On November 18, 1920, Judge Charles Wolverton of the District Court of Oregon passed a verdict of weighty importance but limited effect. Before him was the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, a World War I veteran of the US Army whose stabs at gaining US citizenship had been spurned by the administration. In his plea, Thind contended that as a “high caste Hindu Aryan” he was Caucasian – a “free white person” who, under law, could not be denied American citizenship. After some deliberation, Judge Wolverton agreed, clearing the way for Thind to become a naturalised citizen, until the government intervened again.

The Oregon court’s judgement had followed similar conclusions reached by courts, at state and federal level. In the Bicaji Balsara naturalization case of 1909, Parsis were classified as Aryan and, thus, white. Similarly, in 1913, court had granted Akhoy Kumar Mozumdar citizenship because he was a “high caste north Indian Aryan” and there was legal precedent for doing so.

While these verdicts were careful to insist that each was based on “legal precedence”, “congressional intent” and “scientific evidence”, they did coincide with rising anti-Asian movements and increasing instances of violence against the Chinese, Japanese and Indians. Dubious racial theories and the pseudoscience of eugenics were gaining ground in the US, stirring vitriol in the society.

The Oregon court’s decision was immediately contested by Vernor Tomlinson, the assistant director at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. He contended that Hindus – the word used to describe all Indians, irrespective of faith – were not Caucasian, and that Thind became a naturalised citizen on false pretext. The ruling was also opposed by Oregon’s district attorney, Lester Humphreys, who, as records now show, consorted with white supremacists. In October 1921, an appeal was filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which sent the case to the US Supreme Court.

Thind with his battalion at Camp Lewis, Washington, on November 18, 1918. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

About sixteen months later, the Supreme Court reached its verdict, one of the most consequential of the time. Revoking Thind’s naturalised status, the court said that Thind did not meet a “common sense” definition of white. Judge George Sutherland, writing for the court, insisted the ruling was a matter of “racial difference”, not one of proving “racial inferiority”.

The decision would settle for the next two decades the question of who could become a naturalised citizen. By upholding the 1917 Immigration Act (the Barred Zone Act), the court effectively put a stop to migration from Asia, until the Luce-Celler Act in 1946 permitted an annual quota of 100 migrants from India and granted citizenship to resident aliens in the US.

Following the court’s decision, 65 other Indians had their citizenship revoked, including Mozumdar. A seal of validation got accorded to discriminatory laws such as California’s Alien Land Law Act, which barred aliens from owning and leasing land, and Oregon’s Business Restriction Act of 1923, which disallowed them from setting up legal or medical practice. These laws now applied to Indians too.

For the man behind the case, Thind, this was another disappointing turn in his resolute pursuit to become a citizen. He had first applied for citizenship in Oregon in January 1917 but failed. His second attempt, in the state of Washington, succeeded in December 1918, but it was revoked four days later by the Immigration and Naturalization Services. It was his third attempt that led to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1923 and the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1924 that prevented immigration from Asia.

Early Life

Thind arrived in the United States in July 1913, on SS Minnesota, aged barely 20. In his first papers, the documents produced by every new immigrant, were the raw details of his early life.

Thind was born on October 6, 1892, in Taragarh in Punjab’s Amritsar district, the oldest of three brothers. His father served as a junior police officer. Thind’s biography, written by Amanda de la Garza and commissioned by his family, describes an episode from his childhood when he accompanied his father to the Andaman Islands. On a trip to the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, he saw freedom fighters and rebels incarcerated for their opposition to the British rule.

Thind studied at Amritsar’s Khalsa College, where he showed interest in philosophy and metaphysics, subjects that would help him later as a lecturer. Like many others in Punjab at the time, he decided to migrate to the US. But his journey first took him to the Philippines, where he worked as an interpreter for a few months. In his early years in the US (1914-1920), he worked in lumbermills on the West coast, including Hammond Lumber Company in Astoria, Oregon.

The Omaha Morning Bee describe Thind as an “entertaining and interesting scholar”, who dreamt of the day “love and gentleness” would rule the world. Credit: The Omaha Evening Bee News, January 6, 1932.

Astoria’s Hindu Alley, a street largely populated by Indian workers, was a major source of support for Ghadar Party, a movement started in the US in 1913 with the intent of securing India’s freedom by violently ousting the British. In Astoria, Ghadar leaders such as Har Dayal, Sohan Singh Bakhna and Ram Chandra addressed meetings and raised money for their newspaper, press and party headquarters in San Francisco.

