Thanks to a collaboration with South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), the only independent non-profit organization working to document, preserve and provide access to the rich history of South Asians in the United States, we’re delighted to share another original image.
Today’s photo shows Vaishno Das Bagai in his store, Bagai’s Bazaar, on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, California. A brief biography also from SAADA’s website and an account by his granddaughter offer more of his story. Bagai was born in Peshawar, India, in 1891, and he was a supporter of the Indian freedom movement. After his father’s death, Bagai immigrated to the United States in 1915.
He arrived in San Francisco with his wife Kala and three young sons at a time when most of the Indian population was single males. A San Francisco paper reported that his wife was “the first Hindu woman to enter this city in 10 years,” and called her “nose diamond” the latest fad. Bagai ran an import business, had a general store, bought a home and was involved in the Gadar Party. In 1921, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
But in 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that Indians were ineligible for citizenship. Bagai and other Indians who had become naturalized citizens were stripped of their citizenship. In 1928 Bagai was refused a U.S. passport to visit family in India and he refused the government’s suggestion to apply for a British passport given his support for a free India. He described his situation in part of his suicide note published by the San Francisco Examiner.
But they now come to me and say, I am no longer an American citizen. They will not permit me to buy my home and lo, they even shall not issue me a passport to go back to India. Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights, we cannot leave this country. Humility and insults, who is responsible for all this? Myself and American government.
I do not choose to live the life of an interned person: yes, I am in a free country and can move about where and when I wish inside the country. Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind.