Indian-Americans running for elected office or activists for various rights issues, consider it a point of pride that their ancestors and even family members, took part in the Indian freedom struggle. Over my decades of interviewing and writing about Indian-Americans, I have heard numerous stories about grandparents who were imprisoned or those who were blood relatives of Mahatma Gandhi or walked beside him, and those who boycotted British goods.
Shanti Gandhi- stands out among elected officials in the U.S. with direct blood connection to the greatest leader of the Indian freedom movement, Mahatma Gandhi.
Shanti Gandhi, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon who graduated from the University of Bombay, son of Kantilal and Saraswati Gandhi, and great-grandson of the Mahatma, was a Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives from District 52, and served from 2012 to 2014.
Shanti Gandhi wanted to be elected on his own accord and his request to media that his name not be connected to Mahatma Gandhi during the campaign, was honored.
“It’s not that Shanti is ashamed of his heritage. He just doesn’t want to be defined by it. He wants to be known as Shanti Gandhi the retired heart surgeon, husband, father, friend to many and now a state legislator,” wrote columnist Mike Hall Nov. 13, 2012 in the Topeka Capital-Journal. Hall recalls an article he wrote 30 years before 2012, for which he interviewed Shanti Gandhi. In the article Shanti Gandhi says he came to know of his great grandfather’s importance at the age of 5 or 6, when he accompanied his mother, Saraswati, to the rallies that Mahatma Gandhi addressed. He recalled a funny anecdote that played on his first name Shanti.
“I used to get to sit on the podium with thim (Mahatma),” Shanti Gandhi told Hall, adding, “I used to roll up the flowers and throw them on the crowd. He (Mahatma) got after me and shouted, “Shanti!” That means “peace. All of a sudden the crowd got real quiet. I was scared to death. It’s something I’ve never forgotten.” .
Ro Khanna – occasionally mentions the fact that his maternal grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, was part of India’s Freedom Struggle against the British. Vidyalankar worked with Lala Lajpat Rai and was jailed during the movement. Khanna has also written about the link between Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience movement and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. He has also harked back to his Indian connection when talking about current events in the U.S.
“My grandfather was part of India’s independence movement. He spent years in jail in the pursuit of human rights. Today, we have the #DREAMers #injail in pursuit of human rights. We need to support them, and we need a #DreamActNow,” Khanna tweeted Dec. 19, 2017.
During his campaign against fellow-Democrat Mike Honda, Khanna told the Mercury News that he visited his “Nana Ji” on family trips to India. “He was very calm, very elegant, very disciplined,” Mercury News quotes him saying about his grandfather, adding, “He was not bitter at all. I think he viewed himself as having the chance to shape history.”
Kamala Harris, the first Indian-American Senator on Capitol Hill, has spoken about her maternal grandfather, with whom she appears to have been close and who was part of the Indian freedom struggle.
“My mother had been raised in a household where political activism and civic leadership came naturally,” Harris says in her book, “The Truths We Hold,” published as a prelude to announcing her candidacy for the Democratic primaries, Her grandfather was P.V. Gopalan who later became a “senior diplomat” in the Indian government, being posted to Zambia after India’s independence, she recounts.
Kumar Barve – His father came to the U.S. in 1958. But Barve’s mother was born in Schenectady, N.Y., and she told him about his maternal grandfather, Shankar Lakshman Gokhale, a research engineer with General Electric in Schenectady, who wrote letters calling for India’s independence from the British.
“My mother told me the FBI came to the house but after talking to him (Shankar Laxman Gokhale), they concluded he posed not threat,” Barve told News India Times. Barve’s father, Prabhakar, was “not that involved other than boycotting British goods,” Barve said. In fact, Prabhakar Barve served as an architect in the British Army and was in the British campaign in Imphal, Kumar Barve recalls being told. The Schenectady County Historical Society newsletter (vol. 26, Number 9-10) of September-October 2013, did an article featuring Gokhale who lived in Schenectady for more than 50 years, who had been the President at Holkar College where he was dismssed by the British for allegedly “seditious activity,” and left for America in 1911.
Barve, who was elected to the Maryland State Legislature in 1990 when he was just 32, was a political activist early on in life. “The Indian freedom movement only tangentially affected my future in politics. My experience in politics was rooted in my own participation and activism since high school.”
Kesha Ram, former Vermont State Assembly member from 2009 to 2015, also has a storied relationship to the Indian independence movement.
