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Portrait Of Indian-American Lawmaker Displayed

Portrait of Indian-American Lawmaker Displayed in U.S. Capitol

The 6-year-old great-granddaughter of Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian American elected to the U.S. Congress, pulled back a blue curtain to uncover his portrait in the U.S. Capitol as more than 225 people applauded. The image they saw was of a handsome, dignified man standing beside a marble pillar in the Cannon Building of the House of Representatives.

The portrait, unveiled November 7, is part of a series dedicated to historic members of Congress. Saund, who died in 1973, is recognized not only as the first Indian American to hold a seat in Congress -- he was elected in 1956 and served three terms -- but also as someone who helped pave the way for Indian immigration to the United States.

"If my grandfather were here today, he would say, 'There is no room in the United States of America for second-class citizenship,'" said Bruce Fisher, one of a dozen of Saund's descendents who came to Washington for the ceremony. Fisher was repeating an often-quoted remark by Saund that is painted at the bottom of the portrait.

"To be the first to do anything is always a challenge," said Representative Jim McDermott, a Washington state Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. "We're here to honor Dalip Singh Saund, but we know he would want us to honor all Asian Americans. That's the kind of person he was."

Saund was born in 1899 in the small farming village of Amritsar, India, and came to the United States in 1920 to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Despite earning a master's degree and a doctorate in mathematics, he was unable to find a teaching job. He became a farmer and then a distributor of chemical fertilizers. He could not own the land he farmed or become a U.S. citizen because of the laws of the time. His American wife lost her own citizenship for marrying a noncitizen.

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Saund was the first president of the Indian Association of America, a group whose efforts helped lead to legislation, signed by President Truman in 1946, granting naturalization rights to Asian Indians and Filipinos.

Saund refused to give up after being elected to a judgeship in 1950 and being denied the seat because he had not been a citizen for a full year (he gained citizenship in 1949). He ran again in 1952 and was elected.

Hard-working and dedicated to public service, Saund won his first congressional election in 1956 in a conservative California district where people generally voted for Republican, native-born white candidates. He and his family knocked on doors, introducing the candidate to voters and winning their confidence.

"In the face of adversity, he believed in America and the power of one person to make a difference," said McDermott.

Eric Saund said his grandfather Dalip "took a positive attitude to everything. He encountered barriers and he acknowledged them, but he didn't dwell on them. In that way he was the quintessential American."

Ellie Saund, the youngest of Dalip's three children, recalled that while she was growing up, her father "never discussed the hardships" he experienced. "He'd just say, 'You try your hardest and you get what you earn.'"

Artist Jon Friedman said he had not heard of Dalip Saund before being commissioned to paint his portrait, "and so I knew nothing about his extraordinary life. It deserves to be better-known and remembered."

Many speakers saw a connection between Saund's life and the election this year of the first Indian-American governor of a U.S. state, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Jindal was born in America, but his parents had immigrated from India.

Among those in the audience who saw Saund as an important trailblazer was Sathya Hanagud, who traveled from Atlanta to attend the ceremony. "Bobby Jindal becoming governor was pioneered by Congressman Saund," he said.

Hanagud, a native-born Indian who teaches aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said: "I came down just for this. Because of the struggle he went through for us."

"This portrait," he added, "is a very important thing."


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