By- Khushi Bisht
It was 1915, and India was still fighting for freedom when a man with his wife and three children chose to flee what he defined as an exploited nation and immigrate to the United States. Vaishno Das Bagai, his wife Kala Bagai, and their three sons Brij, Madan, and Ram boarded a steamship bound for the San Francisco Bay Area.
On September 6, 1915, Vaishno and his family reached San Francisco, California. There was a tiny percentage of Indians on the Pacific Coast at that time. Vaishno was a member of the Ghadar Movement, which was started by ex-pats Indians to expel the British from India. He and his family decided to relocate to the United States to join and support other Ghadar protesters, fleeing the British-controlled nation.
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They wished to live in a liberated country where oppression does not exist. But what they discovered there, however, was far more injustice, prejudice, and racism. Kala Bagai was one of the first Indian women to immigrate to America. Racism was so prevalent in the nation back then that a newspaper released a racial article about her entrance, empathizing with her nose piercing and ethnic presence. The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) has a news report from that time, which states, “In ten years, Kala was the first Hindu woman to enter the city.”
Vaishno Das Bagai was born in the Indian city of Peshawar (now Pakistan) in the year 1891. He came from a wealthy family and had a large inheritance. As a result, after setting for a few years in San Francisco, he was able to start a general store named ‘Bagai Bazaar’.
A few years later, the family purchased a house in Berkeley. But they’re never allowed to live there because they were Indians with no place in the English culture. When they arrived at the house with all of their stuff, their neighbors refused to let them in. They wondered how these “dark-skinned” people could possibly live next door to them.
The Bagai’s were taken aback. Disturbed by the racial prejudices the family moved back to San Francisco, fearing that their children would be harmed by their neighbors. In 1921, however, Vaishno became an American citizen through naturalization. The family was overjoyed, believing that they had become like every other American. They resided in San Francisco, where the children went to school, and Kala began learning English to cope with her isolation in a distant country. But they were never completely accepted in a country where anti-Asian resentment was on the rise.
Everything was going well and they felt they’d be able to live peacefully until 1917 when the United States barred immigration from most Asian countries. And after the 1923 Supreme Court decision regarding the US vs Thind case, Indians, as well as those who had already been naturalized, became disentitled for citizenship because they weren’t ‘white’. Vaishno and other Indians were denaturalized and declared “person not welcome” shortly after.
As a result, Vaishno Das was forced to close his general store and sell his assets. He was denied a US passport by the government, which hampered his attempt to go back to India. And in 1928, stuck and helpless Vaishno committed suicide by gas asphyxiation. “Is life worth living in a gilded cage?” he wrote in his suicide note to the San Francisco Examiner.
Kala, a single mother of three children, was stranded, without a source of income and, most importantly, without US citizenship. But she eventually overcame the adversity, revolutionized herself, and remarried a man named Mahesh Chandra. She was eventually granted American citizenship in 1946 after the new laws were proposed.
Well, this isn’t the only case; there have been numerous instances in recent years that demonstrate that racism toward various ethnic groups has long been an issue in the United States. Prejudice against Asian and African Americans, and police brutality today are analogous to those of a century ago. The death of George Floyd has sparked mass demonstrations in the United States, for months expressing outrage with the fact that racism and ethnic injustice continue to exist in modern-day America. Via social movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, several social action groups attempted to bring America’s racial history to light.
According to science, the various forms of skin colors are a product of how our forefathers dealt with the sunlight. As a result, we have such a diverse range of skin tones. However, somebody misinterpreted science, and many people accepted it as fact. People should be encouraged to accept their individuality rather than being forced to fit in. We must become mindful of and accept the differences. A world with a diverse range of viewpoints is a much more vibrant and healthy place to live in.