by Paul R. Spitzzeri
There are so many remarkable stories to be told from the Homestead’s collection of historic artifacts and today’s featured object is one of the more meaningful, as well as interesting, examples. It is a press photograph portrait of Sakharam Ganesh Pandit and his wife Lillian Stringer, and has a stamped date of 28 December 1925, though the photo was likely from at least 1920 when the two married.
The image was filed in the Reference Department of the Newspaper Enterprise Association because of ongoing litigation concerning Sakharam’s groundbreaking and highly contested American citizenship status. His story is not only striking and significant, it is timely, given the controversies today about the immigration of ethnic minorities, paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and other issues.
Pandit was born in December 1875 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India and it was said that he came from the Brahmin caste of that nation, then still under the control of the British Raj. The Brahmins were at the peak of the multilayered Indian caste system and Pandit enjoyed the privileges attendant to being of that high rank. He attended what was often referred to as the Benares Sanskrit University, now known as the Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in modern Varanasi.
In summer 1906, at the age of 30, Pandit arrived by ship in New York from Southampton, England and promptly made his way to Chicago. He immediately launched a career as a lecturer on Hindu philosophy and other subjects, with his English-style education in India giving him the ability to speak effortlessly to American audiences. In fact, the first mention of Pandit in the Los Angeles press was just three months after his arrival in the United States.
By 1910, he was a regular speaker on a variety of subjects connected to Hinduism religion and philosophy and comments he made about romantic and spiritual love that year garnered him significant attention in an article reprinted in newspapers across the United States.
Yet, that year, civic crusader Arthur Burrage Farwell of the Chicago Law and Order League launched an investigation of Pandit, who was labeled in a Chicago Tribune article as a “Hindoo fakir” accused by two women “of certain immoral practices.” Farwell equivocated by saying that no charges were filed with the courts “but we have not dropped the matter by any means.” It does appear, however, that the issue was not pursued.
In 1911, Pandit, who acquired a law degree in his early years in America and who was director of the School of Applied Philosophy and Oriental Psychology, filed a declaration to become a naturalized citizen. What was so striking about this is that there were very few natives of India living in the United States and Pandit was the first to apply for citizenship. After moving to Los Angeles shortly afterward, he filed, in 1913, another citizenship declaration through the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The 19 September edition of the Los Angeles Times included a short article about Pandit’s application and it was observed that the ruling would set a precedent in California courts. Appearing before Judge Willis I. Morrison, Pandit “answered the preliminary questions in a highly intelligent manner” and the matter was continued for another month.
The 24 October issue of the Times reported that Pandit’s brief “practically covered the subject” of his racial origins “from the Garden of Eden down to the Judgment Day” in his argument that his Brahman caste and Aryan background made him eminently suited for American citizenship. The paper noted that Morrison “declared it was the most exhaustive and comprehensive treatment of the subject he had ever read.” The naturalization examiner was said to have agreed with the jurist’s assessment and it was added that Pandit argued that “it would be as easy to rule out the Greek as the Hindu from the white race.”
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State in the Woodrow Wilson Administration and frequent presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan weighed in on the Pandit petition, writing:
I have met Mr. S.G. Pandit and have found him to be a very intelligent man. While I have not heard him speak I am sure, by conversing with him, that he is well informed as to his country and as to the doctrines of the religious sect to which he belongs.
In May 1914, Judge Morrison issued a ruling that was apparently reprinted in full in the San Francisco Reporter, a legal newspaper in that city. In his statement, the judge noted that Pandit was “a man of good moral character and marked intellectual attainments and achievements” who “well represents the highest type of the Hindu race, its culture and thought.” Morrison added that “apart from the question of color or race, [Pandit] is in all respects qualified for citizenship.”
The jurist went into a lengthy analysis of American law concerning the racial qualifications for citizenship, which, however, included those of African nativity or descent, because of the change in the 1860s to allow for blacks to become citizens. What this meant for the term “free white person” was, of course, more than challenging, especially as Morrison confronted the question of skin color compared to notions of race.
The judge observed that even the merest acquaintance with anthropology showed that “there is no clearly defined ‘white’ race” and a “reading [of] our curious naturalization act” posed a quandary. He noted that Pandit submitted a “very able brief” and which argued that the term “white person” referred to race and that the Brahmin caste to which Pandit belonged were of that race.
