Historic Imprint on the Washington Horizon – Judge Dalip Singh Saund (1899-1973)

Dr. Shamsher Singh Babra

During his tenure as a Member of the House of Representatives (1956-62), Judge Dalip Singh Saund was the first Sikh American citizen to have lived in Washington DC. He also maintained his home in Sothern California, regularly shuttling by air between Washington and his constituency. It was during one of these long journeys that he suffered a massive in flight stroke in May 1962. Incapacitated, he had to yield his seat back to the Republicans. His physical presence in Washington ended. But in death, Judge Saund’s iconic presence in Washington became perennial. House of Representatives, with the Honorable Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker, installed a portrait of Judge Dalip Singh Saund in the House Building, conferring a lasting honor. At his passing away, at a “Special Order of Business” memorial session of the House was held on May 15 1973.

Historic Imprint on the Washington Horizon

A Video Biography “Dalip Singh Saund, His Life, His Legacy” was filmed in 2010-13 by E. Samantha Cheng, Executive Producer and Anasasia Walsh, Associate Producer. It has been shown all over the country, including the Martin Luther King Auditorium, Washington DC on June 3, 2014. It ignited the intellect of the audience which included young Sikh women lawyers from California and professionals of all walks of life. During the interchange following the viewing, many a question were posed about some unexplored facets of Dr. Saund’s life. An attempt has been made to cover some them in this Essay.

Early Life

Dalip was born in a small village of Chhajalwaddi in 1899 in Amritsar District of Punjab. He was the middle of five siblings (two older sisters, one younger brother and a younger sister). The land owning well-to-do family belonged to the Ramgarhia (artisan) clan of devout Sikhs. Since there was no school in the village, Dalip (and later his younger brother Karnail) walked to a school in the nearby small town of Baba Bakala. Dalip was only 8 years old when his father Natha Singh passed away. His uncle (chacha, father’s younger brother), Mia Singh was a flourishing building contractor in Jammu where the family also owned a large acreage of fruit gardens. He took Dalip under his wings and put him in a school in Jammu. Since the farm house had no electricity, Dalip would study in the evening under a street lamp post. After topping his class in High School, Dalip joined the local College. Chacha Mia Singh was so pleased with Dalip’s academic achievements that he decided to send him to learn fruit cultivation technology in California with the idea that on return he would manage the family gardens and modernize fruit cultivation. That is how the 21 year old turbaned, handsome Sikh young man came to the United States in 1920 to learn horticulture in California.

As fate would have it, chacha Mia Singh died while Dalip was still pursuing fruit technology. Budding with new aspirations in a new environment, he shifted his horizons. With his excellent academic record, Dalip was admitted to the Graduate School of the University of California at Berkley. His hard work led to a Ph. D. in Mathematics. Despite a rare Ph. D. from a prestigious University, Dalip was unable to secure even a teaching position as he was not a US Citizen. A let down it was, but Dalip probably put his earlier knowledge of fruit cultivation to good use. He became a rancher and a fertilizer dealer in the Imperial Valley of Southern California.

Being a political activist, Dalip was elected as the first President of the Indian Association of America. The Association successfully promoted a 1946 amendment to the immigration laws which permitted Indian nationals to become U.S. citizens. President Truman signed the Amendment into Law in 1946. At the signing ceremony, President Truman was flanked by two of Dalip’s friends and fellow proponents of the amendment, Dr. Anup Singh and J. J. Singh, businessman of New York, the then reigning President of the Indian Association.

Dalip promptly applied for citizenship; he was Naturalized in 1949. Engaging himself in the political arena, he was elected Judge in Westmoreland in 1953. Judge Saund, a non-drinker, a non-smoker, was a popular orator and a perennial Toastmaster at the celebrations in the Imperial, Riverside and Westmoreland Counties of California. His learned but amiable personality marked by humility and an easy smile, blended well with the high and the low.

In September 1955, I (Shamsher Singh) joined the American University, Washington DC, as a Graduate student. Having been a student freedom fighter in India during the British Raj, he easily fitted into a group of young activists for the liberal oriented Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). The organization was then headed by Honorable Charles LaFollette, a former Congressman and a former Governor of one of the American Zones in the post WWII occupied Germany. The country was in the fervent grip of National elections. The ADA connection afforded an opportunity for the youth wing to follow the 1956 Presidential campaign from close quarters. We observed Adlai Stevenson’s cavalcade at the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue, the hub for Democratic meetings.

