Indians in the United States

Indians in the United States – Their History and Achievements – Dr. Narinder Kapany
Lecture1 An average American thinks of India as a distant and mysterious country with tigers, camels, elephants and people living in tents and rampant with poverty. Right from the days of Columbus, who had intended to find a new route from Europe to India to seek access to Indian spices, he confused the American natives as Indians – and up till today people have confused Native Americans with the real Indians.

While there are incidents of Indians visit the U.S.A as early as the 17th and 18th century, the major gathering of Indians coming to the USA falls in three phases during the 20th century.

In the late 19th century, England was getting ready to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria and brought a contingent of Sikh soldiers to participate in the procession in London. These tall and handsome Sikh soldiers with their smart uniforms were so impressive in London that the British decided to display these magnificent soldiers in their colonies. This is how Indian soldier’s first visited Canada. While the Canadians were deeply impressed by the Sikh Soldiers, it turned out that the Sikh Soldiers were also impressed by the beauty and fertility of the Canadian lands.

After these soldiers retired in India, some of them decided to come to Canada. India being a part of the British Empire they considered themselves British subjects with the right to live in any part of the Empire. But the racially exclusionist laws of the time prevented them from getting their rights and resulted in incidents like the “Komagata Maru??? (when a group of some 250 Indian hired a Japanese boat and arrived at the Vancouver harbor but were later forced to turn back and later persecuted by the British in India). So the Indians came to Mexico and smuggled into California on their way to Canada. Of course they were deeply impressed by the land in El Centro and Stockton areas and a number of these decided to settle in California and some continued on to Canada.


Life for these Indians in California and Canada was real hell. They were not allowed to buy any property and were under constant threat by the immigration authorities for deportation. So I met a few people who used to sleep in the fields in California. A numbers of them married Mexican women and lived in different parts of California. These are the people whose children and grand children are now living in California and own lands worth millions of dollars. They became pioneers in growing peaches, prunes, walnuts, vegetables, almonds etc. and today excel in agriculture.

These Indians were also deeply patriotic and decided to fight for the independence of India. In the early 20th century, they joined an India independence party called “The Gadar Party???in Berkeley and San Francisco areas. In fact they bought a property at 5, Wood St. in SFO which is now a memorial of the Gadar Party and later transferred the ownership to the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. The story of the Gadar Party is very exciting and is a different topic for another discussion. In the 1940’s a number of Indians in the East Cost formed the India League of America to fight for independence of India. Sardar J.J Singh and other Indians tried to convince President Roosevelt to talk to Churchill about giving India its independence, which was later achieved in the year 1947. At that time India was divided into India and Pakistan and more than a million people were killed by the mass rioting in Punjab and Bengal.

To illustrate the problem Indians had for immigration to USA, I will talk about my own experience. In 1955 after completing my PhD at Imperial College in London, I came to the USA at the University of Rochester, NY for a couple of years and then to return to India. In 1957 the I.I.T Research Institute offered me a job to become Head of the Optics department. However, this work involved classified work for which the person must be a citizen or Permanent Resident of the United States. This was simply not possible because the quota for Indians was only less than 100 per year and that was over subscribed to 40-50 years. So I.I.T. approached Sen., Everett Dickson to place a special bill in the US Congress to try and get me the permanent resident status. The bill was nearly passed but the US Congress extended it to include many others from India. Thus started the formal immigration of Indians in to America. By the 1950’s most of the activities of Indians in America were focused on:

– Agriculture in a very significant way in California.

– Activities in Yoga by people like Maharishi Mahesh and Yogi Bhajan on Sikhism.

– Fighting for equality in jobs and other discrimination effects in the USA.


Then came the third round of immigration of Indians into America bringing in the high tech wave: engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and businessmen to the scene. The net result of this has been most interesting. The population of Indians in America has risen to almost two million and Indians are deeply involved in every walk of American life. A number of Nobel Laureates like Prof. Chander Shekhar, Amratya Sen and others live in the U.S.A. A number of Indians have followed the first Asian to join the U.S. Congress – Dalip Singh Saund in the fifties e.g Bobby Jindal of New Orleans and many others are in various political positions around the country. About till 50 years ago there were only 2 Sikh temples and a few Hindu temples and mosques for the Muslims. Today there are no less than a few hundred of each spread over the U.S. A large number of Indians are running major national banks, big companies like Pepsi Cola,, high tech operations and other businesses. Within a radius of 50 miles here, there are hundreds of Indians running their own companies. At least 50 and more Chairs and professorships have been set up by Indians at various universities. A fair numbers of children and grand children of Indians are thriving in the USA and partaking of all kinds of activities in the American life. A number of Indians, who became eminently successful in running their own companies, took them public or merged them and started their own venture capital funds. They now not only help start new businesses in the USA but also extend venture capital in India.

The discrimination against all newcomers to the USA is understandable. But Indians have been in the USA for more than a century and Indians in general and Sikhs in particular still experience extreme discrimination. People confuse them as Arabs which results in wider discrimination, harassment and killing of a Sikh, Mr. Sodhi in Arizona after the 9/11 incident.

However the Indians living in USA are immensely thankful to the USA for their contributions to India including the inspiration from US founding fathers to the Indian constitution. The USA has also contributed to the training of Indians and teaching them the world of innovations and entrepreneurship. Living comfortably in USA, the Indians have produced an absolute minimum of crimes and work very well with the Americana. The USA and India form the two largest democracies in the world. Jointly we can not only do well for each other but also become an inspiration to the rest of the world. This is what our democracies of 1.5 billion people can do.

This presentation was made to approximately 200 personnel from FBI, General Services Administration, Dept. of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration on the 20th May 2009 in San Francisco.

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