How the First American Gurdwara Began India’s Independence Movement, Gave the U.S. Army it’s First Sikh Soldier, and Sent the First Sikh to U.S. Congress
Prayers first commenced at Stockton Gurdwara Sahib, the first Sikh Gurdwara ever built in the United States, on October 24, 1912.
The Gurdwara was founded by Baba Jawala Singh and Baba Wasakha Singh. Legendary figures among Punjabi Pioneers and their descendants, they were successful farmers who owned 500 acres on the Holt River. They became the first Granthi Singh Jis of Stockton Gurdwara.
A year after founding Stockton Gurdwara, the two babas founded the Ghadar Party on December 31, 1913. Decades before Gandhi, the Ghadar Party became one of the first concerted efforts by Indian émigrés to end the British Empire’s occupation of India. The Ghadar Party began publishing The Ghadar newspaper in Punjabi and several other languages. Besides distributing pro-independence pamphlets and journals, the movement also sponsored revolutionary expeditions to India.
Both Jawala Singh and Wasakha Singh traveled to India to help lead the independence movement.
The two babas remain legendary figures among Punjabi Pioneers and their descendants. These fighters for liberty left their living legacy in Stockton Gurdwara .
About Baba Jawala Singh
Baba Jawala Singh was appointed Vice President of the Ghadar Party during the Gadri Conclave hosted in Sacramento on December 13, 1913. He also went to India to campaign for the overthrow of British occupation. His legacy includes institution of the merit-based Guru Gobind Singh Scholarship for six students from India.
About Baba Wasakha Singh
Baba Wasakha Singh travelled to India to fight for independence. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by the British Empire and his property was confiscated as a consequence of his pro-independence activities. In 1934, he was appointed Jathedar of Akaal Takhat.
Stockton: Ground Zero for India’s Independence Struggle
Stockton Gurdwara’s founders, Baba Jawala Singh and Baba Wasakha Singh, emigrated to the USA but never forgot their homeland of Punjab and its enslavement by the British Empire. They decided to pursue India’s independence from British occupation. On December 31st, 1913, the two Babas hosted the Gadri Conclave in Sacramento, CA to form the Ghadar Party.
The Ghadar Party was the first organized and sustained campaign of resistance against the British Empire’s occupation of the Indian subcontinent. It sent 616 members to India, of whom 527 were Sikhs. The Ghadarites hosted supporters of independence, assisted revolutionary ventures, and printed pro-liberty pamphlets and journals until India gained independence in 1947.
Ghadarites Martyred for India’s Independence
￼Ghadarites like 17-year-old Kartar Singh Sarabha began publishing The Ghadar, the USA’s first Punjabi-language newspaper. Born in the village of Sarabha near Ludhiana in 1896, Kartar Singh was soon stirred to patriotism by the growing nationalist movement in India. He did very well in his high school and college education, reading a great many books and committing himself to the printed word.
Kartar Singh decided to travel to America so he could live in a free country. He arrived in San Francisco in 1912. Many minorities faced severe discrimination in that era and the Sikhs also endured that burden. Bhagat Singh wrote:
“[Kartar Singh] would be very upset when he heard himself being called a damn Hindu or black man by the whites. At every step he felt his country’s dignity and respect in jeopardy. With the constant memory of home, he also visualized India – helpless and in chains. His tender heart began to harden gradually and his determination to sacrifice his life for the freedom of country began to become firm.”
The Ghadar, the first Punjabi-language newspaper in the United States, was first published on November 1st, 1913 by Kartar Singh, then aged 17, with financial support from Stockton Gurdwara Sahib. Seeking to do even more for the cause of independence, he returned to India in 1914 to organize ghadar (mutiny) against British occupation.
Tragically, the brilliant young man was arrested and executed by the British. He was hanged alongside Maratha Vishnu Ganesh Pingley and five other Ghadris. Only 19 when he was hanged on November 16, 1915, he died with the words: “Victory to Mother India.”
Dalip Singh Saund: From Stockton Gurdwara to the U.S. Congress
Congressman Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American, first Indian American and first Sikh American to be elected to the US Congress. To date, he remains the only Sikh to hold that office.
He was elected in 1956 from the 29th Congressional District of California, which then comprised Riverside and Imperial counties. A much loved representative of the people, he was reelected twice. While contesting in 1964 for his fourth term, he suffered a stroke and became incapacitated. He did not win his fourth term.
(left) Dalip Singh Saund meets with President John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson (center) Saund in front of the U.S. Capitol (right) Saund and his wife, Marian, meet President Kennedy
Dalip Singh Saund set a precedent for many Asians to follow in the U.S. Congress. Despite running in a district with very few ethnic voters, Saund won over his Caucasian American voting base. He did not adopt a new religion or Americanize his name. By showing how to completely assimilate with mainstream America while maintaining his heritage, he became a beacon of hope and an example for the Sikh American community.
Long before he became a congressman, Saund served as Secretary of Stockton Gurdwara. Because of his successful speaking career, the Gurdwara asked him to refute Katherine Mayo’s sensationalistic book, Mother India. In the preface to his own book, My Mother India, published in 1930, Saund wrote that “it was only fitting that The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society (Sikh Temple in Stockton), in its role as the interpreter of Hindu culture and civilization to America, should undertake its publication.”
Saund Travels From India to Stockton
From “Triumph and Tragedy of Dalip Singh Saund” by Tom Patterson:
The young Saund persuaded his family to support him in a plan to study food canning in America with the intention of returning and starting an Indian canning industry. “l assured my family,” he wrote in a 1960 book entitled Congressman From India, “that I would study in the United States for at least two and not more than three years and would then return home.” At the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied at first in the College of Agriculture, he lived in a clubhouse maintained by a Sikh temple group in Stockton–evidence that there was already a complement of refugees and visitors from India to California, most of them having arrived during World War I as agricultural laborers.
Stockton was the political and intellectual center of the colony. Imperial Valley was one of its concentration areas.
… He wrote, “In the summer of 1925 I decided to go to the Southern California desert valley and make my living as a farmer.”
He went still wearing a turban but there he launched his political career among the dominant Anglo society.
Saund: “All I’m interested in is what a man’s got inside his head”
From “Remembering the US Congressman from India” by Roopinder Singh:
In 1920, he studied food preservation at the College of Agriculture, University of California, Berkeley, and lived in an accommodation maintained by the oldest gurdwara in the USA — Sikh Temple, Stockton. He also took additional courses in mathematics and later switched to that field, earning first a masters and then a PhD degree.
… Within a year of becoming a citizen, Saund was elected judge of Justice Court, Westmoreland Judicial District, county of Imperial Valley, but following a lawsuit by local businessmen, he was denied the seat because of a technicality of not having been a citizen for one year when elected.
That there had been resentment about him is obvious from the following anecdote narrated by Saund about his 1952 campaign for the same post:
“One day, just three days before the election, a prominent citizen who was opposing me bitterly saw me one morning in the town restaurant and said in a loud voice: ‘Doc, tell us, if you’re elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come to your court?’ ‘My friend,’ I answered, ‘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.’ All the customers had a good laugh at that and the story became the talk of the town during the next few days.”