Ram Bagai: A Tale of Bigotry, Despair, Loss and Optimistic Hope

In order to commemorate Martin Luther King on (what would have been) his eighty-ninth birthday, I would like to highlight the connection South Asian Americans had with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement by displaying a snippet from a letter written by Ram Bagai to Martin Luther King, where he wrote:

With great respect–and deep admiration, we watch your concerted effort for the dignity of the Negro in the United States. We want you to know that your dream is our dream–that your prayer is our prayer

Ram Bagai was well-known among Hollywood circles. He had served as the president of The Hollywood Foreign Press Association before establishing Films of India, an organization that screened Hindi films in the United States. As a brown-skinned man in a White-dominated world, Bagai’s appreciation for the Civil Rights Movement was immeasurable. In fact, in 1965, he was willing to donate the proceeds from the screening of the 1957 Golden Globe-nominated film, Do Aankhen Barah Haath, to the MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Ram Bagai was one of the very few Indians to have been raised in the United States, long before the term “ABCD” was coined. Ram’s upbringing in California was the product of his father’s quest for liberty and revolution.

Ram was born to Vaishno Das and Kala, in the rural outskirts of Peshawar, located in present-day Pakistan. He had two older brothers, Brij and Madan. During the first decade of the 20th century, Vaishno Das was growing increasingly resentful of British hegemony in his homeland. His grievances and youthful rebellious spirit attracted him to the Gadar Party, a political activist organization based in San Francisco that aimed to fight and secure Indian independence from the British Raj. For a few years, Vaishno Das nurtured his dreams of raising his children in the United States, which he romantically hailed as a free country where he and his family could better themselves. When a high-ranking official from the Gadar Party invited him to settle in California to assist them with the revolutionary cause, he unhesitatingly accepted.

In the early 20th century, a sizable number of young men from the Punjab, in northwest India, had settled in rural California, where they worked as farmers. They labored alongside Mexican immigrants, who similarly were marginalized by social mores of White America. Being burdened with typical male cravings, the Punjabi farmers found companionship with Mexican women and eventually married them. These interracial couples had children with creative names like “Antonio Ahluwalia” and “Salma Singh”.

Indian male sojourners were common on the American West coast during the 1910’s. However, across the entire North American continent, an Indian woman was a rare sight. So, when Vaishno Das Bagai arrived with his wife and children on September 6th, 1915, Kala’s face appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Call-Post with the caption “first Hindu woman to enter the city in ten years”.

Apparently, it was a slow news day.


Vaishno Das at Bagai’s Bazaar

Vaishno Das integrated in California almost effortlessly. Relishing his new life in America, he donned himself in western-style suits, adopted American mannerisms and spoke English impeccably. In addition, he exemplified the American entrepreneurial spirit by operating his own general store in San Francisco, which he christened “Bagai’s Bazaar”. His loyalty still laid in the prospects of an independent India, as demonstrated by his active involvement in the Gadar Party. However, after becoming naturalized in 1921, it was undeniable that Vaishno Das Bagai had become as American as apple pie.

Unfortunately, the family had faced overt discrimination. When they had planned to relocate their residence to Berkeley, they found that their neighbors had locked the doors of their new house so they wouldn’t be able to move in. Picking up on cues of hostility, Vaishno Das and Kala reasoned that it would be more prudent to remain in San Francisco and reside in the room located above Bagai’s Bazaar.

Despite certain drawbacks, Vaishno Das lived the American dream. However, his life would turn into a unforeseeable nightmare in 1923. In the case of US V Thind, the Supreme Court ruled that Indian immigrants were not “White” and therefore, were ineligible for citizenship. Vaishno Das was one of sixty-four Indian immigrants who had their citizenships stripped following the Supreme Court ruling. Deprived of the rights guarenteed by US citizenship, Vaishno Das was subjected to California’s alien land law. Eventually, he was forced to liquidate his property and he lost his business. When he wanted to visit relatives in his native Punjab, he was refused a US passport to travel. While he did have the option of reapplying for a British passport, his loyalty to the vision of an independent India discouraged him from doing so.

Vaishno Das was heartlessly betrayed by the country in which he placed all his hopes and dreams. He realized that the American dream was nothing but an illusion for a brown-skinned man. He drowned in an devastating depression. One day, Vaishno Das  traveled to San Jose on a business pretext. When he arrived, he rented a room and wrote letters to his family along with the San Francisco Examiner, explaining the circumstances that led to him to his heartbreaking final decision. After sending the letters, Vaishno Das committed suicide by gas poisoning.


(From Left to Right) Madan, Brij, Kala, and Ram

Kala and her children were traumatized by Vaishno Das’ suicide. While the immigrant woman, who barely spoke English, was taken aback by her husband’s actions, she, nevertheless, focused her attention on raising her three children. She did a series of odds jobs to ensure a steady income. She assured her children a stable upbringing and stressed the importance of education. A few years after Vaishno Das’ death, she married a close family friend, Mahesh Chandra, who, like Vaishno Das, was involved in the Gadar Movement. As decades progressed, an influx of Indian immigrants settled in San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Among the ever-growing Indian community, Kala was affectionately referred to as “Jhaiji”, meaning “grandmother”.  Her funeral on October 13th, 1983 was attended by thousands.


Ram Bagai

After completing his high school education, Ram Bagai enrolled at Stanford University where he pursued a degree in chemical engineering. After earning his engineering degree, Ram felt compelled to shift gears, being drawn towards filmmaking. He furthered his education at the University of Southern California where he earned a master’s degree in cinematography in 1938. Shortly after completing his studies, Ram Bagai became enthused in the Indian Independence movement, and travelled to India to become involved, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. He returned to the United States in the mid-1940’s, where he married a White American woman and had four children. While residing in Los Angeles with his family, Ram made use of his engineering degree for his plating business while attempting to get his foot through the doors of the film industry. While he was unable to become a prominent film director, Ram’s efforts in networking enabled him to eventually become the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Ram was fortunate to live the American dream. He had a family, a house and a lucrative career. His father was deprived of such boons. The agonies of failure and betrayal left a deep wound for Vaishno Das, which Ram took to heart. While writing that letter to Martin Luther King, each pen-stroke was done in memory of the unfulfilled ambitions of Vaishno Das Bagai, and the hope that was snatched from him thanks to blatantly racist policies implemented by the United States government.

Ram, along with his mother and his brother, Brij, received their US citizenship following the passage of the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which, in addition to setting the quote of incoming Indian and Filipino immigrants at 100 per year, allowed Filipino and Indian immigrants currently residing in the States to naturalize and become US citizens. Undoubtedly, it was an emotional moment for the family, vindicating decades of unjust hostility and bigotry. Unfortunately, they, along with Blacks and other ethnic minorites, were continually treated as second-class citizens.

It’s no surprise that Ram would strongly identify with the Civil Rights Movement. The fight of the Black man for equal rights was also his fight. Their pain and struggles were his pain and struggles. And their final victory was his victory.