For a time, in 1916 and 1917, Thind was a close associate of Bhagwan Singh, a key Ghadar figure. This association and British pressure on US authorities, as Thind himself and historians like Doug Coulson have hinted, worked against him in his quest for naturalization. Following the imprisonment of some key Ghadar figures in April 1918 for their role in what was called the “the Hindu-German conspiracy” to overthrow the British Raj in India, Thind briefly edited the Ghadar newsletter. It is said he took on the role to raise funds so he could study at Berkeley.

A younger brother of Thind, Jagat Singh, was one of the many Indians on board the Komagata Maru, the ship that completed its trip from British India to Canada in 1913, only to be sent back after it was refused permission to anchor by a nation that openly followed racist policies.

‘Hindu Lecturer’

Despite the many setbacks in his life, Thind became a regular on the lecture circuit in the US. In his early talks, from 1922 to 1924, he spoke on subjects like opium trade, Gandhi, and British rule. But by the mid-1920s, it was the abstract and esoteric that attracted him, and he began speaking on, for example, the “spiritual debt of the world to India”, “dynamics of thought” and the “search for happiness”. While most of his lectures were based on Sikh precepts and the teachings he had learned, he drew on his wide reading of other sacred texts and philosophical tracts. Often in his lectures, he took time out to teach chanting and rhythmic breathing.

In December 1923, he married Inez Marie Pier Buelen, who worked with a printer, but the marriage did not last. Thind filed for divorce in 1925, citing desertion. It appears Inez was drawn to Ralph Debit, a “clairvoyant” and “medium” who had set up his own “school of sacred science”.

By the mid-1920s, Thind was giving lectures on abstract and esoteric subjects. Credit: The Indianapolis Star, January 2, 1965.

Thind wrote the first of his many books in 1925, titled Divine Wisdom: Man is Deity in Expression. Several other works followed over the years, including House of Happiness; Divine Wisdom (in three volumes); Pearl of the Greatest Price; and The Enlightened Life: Seven Meditation Lessons. One of his last books, Science of Union with God Here and Now, appeared in 1953.

In 1933, he was part of the World Fellowship of Faiths organised by Kedar Nath Das Gupta, a Gandhian theatre producer who wanted to build world peace. Meanwhile, Thind got a doctorate in theology at Berkeley – his business card introduced him as a “metaphysic, philosopher and writer from Amritsar, India”.

Frederick Lieb, an American journalist who wrote about “Hindu lecturers” in his book Sight Unseen (1934), wrote that Thind started an Institute of Applied Truth in New York. According to Lieb, Thind was the most interesting of all the Hindu lecturers. At his events, instead of charging a fee, Thind would pass around a basket for donations. The audience was requested to give what they could. And if their needs were greater, members of the audience could avail themselves to whatever was in the basket. Perhaps it was acts like this that prompted newspapers like the Omaha Morning Bee to describe Thind as an “entertaining and interesting scholar”, who dreamt of the day “love and gentleness” would rule the world.

On two occasions, however, Thind found himself on the wrong side of the law. He was arrested in Virginia in 1927 for selling his books on motivational themes without a licence. His indignant followers, mainly women, promptly found a lawyer to bail him out. In 1942, Thind served a 90-day prison sentence in Omaha, Nebraska, on charges of failing to register as a “member of a spiritualistic church” as required by a city ordinance. In his defence, Thind condemned “spiritualistic mediums” and claimed he held classes at a hotel only “to teach man how he could find god within himself”.

In 1936, Thind finally secured the citizenship long denied him, after the passage of the Nye-Lea Act, allowing veterans who had served honourably in World War I to be naturalised. In 1940, he married Vivian Davies, 19 years his junior, and their son David was born the next year. They made their home in Hollywood, California, though Thind continued to lead a peripatetic life as a lecturer, travelling nine months a year. In his later years, he financed the education of several children in Punjab and made his first trip to India in fifty years. He died suddenly on September 15, 1967. The website bhagatsinghthind.com, set up by his son David and grandchildren, propagates Thind’s life story and is frequently updated with excerpts from Thind’s written works, some unpublished in his lifetime.

This is the last part in a series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the entire series here.