A Glimpse into the Indian American Community in the Early 20th Century: A Tale Optimism, Sincerity and Disquiet

The first part of a series offering a peek into the conditions of the Indian American community in the early 20th Century. Much historical learning ensues from studying this phenomenon.
A Glimpse into the Indian American Community in the Early 20th Century: A Tale Optimism, Sincerity and Disquiet

— 1 — 

A QUICK SURVEY OF THE YEAR 1916 yields an interesting harvest. Europe is at the pinnacle of its colonial arrogance, plundering the globe, wrecking entire civilisations and derailing Rta or the Cosmic Order. England is the undisputed champion of this vile enterprise. World War I is raging. America is unstoppably emerging as the future imperialist. India, the biggest funder of British colonialism, is poor and miserable and deracinated and therefore demoralised. It is desperately trying to unshackle itself from the British fetters and trying to recover its lost confidence. The era of Modern Indian Renaissance is slowly peaking. Leonine stalwarts like Swami Vivekananda have gravelled the path that they hoped would lead to freedom of the truest sort: cultural independence. Indians are flooding Europe and America. They hail from all walks of life — Swamis, doctors, activists, philosophers, academics, engineers, businessmen, labourers, and students. They witness a completely alien culture and society, especially in America. Their responses — both as individuals and as the Indian American community  — vary wildly. Some are confused. Others, enamoured by the bursting wealth of this upstart nation, imitate it blindly. Others despise its absolute lack of culture and refinement and stubbornly stick to their roots.    

Which is where our story is set. In America. Circa 1916. 

Here are some of the major events that occurred that year in England, India and America. In that order.

England: Circa 1916

  • George V is the monarch 

  • Germany is battering England as part of World War I and the outcome is uncertain.

  • England introduces conscription to enlarge its fighting force. All healthy males from 18 - 41 years have to compulsorily enlist.

  • Ireland revolts against Britain, launches the Easter Rising and proclaims itself a Republic.  

  • A British Army Order gives soldiers the choice to remain clean-shaven. Until then, every soldier had to grow a moustache. 

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of Rings gets married.

India: Circa 1916

  • The Indian National Congress surrenders its Hindu space to the Muslim League by signing the disastrous Lucknow Pact. This is the beginning of the cowardly policy of Muslim appeasement that would install an Italian lady as India’s super Prime Minister 88 years later.

  • The Indian Medical Degrees Act is passed.

  • The Hindu Disposition of Property Act is passed.

  • Swami Chinmayananda, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, M.S. Subbulakshmi, and Bismillah Khan are born.

America: Circa 1916  

  • Woodrow Wilson is elected President for a consecutive term.

  • America occupies the Dominican Republic.

  • Woodrow Wilson signs a bill incorporating the Boy Scouts of America.

  • William Boeing incorporates a venture known as Pacific Aero Products. It is later renamed The Boeing Company.

  • The Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman is arrested for giving a public lecture on birth control. 

  • Margaret Sanger opens a family planning and birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Nine days later, she is arrested for breaking a New York state law prohibiting distribution of contraceptives.

  • The renowned novelist and writer Jack London dies.

— 2 — 

IN 1911, SARANGADHAR DAS, an academic at UC Berkeley wrote a 11-page essay unambiguously titled, Why Must We Emigrate to the United States of America? in a Calcutta-based journal. It was a compelling and impassioned call to bright young students in India to migrate to America and seek a new life there. Das was no doubt enamoured of the economic success and social status that he had attained in this alien country. It was also his blind but sincere homage to what he thought was the unmatched greatness of America. He wanted Indian students to get a share in this pie. As proof, Das gives an impressive list and short biodata of 46 Indian students who had “made it big” in the US. 

Here are some interesting excerpts from his essay, a valuable primary source of history. The America and its society that Das has described so vividly no longer exists. It took less than a century for US politicians to undo it.  

We, as students in this country, are too busy with our studies and hard struggle for a living, to be able to handle politics. As I have said before, we don’t know anything of the [Commnist] “revolutionary” … But… we will never tolerate like our students in England, the spying system, and, WORSE THAN THAT, THE ANGLO-INDIANS AND THEIR INDIAN SYCOPHANTS TO CONTROL THE STRINGS OF OUR PURSE. Self-supporting students are always respected. There is no honest work which is looked down upon in this land… We manage pretty well with 8 to 10 dollars a month for room, laundry and other expenses, including at least one theatre ticket and occasional simple Indian cooking… some of us work 4 hours a day and all day on Saturday and yet carry 16 or 18 units’ work in the college (“a unit signifies one hour per week of recitation or lecture, with preparation therefor,” during one half-year. In laboratory work, a unit is credited for 3 hours or more every week). Every one goes to work in the summer vacation and saves from $80 to $120 with which he meets the college fees, cost of books, outfits, &c., during the year. Any student can get such jobs any time he wishes. THE DEVOTION OF EVEN FIVE HOURS A DAY TO WAGE-EARNING DOES NOT TELL UPON HIS STUDIES. In summer we get various kinds of work: fruit-picking, hop-picking, and other outdoor work; work in factories, lumber mills and workshops; work as waiter, dish-washer, buss-boy, elevator-boy, &c., in the hotels of the cities and summer resorts.

Capitalisation added

The Dharma Dispatch will publish an annotated version of Sarangadhar Das’ essay sometime in the near future.  

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A Glimpse into the Indian American Community in the Early 20th Century: A Tale Optimism, Sincerity and Disquiet

In 1912, the Hindustan Association of America was founded with a clear charter to “further the interests of Hindustani students, [and] to interpret India to America and America to India.” Its key people included Sudhindra Bose, C. Chakravarty, Rafidin Ahmed, S.M. Pagar, S.N. Kar, Basanta Koomar Roy, and ‘a longer list of councillors from the "East," "Middle West," and "West" regions of the United States.’ Its honorary members included Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, the Maharaja of Darbhanga, Jagadish Chandra Bose and Dadabhai Naoroji. 

The Hindustan Association of America quickly gained prominence as a distinguished organisation serving the Indian community in America. Among its numerous initiatives was a monthly magazine exclusively dedicated to Indian students. Its title: The Hindusthanee Student. Even a cursory perusal of its contents is a revealing experience at multiple levels. On the broader plane, it was concerned with imparting time-tested Indian cultural values through guidance and inspiration given by the luminaries of the era both from India and America.

Lala Lajpat Rai was one such luminary. In 1916, the editor of the Hindusthanee Student, invited him to write a short message of advice to Indian students in America. 

What he wrote will be published in the next episode of this series with annotations. 

To be continued 

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