Judge Saund sought and received the Democratic nomination to contest for the House of Representatives seat from the Imperial and Riverside Counties. The seat was a Republican stronghold; their candidate was Jacqueline Cochran-Oldum, a rich socialite who owned the radio stations and controlled the local media. She was seemingly a sure shot winner. There were hardly any voters of non-European origin in the constituency. Having no access to broadcast media and scanty means to muster print media, his tactic was door to door knocking and presenting his vision in person of what he would do for the constituency and for the country. It was a novel approach. It worked.

During the elections, there was little mention in the National Press that a Democrat of Indian descent was contesting from California for the House of Representatives. The 1956 Presidential election was handily won by General Eisenhower, a Republican. But Judge Saund surprised the Democratic Party by defeating a top notch Republican in Southern California. His victory electrified the ADA cadres and other liberals. The newly elected Congressman was lauded by the Democratic echelons including the then young and liberal Senator John F Kennedy. Shortly after taking his seat in the 85th. Congress, Saund was appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

United States had strongly supported the winding down of British Rule in India. However, soon after the Transfer of Power in 1947, political relations between the two countries became edgy as Nehru spearheaded establishment of a forum of non-aligned countries including China and Russia. In 1956, the ruling Congress Party in India adopted a Resolution declaring that their socio-political goal was to establish a Socialistic Pattern of Society in India. Alarmed, the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles summoned the Ambassador of India G L Mehta for an explanation. Seasoned Diplomat and intellectually equally sauvé and sharp, Mehta put it concisely and succinctly that “our bark is bigger than our bite”. The matter rested.

Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru invited Judge Saund in 1957 to address the Joint Houses of the Indian Parliament. The U.S. Congressman stood confident and tall as he spoke in the Parliament “as a living symbol of American Democracy”. He received a standing ovation. Those in attendance in the Parliament included his younger brother Sardar Bahadur (S. B.), an honorific title, Karnail Singh, Chairman of the Indian Railways, who himself was a distinguished persona in India 2/.

Judge Dalip Singh Saund comfortably won reelections in 1958 and in 1960. Through his hard work in the U.S. Congress and in the Imperial Valley, the popular Saund had so firmly established his niche in his constituency that he was assured of re-election in 1962, and in subsequent times to come. But lo and behold, he suffered a massive in flight stroke in May 1962 during his regular sorties from Washington to his constituency. Incapacitated, he had to yield his seat back to the Republicans.

During his tenure as a Congressman (1956-62), Judge Dalip Singh Saund was the first Sikh American citizen to have lived in Washington DC. The few other Sikhs in the city at that time were those posted at the Embassy of India and a few students. The local Sikh community was in nascent stage. He regularly shuttled by air between Washington and his constituency. It was during one of these journeys that he suffered a massive in flight stroke in May 1962. Incapacitated, he had to yield his seat back to the Republicans. His physical presence in Washington ended.

In death, Judge Saund’s presence in Washington has become perennial, of historic importance. At his passing away, the Speaker of the House of Representatives granted a “Special Order of Business” on May 15 1973, that is a special session of the House, to allow Members of Congress to pay memorial tributes to Judge Saund. The Session was attended as special invitees by the Saund family from California, his brother S.B. Karnail Singh from India, and Dr. & Mrs. Shamsher Singh of Washington DC. They were seated in the House itself. Representatives of the Embassy of India and the Sikh Cultural Society (SCS) observed the proceedings from the Visitors Gallery.

The House proceedings were followed by Sikh Memorial Service in the Capitol Room H-107. It was the first time in US history that the Sikh Holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib was ceremoniously taken to the Capitol and regally displayed. Thus, Judge Saund brought ‘Gurdwara’ to the US Capitol after his death in 1973. Bereaved but composed Sardar Karnail Singh lead the Services in memory of his elder brother with readings from the Sikh scriptures. Congressman Victor V. Veysey and Congressman Jim Corman sat cross legged in the audience. Concluding Ardas (Sikh prayer) and a stanza from the Granth Sahib were recited by S.B. Karnail Singh. Parshad was distributed at the end. The ceremonial arrangements were made by the Sikh Cultural Society.

