Apr 13, 2005

Dalip Singh Saund, Revisited

this post has been edited to focus on Saund

This is a quick turnaround for me, but I've been doing some thinking about my previous post on Congressman Dalip Singh Saund. I began to think that I was unfair in my assessment of his importance in the overall scheme of things, and I may have been overly dismissive of his legacy. I realized that I was coming more from Saund-name-drop-fatigue (SNDF) than from knowing much about him in particular.

This review of my stated position was actually prompted by another moment of frustration when I opened up my email and saw the announcement for the National South Asian Bar Association's second annual convention. I scrolled down to get a sense of the guests and speakers, and lo and behold! They are giving an award called:

NASABA Attorney of the Year Award (Dalip Singh Saund Award) - Presented to an attorney who has made extraordinary contributions to the South Asian community through legal activism, pro bono services, or other means.

It is really striking to me that two national "legal" South Asian organizations were calling their awards "Dalip Singh Saund" awards. Couldn't they come up with someone or something else? What about a Chadha Justice Award? Or Bhagat Singh Thind Award? Or let's be really adventurous and call it an Urvashi Vaid Justice award, though she's still with us?

Since I am not as familiar with Dalip Singh Saund's story as I probably should be, I decided to do a little reading this afternoon of his autobiography, Congressman from India, which I had discovered and gifted to D many moons ago in a spontaneous used bookstore moment straight out of a romantic comedy.

I skimmed the book, but it seems that he actually obtained his M.A. and PhD in Mathematics in California, and later went on to take a local exam to become a justice court judge in 1952, where he served for 4 years before getting elected to Congress. He recounts his time as a judge in 12 pages of his 191 page autobiography. I don't know if he was being modest, or honest about the impact of his judicial career in Southern Cali.

However, Judge Saund did go through quite a bit as he entered the fray in the 29th Congressional District of California. He faced the attacks of the Democratic opponent during the primary, and later the Republican with deep pockets and Vice President Nixon's support. But he eventually prevailed, and made his way to Washington, the freshman desi Congressman.

While I find his book interesting, there are also some very distressing elements to his own account of his life in the United States (from 1920 onward). While he notices that "Outside of the University atmosphere it was made quite evident that peoples from Asia - Japanese, Chinese, and Hindus - were not wanted," he doesn't go into much greater detail. He chose to glaze over the overt racism that he observed, and clearly experienced, and focus on the positive side: "American practices that had a more favorable impression on me." While I understand that as a sitting Congressman, he can't slam the pervasive injustices that immigrant and non-white Americans faced in the early half of the 20th Century, but I would have hoped for at least a little more thoughtful reflection.

Surprisingly, his account of his student life in Berkeley glosses right over the fact that the Gadr Party had been based in San Francisco only years before he got there. Even more shocking, his account of life in Imperial Valley (near LA) completely skips the start of World War II, failing, at least in my scan of the relevant chapter, to even mention Pearl Harbor, the ensuing paranoia of the United States government, or even the displacement and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. I can't believe that he could have been so insulated, especially in the Los Angeles area.

A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Saund was more concerned about the crossing of minors from California into Mexico, where they could "[become] the victims of the evils of drink, marijuana, and other narcotics, and even prostitution," than he was about the radical changes in the colonized world. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to get any headway with the Dept. of State on passport regulations for children under eighteen to cross the border into Mexico. He eventually got a bill passed to promote informal discussions between the houses of the Mexican congress and his buddies on Capitol Hill about the young-people-going-to-Mexico problem.

Meanwhile, there's no mention of the 1955 Bandung Conference, or even any real notice of what else is happening in the world, which seems a bit strange for a member of the Foreign Affairs committee. Perhaps he was too pre-occupied with the Mexico issue, or perhaps it was the "breakfast meeting in the Capitol of a group called the Breakfast Prayer Group, made up of members of the House of Representatives." Saund goes on to describe the weekly meeting of 30 to 40 representatives from both parties who met for an hour at a time. A leader was chosen for each week, and the sessions began with a prayer, and "then the leader introduces a subject based on a verse in the Scriptures or tells of an appropriate personal experience of his own."

