Punjabi Migration to United States

Punjabi Migration to United States

By Jasbir Singh Kang, MD

Punjabis were the first South Asians to migrate to North America. Their history of migration to America is full of adventure. It is a story of struggle against discrimination and a battle for survival. The first verifiable record of an East Indian in North America is a 1670 Colonial diary that mentions a visit to Salem, Massachusetts by an Indian from Madras who was accompanying a sea captain. Prior to the early 1900’s such visits by an Indian to American soil were sporadic and the first significant South Asian immigration to North America began in 1903. Between 1903 and 1908, about 6,000 Punjabis entered North America (Canada) and nearly 3,000 crossed into the United States. The first group of immigrants can be divided into two general groups. The majority was illiterate and semiliterate laborers from agricultural and/or military backgrounds. The second, very small group was the educated elite group of professionals and students. The laborers were mainly peasant Sikhs and some Muslims from Doaba and Malwa regions of Punjab province in Northwest India, while the latter was composed of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims from throughout upper India. The working class South Asians left very few written records of their early experiences. In contrast, the educated group wrote prolifically on issues such as immigration and citizenship rights.

Between 1903-1908, Punjabis primarily worked on Western Pacific Railways in Northern California. Two thousand Punjabis worked on a 700-mile road between Oakland and Salt Lake City, which is probably modern Interstate 80. Between 1907-1909, Punjabi laborers were responsible for the construction of a large number of bridges and tunnels. Some of the Punjabis took jobs in lumber mills and logging camps in Oregon, Washington and California. Several hundred Punjabi workers had moved across the border into Bellington, WA because of rising Anti- Asian sentiment in Canada. Mill owners were interested in a steady labor supply and Punjabis could be depended upon to show up every morning. The night of September 5, 1907, a mob of 600 lumberjacks of European ancestry raided the living quarters of Punjabi mill workers in Bellington. Punjabi possessions were thrown away into the street and their valuables were stolen. A few Punjabis leaped out of windows in attempt to escape. Many others were dragged out of beds half-naked and whipped and forced into the streets. Some Punjabis fled across the border into Canada and about 400 were jailed. There were no fatalities. The police allowed mobs to expel Punjabis from certain areas; although they did protect individuals from beatings. The press and the general public were unsympathetic to the plight of the Punjabis. The employers welcomed the Punjabis and some used them to undercut the organizing efforts of Euro-American workers. The Punjabis became strikebreakers in some situations. They were paid lower rates than other workers. The American workers organized to drive the Punjabis away. The community was pushed out of Oregon, Washington and Northern California.

The Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in 1908. The Asiatic Exclusion League leaders were also leaders of the organized labor movement. By 1910, Asiatic Exclusion League was successful in lobbying for imposing immigration restrictions on Indians. The Punjabi immigration to the United States was a spill over from Canada when the Canadian Authorities firmly shut the door in 1908. By then a small community of Punjabi laborers had established in the Pacific coast states. There were over 6,000 Punjabis in California by the end of 1910. Punjabis, which were by and large Sikhs established the Khalsa Diwan Society in 1909 and by 1912 the first United States Gurdwara was built in Stockton. Indians were not allowed to purchase any land except one for building a place of worship, nor could an Indian run a business independently, yet these Punjabi immigrants continued to struggle against all odds. The growing network of railroad lines brought increased agricultural activity to large areas of Northern California. Punjabis started moving into farming jobs in the Fresno area. By 1910, the agricultural business expanded swiftly, and Punjabis started getting higher wages because of their traditional agricultural expertise. (Punjabis originated from Indus valley, where agriculture is thought to be invented.)

Professor Bruce La Brack, in his article entitled “Study of Sikhism and Punjabi migration” writes about Stockton Gurdwara as follows: “During these trying years, Gurdwara in Stockton was the religious and social center for East Indian people. Here Sikhs, Hindus, Mexicans, Catholics and even Muslims met, worshipped and socialized together. The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society built it in 1912. This is a historic place. It was here that Ghadar Party was founded with the view to do-away with the British rule in India”.

Punjabi settlements began in farming lands in the Sacramento valley, San Joaquin Valley and in the Imperial Valley in California. Most Sikhs worked for the next few years and established permanent homes. Some worked in the Vacaville orchards. Five hundred were living in Newcastle, picking and hoeing orchards. In 1909, four hundred worked in the best fields in Hamilton, Oxnard and Visalia. Most eventually settled in these places. In Fresno, ranchers considered the Punjabis reliable in financial dealings. By 1919, about 60% of the Imperial Valley was owned by non-residents. Tenant farmers ran nearly 88% of all ranches by 1924. They were able to provide regular profit from land without supervision. Punjabis were not content to remain laborers, and they started pooling money to lease land. Then they started seeking loans. By this time they had acquired some capital and their reputation as hard workers was already established. They were viewed as reliable borrowers. Many Punjabis decided to stay in the Imperial Valley. The current mayor of El Centro is a third generation Punjabi-Mexican, David Singh Dhillon.