Historic Imprint on the Washington Horizon

Two days earlier, on Sunday May 13, 1973 the Sikh community of Washington celebrated Bhog (Sikh Memorial Service) at the Military Road Gurdwara. The program was arranged by Mr. Surrinder Singh Babra, Secretary of the Sikh Cultural Society (SCS). After the Kirtan (singing of hymns), S. B. Karnail Singh led the Ardas with emotion laden tears flowing down his cheeks. Langar was served. At an impromptu meeting convened by the SCS, it was decided to initiate plans for the installation of a statue of Congressman Saund in Washington. On his part, S. B. Karnail Singh had a full sized statue carved by a Delhi artist from a large block of white marble.

In 1974, SCS approached the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives for presentation of the statue. The Honorable Speaker agreed to accept the statue, adding that it will be given back to SCS for installation at a place of its choice. The proposal rested because SCS had no access to any suitable venue. Unfortunately, the resourceful S. B. Karnail Singh unexpectedly passed away in 1976 at a young age of 74 years. The statue rested at his offices in New Delhi. In 1981, SCS purchased a building lot at 801 Massachusetts Avenue for attaing the long held dream of a Gurdwara on the Embassy Row. The goal of installing the Saund statue at the corner of 38th and Massachusetts Avenue NW in front of the Gurdwara was revived. Since the site is a Public Space, belonging to the City, approval of the District Government, the Fine Arts Commission and the Historic Preservation Society was needed. It implied that the statue would have to conform in quality with the existing statues on the Embassy Row. SCS did not have the needed resources. The venerable goal remains unfulfilled, but with the hope that one day the Indian-American Sikhs will successfully place a statue of first Sikh and first Asian American Congressman on the Embassy Row.

House of Representatives on its own volition installed on a portrait of Judge Dalip Singh Saund in the House building. Speaker of the House, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi graced the ceremonies; grandson Eric Saund spoke at the dedication. Invitees from the Sikh Cultural Society (SCS) included Mrs. Shamsher Singh, Mr. Harjap Singh Riyait and Mr. Nanak Singh Manku.

A phenomenon that left a lasting imprint on the history of the people of Indian origin was the election of Judge Dalip Singh Saund to the United States House of Representatives in 1956. Judge Saund had campaigned hard to secure citizenship rights for immigrants of non-European origin. The significance of his election as first Asian to the US Congress did not sink in with the then few from the Indian sub-continent living in the US. Two persons who comprehended the political importance of his victory were Prime Minister of India Jawahar Lal Nehru and Saund’s younger brother, the stalwart Sikh of his era, Sardar Bahadur Karnail Singh, Chairman of the Indian Railways. He was the renowned builder of the Assam Link Railway, a Master golf player, recited Sikh scriptures in the morning, evening and bedtime, loved the happy hour, only good scotch, and good French wine with meals. Saund could serve for only three terms; in 1962 he was incapacitated by the cancer of mouth. Karnail Singh ever remained a frequent visitor to Washington, delivering knowledgeable discourses on Sikh scriptures. He was a man of immense stamina.

Nehru conferred a unique honor on Saund by inviting him, a non-head of State, to address Joint Houses of the Indian Parliament in 1957?. The famous line in his address that ‘…I stand before you as a living symbol of the American Democracy…’ reverberated across the globe.

The astonishing political rise of Judge Saund was cut short by stroke. At his death in 1973, Speaker of the House of Representatives dedicated time for tributes to Congressman Saund on May 15, 1973. Sardar Karnail Singh was invited to the House as a special guest; so were Mr. & Mrs. Shamsher Singh. Indian officials and some others including Ganga Dhillon, Surrinder Babra and Surjit lamba sat in the Visitors Gallery.

Following the House Tributes, Bhog was celebrated at the Capitol with Kirtan and readings from Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy Book) which was royally carried to the Capitol by Surrinder Singh Babra and Surjit Sngh Lamba. The Sikh spiritual ceremonies were conducted with reverence and dignity by Sardar Karnail Singh. It was for the first time that non-Christian scriptures adored the Capitol Chambers. Bhog was organized by the Sikh Cultural Society though the invitations were issued by Congressman Vesey.

