United States of America vs. Vaishno Das Bagai
The Afterlives of the Thind Decision
By Erika Lee |
FEBRUARY 19, 2023
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Thind (1923) impacted all South Asians in the United States and led to the denaturalization of over fifty South Asian Americans who had already become naturalized citizens.1 One of them was Vaishno Das Bagai—and though Bagai’s painful story has been told before, records I recently discovered in the National Archives further reveal the deliberate and organized campaign that the U.S. government waged against South Asian Americans after Thind. As we mark the 100th anniversary of the decision, there are lessons we can draw from this history to reckon with racism and xenophobia today.
Born in Peshawar in 1891, Bagai was an early supporter of India’s freedom and independence from the British and was already working with the Ghadar Party in San Francisco when he decided to settle in the United States following his father’s death. He had inherited a good deal of land which could have cemented his family’s livelihood in Peshawar for the next generation. Instead, he used a portion of his inheritance to start a new life for himself and his family in the United States.
Bagai arrived in San Francisco on September 6, 1915 with his wife Kala and their three young sons, Brij, Madan, and Ram. He was eager to continue the cause of Indian independence and to allow his children to grow up in the United States. As his granddaughter Rani recounted some years later, Bagai “relished his new life in America.” He owned a home, started a business called Bagai’s Bazaar, and continued his work with the Ghadar Party.
And just over two weeks after his arrival, he declared his intention to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. In his application he declared that he would “renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity” to the King of Great Britain and Ireland, become a citizen of the United States of America, and permanently reside in the U.S. He formally filed his naturalization papers five years later and secured the signatures of two witnesses.
That South Asian Americans were able to successfully naturalize was an anomaly. Other Asian immigrants had already been barred from naturalized citizenship on the grounds that they were not “white” as required by the nation’s naturalization laws dating back to 1790. It would not be until the Supreme Court ruled in the Thind decision, on February 19, 1923, that South Asians were not considered “white.”
The Thind decision dealt a devastating blow to all South Asians in the United States, especially those who had become naturalized citizens. It disrupted dreams. It put already vulnerable people at further risk of discrimination. And it further codified anti-Asian racism.
For Bagai, it proved to be too much. He had staked so much in America. He had tried to do everything that immigrants were supposed to do. He wore American suits, spoke English fluently, and adopted Western manners. As he later explained, the family had “all made ourselves as much Americanized as possible.”
But after he was denaturalized, everything changed. Without U.S. citizenship, Bagai became subjected to California’s alien land laws which barred “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” i.e. Asian immigrants, from owning land. He was forced to give up his property, including Bagai’s Bazaar. When he tried to visit relatives in India in 1928, he was refused a U.S. passport. Struggling with this injustice and feeling trapped and betrayed, in 1928 Vaishno Das committed suicide. In a letter addressed to the San Francisco Examiner, he explained that he was taking his life in protest.
Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind.
I have been familiar with much of this tragic story for some time. Over a decade ago, I first talked with Rani Bagai about her grandparents’ journey to the U.S. as part of a book Judy Yung and I were writing on Angel Island. She graciously shared oral history tapes she had made with her grandmother and copies of Vaishno’s letters. The Bagais ended up being a major part of the history of South Asian migration in our book Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. Today, the Bagais’ story has become well known, largely due to the donation of the Bagai family archive and its preservation by SAADA, and researchers continue to delve deeper into the Bagais’ story. Due to the work of community activists, the city of Berkeley even recently renamed part of Shattuck Avenue Kala Bagai Way!
Ever since I first read Bagai’s letter, I have considered it to be one of the most poignant and significant records revealing the destructive impact of American racism. Nothing is more powerful than Bagai’s words. But I’ve also wondered if we might find evidence of the U.S. government’s actions following the Thind decision to help us understand how the denaturalization of dozens of South Asian American citizens took place and how the government justified its actions. I had tried searching for records before but had come across a lot of dead ends.
Recently, I tried searching again and found references and digitized copies of Bagai’s 1915 declaration of intention of naturalization and 1920 petition for naturalization on Ancestry.com. I also found an obscure file number for a set of federal records that I did not recognize. I went to the National Archives in San Francisco to see the original documents. When I opened one box, out came bound legal documents filed in the U.S. District Court titled "United States of America vs. Vaishno Das Bagai.”
Questions started swirling around in my head as I carefully untied the bundle. Was this what I had been searching for? Would it provide any clues about what happened to Vaishno after the Thind decision to drive him to such despair? I held my breath and unfolded the documents. Inside was the U.S. government’s February 25, 1924 “Bill of Complaint” to cancel his naturalization, written by John T. Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California. Filed just over a year after the Thind decision, the document declared that Vaishno Das Bagai had “illegally obtained and procured naturalization as a citizen of the United States of America.” The crux of the charge, according to Williams, was that Bagai had represented himself as a “white person, whereas in fact and in truth he was a Hindu and not a white person.” Referring to the Thind decision that decreed that “a Hindu was not a white person” within the meaning of the U.S. law, the bill of complaint charged that Bagai “then and there at the time well knew” that he was illegally obtaining naturalization. The absurdity of the charge that Bagai had illegally represented himself as white years before the Thind decision had been handed down did not seem to matter to the U.S. government. As researchers have shown, Bagai had gone to great lengths to comply with U.S. naturalization laws when he had applied. He had secured three caste certificates from officials in his home district in Peshawar to certify that he was a “high caste Hindoo from the Aryan origin” and used them as evidence of to prove he qualified as a White person as U.S. naturalization laws required.2
"United States of America vs. Vaishno Das Bagai” also shows how the U.S. government intended to use the Thind decision to pursue all other naturalized South Asian Americans. It concludes with the statement that the “illegal decree of naturalization” included not only Bagai but “all others” who claimed naturalization in the same way; an indication that the U.S. government was planning on using the same legal argument to denaturalize others. A subpoena commanded that Bagai appear in court to answer the bill of complaint within twenty days.