In 1923, Asian immigration except from Japan was completely halted and the “Thind” case of 1923 declared Indians ineligible for citizenship on the basis that they were not white people. A great deal of race literature preceded and followed the “Thind” case. Ethnically and linguistically, the South Asians in the U.S. and in Canada were nearly all Caucasians, speaking languages related to other Indo-European stocks, which arose from Sanskrit. But from the American viewpoint, because they came from South Asia, they were all considered Oriental. Because of the restrictive immigration laws, the males could not bring their wives and family. Many Punjabis married Mexican women and lived close to the Mexican border. By 1946, there were 400 Punjabi families in California. Virtually 80% involved Mexican women and Punjabi men. Culturally it was tough. Mexican women insisted on raising the children in their own culture. They brought them up as Catholics and taught them Spanish and English. Although Punjabis were tolerant of their wives, they tried to reassert their traditional family control. The cultural conflicts saw at least 20% of the marriages end in divorce. The women received custody of the children. Most of these children married among Anglos or Hispanics. Punjabis achieved a surprising degree of economic success in California at great personal price. They evaded the alien land laws and used the American legal system and a network of American businessmen to obtain control of farmland.

Since a vast majority of immigrants were Sikhs, the earliest immigration organization centered on Gurdwaras. The difficulties faced by the Sikhs put them in the lap of revolutionaries. The traditional Sikh response against domination was to fight back. The Gurdwaras were the only public places where Punjabis or other Indians could meet. They became the strong centers of political activity. The Khalsa Diwan Society and other organizations began to publish tabloids in Gurmukhi, Urdu and English. A large number of immigrants were ex-soldiers. It was only after they failed to attain any redress that they began to lend an ear to radical counsel. In and around San Francisco, a small group of Indian intellectuals arose to become the nucleus of a revolutionary independence movement. The vehicle for this was Hindustan Gadar Party. Sohan Singh Bhakna, a lumber mill worker in Oregon, became elected president and well-known Indian revolutionary, Har Dyal, was elected as secretary of the organization. Jwala Singh, a well-known Sikh farmer remained behind the scenes but provided most of the funds, including scholarships to many students at UC Berkeley who were part of this party.

In November 1913, Ghadar Party formally organized to promote national independence of India. The first issue of the Ghadar newspaper appeared in the same month and was mailed to every Indian in North America. Also, copies were sent to Europe, India and Far East.

Some of the revolutionaries went back to India to participate in India’s freedom struggle. The Ghadar party continued to support Indian independence until 1947 when it was disbanded and it turned all its assets over to the new Indian government. Gadar memorial hall still exists in San Francisco.

Jagjit Singh who arrived in the U.S. in 1926 became president of the newly formed India League of America in 1938. He was an importer of Indian goods in New York and developed a wealthy clientele. He started acting as official lobbyist for India and Indians. He succeeded in obtaining TIME magazine’s support for Indian nationalists, and he cornered Congressman and diplomats. A number of Punjabis fought for restoration of citizenship, which they had lost in 1910, but congress balked at it. The outbreak of World War II combined with the struggle of Indian nationalists finally reversed discrimination. Jagjit Singh was instrumental in convincing some democrats in congress to restore rights and citizenship for Indians. But it was not until 1946 that Congress passed a bill granting naturalization and immigration quotas for Indians.

The Punjabis moved fast into the political mainstream of America. Farmer Dalip Singh Saund, became the first Indian American congressman. Born in an uneducated Sikh family in Punjab, he came to the United States in 1920 and eventually earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Berkeley. He worked as a foreman on a cotton farm and then became a farm owner in the Imperial Valley. He married an American woman, and together they got involved in civic activities. He organized the Indian National Congress Association of America. Saund was elected as a judge in 1953 and a congressman in 1956.

After 1965, immigrant laws were modified to admit more Indians. In 1968 a large number of Indians were allowed to migrate to the U.S. Actually, it was after 1965 when most of the Indians who migrated to America were from any other states in India, but the credit goes to the struggle by original pioneer Punjabis who were able to bring about changes in the American Immigration laws to help Indians and other South Asians to reap the benefits of American opportunities and freedom. Since 1965, approximately two million South Asians have immigrated to the U.S. and Canada.


Canadian Sikhs by Narinder Singh

Many lecture and articles by Prof. Bruce La Brack of University of Pacific, Stockton, California

Becoming Canadian by Sarjeet Singh Jagpal

Echoes of Freedom, University of California at Berkeley