Doors to the Capitol having been opened, many an event were organized later on including a reception for Finance minister of Punjab Balwant Singh, and celebration of Guru Nanak’s Birthday in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, the US House of Representatives conferred a lasting honor on Judge Saund by installing his portrait in the US Capitol.

A resolve was made to publish the biography of Judge Saund and to present his statue to the House of Representatives for display in the Halls of the Capitol. Sardar Karnail Singh got a life sized statue, with Saund wearing a turban as he did when he settled in America, carved by a Delhi artist from a huge boulder of pure white marble. On approach, the Speaker of the House told us that he would gladly accept the statue but as per tradition would hand it back to the community for appropriate display. At that time the community had no worthy place for public display. Sardar Karnail Singh was to complete the biography at Oxford (England) during my tenure as a Visiting Fellow in 1975-76. Sadly, he underwent unexpected surgery in Switzerland in 1975 and prematurely left us in 1976. His dream remains unfulfilled but alive.

A video biography filmed in 2011-13 by E. Samantha Cheng, Executive Producer and Anasasia Walsh, Associate Producer, has been widely screened all over the United States. The film “Dalip Singh Saund, His Life, His Legacy” was shown at the Martin Luther King Auditorium, Washington DC, on June 3, 2014. Its viewing ignited the intellect of the audience which included two young Sikh women lawyers from California, as also professionals of all walks of life. During the lively interchange that followed, many a question were posed about some unexplored facets of Dr. Saund’s life.

In his early life in the United States, Dalip was a turbaned Sikh, as depicted in the film. Two pertinent questions asked were: (i) did he participate in worship services at a Gurdwara in Washington?, and (ii) “when and why” did he become clean shaven? The answer to these questions lies in the scene of the times:

(i) During his tenure as a Congressman (1956-62), Judge Saund was the first Sikh American citizen to have lived in Washington DC. The few other Sikhs in the city at that time were those posted at the Embassy of India and a few students. The local Sikh community was in nascent stage. He did not attend a Gurdwara in Washington simply because there was none in existence until 1971.

As a young man, Dalip was an active participant in Stockton Gurdwara affairs. An interesting story from that period illustrates Dalip’s services to Gurdwara and his humility. He was President of the Stockton Gurdwara. At the time of re-election of the Gurdwara Committee, the majority Jat clan, mostly unlettered, decided to bring him down simply because he belonged to the minority ‘tarkhan’ (Ramgarhia) clan. After his defeat, he stood up with folded hands and said that you have won but you would need the services of somebody (educated) to manage the Gurdwara affairs. Therefore, I propose that you appoint me as Vice President. The entire congregation endorsed him with “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal” (The Sikh slogan Sat Sri Akal means Truth is Eternal). His standing in the small but potent community glittered.

(ii) The “when and why” question was neither posed nor answered in earlier times. Three well known Sikh intellectuals of the era were Dalip Singh Saund Ph. D., Anup Singh Ph. D., and Partap Singh Kairon, Masters in Economics and Politics. Each of the three became clean shaven at some point. Each of them was a staunch nationalist but each treaded a different path. Dalip firmly rooted himself in America; Anup returned to India, assisted Prime Minister Nehru in defining national ideological framework and served as a Member of the Parliament; Partap returned to India, grew his hair again, became an assertive politician and made a mark as a competent Chief Ministers of Punjab. (The author personally knew each one of them).


1/ The Sikh Cultural Society of Washington DC was Incorporated in 1964. It founded the first Gurdwara at 3911 Military Road N.W. Washington, D.C. in 1971. This Gurdwara cloned other Gurdwaras in the Washington Metropolitan area. It also became the parent of the new Gurdwara at 3801 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., the famed Embassy Row of Washington. The building was started in 1999 and completed in 2005. Since 2012, the Embassy Row Sikh Gurdwara is being ably managed by the Jaswant Kaur Sawhney Charitable Trust.

2/ A distinguished civil engineer, Master golfer, and highly versed in Sikh scriptures, with an honorific title of Sardar Bahadur, Karnail Singh was the famed builder of the perilous rail link between mainland India and Assam in less than a year in 1948. Assam had been virtually cut off from the rest of India by the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) territory at time of the Partition of India in 1947. The traditional land and river transport routes flowed through East Pakistan; Government of Pakistan had blockaded these routes.


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