Asian Indians in Michigan

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Since 1970, a growing number of Asian Indians have called Michigan home. Representative of the “new immigration,” Asian Indians come from a democratic country, are well-educated, and come from middle- and upper-class families. Unlike older immigrant groups, Asian Indians do not form urban ethnic enclaves or found their own communities to meet the challenges of living in a new society. As Arthur W. Helweg shows, Asian Indians contribute to the richness and diversity of Michigan’s culture through active participation in local institutions, while maintaining a strong ethnic identity rooted in India.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870136214
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2002
  • Series: Discovering the Peoples of Michigan Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 95
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur W. Helweg is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Western Michigan University

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Read an Excerpt

Asian Indians in Michigan

By Arthur W. Helweg

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2002 Arthur W. Helweg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87013-621-4



India, the country of origin for Asian Indians in the United States and Michigan, is a land of variety. The region includes sixteen language groups (with hundreds of dialects), four religious communities, and three racial categories. In fact, the diversity of the country is greater than that of Europe. Although people from the Punjab region of India were the first people of Indian origin to enter and settle in Michigan and the United States, Asian Indians in Michigan now come primarily from Gujarat (30 percent), followed by Punjab (15 percent), Kerala (10 percent), and Bengal (10 percent). However, coastal states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh are rapidly becoming more prominent in this immigration stream. Immigrants also come from some of the numerous Asian Indian communities established outside of India, such as those in East Africa and the Caribbean.

Recently, there has developed a new ethnic category—South Asian Americans. There are sufficient cultural commonalities among the Asian Indian and other South Asian groups in Michigan and the United States to claim a common ethnic identity. Hindu concepts such as caste ranking, purity versus pollution, and hierarchy and social position being determined by birth are also found in Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, as well as the hill countries of Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim.

India's people have a tradition of emigration. Since ancient times, Indian traders have traveled to the far reaches of the known world. Their Hindu influence can be seen in the mythology and religion of Thailand, Burma, and other parts of Southeast Asia. In spite of the ancient trade networks, however, permanent Indian settlement in these far-off lands did not occur for centuries. The factors that led to what is now a South Asian diaspora began with the abolition of slavery in the European colonies, especially the British Empire. By the later part of the nineteenth century, slavery had been abolished in most British and European colonies, and a new source of cheap labor was needed to work on plantations, make and improve public works like the Ugandan Railway, and manage the lower levels of the bureaucracy in regions such as East Africa.

India was experiencing much drought and famine at that time. As a result, she was a ready supplier of the cheap labor needed in the colonial world, especially the "legalized form of slavery" or "new system of slavery"—that is, indentured labor—needed on plantations. In such arrangements, workers from India agreed to work for a fixed number of years in European colonies in exchange for a meager wage, room, and board. When the system was abolished in 1920, Indians continued to emigrate for work. Although the vast majority followed the British colonial flag, their destinations were not limited to British colonies and included French, Dutch, and other holdings as well. Thus, Asian Indians are found all over the world. There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire; currently the sun never sets on India's diaspora.


The Punjab, where Michigan's initial Asian Indian immigrants originated, is a butterfly-shaped region located in the northwest portion of South Asia and bridging India and Pakistan. It lies on the invasion route into South Asia, a meeting ground for Hindu and Muslim communities. It was briefly subjugated to Greek influence, as it was on the route taken by Alexander the Great when he entered the South Asian subcontinent. Many Greeks stayed behind when Alexander's great army moved on. It is also the birthplace of the Sikh religion, and claimed by them as their homeland. Sikhs comprise around 50 percent of the political unit of India's Punjab population. Hindus and Muslims also originate from Punjab and claim Punjabi identity, with all of its positive connotations. Punjabis have the reputation, among other things, of being innovative, hardworking, and mobile. They are thought of as self-confident, honest, and willing to take risks. They are a people who keep their word and promises. Their loyalty to friends and family is considered second to none.

Development agencies have encouraged placement of programs in Punjab because Punjabi farmers readily try new ideas and techniques. Ohio State University and Michigan State University have had a strong presence in Punjab starting in the early 1960s, which has been a source of information and education for emigrants leaving for the United States.


Gujarat became the most common point of origin for India's immigrants in the 1970s. Gujarat is located south of Punjab and has the longest coastline of any state in India. The region has a tradition of business and trading going back to ancient times. The Kheda District, from which most Gujaraties in the United States originate, is densely populated, and its people are highly educated. They also, like the Punjabis, have had a significant amount of contact with Americans through U.S. economic development programs and visiting professorships in institutions of higher learning. Thus, when American immigration laws changed in 1965 to favor learning and skills over race, there was a cadre of Gujaraties prepared to take advantage of the new rules.

