as 1906 before the riots in Bellingham, Washington. This article has so far depicted how the development of the category of “Hindu” through the rhetoric of “invasion” and the labor tensions fueled by Caminetti’s campaign had always sought to prevent the “Hindu” from aligning with “whiteness.” The crude politics of race in the United States championed by the media, labor circles, and immigration officials worked toward ensuring that the South Asian laborer did not fall into the category of “white” and passionately protected the claim to “whiteness.”

Following the US v. Thind trial, Thind began traveling throughout the United States delivering lectures on philosophy and spirituality, with a specific focus on the Sikh tradition. Though Thind’s lectures were geared toward Christian audiences, he frequently taught the writings of the Vedas, Guru Nanak, Kabir, and Buddha.81 His lectures were advertised in local newspapers and he focused on both small towns and large cities, garnering a diverse following including South Asians, but the majority of his followers were white Americans. While there had previously been “Hindu” spiritual leaders lecturing in the United States prior to Thind, he was the first to introduce the Sikh tradition to the United States’ white public. His lectures focused on two primary objectives: to teach the public about Sikh people and to teach the public about the Sikh tradition. Appealing to a sense of the universal in those spiritually inclined in the white American public, Thind often referred to the Sikh peoples as a group who were a unique “race.” In one of his informational booklets entitled “A Sikh and Sikhism,” Thind wrote, “Sikhs were intended to be a race of men divinely fashioned, beautiful, envied, and life-inspiring, like no other race hitherto.”82 Furthermore he stated, “Every human being is a Sikh, a learner.”83 As an individual who had recently been declined access to citizenship, Thind focused his teachings to look beyond the State for belonging. For him spirituality, and specifically Sikhi, offered a resolution to statelessness—it was a way to see beyond the current boundaries between individuals and nations, to something that united peoples. Ironically, Thind’s own body was not accepted by United States’ common sense, however, his teachings on belonging were immensely popular. No longer considered an immediate threat to whiteness, on one hand, the United States rejected the racialized “Hindu” laborer and on the other it embraced the “Sikh” philosopher. Thind continued to lecture until the 1950s and had a strong following in the United States.

Though the driving force for finding belonging for Thind was Sikhi and he was clearly looking beyond the nation-state for acceptance, his later career was shaped greatly by the formations of the “Hindu” category. Thind is credited for making the “Sikh” recognizable in the United States as a religious category and thus, is consumed by Anglo-American audiences as an identity that is Eastern, Asian, and by extension, “non-white.” Similar to the life and death of Vaishno Das Bagai, Thind’s experience as a “Hindu” in the United States speaks to a larger systemic violence that was inflicted on him by the American “common sense.” Both cases require a deep evaluation to identify the collaborations between written media, labor discourse, and immigration policy to fully understand what it meant to be the “uncommon man”—a “Hindu” in the early twentieth century.


Courtesy of Rani Bagai and SAADA, “Vaishno Das Bagai in General Store,” 1923, South Asian Digital Archive Online.


“Here’s a Letter to the World from Suicide,” The San Francisco Examiner, March 17, 1928, Box 5/Folder 18, South Asians in North America Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


Harish Puri, Ghadar Movement: Ideology, Organization, and Strategy (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 1993).


For example, refer to anthropologist Thomas Huxley’s highly regarded text Man’s Place in Nature (1908) in which he writes, “So far as India is concerned, the internal evidence of the old literature proves that the Aryan Invaders were ‘White Men,’ and that the high-caste Hindus are what they are in virtue of Aryan blood.” Also, US anthropologist Dr. W. Z. Ripley writes in his text Races of Europe (1899) that Hindus indeed belonged to the same racial classification as Mediterranean European groups, such as the Greeks and Spanish. Similarly, Dr. Max Muller argued in this “Lecture on the Science of Language,” (1872) that, “There was a time when the first ancestors of the Indians (Hindus), the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Slavs, the Celts and the Germans were living together within the same enclosure, nay, under the same roof…the same blood runs in the veins of the English soldiers as in the veins of the dark Bengalees.”


Beth Lew-Williams claims that what makes racial violence against Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s unique was its intention to exclude and its principal method being expulsion. Lew-Williams argues that to fully understand “exclusion” during the late nineteenth century, we must expand its definitions to include racial violence. Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).


George Sutherland and Supreme Court of The United States. U.S. Reports: Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178. 1922. Periodical.