Moreover, Morrison went into a detailed discussion of the Aryan origins of certain Indians and how the Brahman caste reflected a notable proportion of Aryan characteristics preserved through rigorous prescriptions for marriage and breeding within that caste. As “a Hindu of the Brahman caste from the northwest highlands of India,” Pandit was able to show his Indo-Aryan origins and this led Morrison to conclude:
I am, therefore, of the opinion that the petitioner has succeeded in establishing beyond all reasonable doubt that he is a “free white person” within the meaning of the naturalization act.
He will, therefore, be admitted to citizenship.
This made Pandit the first native of India and resident of greater Los Angeles and the second in the nation (Akhay Kumar Mozumdar in 1913 was the first) to be granted American citizenship.
The story looked to have ended there and Pandit went on in late 1917 to be the first native of India to be admitted to the bar in the United States, was commissioned as a notary public, continued his lecturing and teaching, and moved into a home, which still stands (and should be a City of Los Angeles historic landmark) in the Eagle Rock neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from Occidental University (the name takes on an interesting context here!). In 1920, he married Lillian Wood Stringer, also a teacher, in a ceremony on top of Mount Wilson. The couple, who did not have children, remained together until her death in 1941.
In 1923, though, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. Thind migrated to America a decade earlier to pursue graduate studies, joined the U.S. Army, served in World War I, achieving the rank of sergeant, and, after the war’s end in 1919, filed a petition for citizenship.
Thind’s petition was granted, but the federal government filed a suit to block the granting of citizenship. He argued, as Pandit did, that his high caste status and the Indo-Aryan origins of caucasians entitled him to be viewed as white and, therefore, eligible for American citizenship.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Thind was not to be considered a white person and, therefore, could not be a citizen. Associate Justice George Sutherland, who wrote the opinion, utilized a “common understanding” of whiteness, rather than try to argue the matter from a so-called scientific perspective. He added that a 1917 law passed by Congress prohibiting Asian immigration, including from India, was relevant to the ruling.
With the Thind ruling settled law (he was able to become a citizen in 1935 due to a new law concerning World War I veterans), government officials then targeted Mozumdar, whose citizenship was revoked and it remained so until he died in San Diego in 1953, and Pandit. Legal proceedings were initiated against Pandit on 23 June 1923 “to cancel a certificate of naturalization” issued to him by Judge Morrison on the grounds that this was done illegally. It was noted that a Bureau of Naturalization official appeared before Morrison to contest the petition and, after the judge ruled in Pandit’s favor, that official wrote a report to his superiors in Washington, though nothing was done further at the time.
With the federal government’s appeal nearly ten years later, Pandit argued that the revocation of his citizenship would affect his wife’s citizenship as a native-born American and her ownership of significant property in California as well as his own status as a lawyer and notary. He added that, by becoming an American citizen, he forfeited his right to a substantial inheritance in India, as well as the social status attendant to being a Brahmin.
Finally, on 1 November 1926, the matter came up before the federal Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, where Judge Jeremiah Neterer wrote the opinion. He observed that the federal government and Pandit received due process in the court of Judge Morrison a dozen years prior. As he upheld that lower court decision, Neterer wrote,
the defendant obtained his status legally; he did not do or procure an illegal act, nor did the court commit a wrongful act. It was exercising lawful jurisdiction.
Still, in February 1927, federal Solicitor General William D. Mitchell ordered federal district attorney S.W. McNabb to prepare an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. It was noted that “the outcome of this test case will affect the status of several hundred Hindus in the United States.”
The following month, however, the Supreme Court declined to review the Pandit case, which, in essence, confirmed the federal appeal court decision and its finding “that the government waited too long and was itself at fault” in not pursuing the matter sooner, as explained by the Times.
In early May, Sudhindra Bose, a professor of history and politics at Iowa State University, who successfully filed for naturalization just after Pandit did, won a five-year battle for citizenship. The federal government claimed that Bose, using the same general argument of Aryan heritage that Pandit utilized, did so fraudulently. The Supreme Court ruled that a failure to promptly take the matter to it for adjudication and then waiting for years to do was not a justification for revocation so long afterward.
With Pandit’s citizenship status secured, he continued to teach, lecture and practice law in Los Angeles. He died in summer 1959 at the age of 83 and his cremated remains were interred at the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. He is largely a forgotten figure today, but his battles for citizenship amid extraordinary circumstances still resonate during our current controversies.