Saund recalls, "I became a member immediately, and as far as I can recollect, have not missed a single meeting during my almost four years in Washington.... I consider membership in this group one of the many rewards of being a member of the greatest legislative body of the United States."

Okay - isn't this a little scary? I thought that he was a Sikh, as he recounts (barely) in the beginning of his book. However, it doesn't matter what his personal faith was - he was going to weekly prayer meetings with congressmen in the late 50s? And thought it important enough a part of his career as a congressman to mention it here? That's pretty scary to me.

But let's go on. So there was no mention of Bandung, no mention of McCarthyism, the red scare of the 50s, or even the Korean War. What kind of a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee was he?

Okay - so just to keep this positive, it seems, at least from his own account, that the congressman played an important role in land right negotiations for a number of Indian tribes, including the Agua Caliente Indians of Palm Springs. Though he initially introduces the subject of this particular tribe by writing about "an entire section of tribal land in the heart of the city [that] remains undeveloped and covered by miserable shacks."

As I read forward, I imagined the worst, anticipating a fitting coda to a less than distinguished record. But I read about Saund's concern that the Indians get a fair chance to appeal the way that their land was to be dealt with by a special commission created by Congress. The bill was drafted by the Secretary of the Interior, and then passed to Saund by "the Honorable Clair Engle of California... a good friend of mine, who in turn sent the bill to me in order that I might introduce it and thus be credited with having a major piece of legislation passed in Congress."

The bill had significant issues, including a violation of the normal regulation that exempted Indian lands from local taxation. Saund continues, "The bill seemed to me completely obnoxious.... I knew from my reading in American history how shabbily some American Indians had been treated, but here was an example right before my eyes, in my own district, to be carried out by special legislation of Congress."

The interesting thing that I note here, which Saund doesn't, is that while he thought it was good of Engle to pass the bill to him, it's questionable whether the motivation was altogether charitable. If there were such significant problems with the bill - shouldn't Engle, the experienced statesman, have caught the problems? Or was it an Indian bill, that an Indian could take care of? Or finally, was it what Engle thought was appropriate for the tribe?

At any rate, Saund fixed the bill and saw some things through for a number of other tribes, so I can't smack him on that side of his record, since I'm an "Indian-for-Indians" by heart, feel that native peoples have had very few allies in the halls of Congress over the centuries, and have to give credit where credit is due. Though of course, I haven't done thorough research, and this point am only taking Saund at his own word(s) through the pages of his book. Still - that's what I've based the rest of this crack report on too, so it should be all good, or all invalid.

At any rate, so there's a quick snapshot of the man, much celebrated (or at least, mentioned) of late. Comments would be lovely.


Ms. World said...

I`ve read your posts a few times to let it all sink in. I want to state for the record that I`m not familiar with the life & times of former Congressman Saund.

I`m not surprised at all that Saund didn`t write in-depth about the racism he experienced. It sounds like he was trying to assimilate as much as possible, hence not to much dwelling on painful racist episodes and lots of dwelling on his inclusion into the weekly prayer session with fellow Congresspersons. This is a story I`ve read quite a bit in the South Asian-American community especially with the previous generations who came over as university students or professionals. Some of them (South Asian-Americans) were completely into assimilating (on the outside) and loudly proclaiming the opportunities America offered them (especially to counter racism claims coming from African-Americans) while celebrating their culture or religious beliefs and expressing their real feelings in their personal lives. I think this may also account for the fact that he doesn`t talk about the controversial times during his life(Korean War, McCarthyism, etc.)

The fact is that he was elected to Congress in 1956! Can you imagine what he must have gone through during that time as a candidate who wasn`t born in the USA from a country that some Americans knew relatively little about? Therefore, I understand if he proceeded with a lot of caution and avoided controversial topics of the time in his professional life.

In my view, Saunds election to Congress in 1956 is enough to warrant him tons of honors in his name.

However, you are right that in 2005 it is no longer enough to be the `first South Asian-American yadda yadda.` The community has moved beyond that point, especially in the political realm.

Thanks for adding to my South Asian-American education!

someone else said...
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Rage said...
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Ms. World said...

P-Rage- I totally understand your point :)

I guess you feel little excitement in the political rise of Piyush Jindal aka Bobby.