The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan: Contacts with Individuals and Organizations in the United States

In the previous chapter, the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society was considered, in so far as possible, as an isolate, operated by and for the Sikh population in the western part of the United States. However, this conceptualization could not be maintained entirely. Although the Society operated in social and religious affairs, essentially separately from the American context in which it was founded, it has already been seen that numerous official contacts with various levels of California state and local government were made from necessity (incorporation, taxes). Within the Indian community also, the Gurdwara did not operate in a vacuum. Twenty-five per cent of the Indians in the United States, although mostly from the Punjab, were not Sikh, and there were other Indian organizations, both religious and non-sectarian, which to some degree competed with the Gurdwara for the attention and time of the Indian population. Of such organizations, those which competed with the Gurdwara primarily in contacts with other overseas Indians, or with India are not discussed here.

This chapter focuses on the kinds of contacts which existed between the Khalsa Diwan and individual Muslims and Hindus in the United States, the relationship between the Diwan and other Indian organizations which operated primarily for the benefit of the Indian population in the United States, and the official contacts of the Diwan with American society. Several types of contact with, and isolation from, the Gurdwara are represented (individual non-Sikh Indian, Indian organizations, and the Diwan’s contact with the United States public and government beyond that which was necessary), but they have in common the fact that they are all relevant to placing the Khalsa Diwan Society in proper perspective within the United States.

The Hindus and Muslims: The Sikh Gurdwara was, before 1947, the only community center at which all Indians could gather. It is a part of the Sikh faith that persons from all communities (caste and religious) are to be welcomed equally at Sikh activities and festivals. Informants insisted that before 1947, Muslims and Hindus had actively participated in the activities of the Stockton Gurdwara and had contributed as much money per person as had anyone else. This statement was made despite the fact that several of the same informants, when questioned about how many men had come to the United States form their village would admit that the number they had given at first, only included the Sikhs and not the Muslims or Hindus with whom they did not have as close social contacts.

The long-established tradition of Hindu and Muslim participation in Gurdwara affairs is still in part observable today. The older Hindus, who settled in rural California, continue to attend the Gurdwara and to make contributions at the gurpurabs, the memorial bhogs, and during the ugrahi. An analysis of the `964 Society financial report shows that 11 Hindus contributed to the ugrahi (10 of whom live in Yuba City – Marysville), 6 contributed on Baisakhi, 5 on Guru Nanak’s Birthday, 6 on Guru Gobind Singh’s Birthday (the three most popular festivals), and one at the memorial bhog. Only two Muslims (both of whom live in Yuba City) contributed to the ugrahi, and none contributed at the gurpurabs or bhogs. This drawing away from Gurdwara activities by the Muslims has occurred since 1947, and is a result primarily of Partition. The effects of Partition on the unity of the Indian community in California will be discussed later, but this pattern of giving by the older Hindus and even a few of the Muslims provides some independent indication that before 1947, there was widespread support for the Gurdwara from all religious groups.

Neither the Muslims nor the Hindus formed a closely knit religious unit in the United States. The Hindus never formed a communal organization of their own, which is not surprising considering their small numbers (only approximately 350 in 1914, out of 7,000) and their general lack of a tradition of group worship which contrasts strongly with Sikh practices. The Muslims (approximately 1,400 in 1914) did form in 1919, the Muslim Association of America, but the purposes of the Association did not include group worship, nor did the Association have a permanent headquarters such as the Gurdwara where its members could gather. Their program was directed toward social “improvement”, Americanization, and education of the Muslims in the United States. The one religious activity which they did undertake, was to provide lots in a Sacramento cemetery for any Muslims who died in this country. By 1921, the Association had established a second branch in the Imperial Valley which functioned as a burial association only. The Association may also have raised money to support schools in India during the early years of its existence, on approximately the same basis as the Khalsa Diwan Society, that is through sub-committees, but there is no substantial documentation for this activity. Apparently, the Muslims did gather informally to worship during such festivals as Id but they also enthusiastically attended the Gurdwara.

Despite the fact that Muslims and Hindus were welcomed at Gurdwara activities, they did not have access to all parts of the organization, or to all its activities. They were not allowed on the committee, or to become officers, much less to become the granthi, nor could they vote during elections. They were thus, effectively from the authoritative positions within the Diwan, and from the committee’s behind-the-scenes debating. The Muslims never, and the Hindus only rarely availed themselves of the gurdwara’s facilities for their own funerals, although they attended and donated at funerals of their Sikh friends. But they did participate in the discussions at the general meetings of the sangat, and were allowed to introduce resolutions on non-religious matter, which were then debated, and sometimes adopted by the sangat. The Diwan’s concept of the proper recipients of welfare also included them. Both Muslims and Hindus have received aid when unemployed or ill.