In the United States, the Gujaraties quickly went into business for themselves, focusing on the motel, real estate, and retail trades. Even most of those who were students, or in the professions, had a business on the side. The ultimate goal was to have control of one's own destiny.


Kerala is a small state located on the southwest coast of India. It is the most densely populated state in India, and it nevertheless boasts the highest literacy rate (69.17 percent). The Christian church in Kerala traces its roots back to its founder, St. Thomas, the apostle. About one-fourth of the population is Christian. This is also a matrilineal society, with women having a strong input in family matters. In the United States, Keralite women are noticeable in the medical professions as well as in domestic work and childcare. The population density and high level of education in Kerala, along with chronic food shortages, all combine to encourage emigration, especially to the Persian Gulf region and the United States.

Other Coastal States

Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh are rapidly developing states. The Hyderabad area of Andhra Pradesh is the new Silicon Valley of the world. Emigrants have played a big role in its development. The governments of these states are becoming very progressive, and rapid economic development is taking place. Along with this economic development has come an increased rate of emigration, especially to the United States. With this emigration, in turn, have come new ideas and investment, which have contributed to the economic growth of these regions.

Twice Migrants

"Twice Migrants" is a term coined by Parminder Bhachu to describe Sikhs who had settled in East Africa then migrated to England. The term has now been expanded to refer to all people who have emigrated from India and, after residing in their adopted land, in some cases for generations, emigrated again to another place. In the case of the United States, most twice migrants are South Asians from Kenya, Uganda, and the Caribbean.


The Old Immigration, before 1968

Asian Indians Come to America

Although there have been a few Asian Indians in North America since colonial times, the significant influx of these immigrants began at the turn of the century with Sikhs who claimed Punjab as their homeland and entered the continent through Vancouver, Canada. They learned about the city from soldiers who had paraded for Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887. Many of the soldiers who were serving in the British armed forces in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia passed through Vancouver on their way to and returning from the Jubilee. Their brief stay in Canada while in transit was pleasant, for they were welcomed and treated like celebrities.

India's Punjab region has traditionally been, and still is, an area of high agricultural productivity. At the turn of the century, however, the region was experiencing economic problems. The population pressure on the land was high and increasing, the fertility of the soil was decreasing due to waterlogging and intensive cultivation, and debt was increasing among landowners. Alternative employment was not available, and political unrest was fermenting. Past famines and plagues were fresh in the peoples' memories. Thus, when the glowing stories about life in Canada flowed back to the Punjab, there was already a contingent ready to take advantage of the opportunities in North America.

Early Sikhs in Vancouver came from land-owning families of Punjab's Malwa, Ludhiana, Jullundur, and Amritsar regions. Though the stereotypical immigrant is poor, this certainly was not the case for the first Asian Indian immigrants to North America. The rich did not need to leave India, and the poor could not afford the passage. These first immigrants were of middle-class background, often borrowing money from their parents and families in order to make the trip. Emigration and service in the military have traditionally been a means for younger sons in India to obtain a livelihood, because landholdings would be too small to support the family if they were divided among all those eligible for inheritance. Thus, the younger sons of middle-class families usually emigrated.

In response to hostility and violence in Vancouver, some drifted across the border to the Bellingham, Washington, area. Here they worked in the lumber industry but again faced mob violence and discrimination. As a result, they followed the railroads down to the regions around Stockton and Yuba City, California, to work in the rich farming regions of the Imperial, San Joaquin, and Sacramento valleys. There they initially did farm labor, but many soon bought land and settled in the region, developing prominent Asian communities in and around Stockton, Yuba City, and Sacramento.

Opportunities in America were communicated back to Punjab, and other immigrants were sponsored. California was the state of destination for three-fourths of the Sikh immigrants to America. It was from that contingent that one Arjin Singh learned about America. In spite of his affluent background, he wanted to enter the land of "bread and honey."

The vast majority of the Asian Indian population in America arrived after 1965. Of the 130,000 who immigrated between 1820 and 1976, only 17,000 arrived before 1965. During the nineteenth century only about seven hundred merchants, monks, and professional men from India entered the United States, most from North India. Of the 7,000 immigrants who arrived between 1904 and 1923, the vast majority were agricultural workers from Punjab. However, anti-Asian hostility and restrictive immigration legislation of the day, especially in 1917 and 1923, virtually halted Asian Indian immigration.

Between 1920 and 1940, 3,000 Asian Indians entered the United States illegally through Mexico, while several thousand students and merchants entered legally. However, between 1911 and 1920, 1,500 returned to India, while another 3,000 left during the period between 1921 and 1930. Restrictive immigration laws, racial hostility, and the inability to bring wives to America resulted in a decline of the Asian Indian population to less than 1,500 in 1946. Between 1947 and 1965, 6,000 entered as a result of the Luce-Celler Bill loosening immigration restrictions.

