In these days of Covid 19, speaking for myself, I am acquiring a lot of information via the Internet to rethink, reassess and to find connections between the vices and evils of the present times with the days gone by. My pearl of wisdom (which seldom befalls), is that whenever there is a clash between truth and belief, there is politics of the worst kind. Readers are free to arrive at their own deductions as they please. Freedom is theirs, for me to cherish.
What set me thinking was a paper chanced upon on the net by one Srirajasekhar Bobby Koritala on 'The historical perspective of Americans of Asian Indian Origin 1790-1997'. It charters the course of immigration of Indians to America, of them finding their feet there and the hostility they faced on foreign lands because of beliefs on both sides. The appendix of the paper is especially interesting. He lists two categories of people. Great Americans who helped Indians in the USA and a Rogues Gallery where amongst others he lists President Theodore Roosevelt ' a Racist, Imperialist, Colonialist, Anti-Asian, Anti -Indian' and I feel assured that the US is particularly kind to its intelligentia and has not felt the compulsion to dub him an anti- national and extradited him notwithstanding Trump.
Further reading on the subject, I found out that hundreds of Indians whose main occupation was trade, travelled to America in 1880s and became so well known that plays like, 'The Boston Brahmin', 'The Rajahs Daughter', and 'Cataract of the Ganges', were staged and there was a popular song titled 'The Hindu Girl'.
However, it appears things began to change a few years later when hordes of Indians mostly Sikh farmers forcibly migrated from Punjab on account of the unfair practices of the British Govt in farming sectors mainly to Vancouver. Most of them worked in lumber mills and railroads. They started to do particularly well on the farms in California and Sacramento region but they aroused suspicion and were described as 'low caste Hindus', 'treacherous', 'filthy', 'unsanitary' and carrier of deadly diseases and 'least desirable race'. Evidently their physical appearance, social customs and religion were not acceptable to the residents who were distrustful of anything not familiar and akin to their own.
Sarah Isabel Wallace in her book, 'Not fit to stay; Public Health Panics and South Asian Exclusion' emphasizes that exclusion was largely for reasons of health. She writes that it all began when a story broke in the Blaine Review in the fall of 1907 that the newly arrived south Asians laborers working in mills were responsible for the meningitis the previous spring. A Methodist Bishop James Mills Thoburn who had resided in India for 30 years and had recently returned said, "Hindoo immigration to the coast was responsible for a great deal of the plague, cere bro spinal meningitis and other disease that have been sweeping the country; as south Asians were leaving India in the hopes of escaping the plague ,the germs of which they carry with them."
This would come in the category of 'fake news', since it was not based on any scientific study, but it was appealing to the public who were in any case opposed to the migrants.
Sikhs, typically addressed as Hindus, with their traditional attire of long hair, a comb under the hair, long beards, underwear, steel bangle and a sword were particularly unacceptable to the mono-theistic religious society. And then the perceived threat of losing employment to 'pauper labor' was evidently crushing them. Interestingly the US officials had no idea about Hindu religion, and it is said that a copy of The Koran was put into service for Hindus to swear on.
It appears the Anti- Asian hysteria started to build up in the early 1900s in Canada and on the Pacific coast of North America. In 1905, the whites formed Japanese and Korean Exclusion League and in 1907 a Canadian 'Asia Exclusion League', (AEL), appeared on the precepts of South Asian racial 'otherness'.
In 1906 Mary Wilson, living in Vancouver wrote, 'we do not propose to have a Hindu town or bazaar rather, with its vicious evils and attendant undesirable element……We shall have the plague, cholera and other deadly fevers and diseases here among us, if such is not stopped in time'.
Antagonism towards Indians enchanted the press as negativity usually does. Puget Sound a newspaper carried the headlines on 16.9.1906 asked its willing readers: 'Have we a dusky peril? Hindu hordes invading the state'. A reader wrote, 'I consider their (Hindus) advent in this country very undesirable …. their code of morals is bad (from our point of view) and if allowed the freedom, which they naturally expect in America, they will eventually become troublesome."