She is the great-great-granddaughter of Sir Ganga Ram, who was a civil engineer best known for building the early health network in India and before that in the area which is now Pakistan before Partition. Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital was named after him and according to Kesha Ram, who went to India recently for the ceremony of her father’s ashes, her family members are still on the board of that hospital.
Kesha Ram is of Indian and Jewish heritage, a heritage which she said, “really gave me an important foundation in terms of tolerance and being versatile, hoping to bridge different worlds,” she told Press Trust of India in 2016 when she sought the office of Lt. Governor of Vermont.
A political activist since elementary school when she ran for president
Sabrina Singh, currently the national press secretary for New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign, speaks proudly of her heritage that goes back to her famous grandfather Jagjit (J.J.) Singh, who she told News India Times earlier, has remained an inspiration for her, and especially so in a time when those anti-immigrant sentiments may be rearing their head.
Jagjit (J.J.) Singh, is described in scholarly studies as “a successful merchant, Manhattan socialite, Indian nationalist and the President of the Indian League of America.” (Abstract of the thesis by Neilah Shah of Haverford College, entitled – TheLuce-Celler Act of 1946: White Nationalism, Indian Nationalism and the Cosmopolitan Elite).
Singh’s grandfather, who played an important role in pressuring President Harry Truman to sign the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which allowed for the first time, a quota of 100 Indians and 100 Filipinos to immigrate to the U.S. annually. He was featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other publications described as an “unofficial ambassador of India to the U.S.” (See Robert Shaffer’s 2012 paper, “J.J. Singh and the India League of America, 1945-1959: Pressing at the Margins of the Cold War Consensus).
Shekar Narasimhan, businessman and Democratic political activist and strategist committed to raising the visibility of Asian-Americans, is inspired most by the simple messaging of those involved in the Indian freedom struggle.
He spoke to News India Times about his grandfather, A. Rangaswami Iyengar, a contitutional scholar, who was appointed the first assistant editor and later chief editor of The Hindu newspaper. Iyengar accompanied Mahatma Gandhi, during his 1931 trip to England for the Round Table conference. According to Narasimhan, who delved into Iyengar’s history, his grandfather coined the word “Swarajya” to bypass British censorship.
“I draw inspiration and lessons from these Indian freedom fighters for ‘communicating with integrity’,” Narasimhan said. “Simple messages like ‘I will not eat your salt,” with the Salt March, led by Gandhi, or the Boston Tea Party dumping British tea into the sea, or Martin Luther King crossing the Selma Bridge. These simple actions with such deep meaning, we’ve almost lost this ability,” Narasimhan said. “When you go back to the freedom struggle, you see this contrast – in speaking truth to power — whether it is Trump or anybody else,” he added.
“I’m asking our people (Indian-Americans, Asian Americans) – Please do that, speak the truth. Do what our leaders did in the past,” Narasimhan urged.
Indian-Americans have a rich history to draw from in the United States- the birthplace of the Gadar Party which had its headquarters in San Francisco. Starting from the early 1900s, Hindustan Gadar, the publication of the Gadar Party voiced the desire for India’s independence in no uncertain terms.
Naresh Fernandes, a Mumbai-based author and journalist, in a 2012 opinion in the New York Times, “American Roots of the Indian Independence Movement,” noted how early Indians in America fashioned the message of the Indian freedom struggle. Fernandes drew attention to a 1916 letter to NYT from Ram Chandra, editor of Hindustan Gadar, where Chandra said, “Residence in the U.S. has not made (Indians) … who returned home ‘imbued with revolutionary ideas’ but it has made them republicans. … The whole country has been stirred by their vision of a United States of India.”
There are so many Americans not of Indian descent, who were committed to India’s freedom. One of them whose name is not often invoked, is Samuel Evans Stokes, a Quaker from Philadelphia, His grandchild, Asha Sharma, has a home in California and in India. Stokes went to India to work with those inflicted by leprosy, and ended up marrying and living there, and becoming particularly active after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and changing his first name to Satyanand. The couple bore 7 children.
Sharma, one of the grandchildren of his large extended family, wrote his biography, “An American in Khadi,” published in India in 1999, with the American edition published in 2008, “An American in Gandhi’s India.” Like Stokes’ grandchild, Sharma who is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, there are others amongst our midst who have fascinating stories about India’s freedom struggle fought from near and far.
From the Gadar Party on the West Coast to the India Home Rule League in New York, there are people who succeeded the early Indians in America, and today, the latest generation of Indian-Americans has a complex history to draw from in their relationship to India’s struggle for freedom from British rule.