Bhagat Singh Thind (1892-1967), an Indian American spiritual teacher and writer, was denied US citizenship in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). The Supreme Court ruled, 9 to 0, that while Thind was arguably Caucasian, he was not white.
The laws of the time allowed the foreign-born to become citizens only if they were “free white persons”, “aliens of African nativity” or “persons of African descent.”
Thind, like many Indian Americans in the early 1900s, was a Sikh who came to California from Punjab in north-western India. Most came as farmers, but he came as a student. He arrived in the US in 1913 to study at the University of California, Berkeley, getting a PhD. In 1918 he served in the US Army during the First World War, rising to the rank of Acting Sergeant. He was honourably discharged. The Army said his character was “excellent”.
In 1920 he became a US citizen, like many Indian Americans before him. But then the government’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) challenged his right to become a citizen. It said he was not white.
It went all the way to the Supreme Court: United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind.
Thind argued that according to science he was Caucasian, Aryan even, and therefore white. People in the US, even the Supreme Court, used “Caucasian” and “white” interchangeably.
The Court said it did not matter if he was Caucasian: the law only uses the word “white”. And since the law was written according to the understanding of the common man, not scientists, “white” was whatever most people thought it was. And it certainly did not mean people from India, not even high-caste Hindus:
[Their] racial difference … is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.
Furthermore, since Congress in 1917 shut off immigration from the Asiatic Barred Zone, to which India belonged, it is unlikely it would want any such Asiatics becoming citizens.
Thind lost his citizenship. So did other Indians. Because of the Alien Land Law in California, they could no longer own land in their own name. Many lost their farms. American women could not marry them without losing their citizenship, while Indian women could not be brought to the US. Half of Indian Americans left the country. Many of the rest sank into poverty.
People born in India were not allowed to become US citizens till 1946, when Congress passed the Luce-Celler Act. Thind, though, became a citizen in 1936! He did that by going to New York where authorities either disagreed with the ruling or did not know about it (there were few Indians in New York then).
Thind married a white woman and had two children. He gave lectures and wrote books about his spiritual teachings. To help Americans understand them he used the works of Emerson, Thoreau and Walt Whitman, who were familiar with Indian spirituality by way of translations made by Christian missionaries in British-ruled India.