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How Independence Day Has Acquired A New Meaning for Indians in America

On India's 75th Independence Day, we remember the efforts of Indians in America in mobilising public opinion.

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South Asians
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As the Indian Americans in the urban US centres gear up to commemorate the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence this weekend with a series of festivities starting with the solemn Indian flag hoisting, followed by colourful parades and cultural programs, the significance of the celebrations runs deeper than what catches the eye.

It reminds us of a past in which Indian Americans participated with gusto in the Indian freedom movement from a faraway continent. The details of that history are still coming together through initiatives of organisations like the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) that digitally document the stories and the pictures trapped in family albums of South Asians settled in the US. In the recent past documents and stories have been trickling out and coalescing a version of history unheard till now.

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Today, the visibility of the Indian Independence Day celebrations in US cities corroborates the fact that the Indian diaspora matters.

Though they are only 1 percent of the electorate they are impossible to ignore not only as voters but also as election donors and as drivers of the local economy. No wonder both the major political parties were wooing the community during the Presidential election campaign. The community has made itself stand out because of its high income, educational and professional accomplishments. After Biden won the presidency he created history by appointing 55 Indian Americans to key leadership positions in his administration.

Indian Americans in Freedom Politics

But the rise of the Indian American community to political prominence is not a sudden occurrence. There has been a long history of their participation leading up to this moment. Decades before ‘Samosa Caucus’ or a handful of Indian Americans with seats in US Congress became a reality, and much before the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA), a tri-state diasporic organisation blossomed into a commendable mobiliser for the community, there was an informal group called the India lobby that was politically assertive.

The India lobby

The India Lobby was a complex pressure group that worked before 1947 to advance the cause of India's independence from British rule. The range of organisations and individuals involved included intellectuals, political activists, government officeholders and entrepreneurs – both people of Indian origin as well as Americans who sympathised, which explains the sweeping reach of this forgotten lobby.

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The India League of America

The India League of America founded in 1937 published a monthly periodical called ‘India Today’ that chronicled how between 1941 and 1945 the India lobby tried to influence US foreign policy.

Samip Mallick, the president and executive director of SAADA said, "Too often our community is told we are not active politically. But I don't think that's the case, now or ever, because people before us were active, and SAADA highlights that history". Mallick believes that the rise of Indian Americans in politics has been impacted among other things by the legacy of the Indian freedom struggle and independence. That might be the reason why several elected officials and White House appointees have grandparents who were involved in the Indian independence movement.

The Role of Jagjit Singh

One of the recent appointees, the White House Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh has one such connection. Her grandfather was the famous Jagjit Singh, affectionately known as JJ by his friends. The New Yorker called him a ‘One-Man Lobby’ in 1951.

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After becoming president of the India League for America in 1941 JJ breathed new life into the League. Before he took over, it was an elite, erudite group of 12 members engaging mainly in academic and literary discussions. JJ threw open its membership to include not only Indians but a range of Americans in public life. He caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington DC when he spoke up about the Indian freedom struggle as a staunch supporter of Gandhi and Nehru.

The League utilised the opportunity ushered in by the Second World War in the early 1940s to speak to their American audience about how critical it was to wage a war against fascism and how a more democratic and fairer post-war world required America’s support in the Indian demand for freedom. In the later part of the 1940s, the League's outreach found common ground with civil rights activism and challenged the 1924 Immigration Act, which had barred immigration from Asia.

The sustained campaign led by Singh and others in the India lobby paved the way to later immigration laws that granted citizenship rights to many Indians residing in the US.
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While the India League aspired to make a difference through lobbying and networking, another organisation took a more militant route, much before the League spread its wings. A group of activists based on the Pacific Coast, led by leaders like Sohan Singh Bhakna, mobilised migrant labourers most of whom were Sikhs and established what later came to be known as the Ghadar Party. The revolutionary Ghadar magazine published since 1913 inspired many Sikhs to arrange for funds and armaments, travel to India, and carry out a pan-Indian revolution in 1915. Its aim to overthrow British colonial rule of India through revolutionary means did not find support back in India at that time but the spirit of the Ghadar movement enthused many to continue their participation in the Indian freedom struggle with renewed zeal, both in India and US.

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Indian-ness Transcends Geographical Borders

Indian Independence Day celebrations in the US have come a long way. In the late 1940s, right after independence, Indian student associations organised modest exhibitions to showcase Indian culture to celebrate the special day but through the decades the festivities have become increasingly more elaborate. Now streets are blocked off for parades and major landmarks like the Empire State Building are lit up in the colours of the Indian National Flag. This year FIA has gone an extra step and rented the tallest billboard at the Times Square where photos and videos of India will be displayed for an entire day.

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While the nature of the celebrations have changed, one factor remains constant – the community back in the 1950s and today both believe in the multiplicity of belonging.

This feature of simultaneous belonging allows them to integrate with the American culture but still hold on to the notion of ‘Indianness’ that transcends geographical boundaries and is now transnational in character.

(The author is a public policy professional based in Arlington, Massachusetts. The views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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