Luce-Cellar Act of 1946
On July 2, 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act that restored immigration and naturalization for South Asian immigrants, including the Punjabi pioneers. Immigration increased from South Asia to the US on a limited basis on a quota system (100 per country annually). Over the next two decades, nearly 8,000 South Asians immigrated to the US. Equally significant, the Luce-Cellar Act also allowed South Asians to naturalize and become US citizens. Upon attaining US citizenship, Punjabi Americans could own homes and farmland, and also petition to bring their families to join them in the United States. Punjabis, particularly prominent businessman, JJ Singh, played a decisive role in the passage of the Luce-Cellar Act and the restoration of immigration and citizenship for South Asian Americans and other Asian Americans.
India’s Independence & Partition
On August 14 and 15, 1947, Pakistan and India gained independence from British colonial rule. Without having ever set foot on Indian soil, the architect Sir Cyril Radcliffe arrived in India just five weeks before Independence charged with the responsibility of hastily drawing a border along 175,000 square miles where 88 million people lived. The allocation of territories to Pakistan or India depended primarily on whether a Muslim or Hindu community was numerically dominant. Muslim-majority areas became part of the newly-created Pakistan, and Hindu- and Sikh-majority areas became part of India. The Radcliffe Line still serves as the border between India and Pakistan to the West and between India and Bangladesh to the East.
The 1947 Partition was the largest human migration in history and it took place amidst large-scale violence. Although figures are disputed, it is generally accepted that as many as 14 million people were displaced by partition — with Hindus and Sikhs traveling from Pakistan to India, and Muslims traveling in the opposite direction. As many as two million people were murdered in the communal violence between Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. Sikhs feel that they paid a disproportionately high price for India’s independence given the loss of life in their community and the traumatic division of their homeland (the Punjab) into two separate countries with roughly two-thirds of the Punjab integrated into Pakistan. Many families remain divided across one of the most tense national borders in the world and many of the holiest sites in the Sikh religion are located in Pakistan where it is difficult for Sikhs to visit. The scale of the tragedy of the partition is still deeply painful for Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus in West Punjab (now in Pakistan) and East Punjab (now in India). A similar tragedy unfolded in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent which was also divided along religious lines into India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
The divisions in South Asia created major changes in the South Asian American community in northern California. Before India’s Independence, the Stockton Sikh temple was attended by South Asian pioneers who were Muslim, Hindu, as well as Sikh, and the Catholic wives of Punjabi men also attended services there. The Stockton Sikh temple played a critical role as the religious, social, and political hub for South Asian pioneers of all faiths. After 1947, South Asian Americans of different faiths began to establish different religious institutions along religious lines. For instance, in 1947, the Muslim Mosque Association was established in Sacramento — it’s the oldest mosque in the US west of the Mississippi. Political organizations were also formed along national lines. It should be noted that in Yuba City at least there has been a remarkable degree of inter-faith cooperation between the Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities.
The Rise of Yuba City’s Punjabi Peach Farms
After the passage of the Luce-Cellar Act, there was a flurry of activity in which Punjabi Americans in the Yuba City are acquired land. Some of the white farmers and bankers who fronted for the Punjabis previously sold them their property based on their prior verbal agreements. Land was also transferred within Punjabi Mexican families. Many of the old-timers used the savings they had accrued over decades to buy land for the first time beginning in the late 1940s. The epicenter of the Punjabi community in northern California shifted from the Stockton area and the Imperial Valley to the Yuba City area where a number of Punjabis bought land and grew peaches. Peach farmers such as the Purewal Brothers and Didar Singh Bains became extremely successful in peach farming. Many Punjabi families were reunited after being separated for decades. The post-war era brought new prosperity and a bright future for Punjabi farmers.
The Post-war Era
During the 1950s, a number of Punjabi Americans were trailblazers in mainstream American professions. Dr. Dalip Singh Saund, a Punjabi Sikh American, was the first Asian American and the first person who was not a member of an Abrahamaic faith to be elected to the US Congress in 1956. Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany charted new scientific ground as the “Father of Fiber Optics.” Professor Gurdev Singh Khush, who completed his Ph.D. at UC Davis, led the rice breeding program at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and doubled the global supply of rice. He won the World Food Prize which many consider to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in agriculture. In Yuba City, Dr. Gulzar Singh Johl because the first medical doctor of South Asian heritage and the Sikh faith who established a medical practice in the area in 1961.
Increasingly, Punjabis settled in the Sacramento Valley not just directly from the homeland, but from secondary sites all over the world. Punjabis who were migrating for the second or third time came from diverse locations, especially from Fiji, East and South Africa, England, Southeast Asia, and Argentina. Due to the increasing indigenous activism of native Fijians and unfavorable land laws, the Punjabis began to immigrate to the Sacramento, Yuba City, and Bay areas.
Brar, Balwant Singh. “The East Indians in Sutter County” Sutter County Historical Society (April 1978, Part Two), 13-24.
Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (full citation)
La Brack, Bruce. The Sikhs of Northern California (New York: AMS Press, 1988).
Saund, Dalip Singh. Congressman From India (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1960).