The attendance of Hindus and Muslims at Gurdwara affairs was one reason for barring meat in the Gurdwara kitchen. On the other hand, Muslims won’t eat meat unless it is killed slowly and allowed to bleed, and most of the Hindus who came to the United States were vegetarians. The solution to the meat problem was to allow only vegetarian food to be served in the Gurdwara, so that “no one should be offended.” Those who stayed in the hostel also had to observe this restriction, or else eat out.

With respect to the Gurdwara’s official activities, there is little record of over conflict between individual Muslims and Hindus and the Society, or between the Muslim Association and the Society. In 1949, the Diwan did become involved in a quarrel over a large sum of money which a Brahmin shopkeeper, without consulting the officers, had promised that the Society would give to a crematorium. The case was settled out of court, and was the only time a person of another religion was specifically censured by the Society. Otherwise, official relations with persons of either religion were limited to the invitation extended to, and accepted by, Swami Yogananda of Los Angeles, to say a prayer at the dedication of the new Gurdwara building in 1930. For the most part, the Swami’s activities were directed toward bringing the Vedanta philosophy to Americans through the ashram he had established in Los Angeles and its branches in other cities. Little contact was maintained with his activities by the resident Indians, except perhaps by a few urban Hindus, who were very much in the minority.

Non-Sectarian Organizations: There was only one fairly successful non-sectarian Indian organization which was concerned with the welfare of the Indians in the United States; the Hindustani’s Welfare and Reform Society. This organization served the geographical region of California which was furthest away from Stockton; the Imperial Valley. The Society was formed in the city of Imperial in 1919 at the time when Indians were beginning to settle more or less permanently in the area, either by leasing farms or by making an Imperial Valley labor camp (instead of one further north) their home base. The members came from all religious groups, although the Sikhs were numerically predominant. The reasons for the formation of the Society can be shown by a description of its standing committees: (1) the educational and reform committee, (2) the legal committee (i.e. arbitration board), and (3) the farm committee. The first two committees attempted to keep Indians out of court and jail, and at the same time to urge them to adopt customs which would make them more acceptable to white Americans.

The education committee was to encourage temperance in the use of “intoxicants”, discourage undesirable marriages, especially with Negro women, and to arrange for instruction in English, reading, writing, arithmetic, and American government. The legal committee was to act as an arbitration board for “members and other Hindustanis” in “all matters of dispute and misunderstanding”. This latter committee was apparently the most successful of the three. In 1920-21, according to Das, “it had already materially reduced the number of cases which came before the court for settlement in previous years”. The society also retained a lawyer to handle case which did finally go to the courts (many of them involving non-Indians). The farming committee, on the other hand, was to disseminate practical information about leasing procedures and crops.

The formation of this society reveals that at least some Indians were worried about the impression which their fellow countrymen were making on the white community. The society acted, as did the Gurdwara in the North, as a panchayat in attempting to keep the members of the community in line. It took over, in the southern part of the State, the part played by the Gurdwara in arbitration, but it also provided additional services for the farmers, and was more explicit in what it condemned in the way of social behavior than was the Gurdwara. On the other hand, the Society was explicitly not a religious organization, and it did not pretend to maintain the type of formal and informal contacts with Sikh and freedom movement organizations which the Gurdwara had; nor did it attempt to settles estates of deceased members. It was a local organization dedicated to serving local needs, and to keeping watch over the local population. The Sikhs went north to Stockton for the gurpurabs and to maintain contacts with friends living there, as often as they could. At least once, one of the three Gurdwara officers was from the Imperial Valley.

Until the Japanese were interned during World War II, the Society had no headquarters. It held its meetings in labor camps and on farms, but during the war it took over a Japanese Buddhist center in El Centro.

Contact between the Gurdwara and the Welfare and Reform Society was mainly through overlapping membership; that is, the Sikhs in the Imperial Valley were involved in both organizations. This local organization in the South, however, did mean that after the Second World War, the acquisition of the Buddhist Center, and the split with the Muslims, there existed a basis for the establishment of the El Centro Gurdwara in 1947-48

The emphasis on education, “Americanization”, and reform stressed by the two non-Sikh organizations discussed so far, the Muslim Association, and the Welfare and Reform Society, demonstrates that by 1918-19, the Indians were no longer as impervious to the advantages of group action in regard to their welfare in this country as they were when the Gurdwara was founded. Some members of the community (particularly those who had already established themselves by leasing farms) were attempting through these societies, to help the immigrants fit in better, especially vis-à-vis American authorities, and the “face” which the community turned towards the outside world. At the same time, the Welfare and Reform Society particularly attempted to stand up for Indians’ rights against the social and legal prejudices which stood in the way of economic success. Economic success, in fact, was a factor to which other interests were often subordinated. At that time, with very few exceptions, the Indians did not care to mix socially with Americans, and in many cases, could not for lack of a knowledge of English. But they had come to the United States to make money, and they did want to give the impression of being industrious and trustworthy.

