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The Case of South-Asian American Citizenship: The Legacy of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
By Vishwajeet Deshmukh
Vishwajeet Deshmukh is a final year law student at Government Law College, Mumbai, India.
A history of racial discrimination in American naturalization law has excluded generations of immigrants from the rights of American citizenship. The Supreme Court case United States of America v. Bhagat Singh Thind is a primary example of how the American judicial system has used race to decide the citizenship of South Asian immigrants to the U.S. .
Bhagat Singh Thind arrived in the U.S. in 1913 from Punjab, British India (modern-day Independent India). While at the University of California at Berkeley, Thind became an early member of the Ghadar Party, an anti-imperialist association of South Asians from India that opposed the British colonial authority operating from San Francisco. At the outset of World War I, Thind served in the U.S. Army. After being discharged from military service in 1918, Thind applied for American citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906 .
The Naturalization Act of 1906 established the conditions required to become a naturalized citizen in the U.S. The act restricted naturalization to “free white persons” and “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” . The act did not include any provisions on “Asian” individuals seeking naturalization.
Thind was not the first South Asian person to apply for American citizenship. Prior to Thind’s application, two South Asians were naturalized as U.S. citizens. In 1909, the Circuit Court in New York and the Federal Court of Appeal in New York had conferred an Indian Parsi, Bhicaji Balsara with American citizenship, stating that “Parsis were classified as Aryan and, thus, white.” . In 1913, a Washington state judge granted Akhoy Kumar Mozumdar citizenship because he was a “high caste North Indian Aryan” and cited the precedent established under the Balsara case. . These two court decisions stemmed from the racial theory that “Aryans” were “Caucasians.” During this time period, racial theories and eugenics were attracting attention around Europe and the U.S., stirring racism and prejudice.
Thind applied for U.S. citizenship in the state of Washington in 1918 and was successfully granted American citizenship. However, four days after confirming his citizenship, the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued a letter revoking his citizenship on the grounds of racial ineligibility. Subsequently, Thind applied for naturalization in the state of Oregon in 1919. .
In his pleadings to Judge Charles Wolverton of the District of Oregon, Thind contended that as a "high caste Hindu-Aryan” he was Caucasian, which meant that under the law he was a "free white person" and could not be denied American citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906. Although Judge Wolverton accepted Thind’s plea, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services intervened . Vernor Tomlinson, the assistant director at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, and Lester Humphreys, Oregon’s district attorney, challenged Wolverton’s ruling. In October 1921, the case was sent to the Supreme Court. .
In 1922, prior to Thind’s case, the Supreme Court presided over Ozawa v. United States, in which the plaintiff defended himself as a “free white person” under the Naturalization Act and stated he was eligible for citizenship . Takao Ozawa was a Japanese immigrant who converted to Christianity and was a fluent English speaker; the defense stated that these qualities as well as Ozawa’s light skin tone proved Ozawa was a white person. However, the Supreme Court ruled against Ozawa, stating, “a Japanese, born in Japan, being not Caucasian, cannot be made a citizen of the United States,”—thereby equating “white” with “Caucasian.”
In 1923, Thind’s case presented the Supreme Court with the following question: "Is a high-caste Hindu, of complete Indian ancestry, born in Amritsar, Punjab, India, a white person?" .
Thind's attorneys devised a plan to persuade the Supreme Court that an Aryan invasion of India occurred in ancient times, during which a Caucasian race swept into the land and dominated the native Dravidians. These Aryans subsequently became upper-caste Hindus, with Bhagat Singh Thind serving as an example. Earlier anthropologists had established that “the Aryan invaders were ‘White Men’ and that the High Caste Hindus are what they are in virtue of the Aryan blood they have inherited.” .
Thind claimed that people in Punjab as well as other Northwest Indian provinces belonged to the "Aryan race," citing scholarly authorities such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who classified Aryans as Caucasians. Although some racial mixing did occur between Indian castes, Thind maintained that the caste system had mostly succeeded in suppressing race mixing in India. He argued he was a "Caucasian" because he was a "high-caste Hindu, of pure Indian ancestry.” Furthermore, in an appeal to the U.S.’s anti-miscegenation laws, Thind’s attorneys conveyed that Thind had a strong aversion to marrying an Indian female of the "lower races” .
Ultimately, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Thind. The Court acknowledged the argument of Thind as Caucasian, but asserted a "common sense" interpretation of “white” did not apply to Thind. In writing for the Court, Judge George Sutherland emphasized that the decision was based on "racial difference," not "racial inferiority." The Court contradicted itself from its decision in Ozawa v. United States. Although Thind proved his Caucasian status, the Court ruled against Thind. .
The ruling ultimately determined who may become a naturalized American citizen for the next two decades. The Court virtually halted migration from Asia by maintaining the 1917 Immigration Act (the Barred Zone Act) until the Luce-Celler Act in 1946, which allowed an annual quota of 100 Indian migrants and awarded citizenship to resident aliens in the U.S. As a result of the court’s judgment, 65 other Indians had their citizenship revoked . Discriminatory legislation such as California's Alien Land Law Act of 1913, which prohibited aliens from owning or leasing land, and Oregon's Business Restriction Act of 1923, which prohibited immigrants from opening a legal or medical practice, were given a stamp of approval .
In 1936, following the passage of the Nye-Lea Act—which allows veterans who served honorably in World War I to be naturalized—Thind finally secured the citizenship long denied him. .
It's been nearly a century since the United States v. Thind decision, a largely overlooked Supreme Court case that was brushed under the rug as a double humiliation for the U.S. government, which used the label of whiteness to exclude South-Asian Americans, and for South-Asian Americans, who tried to gain that identifier at the expense of other minorities.
The repercussions of this case are still felt in the South Asian American community and throughout the U.S. The United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind must be remembered, no matter how unpleasant it is for both the U.S. government and the South-Asian American community; otherwise, we risk burying the repercussions of our current situation under the ruins of an unknown past.
 United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923).
 Yang, Kou. “Thind, Bhagat Singh.” In Making it in America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans, edited by Elliott Robert Barkan, 372. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2001.
 The Naturalisation Act of 1906, Pub.L. 59–338, 34 Stat. 596 (1906).
 United States v. Balsara, 180 F. 694,695 (2d Cir. 1910).
 In re Mozumdar, 207 F. 115 (E.D. Wash. 1913); United States v. Akhay Kumar Mozumdar, 296 F. 173 (1923); and Akhay Kumar Mozumdar v. United States, 299 F. 240 (1924).
 Weil, Patrick, and Handler, Nicholas. “Revocation of Citizenship and Rule of Law: How Judicial Review Defeated Britain's First Denaturalization Regime.” Law and History Review 36, no. 2 (2018): 295-354. doi:10.1017/S0738248018000019.
 Thobani, Sitara. “Trans/nationalist convergences: Hindu nationalism, Trump's America and the many shades of whiteness.” In Routledge Handbook of Critical Studies in Whiteness, edited by Shona Hunter, Christi van der Westhuizen, 80. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 2021.
 Takao Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922).
 Azuma, Eiichiro. “A History of Oregon’s Issei, 1880-1952.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 94, no. 4 (1993): 367.
 Alien Veteran Naturalization of 1935, Pub.L. 74-162, 9 Stat. 397 (1935).
 Smith, Marian L. "Race, nationality, and reality-INS administration of racial provisions in US immigration and nationality law since 1898." PROLOGUE-QUARTERLY OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES 34, no. 2 (2002): 90-105.
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