JJ Singh had been a member of the India League for America for merely two years, but he was already tired. Its 12 members had a penchant for discoursing about Indian philosophy and lofty literature, when the need of the hour, according to Singh, was for “politics and propaganda”.
Unable to contain his exasperation, Singh decided to take charge. In December 1941, in a silent, near-sensational coup, he was elected the president of the India League for America, a New York-based organisation that informally spoke for India and Indians living in the United States.
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Over the following months and years, Singh assiduously turned the League around. Under his leadership, it became increasingly vocal and its membership grew, while Singh himself became a spokesperson for the nearly 4,000 Indians in the US.
One cause Singh championed was citizenship rights for Indians. In 1923, the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind had effectively refused naturalised citizenship to Indians. For many campaigners, including Singh, overturning this prejudiced decision was a cherished cause. For years, they lobbied in Washington’s corridors of power until on July 2, 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act, establishing an immigrant quota and enabling resident South Asians in the US to seek naturalisation. This month marks the 74th anniversary of the law.
Aside from this, Singh and the India League for America waged an equally vital campaign to draw the attention of American lawmakers to India’s independence struggle. In December 1941, the same month Singh became the League’s president, the US entered World War II after Japan’s attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. As Japan advanced in East and South Asia, British India became an important player in the war. For Singh and the League, this was an opportune time to highlight critical issues to their American audience: a war waged against fascism, based on ideals of a fairer and more democratic post-war world, had to be balanced with support for the Indian demand for freedom.
Right man, right place
Historians and commentators of the period – most notably, Robert Shaplen in his 1951 New Yorker profile headlined One Man Lobby – have written about Singh’s commitment and tenacity of purpose. But, as historian Vivek Bald notes, there were other key figures and organisations in the fight.
These included Tarakanath Das’s Free Hindustan; the India Association for American Citizenship; Mubarek Ali Khan, who led the India Welfare League; and Anup Singh, who was once part of the India League for America and later of the National Committee for India’s Freedom. As Bald says, “There was also a precedent for Singh’s lobbying and activism in the Friends of Freedom for India, a New York-based organization formed soon after World War I by Agnes Smedley and Sailendranath Ghose.”
Still, Singh played a critical role in articulating the interests of India and Indians in the US.
Jag Jit Singh was born on October 5, 1897, in Rawalpindi in what is now the Punjab province of Pakistan. His father was a judicial officer, and a young Singh would sometimes accompany him on his travels to hear civil suits across Punjab’s small towns. Around 1920, Singh was drawn into the ferment of agitation that swept Punjab in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Four years later, Singh moved to London to study law, but what caught his fascination was the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, with its fine pavilion design incorporating elements of Delhi’s Jama Masjid and Agra’s Taj Mahal. The exhibition showcased products from across India’s then 27 provinces and Singh, sensing an opportunity, exhibited and successfully sold silk fabrics, handlooms and embroidered works imported from India with a cousin’s help.
In 1926, he displayed similar wares at Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exhibition, and although he sustained losses there, it set his destiny. His fortunes turned around when he opened a store in the city’s Walnut Street, which was followed by a new fabric store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Success trailed him everywhere. His fabrics went into the most exclusive dresses and gowns worn by New York’s fashionable set and, in no time, Singh himself was seen as the quintessential man about town.
All this while, his business kept him in close touch with the developments in India. In the mid-1930s, when Singh set up the Indian Chamber of Commerce, hoping to establish bilateral trade relations between British India and the US, he saw how British rule inhibited India’s trade potential.
So, in 1941, soon after becoming president of the India League for America, Singh threw open its membership to include not just Indians but an array of Americans in public life, such as writers, civil rights campaigners and peace activists. These included Walter White, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the writer Pearl Buck; her husband and editor of Asia Richard Walsh; Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Gandhi’s biographer Louis Fisher.
Singh astutely set up another League office in Washington DC, where he could catch the attention of lawmakers, media personnel and decision-makers. As India’s “unofficial envoy”, he spoke up about the Bengal famine, the dangers of Japanese military advance and propaganda in east Asia, and the Indian freedom struggle, led by Gandhi and Nehru. Singh was particularly inspired by Nehru’s An Autobiography, written while Nehru was jailed in 1934-1935. Years later, he would appear in front pages of newspapers to condole Gandhi’s death, and defend the policies of the Nehruvian government.
Campaigns of the 1940s
It was a happy coincidence that the League’s outreach coincided with civil rights activism that believed in a unified, shared struggle against racism and imperialism – a struggle described by historian Nico Slate as one of “colored cosmopolitanisms”. This unity made it possible for the League and other groups to successfully challenge the 1924 Immigration Act, which had effectively barred immigration from Asia.
As historian Doug Coulson explains, this Act that followed from the Bhagat Singh Thind judgement “relied on the “racial eligibility” provisions of the Naturalization Act of 1790. The Naturalization Act was clear: only “free white persons” and “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” could become United States citizens by naturalization. While revoking Thind’s citizenship, the court ruled that high-caste Hindus deemed were neither “Caucasian” nor “free and white”.
Activists like Mubarek Ali Khan did not agree. They contested the racial classification of “high caste Hindus” as “non-white”. Besides, they felt that the racial eligibility provisions were inconsistent with the non-discrimination principle – including a belief in equality and fairness – that was current in American political thought at the time.
When the South Asian naturalization question was debated by the House committee in 1944, political expediency played a vital role, according to Coulson. During those debates, there were two main arguments. One, “the ideals of democracy and universal rights were as inseparable from using race as a basis for legislation”. Second, and more importantly, securing Asian allies against the Japanese was crucial in the war effort.
The sustained campaign led by the League and others – which had the support of physicist Albert Einstein, writer-historian WEB DuBois and novelist Upton Sinclair, among others – resulted in the passage of the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 (the bill was tabled by Representatives Emmanuel Celler and Clare Booth Luce). The law granted citizenship rights to the 4,000-odd Indians residing in the US and established a quota for 100 Indians and 100 Filipino immigrants.
Twenty years later, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 did away with the quota system altogether. Instead, it established a policy that sought to reunite immigrant families and enabled more skilled labour to move to the US in search of a better life and opportunities.
Family legacy continues
By this time, the campaigners who had paved the way for the inclusionary measures had gone their own ways. In the late 1940s, Mubarek Ali Khan moved to Arizona and Anup Singh returned to India to join the Parliament. JJ Singh too moved to India in 1959, with his wife Malti Saksena (journalist and daughter of Ramji Saksena, independent India’s first trade commissioner to the US) and their young sons, Man Mohan and Man Jit.
Man Jit, who now lives in Los Angeles, recalls soirees at their home in Delhi, “where a range of political discussions took place”. His father believed that a “peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue was possible”. “He was, in the 1970s, an avid supporter of the civil rights and social justice movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan.” JJ Singh died in 1976.
His legacy continues with Sabrina Singh, his granddaughter, born a decade after his death. In 2016, she was regional communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She is currently senior advisor to Senator Kamala Harris, who ran for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in the 2020 election.