Congressman from India

Indian immigrant Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American to serve in Congress


Had he lived in the second half of the 20th century instead of the first, Dalip Singh Saund probably would have gone to Silicon Valley and become a successful engineer or entrepreneur as many Indians immigrants with high-tech backgrounds are doing these days.

Saund came of age in the 1920s when anti-immigrant and racist sentiment was high in the United States. Because he was Indian, his career options were limited. He became a farmer and settled in California's Imperial Valley.

But racism and discrimination would not hold Saund back. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1957, becoming the first Indian American and the first Asian American to serve in Congress, representing the Imperial Valley and Riverside County in California.

The road to Washington wasn't an easy one for Saund, and it was the sting of racism that drove him. After graduating from the University of Punjab in India, he went to the United States and enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley. He earned a doctorate in math in 1922.

He had worked odd jobs in the produce industry while in school, and with limited job opportunities, he decided to be a farmer. At the time, Indians were barred from owning land, so the farm in Westmoreland, California, had to be in his wife's name because she was white. The denial of the basic right of citizenship drove Saund to help form the Indian Association of America in 1940s to fight discrimination. The group succeeded lobbying for a law that allowed Indians to become citizens in 1949.

His political activism continued in 1950 when he upset a white candidate for a local judgeship in Westmoreland. But he was denied the post on a technicality because he had not been a citizen for a full-year before the vote, as required by election rules. Saund ran again two years later and won the post handily. He became involved in the Democratic party and served as a delegate to the party's national convention in 1952, 1956 and 1960.

In his campaign for Congress, his opponents in the primary and general election made an issue of Saund's race in order to whip up anti-immigrant and racist sentiment. His Republican opponent, Jacqueline Odlum, linked Saund with communists and the left-leaning government of India.

To fight this onslaught, Saund promised in a television broadcast that if he was elected, he would fly to India and tell people there that "you have been listening to the insidious propaganda of the Communists that there is prejudice and discrimination in the United States against your people. Look, here I am. I am a living example of American democracy in action. I was elected by a free vote of the people in a very conservative district . . . to the most powerful legislative body on earth. Where else in the world could that happen?" He fulfilled his promise and traveled to India after winning the election.

Saund served three terms before being defeated in 1962. He died in 1973 in Hollywood.

Even though Saund was the first Asian American to serve in Congress, he is unknown to most people. Part of this could be the marginalization of Asian American achievements and the further marginalization of Indians as a subgroup of Asian America. AsianWeek columnist Phil Tajitsu Nash says that the field of Asian American studies is, by its nature, a protest movement, and Saund's "rah-rah" optimism for the ideals of American democracy doesn't challenge the system. In his book, "Congressman from India," Saund details his journey to Washington, and for the most part glosses over much of the racism he encountered.

But Saund was a groundbreaker and broke the color barrier for Asian American participation in U.S. politics.


Dalip Singh Saund Links