Post by Esther Hwang
Bhagat Singh Thind holds a seat in American history through his Supreme Court Case, United States vs. Thind. At a time when only “free white men” could be naturalized, Thind challenged the judicial system by petitioning for his citizenship. Through a loophole in the scientific definition of “Caucasian,” as well as persistence and determination for justice, Thind was eventually granted citizenship in 1936.1 Thind exposed the flaws of the American judicial system to protect the rights of non-white groups. Thus he created a legacy for himself as an Asian American who took a stand against racist systems.
The famous Supreme Court case, United States vs. Thind (261 US 204), took place in 1923. By that time Thind had lived in the United States for ten years, having moved to Oregon from Punjab, India in 1913. Thind came to America with a mission to “fulfill his destiny as a spiritual teacher,” studying at the University of California in Berkeley. Working in lumber mills in order to pay off his education, Thind upheld the standards of a dedicated U.S. citizen, even serving in the Army during World War 1.2 In fact, Thind “received an honorable discharge in December, 1918, with his character designated as “excellent.” So why in the world was Thind denied citizenship when he petitioned to be naturalized?
During this period, Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland was faced with the challenge of interpreting the Naturalization Law. This law stated that only “free white men” could hold citizenship. Only one year before Thind’s case, Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa petitioned for naturalization, only to be rejected under the requirement that he must be part of the “Caucasian race.” Because Thind was from Punjab, a northern region of Indian, he was able to make the case that his ancestry traced back to Caucasus. Thus he made his case for citizenship under the definition that Justice Sutherland previously used to deny citizenship for Takao Ozawa. Though Thind’s argument was consistent with Justice Sutherland’s requirement for citizenship, Justice Sutherland was persistent to deny citizenship to non-whites. Sutherland redefined the phrase “free white men” to exclude Indians: “The words of the statute are to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man from whose vocabulary they were taken.”3 Essentially, the definition of “free white people” changed according to the racist agenda of the U.S. court system. Thus, Thind’s actions exposed the inconsistencies and blatant racism within the American legal system to deny rights to non-whites.
A year after his case, Bhagat Singh Thind applied for citizenship again, this time completely avoiding the Supreme Court. Thanks to the state of New York, Thind finally became an American citizen in 1936. He proceeded to write books and fulfill his mission as a spiritual teacher. In addition, Thind strongly supported Indian students and spoke out for Indian independence from Britain. Thind’s most potent legacy, however, will lie in his rebellious and ingenious way of maneuvering through the legal system to lay claim to the rights of citizenship that he, an Indian American, truly deserved.
- Singh, Inder. “About Dr. Thind: The Legacy of an Indian Pioneer.” Bhagat Singh Thind. http://www.bhagatsinghthind.com/legacy.html.
- “Bhagat Singh Thind.” PBS. http://www.pbs.org/rootsinthesand/i_bhagat1.html.
- “United States v. Thind (261 U.S. 204).” The Multiracial Activist. http://multiracial.com/site/index.php/1923/02/19/united-states-v-thind-261-u-s-204/.