Though South Asians have been immigrating to United States much earlier than this, I start from 1906, as that year marks the immigration of larger groups of South Asian laborers (specifically, Punjabi) through labor contracts. See Seema Sohi’s Echoes of Mutiny: Race Surveillance and Indian Anti-colonialism in North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) & Frank Oliver, Minister of Interior, “Immigration Facts and Figures,” (1911), File 51648/7 & 51648/10 Records of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, RG 85, National Archives, San Bruno, California. For further studies of the earlier immigration of South Asians in the US, please refer to the works of Vijay Prashad and Vivek Bald.


Sarah Isabel Wallace, Not Fit to Stay: Public Health Panics and South Asian Exclusion (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 13. Steadily arriving to the shores of Vancouver in 1903, South Asian laborers sought work in British Columbia’s lumber mills after being deemed as “reliable workers” in other British colonies (including Trinidad and British Guiana) by the local Canadian politicians and mill owners.


Wallace, Not Fit to Stay.


Wallace, Not Fit to Stay. Wallace details a story of a “Hindu” man being accused of invading a white home and sexually assaulting a woman present. Upon further interrogation from the police, the family admitted to falsifying the story and claiming they made it up in order to get rid of South Asians living nearby.


“Women Arming Themselves,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), November 19, 1906.


This logic of “invasion of the white family” is very much built upon the fear that led to the creation of the Page Act of 1875, which limited the immigration of Chinese women. Also, driven by anti-Asian fear, a similar process of hyper-sexualization was previously applied to the Chinese woman immigrant and inspired the passage of the Page Act of 1975, an effort to stop the immigration of Asian “prostitutes.”


“Hindus Suffer from Cold,” Pullman Herald (Pullman, Washington), December 1, 1906.


“Hindus Suffer from Cold.”


“Mining News,” Pullman Herald (Pullman, Washington), January 5, 1907.


“Hindus Not Wanted: Dominion Police Will Prevent Their Landing,” The Morning Astorian (Astoria, Oregon), October 17, 1906.


“To Restrict Hindu Immigration,” Aberdeen Herald (Aberdeen, Washington), August 30, 1906.


These deportations were also common in Washington. See “Hindu Student Deported,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), June 8, 1906. See also Wallace, Not Fit to Stay.


“Hindus Coming to Seattle,” Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), November 15, 1906, and “Hindus Coming Here,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), November 29, 1906.


“The Hindu Invasion,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), December 11, 1906.


The Evening Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington), April 25, 1907.


“Preacher Objects to Hindu Labor,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), July 23, 1907.


“Race Riots Raging—Bloodshed Feared,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), September 5, 1907.


“Labor Riots in Bellingham: Clearing Town of Hindu and Japanese Laborers,” The Evening Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington), September 5, 1907.


“Labor Riots in Bellingham,” September 5, 1907.


“Leave Bellingham,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), September 7, 1907.


“Robbers Loot the Hindus” The Spokane Chronicle (Spokane, Washington), September 9, 1907.


“Always Ready to Riot,” The Seattle Republican (Seattle, Washington), September 13, 1907.


“Run Out Hindus,” The Washington State Journal (Ritzville, Washington), September 11, 1907.


“Will Work Against Hindu Labor,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), August 2, 1907.


“Organize Mill Workers,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), August 15, 1907.


“Shut out Hindus,” Spokane Chronicle (Spokane, Washington), August 19, 1907.


“Tell Mayor of Sentiment,” Spokane Chronicle (Spokane, Washington), September 24, 1907.


The Seattle Star, October 26, 1907.


“Hindu Laborers Attacked by Mob,” The Morning Register (Eugene, Oregon), March 21, 1910.


“Exclusion for Hindus,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, Washington), November 18, 1907.


“Canada Solves Hindu Problem,” The Semi-Weekly Spokesman Review (Spokane, Washington), April 8, 1908.


This prohibited the entry of any immigrant who had not arrived in Canada through continuous journey from their land of birth, citizenship, or nationality; and subsequently the additional stipulation, PC 926, which mandated a cash requirement for incoming immigrants travelling through continuous journey, making the entry of South Asian immigrants into Canada difficult and unlikely.


“Hire Hindus for Harriman,” The Spokane Chronicle (Spokane, Washington), December 10, 1908.


Johanna Ogden, “Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging: Early 1900s Punjabis of the Columbia River,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 113 (2012): 176. Most were employed at Humes Lumber Mill in Astoria, Oregon.


