United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind

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United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
Argued January 11–12, 1923
Decided February 19, 1923
Full case nameUnited States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
Citations261 U.S. 204 (more)
43 S. Ct. 338; 67 L. Ed. 616; 1923 U.S. LEXIS 2544
Case history
PriorIn re Bhagat Singh Thind, 268 F. 683 (D. Or. 1920)
People of Indian descent are not white, and hence are not eligible for naturalization.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William H. Taft
Associate Justices
Joseph McKenna · Oliver W. Holmes Jr.
Willis Van Devanter · James C. McReynolds
Louis Brandeis · George Sutherland
Pierce Butler · Edward T. Sanford
Case opinion
MajoritySutherland, joined by unanimous
Superseded by
Luce-Celler Act

United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States decided that Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man who identified himself as an Aryan, was ineligible for naturalized citizenship in the United States.[1] In 1919, Thind filed a petition for naturalization under the Naturalization Act of 1906 which allowed only "free white persons" and "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent" to become United States citizens by naturalization.

After his petition was granted, government attorneys initiated a proceeding to cancel Thind's naturalization and a trial followed in which the government presented evidence of Thind's political activities as a founding member of the Ghadar Party, an Indian independence movement headquartered in San Francisco.[2] Thind did not challenge the constitutionality of the racial restrictions. Instead, he attempted to be classified as a "free white person" within the meaning of the Naturalization Act based on the fact that Indians and Europeans share common descent from Proto-Indo-Europeans.

Thind was represented by a fellow Indian American, Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, a California attorney.

The Court unanimously rejected Thind's argument, adding that Thind did not meet a "common sense" definition of white, ruling that Thind could not become a naturalized citizen. The Court concluded that "the term 'Aryan' has to do with linguistic, and not at all with physical characteristics, and it would seem reasonably clear that mere resemblance in language, indicating a common linguistic root buried in remotely ancient soil, is altogether inadequate to prove common racial origin."[3]


Bhagat Singh Thind had come to the United States in 1913 for higher studies after obtaining a bachelor's degree in India. He enlisted in the United States Army, became a Sergeant and served in the World War I. He was discharged honorably with his character designated as "excellent". Thind was granted citizenship in the state of Washington in July 1918 but his citizenship was rescinded in just four days. He received his citizenship for the second time in the state of Oregon in November 1920 after the Bureau of Naturalization was unsuccessful in its efforts to stall it in Oregon court. The case then reached the Supreme Court, where Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, a California attorney and fellow immigrant, represented Thind.[4]


Thind argued that Indo-Aryan languages are indigenous to the Aryan part of India in the same way that Aryan languages are indigenous to Europe, highlighting the linguistic ties between Indo-Aryan speakers and Europeans, as most European languages including English are similar to Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi.[5]

Three months earlier, the Ozawa v. United States court case had decided that the meaning of white people for the purposes of the Court were people who were members of the Caucasian race. With this in mind, Thind argued that he was a white person by arguing that he was a member of the Caucasian race.[6] Thind argued using "a number of anthropological texts" that people in Punjab and other Northwestern Indian states belonged to the "Aryan race",[5] and Thind cited scientific authorities such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach as classifying Aryans as belonging to the Caucasian race.[6] Thind argued that, although some racial mixing did indeed occur between the Indian castes, the caste system had largely succeeded in India at preventing race-mixing.[5] Thind argued that by being a "high-caste, of full Indian blood" he was a "Caucasian" according to the anthropological definitions of his day.[7]

Thind's lawyers argued that Thind had a revulsion to marrying an Indian woman of the "lower races" when they said, "The high-caste Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint."[8] Thind's lawyers argued that Thind had a revulsion to marrying a woman of the Mongoloid race.[5] This would characterize Thind as being both white and someone who would be sympathetic to the existing anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.[7]


Associate Justice George Sutherland said that authorities on the subject of race were in disagreement over which people were included in the scientific definition of the Caucasian race, so Sutherland instead chose to rely on the common understanding of race rather than the scientific understanding of race.[7] Sutherland found that, while Thind may claim to have "purity of Aryan blood" due to being "born in Village Taragarh Talawa near Jandiala Guru, Amritsar, Punjab", he was not Caucasian in the "common understanding", so he could not be included in the "statutory category as white persons".[9]

The Court reiterated its holding in Ozawa v. United States,[citation needed] explaining that the words "free white person" in the naturalization act were "synonymous with the word 'Caucasian' only as that word is popularly understood," pointing out that the statutory language was to be interpreted as "words of common speech and not of scientific origin, ... written in the common speech, for common understanding, by unscientific men."[7] Justice Sutherland wrote in his summary:[9]

The eligibility of this applicant for citizenship is based on the sole fact that he is of high caste Hindu stock, born in village Taragarh Talawa, Amritsar district, Punjab, one of the extreme north western districts of India, and classified by certain scientific authorities as of the Caucasian or Aryan race ... In the Punjab and Rajputana, while the invaders seem to have met with more success in the effort to preserve their racial purity, intermarriages did occur producing an intermingling of the two and destroying to a greater or less degree the purity of the "Aryan" blood. The rules of caste, while calculated to prevent this intermixture, seem not to have been entirely successful ... the given group cannot be properly assigned to any of the enumerated grand racial divisions. The type may have been so changed by intermixture of blood as to justify an intermediate classification. Something very like this has actually taken place in India. Thus, in Hindustan and Berar there was such an intermixture of the "Aryan" invader with the dark-skinned Dravidian.[9]

The 1910 Encyclopædia Britannica entry on "Hinduism" that Justice Sutherland cites as his sole source for this history contradicts his conclusion about the Aryans of Thind's birthplace in the Punjab and explicitly refers to the Aryans of India as part of "the white race."[2]

The Court nonetheless also concluded that "the term 'Aryan' has to do with linguistic, and not at all with physical, characteristics, and it would seem reasonably clear that mere resemblance in language, indicating a common linguistic root buried in remotely ancient soil, is altogether inadequate to prove common racial origin."[3]

The Court argued that the exclusion of non-whites was based on the idea of racial difference rather than the idea that one race is superior or inferior to another race. The Court argued that the racial difference between Indians and whites was so great that the "great body of our people" would reject assimilation with Indians.[7]

In conclusion, the Court also noted that "Congress, by the Act of February 5, 1917, 39 Stat. 874, c. 29, § 3, has now excluded from admission into this country all natives of Asia within designated limits of latitude and longitude, including the whole of India," suggesting its intention that natives of India also be excluded from eligibility for naturalized citizenship.