He does not appear to have answered the summons. Did he refuse to respond as an act of defiance? Was he already too heartbroken to respond? Did he receive any legal advice? We will likely never know. On March 11, 1925, the U.S. Attorney filed a decree to revoke and cancel Bagai’s naturalized citizenship. Less than two months later, the Bureau of Naturalization confirmed that Vaishno Das Bagai was a U.S. citizen no more.
There is something unique about reading historical documents such as these in official government spaces like the reading rooms at the National Archives. Almost a century has passed since these papers were filed in court. The hum of the fluorescent lights and the computers that surrounded me made me feel the passage of time even more acutely. But I knew that the legal documents before me were much more than just words on a page. We have known that the US government pursued South Asian Americans and denaturalized them after the Thind case. But it has been harder to find the actual documents which carried out this targeted discrimination. “United States of America vs. Vaishno Das Bagai” is a significant record of the great lengths to which our government sought to bar Asian Americans from the country and from equal citizenship. And read in conjunction with Vaishno’s heartbreaking letter, we get a glimpse of what the government’s systemic discrimination set in motion for him and for his family.
Vaishno’s denaturalization case raises many questions for future researchers:
- Was there any organized response amongst South Asian Americans fighting denaturalization?
- How many other denaturalization case records can we find and what might we learn from analyzing them?
- How does the denaturalization of South Asian Americans fit into a larger history of denaturalization and unequal citizenship in the U.S.?
After discovering these documents, I had a Zoom call with Bagai’s granddaughter Rani and her spouse Ken, a lawyer. We went through each page and tried to decipher the government’s legal case, but we kept returning to the sheer cruelty of the government’s action. We concluded that the Thind decision was neither a narrowly-conceived decision nor was it an abstract proclamation. The U.S. government used it as a weapon to go after the rights of groups believed to be a threat to white supremacy by claiming that those rights had been “illegally” obtained in the first place. This denaturalization campaign, likely the U.S. government’s first large-scale denaturalization effort, must be viewed alongside the alien land laws limiting the rights of Asian immigrants to purchase or lease land and Jim Crow legislation limiting Black Americans’ access to voting.
In the end, we also returned to Vaishno. He had believed in America’s professed ideals of freedom and was a freedom fighter himself. He had come to the United States, become a U.S. citizen, and done everything that he was supposed to do as a “good” immigrant and a “good” American. Yet he could not escape the power and reach of American racism. We now have a better sense of the despair that Vaishno must have felt during those last months leading up to his death in 1928. It mirrors the deep sadness I feel every time I reread Vaishno’s letter. And during a time when anti-Asian hate and violence has reached historic levels again, it reminds me that 100 years after Thind, the legacies of the case and the realities of racism and discrimination live on.
The Gilded Cage, created by SAADA with Rani Bagai (2020):
Thank you to Rani Bagai and Ken Kagan for their generous insights and commentary on Vaishno Das Bagai’s denaturalization case and essay.
1. Immigration History, a project of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, cites “around 50” South Asians who were denaturalized. See “Thind v. United States (1923),” https://immigrationhistory.org/item/thind-v-united-states%E2%80%8B/. Rani Bagai writes that 64 were denaturalized. See “Bridges Burnt Behind: The Story of Vaishno Das Bagai and Kala Bagai,” Immigrant Voices, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, https://www.immigrant-voices.aiisf.org/stories-by-author/876-bridges-bur....
2. Hardeep Dhillon, “Whitewashing Caste: How Indian Immigrants Used Religion and Caste to Naturalise as White in the US,” Caravan, January 31, 2023, https://caravanmagazine.in/history/immigrants-us-caste-race
• Kritika Agarwal, “Living in a Gilded Cage: Vaishno Das Bagai’s Disillusionment with America,” SAADA, August 6, 2014, https://www.saada.org/tides/article/living-in-a-gilded-cage
• “Kala Bagai,” SAADA, https://www.saada.org/project/timeline/kala-bagai
• Rani Bagai, “Bridges Burnt Behind: The Story of Vaishno Das Bagai and Kala Bagai,” Immigrant Voices, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, https://www.immigrant-voices.aiisf.org/stories-by-author/876-bridges-bur...
• Hardeep Dhillon, “Whitewashing Caste: How Indian Immigrants Used Religion and Caste to Naturalise as White in the US,” Caravan, January 31, 2023, https://caravanmagazine.in/history/immigrants-us-caste-race
• Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
• Vaishno Das Bagai, Naturalization Petition, #4196, vol 38 page 98, RG 21, Records of the U.S. District Court, San Francisco, National Archives, San Francisco
• USA vs. Vaishno Das Bagai, #1218, February 25, 1924, Equity Cases, Box 276, RG 21, Records of the U.S. District Court, San Francisco, National Archives, San Francisco
Erika Lee is is an award-winning historian and author, Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and President of the Organization of American Historians. The granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, Lee was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and testified before Congress in its historic hearings on anti-Asian discrimination and violence.