Dalip Singh Saund: First Sikh Congressman

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.”

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