As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision finding that no person of Indian origin could become a naturalized American, the first person from the Indian subcontinent to become an American citizen, A. K. Mozumdar, had his citizenship revoked. A decision on his appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that revocation.

Not only were new applicants from India denied the privilege of naturalization, but the new racial classification suggested that the retroactive revocation of United States citizenship granted to Asian Indian Americans, of which there were many, might be supported by the Court's decision, a point that some courts upheld when United States attorneys petitioned to cancel the citizenship previously granted to many Asian Indian Americans. Up to fifty Indian Americans had their citizenship revoked between 1923 and 1927 as a consequence of the Thind ruling.[10] As they had given up citizenship elsewhere to become naturalized United States citizens, when their United States citizenship was revoked, these Indian Americans became stateless.[11] Even Thind's own lawyer, Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, was targeted for denaturalization. However, Pandit successfully argued before the Ninth Circuit that revoking his citizenship would do him and his wife unfair harm under the equitable estoppel doctrine.[12] His citizenship was upheld, and the Bureau of Naturalization subsequently cancelled its pending denaturalization cases against Indian American citizens.[13]

Some of the consequences of revoked naturalized status are illustrated by the example of some Indian American naturalized citizen landowners living in California who found themselves under the jurisdiction of the California Alien Land Law of 1913. Specifically, Attorney General Ulysses S. Webb was very active in revoking their land purchases; in a bid to strengthen the Asiatic Exclusion League, he promised to prevent Indian Americans from buying or leasing land. Under intense pressure, and with Immigration Act of 1917 preventing fresh immigration to strengthen the fledgling Indian American community, many Indian Americans left the United States, leaving only half their original American population, 2,405, by 1940.

Thind petitioned for naturalization a third time in 1935 after the Congress passed the Nye-Lea Act, which made World War I veterans eligible for naturalization regardless of race. Based on his status as a veteran of the United States military during World War I, he was finally granted United States citizenship nearly two decades after he first petitioned for naturalization.[2]

As public support for Asian Indians grew throughout World War II,[citation needed] and as India's independence came closer to reality, Indians argued for an end to their legislative discrimination. The repeal of Chinese exclusion laws in 1943 and the granting of naturalization privileges to Chinese encouraged Asian Indians to hope for similar gains. Hurdling over many members of Congress and the American Federation of Labor, which vehemently opposed removing legislative measures barricading Indian immigration and naturalization, the Asian Indian community finally succeeded in gaining support among several prominent congressmen, as well as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The support culminated in the signing into law by President Harry S. Truman on July 2, 1946, of the Luce–Celler Act. This Act reversed the Thind decision by explicitly extending racial eligibility for naturalization to natives of India, and set a token quota for their immigration at 100 per year.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923). Public domain This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ a b c Coulson, Doug (2015). "British Imperialism, the Indian Independence Movement, and the Racial Eligibility Provisions of the Naturalization Act: United States v. Thind Revisited". Georgetown Journal of Law & Modern Critical Race Perspectives. 7: 1–42. SSRN 2610266.
  3. ^ a b Chi, S. & Robinson, E.M. (2012). Voices of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience (vol. 1). pp. 341. USA: Greenwood. ISBN 978-1-59884-354-5
  4. ^ Chakravorty, Sanjoy; Kapur, Devesh; Singh, Nirvikar (2017). The other one percent : Indians in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-19-064874-9. OCLC 965470087.
  5. ^ a b c d Haney López, I.F. (1996). White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York and London: New York University Press. p. 149.
  6. ^ a b Warnke, G. (2007). After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Gender. Cambridge University Press: New York. ISBN 978-0-521-88281-1
  7. ^ a b c d e Zhao, X.; Park, E.J.W., eds. (2013). Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History. Greenwood. p. 1142. ISBN 978-1598842395.
  8. ^ Bigsby, C. (2006). The Cambridge companion to modern American culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-84132-0
  9. ^ a b c United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Certificate From The Circuit Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit., No. 202. Argued January 11, 12, 1923.—Decided February 19, 1923, United States Reports, v. 261, The Supreme Court, October Term, 1922, 204–215.
  10. ^ Asian American history and culture. Volume One-Two : an encyclopedia. Ling, Huping, 1956-, Austin, Allan W.,, Adachi, Nobuko. London [England]. ISBN 978-1-315-70630-6. OCLC 908047319.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. ^ Rudra, Geetika (2022). Here to stay: uncovering South Asian American history. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 9780813584034.
  12. ^ Coulson, Doug, 1969- (October 2017). Race, nation, and refuge : the rhetoric of race in Asian American citizenship cases. Albany. ISBN 978-1-4384-6662-0. OCLC 962141092.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Rangaswamy, Padma, 1945- (2007). Indian Americans. Johnston, Robert D. New York: Chelsea House. ISBN 978-1-4381-0712-7. OCLC 228654847.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)

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