“Hindu Invasion,” Colliers, March 26, 1910, Box 1/Folder 2, South Asians in North America Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


Ogden, “Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging,” 172.


Ogden, “Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging,” 176. The South Asian population in Oregon was mostly the same as before, including a majority of Sikh-Punjabi men, from the jatt caste, whose ages ranged from early twenties to late forties.


Sohan Singh Bhakna, Meri Ram Kahani (Samana: Sangam Publications, 2012).


Ogden, “Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging.”


Later became popularly known as the “father of Christian Yoga.”


“Federal Judge Grants to Hindu Yogi Citizenship,” Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California), May 3, 1913.


“Hindu is Made an American,” The Coos Bay Times (Marshfield, Oregon), May 3, 1913.


The Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1913.


“Will Be a Precedent,” The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), September 19, 1913.


“Racial Antagonisms,” The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), May 7, 1913, and “Some Wild Justice,” The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California), August 24, 1913.


“Can Hindus as a Race be Barred from the US?” The East Oregonian (Pendleton, Oregon), August 8, 1913.


“Caminetti Seeks to Exclude Hindus,” The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California), June 20, 1913.


“Caminetti Seeks to Exclude Hindus,” The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California), June 20, 1913.


“Admitting Aliens Would Ruin Farmer,” The Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), May 23, 1913.


“Fight on Yellow Races in State of Washington,” The Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), January 22, 1914.


“Exclude Asiatics by New Amendment to Federal Bill,” The Evening Herald (Klamath Falls, Oregon), December 13, 1913.


Hindu Immigration Hearings Before the Committee on Immigration House of Representatives: Restriction of Immigration of Hindu Laborers, Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1914, South Asian American Digital Archive,


“To Naturalize Hindu: Ganesh Pandit to be California’s First Indian Citizen,” Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon), May 7, 1914. “Blondes Are Not Given Preference,” The Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), May 7, 1914.


“A Big Industry,” St. Johns Review (Portland, Oregon), May 29, 1914. For example, in St. Johns, Oregon (the site of the anti-“Hindu” riot of 1910), a new cooperage factory was built and the owners promised local white workers that they would not be hiring any “Hindu” laborers.


“C.J. Smith Leaves No One in Doubt to Where He Stands,” The Oregon Daily Journal (Portland, Oregon), October 27, 1914.


“Caminetti May Seek Governorship He Admits in Interview” The Capital Journal Salem (Salem, Oregon), February 17, 1914.


“New System Saves Money: Government Deports Undesirables in Carload Lots,” The Oregon Daily Journal (Portland, Oregon), June 4, 1914. In the past, immigrants who were deemed to be “undesirable” were to be sent to the nearest immigration port accompanied by an immigration official to be deported. With the new method set in place in June of 1914, an immigration official was sent to collect several immigrants during one trip and then brought them to the port together to be deported. This method saved money on individual train tickets and allowed for a quicker process for deportation.


“Five Thousand Hindus Win Right to Citizenship in Court,” San Francisco Call and Post, October 16, 1916, Box 1/Folder 31, South Asians in North America Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


“Five Thousand Hindus Win Right to Citizenship in Court.”


In her text Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans, Karen Leonard notes how local white citizens in the Imperial Valley criticized the “caste-system” and deemed it odd.


Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices, 48.


“Tide of Turbans,” The Forum, June 1910, Box 1/Folder 6, South Asians in North America Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


See the works of Harish Puri, Seema Sohi, and Maia Ramnath.


Archival materials relating to the case are present at National Archives in San Bruno, California.


Sohi, Echoes of Mutiny. Judge William C. Van Fleet warned the Indian defendants to cease distributing their “Hindu publications,” as “the public is in a frame of mind not to further tolerate propaganda against the allies of the US.”


Amanda De la Garza, Doctorji: The Life, Teachings, and Legacy of Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind (Malibu: David Bhagat Singh Thind, 2010), 12.


De la Garza, 13.


De la Garza, 17.


George Sutherland and Supreme Court of The United States. U.S. Reports: United States v. Thind, 261 US 204. 1922, 207.


US v. Thind, 204.


US v. Thind, 215.


“Hindus Too Brunette to Vote Here,” The Literary Digest, March 1923, Box 1/Folder 3, South Asians in North America Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


“Hindus Too Brunette to Vote Here.”


“Hindus Too Brunette to Vote Here.”


De la Garza, Doctorji, 22.


De la Garza, 33.


De la Garza.