In the midst of hotly contested elections for the primaries in the country (USA) presently, we do see many a contestants glow with oversized egos on the stage lit with thousands of bulbs till late at night, night after night. But I wish to bring to light another contestant, of another time, who was born in India but fought his first ever election on the US soil, and that too in a very low key contest that he won hands down.
Dalip Singh Saund, the first native of Asia elected to the United States Congress, came to study at the University of California, Berkeley in 1920 and after completing his M.A. in 1922 and his Ph.D. in 1924, it became clear that he would make the United States his home. But he found few career avenues open to him. The only way Indians in California could make a living was to join with others who had settled in various parts of the state as farmers, and so in the summer of 1925 he decided to go to the southern California desert valley and make his living as a farmer.
Life was not easy for the young farmer. His first lettuce crop was a total loss. But even with the demands of farming he was still able to find time for study and for public speaking. Saund thus began his political career with the crusade for political rights for Indians. With the support of nearly two thousand Indian residents in California — a task which was not all that easy — as well as many liberal organizations, a bill was finally introduced in Congress by Mrs. Clare Booth Luce and the Honorable Emanuel Celler which would allow Indians (and Asian residents) to become American citizens. The historically famous Luce-Celler bill, receiving support from President Truman, was at last passed and made law on July 3, 1946 amidst the cheers of the Indians in Imperial Valley.
The passage of the Luce-Celler bill and his subsequent acquisition of American citizenship opened the door of American politics for Saund. Already actively involved in his local Democratic party affairs, Saund ran for and was elected, in 1953, a judge in the town of Westmorland, where he served for four years. His campaign, however, was not without its hardship and prejudice. One particular incident remained vividly in Saund’s mind throughout his political career. Just before the election day, in a public restaurant, a local prominent citizen came up to Saund and said loudly, “Doc, tell us, if you’re elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come into your court?”
“My friend,” Saund replied, “you know me for a tolerant man. I don’t care what a man has on top of his head. All I’m interested in is what he’s got inside of it.”
In 1956 he decided to run for U.S. Congressman from the 29th district of California. Judge Saund faced formidable challenges running a cash-strapped campaign as a Democrat in a district that had always voted Republican. Saund relates that his colorful opponent, Jacqueline Cochran Odlum, who flew her own plane from campaign stop to campaign stop, hosted a widely advertised barbecue in the Riverside County fairgrounds, with a stellar lineup of guests, including Bob Hope. Still the grassroots campaign won many supporters and when the ballots were counted Saund won. He served three terms, working vigorously for all the constituents of his district. While running for re-election for a fourth term in 1962, Saund suffered a disabling stroke that ended his political career.