In May 1907 Fred Lockley, a powerful American journalist, in the Pacific Monthly magazine titled 'The Hindu Invasion; A New Immigration Problem' wrote: "Our kinsmen (Indians) in the far East are turning their faces westward. Here and there a tiny crevice has appeared in the dam that has held them in check for so long. They are trickling through in a slight and apparently insignificant stream gradually enlarge till it floods our lands and menaces our institutions."
Significantly the US Supreme Court did not initiate a National Population Register.
To proceed, on 12.8.1907 the first public meeting of the AEL was held where the Mayor warned of "an invasion of Asiatics who are swarming into our country every month' and 'the inevitable result of this great influx of the yellow race will be the retreat of the white race already here'.
On 13.8.1907 the Vancouver World newspaper featured a story on the front page that 'All Parties Opposed to Asiatics' and in its editorial wrongly reported that with the 160 Hindus on the steamer Athenian and 2000 Japanese on Indiana were reportedly arriving whereas when it landed on 18.9.1907 there were only 275 Japanese and not 2000.
In today's terms it would be dubbed fake news but back then it was infusion of enthusiasm. Predictably, the newspaper never apologized.
To encourage people to plod on, it is often said that, Rome was not built in a day. My take on it is that similarly riots do not happen in a day. It is only when the mind is completely full of the indoctrinated poison that riots happen. Hence what happened in Bellingham on 4.9.1907 a Sunday when around 500 working class people rioted screaming, "Drive out the Hindus" for about 5 hours and vandalized their houses and belongings, and took out several men and beat them up it was not a one off incident. That night 200 Indians were confined in the City hall and the rest fled never to return.
But their escape to Everett did not help them and riots happened there on 5.11.1907 following the same pattern and typically the Police just watched.
On 6.9.1907 the newspapers reported that, 'the police were helpless' and 'all authority was paralyzed'.
Not a single person from the mob was prosecuted. I do not intend to make it sound familiar. As I said, your freedom of deduction I shall honor.
Four days later 10.9.1907 the World carried a news report that 'Orientals Buy Arms. Hundreds of Asiatics purchase Rifles' and that sale of weapons was stopped. I must say self- preservation often has violent means.
After the riots, Bellingham Herald 10.9.1907 was of the opinion that, "the Hindu is not of us and can never be……He brings nothing but diseases and filth and a little labour, in return for which he subtracts some of our capital."
Though Bellingham Herald condemned the violence it concluded, "the Hindu is not a good citizen"; the Reveille said, "while any good citizen must be opposed to the means employed, the result of the crusade against Hindus cannot but cause a general and intense satisfaction, and the departure of the Hindus will leave no regrets."
The Seattle Morning Times argued it was, "… not a question of race, but of wages; not a question of men, but modes of life; not a matter of nations, but of habits of life….When men who require meat to eat and real beds to sleep in are ousted from their employment to make room for vegetarians who can find the bliss of sleep in some filthy corner, it is rather difficult to say at what time limit indignation ceases to be righteous" thus indicating AEL were not alone in marginalizing the Hindus(Indians really) .It was the intellectual class which was complicit and lent immense legitimacy to these beliefs.
The potency of this vilification may be gauged from the content of tickets in the following format sold on 8.1.1908. It says,
'For your Children's Sake
Asiatic Exclusion League Ticket
GOOD MEN AND A GOOD CAUSE.'
Children were thus bartered for violence, and violence justified in name of a good cause.
If it rings a familiar bell, please do not blame me. I am only setting out what history says, on trusting the written word.
To return to where I started that whenever there is a clash between beliefs and truth, politics plays its part. Thus the Barred Zone Act came to be enacted on 4.2 1017, which effectively meant that persons from barred zones, which included India, could not enter the US and thus we Indians, not Hindus alone, became an outcast for the purposes of immigration, on beliefs unsupported by truth. Let us learn lessons from History, not repeat the mistakes, especially when human lives are involved. To specify further let us not play politics with precious human lives.
(The author is a Senior Advocate at Supreme Court and a former judge of the Patna High Court. Views are personal)