By: Srinivasan K. Rangachary
Over the last three weeks, non-resident Indians in the United States have held several, if poorly-attended, pro-Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 rallies in Seattle, San Francisco, Dublin (Ohio), Houston and Austin. Their participation in such pro-Indian government protests overseas raises questions not only about their politics but also their grasp of their own history as immigrants. Indians were not considered “free white persons” in the US and were deemed to be unsuitable for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906. A man from Punjab, Bhagat Singh Thind, who had migrated to the US in 1913, served in the US Army in 1918 during the First World War (Washington Company No 2, Development Battalion No 1, and 166th Depot Brigade) was instrumental in raising the issue of membership of Indians in the US as citizens. At that time in the US, South Asians faced racism and discrimination. Thind was a US citizen for precisely four days the first time he got citizenship after applying for it in 1918. Eleven months later, he got it for a second time.
However, US laws started denaturalizing Indian immigrants who had become citizens because they were “not white.” Thind took his case to the US Supreme Court in United States vs Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). He argued for ‘whiteness’ by saying that he was a high-caste person with Aryan lineage and so this could be added to the classification under the Naturalization Act of 1906 under which only “free white persons” and “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” could become citizens. The US Supreme Court responded by saying that a high caste “Hindu” of full Indian blood could not be seen as white within the law because even though they could stake a claim to being Aryan, they had intermarried with non-European races in the subcontinent. His citizenship was revoked in 1926, along with that of 50 other Indians. In California, those that were stripped of citizenship after getting it became aliens overnight. Once they became “aliens,” they were automatically subject to the California Alien Land Law of 1913 under which they could not own agricultural land but only lease it for three years at a time.
In 1924, Vaishno Das Bagai was stripped of his citizenship and forced to sell his property in San Francisco. In 1928, he was refused a US passport to travel. He was told to apply for a British passport. He refused because he was an Indian nationalist and didn’t want to be a colonial subject. Bagai killed himself by gas poisoning in 1928. He left behind a suicide letter saying he was killing himself in protest. He wrote, “I came to America thinking, dreaming and hoping to make this land my home…and tried to give my children the best American education…But now they come and say to me that I am no longer an American citizen. Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights. Humility and insults, who is responsible for this?” In 1935, the Nye-Lea Act was passed which allowed war veterans to become citizens. Thind applied for citizenship again, this time from New York, and became an American citizen in 1936. While we leave Thind’s story here, his epic struggle against a state that was hell bent on not seeing him as a citizen has parallels with India today. The current BJP government does not see Muslims as equal to Hindus. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 provides an accelerated path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014 but were treated as “illegal migrants” as per the existing law.
However, it categorically leaves out persecuted Muslim minorities (Hazaras in Afghanistan or Ahmadiyas in Pakistan, for instance) by arguing that Islam is the state religion in these countries. When taken together with the threat of the nationwide National Register of Citizens, it means that Muslims from these countries that may be in India will not get citizenship under the CAA. The question is whether they can access citizenship through the normal path. When we factor in the NRC, the answer is negative, as the NRC process is specifically meant to detect illegal Muslim immigrants because if you are a non-Muslim illegal immigrant, you will be covered by the CAA. I have talked about Bhagat Singh Thind not because his story is the exact same as the Pakistani, Afghani or Bangladeshi migrant who may be Muslim, but because the basis to deny Thind citizenship twice was something he couldn’t change about himself – his skin colour. Similarly, in India, the CAA, NRC and NPR combined act as multiple actions that when taken together can be said to have one clear goal – identify, detain and deport Muslims because they’re Muslim. It is important that our NRI brethren take some notes from Thind’s story because when they support the CAA, they are also supporting plans for a nationwide NRC and NPR. They are essentially bolstering a state that is acting right now like the US did a hundred years ago. The laws are different, the contexts are different, and the times are different. But the goal of the state is the same in both cases – make sure people who look or act like X or Y don’t get citizenship.
The irony here is that people who were once seen as not being fit for American citizenship and who have gained immensely from the indigenous peoples’ and black persons’ struggle for racial equality that culminated in the Luce-Cellar Act of 1946 that reversed the Thind decision, and who live in a democracy, support an Act back home that is absolutely contrary to the Right to Equality as enshrined in the Indian Constitution under Article 14. It is important to remember that what the anti-CAA/NRC protests are fighting for is to reclaim the ideas of secularism and equal treatment under law for everyone – ideas that were embodied in the Indian Constitution for which millions of Indians stood up to the British Raj. That combined struggle by Indians inspired similar movements across the world and gave enslaved people everywhere a script of non-violent resistance. INAV