The experience of the Asian Indians in America during the Old Immigration period (prior to 1968) had three themes: cultural survival, fighting for India's independence, and fighting for immigrants' rights in America. In California, there was a lot of anti-Asian sentiment, just as the East Coast championed anti-Eastern European feelings. The restrictive immigration legislation that followed not only stopped immigration from India, it also prohibited Asians from bringing family members to live in the United States, leaving little communication with the homeland and virtually no reinforcement to obey or maintain cultural norms. Without immigration to revitalize their culture and with the emigration resulting from discriminatory laws and practices, Asian Indian culture in the United States was almost eliminated.

The Asian Indian society in California was predominantly made up of men, who, due to the restrictive immigration laws, could not unite their families and, according to California state laws, were prohibited from owning land. Some turned to Spanish women, and this resulted in the creation of a new ethnic community in California—Punjabi Mexican.

Asian Indians in the United States supported the movement for Indian independence. Prominent among those calling for the expulsion of the British from India was Taraknath Das, who attended the University of Washington in 1906 and worked to politicize the Asian Indian community. It was also during this time that the Ghadr Party was formed—its goal was to raise support for India's independence movement. In fact, in August 1914 a group of Ghadrites sailed from San Francisco to Calcutta with the goal of staging an uprising in Punjab. They were arrested and the endeavor collapsed.

The movement for India's independence was centered but not confined to the West Coast. J. J. Singh, a prominent member of California's Asian Indian community, attracted considerable support for India's independence with his pamphlet Famine in India, which argued that the irresponsibility of British rulers was the cause of famine in India. In response, British agents worked very hard to have Asian Indians sympathetic to the independence movement arrested for violating America's neutrality laws. Ghadr leaders were arrested and tried in what was called the "Hindoo Conspiracy Trial." Most of the evidence was supplied by British agents. Fourteen of twenty-nine were convicted, but the trial ended in a spectacular fashion when a witness was shot to death in the courtroom.

Fighting for their rights in America was a third major issue facing Asian Indian immigrants. Asian Indians, along with the Chinese and Japanese, were plagued by the anti-Asian sentiment of the West Coast at the turn of the century. Not only was immigration denied, but some already residing in the United States were refused citizenship based on an interpretation of 1870 Congressional legislation that stated that "aliens being free white persons and aliens of African nativity, and persons of African descent," could become citizens. A literal interpretation effectively omitted all Asians from citizenship eligibility.

In actuality, Asian Indians are Caucasian by race. Their ancestry stems from the Aryans, the same as the Germans and the vast majority of Europeans. The courts were not united on the issue, but in 1923 the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Bhaghat Singh Thind that "not all 'Caucasians' were 'white persons'" and that the term "white persons" was "to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man from whose vocabulary they were taken." Although Chinese and Japanese immigration had already been virtually stopped, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, also known informally as the "Indian Exclusion Act," which, along with several court cases, virtually halted Asian Indian immigration by 1923. In fact, to many who entered the United States either legally or surreptitiously, it was not the land of golden opportunity, and in the decade from 1920 to 1930 at least 3,000 left.

After the Supreme Court ruling, the government commenced denaturalization proceedings against a number of Asian Indians. One of the more ironic rulings was that concerning Dr. Sakaram Ganesh Pandit. He went to court arguing that Asian Indians, as Aryans, were technically "white." He won the decision only to have it overturned by a ruling that decreed that Asian Indians were not "white," regardless of their race.

In the meantime, Asian Indians on the East Coast organized themselves to fight injustices. The Indian League, the National Committee for India's Friends, and the India Welfare League were but a few of the organizations trying to reverse discriminatory immigration and naturalization laws at this time. Finally, in 1946, with only 1,500 Asian Indians remaining in the United States, the Luce-Celler Bill was passed, giving Asian Indians, among others, the right to become American citizens, to own property, and to bring relatives to America. With the influx of relatives after this ruling, Asian Indian political centers and communities began to develop.


Excerpted from Asian Indians in Michigan by Arthur W. Helweg. Copyright © 2002 Arthur W. Helweg. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Other Coastal States,
Twice Migrants,
The Old Immigration, before 1968,
Asian Indians Come to America,
Asian Indians Come to Michigan,
The New Immigration, 1968 and After,
Life in Michigan,
Residence Patterns,
Concerns and Solutions,
Ties with the Homeland,
Accomplishments and Contributions,
The Mythology of Emigration and Immigration,
Population Profile: Asian Indian Americans,
Asians in Michigan,
Profile of Asian Indians in the United States,
Appendix 1. A Success Story,
Appendix 2. Asian Indians Enrich State,
For Further Reference,

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