December 19, 2008

Breaking Barriers: Congressman Dalip Singh Saund

Born near Amritsar, India in 1899, Dalip Singh Saund was an unlikely future candidate for national office when he came to the United States in 1920 to study food preservation at the University of California, Berkeley. But in 1956 Saund, whose career would span the vocations of mathematician, farmer, author, activist and judge, became the first Indian-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the first – and so far only – Sikh member of Congress.

Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that was founded in the historic Punjab region of modern-day India and Pakistan. Based on the teachings of the early 16th-century prophet Guru Nanak and his successors, Sikhism teaches belief in reincarnation, equality among all human beings and the virtues of charity, selflessness and detachment from material possessions. In his 1960 autobiography, Congressman from India, Saund wrote that “my religion teaches me that love and service to fellow men are the road to earthly bliss and spiritual salvation.”

Although Saund removed his turban, a Sikh symbol of religious devotion, soon after he immigrated to the U.S., he remained connected with the Sikh organization in central California that had provided housing for him upon his arrival at Berkeley. The group later commissioned Saund to write My Mother India, a 1930 critique of a then-sensational book, Mother India, which disparaged Indian self-rule. Saund soon became a familiar figure on the local lecture circuit, speaking to California civic organizations and churches about such topics as the work of Mahatma Gandhi and the fight for Indian independence from Britain.

In the 1940s, Saund helped launch a successful effort to convince the U.S. Congress to pass the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which granted naturalization rights to Indian immigrants (then sometimes referred to as “Hindus”). After becoming a citizen himself, Saund was elected to a local judgeship in 1952 and then to the U.S. House in 1956. Saund served almost three full terms in Congress before suffering a debilitating stroke in 1962. He died in 1973.

This biography was written by Sara Tisdale, Assistant Editor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

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