First Indian-American Member Gone, But Not Forgotten

Posted November 15, 2004 at 6:37pm

With the election of Louisiana Republican Bobby Jindal to the House on Nov. 2, the number of Members of Indian descent to have served in Congress is set to double.

But whereas the 33-year-old Jindal rocketed to policy stardom before narrowly losing a bid for Bayou State governor in 2003, the first Indian-American Congressman, the late Dalip Singh Saund (D-Calif.), has languished in relative obscurity — at least until now.

“There is a large part of the community that does not even realize we’ve had an Indian-American Congressman,” said Nisha Jain of the Indian American Center for Political Awareness, noting that the majority of Indian-Americans emigrated to the United States after Saund left office in 1963. Saund died in 1973.

Even Rep.-elect Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar who was running Louisiana’s health and hospitals agency by age 25, admits that he had been unfamiliar with Saund until “relatively recently.”

Saund’s obscurity could end, however, if some current Members get their way.

More than one bill honoring Saund was introduced in the 108th Congress, and further efforts are expected in the 109th.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), co-chairman of the Congressional India Caucus, wrote a resolution this summer, which he plans to reintroduce in the 109th Congress, expressing the sense of the House that a portrait of Saund be placed in the Capitol or in a House office building.

The support for honoring Saund springs from varying sources, depending on the Member of Congress.

Wilson credits his aide, Dino Teppara, with turning him on to Saund’s accomplishments. Wilson now keeps a copy of Saund’s 1960 autobiography, “Congressman from India,” on his desk and is taking a role in an ongoing effort to commemorate Saund on a U.S. postage stamp.

A number of Democrats are also eager to keep Saund’s story alive, including Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), who co-chairs the India caucus with Wilson, and Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.), a caucus member.

Filner — who represents part of Saund’s old district and counts Saund’s late daughter, Julie Fisher, among his former mentors — expects to introduce a bill next year that would rename a post office in the district after Saund, as long as he can secure the support of local constituents first.

Crowley, who earlier in the 108th Congress introduced a concurrent resolution honoring Saund’s contributions, plans to join with Filner in this undertaking.

“When Mr. Saund was elected, he was the first among Indians,” said Inder Singh, the president of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin. “In the entire Western world, no Indian had been elected to any office.” Singh organized a symposium on Saund’s life and work two years ago.

Saund’s rise in politics reads like a classic American immigrant success story: Along the way he overcame legal discrimination, economic hardship and prejudice.

Born in Punjab in 1899, Saund came to America in 1920 to study at the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned a doctorate in mathematics.

Though Saund’s ancestry was Sikh, he viewed himself as “an American, not a hyphenated American,” said his grandson Eric Saund. Saund was an avid admirer of the idealism of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.

Though he cut his beard and stopped wearing a turban shortly after arriving in the United States, Saund’s inability to become a citizen proved an obstacle.

“He had a Ph.D. in math, and nobody would hire him,” said filmmaker Jayasri Hart, whose 2000 PBS documentary “Roots in the Sand,” examining the life of the Punjabi-Mexican community that settled in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, was one of the earliest efforts to shine some light on Saund after his death.

Left with few options after his graduation from Berkeley, Saund went to work as a day laborer and then as a farmer and fertilizer distributor in the Imperial Valley, Singh said.

During the 1940s, Saund — whose American-born, white wife lost her citizenship when she married him — founded an organization to lobby for citizenship rights for Asian Indians. These efforts helped enable the 1946 passage of the Luce-Cellar Act, which permitted Asian Indian immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

Saund’s first foray into elective politics came four years later, when he contested a local judgeship. He was denied the post even though he had won it, after challengers showed that he had not been a citizen for a full year prior to the election.

Two years later, he ran again and served until winning a seat in the House in 1956.

During his inaugural Congressional bid that year, Saund’s eligibility was again challenged, this time by his Democratic primary opponent, though the suit was dismissed.

In the general election, the wealthy Republican candidate, aviator Jacqueline Cochran Odlum, brought in Vice President Richard Nixon, comedian Bob Hope and even the famous canine Rin Tin Tin to stump on her behalf.

But Saund overcame his political handicap by emphasizing agricultural issues, undertaking a dogged, shoe-leather campaign and hosting a series of free barbecues, which were well-received.

“He was politically very savvy,” Hart said. “He ended up building a lot of relationships with the white community” because of his involvement in Toastmasters, a public-speaking society he had joined to improve his communication skills, she added.

The showdown between Saund and Odlum caught the world’s attention, according to an account in Saund’s autobiography, and was featured in publications such as Time magazine.

“He was kind of a sensation,” said Eric Saund.

Once in Congress, Saund, whose family called him “bapu” or father, pushed a legislative agenda focused on local interests, including farming, water and U.S.-Mexico border issues. He also took a particular interest in foreign policy toward Asia.

“He was not the colorful, flamboyant type. … In a sense, he was very Asian,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who recalls that Saund was the first person to greet him upon his 1959 arrival in Congress. “He was like the person he revered: Gandhi.”

Inouye, the first Japanese American to serve in Congress, added that he and Saund, the first Asian Member, shared a joke about their respective ethnic heritages.

“I once told him, ‘I don’t know why you claim to be an Asian — aren’t you supposed to be an Aryan?’ He says, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I don’t belong to Hitler.’”

By the end of Saund’s first year in Congress, the freshman Representative had rapidly become a favorite of both House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. He was dispatched on a goodwill world tour to “win over the hearts and minds” of the Asian world, said Saund’s grandson. Among his stops, Saund visited India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

At a time when India was moving closer to the Soviet Union’s orbit, Saund “kept the relationship alive, even during the worst of times,” Wilson said.

In his third term, Saund, a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, backed an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act requiring that at least 50 percent of foreign aid to agrarian nations be spent on the local level. Saund’s plan was aimed at steering policy away from distributing aid solely to central governments, given fears about official corruption.

The move so infuriated President John F. Kennedy, said Saund’s son-in-law Fred Fisher, that the president rescinded his invitation for Saund to join him on an Air Force One flight to Berkeley, Calif., in the spring of 1962. A report in Newsweek also noted that Kennedy snubbed Saund during a visit to his district.

Not long after, Saund, who had suffered a series of minor strokes beginning in 1960, experienced a massive stroke, which incapacitated him for the rest of his life.

“He never regained his speech,” Fisher said, adding that Saund lived out his final decade dependent on the care of his wife.

Ultimately, Wilson said, Saund will be remembered as a pioneer whose achievement was unmatched for nearly half a century, until Jindal’s election earlier this month.

“He was so far ahead of the curve,” Wilson said.