The Khalsa Diwan Society also, was not unaffected by this attitude in the social and economic spheres, although this type of activity was taken on more sporadically and informally as the occasion or necessity presented itself, than was the case for the other two organizations.

Voluntary Contacts with American Society: As an aid for itself, the Khalsa Diwan Society retained a lawyer to act as a buffer in dealing with American authorities. As their lawyer, M P. Shaughnessy wrote to the California State Board of Control in 1919 to explain the legal position of the Indians in this country. The lawyer also helped in settling the dispute with the crematorium, obtained a railway pass for the granthi, and was asked for advice in countless other legal matters. One other activity was carried on by the Society in relation to American courts, although infrequently. On at least two occasions, the committee gave a Diwan member a “certificate of indebtedness” for his use in a court case against another Indian. In doing this, the committee was acting in its capacity as an arbitration board and awarded a certificate only if the committee members felt certain that the other party was guilty and that the case could not be settled out of court by a Gurdwara appointed arbitration board.

In 1933, the Society decided to donate $5.00 a year to the Stockton Community Chest, and in 1935 it began to give $50.00 a year (raised to $75.00 a year in 1955) to the Country Hospital:

…as a gesture of cooperation with the local government institutions in appreciation of their treatment of our sick compatriots.

Before 1947, the above “gestures” were the only regular efforts made by the Society toward community relations in any sphere of activity.

Sporadically, the Gurdwara’s general funds have been used to print books and pamphlets in English in Sikhism. A pamphlet on “The Message of the Sikh Faith” by a friend of Teja Singh (the first president of the Society) was printed before 1930, and a translation by Teja Singh of the Japji Sahib, a Sikh prayer, was published in 1945. In 1923 the Society published “Ethnological Epitome of the Hindustanis of the Pacific Coast”, a tract written by Pardaman Singh, a Berkely Ph. D., which attempted to prove that the Hindustanis on the West Coast are of Aryan descent. In 1928, Dalip Singh Saund was given a subsidy of $600 to write a book refuting Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (the result: My Mother India published in 1930). These efforts were undertaken only when an individual appeared who was willing to see the work through. Most often these persons were Sikh students, living at the Khalsa Club House, who perhaps felt more need to explain and their religion to Americans than did the rural Sikhs. Distribution of these books and pamphlets was in general poorly arranged, but some copies found their way through the students into University libraries.

Other publicity was rare. When the new Gurdwara was dedicated in 1930, the local Stockton paper ran the story, primarily because Swami Yogananda and Anup Singh were speaking. In 1931, the Society sponsored a public speech in Stockton by Haridas Mazumdar on the Indian Freedom movement. This speech followed the upsurge of general public interest in Indian Freedom in the United States after Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Campaign began in April 1930. Enthusiasm and hope for India’s freedom were high among the California Indians. But after the “failure” of the Round Table Conferences between Gandhi and the British, and Gandhi’s arrest, the relationship between the California Indians and the intellectuals who still favored non-violence, deteriorated, and no more public speeches by the intellectuals were sponsored in Stockton.

It is readily seen from the type of activities carried on by the Khalsa Diwan, Welfare and Reform Society and the Muslim Association that the Indians did not look for social contact with Americans through their organizations. The societies were formed by Indians to advance their own interests; religious and economic. They attempted to see that Indians were not pushed around, that they acquired enough skills to get along in America, and to give aid to those Indians who were in need. They also had a certain amount of concern with social reform in so far as it helped to put on a good “face” for Americans. At the same time these societies provided some services which Indians were used to having in the Punjab, but which were not available in the United States, such as the alternative to State courts provided by the arbitration boards of the Khalsa Diwan and the Welfare Reform Society.

It is also evident that the only organization which drew all the Indians together, despite the fact that non-Sikhs were barred from office, was the Khalsa Diwan. Some of the reasons for this will become clearer in the later chapters, but thus far it can be said that the Gurdwara, with its physical center and program of regularly organized festivals provided frequent opportunities for people to meet together: for worship, politics, and social reasons.

For contrast with these successful organizations, the short-lived organizations which operated before 1947 might be mentioned. All of them had a more limited appeal in terms of membership or objectives. They were based on either region of origin in India (when persons from that region had a quarrel with rest of the community), or for a limited objective such as citizenship rights for Indians in the United States. Once the quarrel was patched up, or the objective achieved, these organizations became dormant or were dissolved. In a sense they were parallel to the educational committees of the Khalsa Diwan which formed and dissolved, and reformed with a new set of members as different groups decided to aid different schools or institutions in the Punjab.

Source: Wood, Ann Louise. East Indians in California: a study of their organizations, 1900-1947 (chapter 4). Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Thesis. 1966.

Share with Friends
>