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Nineteenth Century Emigrants of India to the US (II)

On September 11, 1893, Swami Vivekananda electrified the audience at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago with his inspiring speech on Hinduism and the
Swami Vivekananda in Chicago
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“This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land”

The year 1893 must have begun like any other for the millions of Bengalis in the Indian subcontinent – and for the handful ofBengali chikandars then struggling to make a living in the US.  Little did any of them, in India or in the US, know that 1893 would go down as a watershed year in the history of Bengalis, in fact Indians, across all continents. On September 11 of that year, Swami Vivekananda electrified the audience at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago with his inspiring speech on Hinduism and the Vedanta philosophy. In so doing, he introduced India and its people, culture, religions and philosophies to America like no other emissary from the subcontinent before him or after. Until then the vast majority of Americans had only a vague, and often misguided, notion of India and the other countries of the East. Equally significant, most Indians at that time held a Euro-centric view of the world, and few looked to America for political, intellectual or social leadership. Swami Vivekananda’s visit to the US ushered a new era in East-West understanding – and unknowingly opened a new chapter in the history of Bengali immigration to North America. In the years and decades that followed, many Bengali intellectuals visited the US, and some decided to call America their home. Unlike the chikandars and the laskars who came to the US as traders and laborers, these Bengalis were religious leaders, university professors, research scholars, and writers and poets. Also, these Bengali intellectuals did not come in groups but came in their individual capacities, each for a reason of his own.

Swamis: Monks on a Mission

Swami Vivekananda had intended to go back to India after his participation in the Parliament of World Religions but stayed in the US for almost two years at the urging of his numerous American followers and admirers. He toured many cities in America and gave lectures on Hinduism, Buddhism and the harmony and universality among religions. He also established the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894 as his lasting institutional legacy in America. In 1896, while visiting London, Vivekananda urged(1) Swami Abhedananda (1866-1939), his fellow monk from the Ramakrishna Order in Calcutta, to lead this fledgling organization, and Abhedananda graciously accepted the challenge. Abhedananda was probably the first Bengali intellectual to settle in the US on a long-term mission.

Swami Abhedananda (born in Calcutta as Kaliprasad Chandra) arrived in New York City in 1897 at the age of 31, probably thinking that he would be here for only a short time. He ended up staying in the country for almost 25 years. He worked tirelessly to follow the footsteps of Swami Vivekananda and delivered numerous lectures and classes on Vedantic and Yogic philosophies throughout the country. A fine orator and a prolific writer, Abhedananda traveled widely, not just within America but also to many Pacific Rim countries. During his 25 years in the US, he reportedly crossed the Pacific seventeen times Swami Abhedananda returned to India in 1923(2).

Swami Abhedananda
Swami Abhedananda

A number of other monks from the Ramakrishna Order followed Abhedananda to the Vedanta Center in New York and the other centers that were established over the next few decades. Swami Trigunathananda (1865-1915) came to the US in 1902 at the behest of Swami Vivekandanda to take charge of the Vedanta Center in San Francisco. One of his major accomplishments was the construction of a new building for the center that incorporated a Hindu temple(2). He died in 1915 from a wound resulting from a bomb thrown at him by a deranged student. Swami Prabhananda (1893-1976) arrived in 1923 to be an assistant minister in the San Francisco center, and after two years went to Portland, Oregon, to open a center there. In 1929 he moved to Los Angeles where he founded the Vedanta Center of Southern California. Under his leadership the Vedanta Society of Southern California grew to become the largest Vedanta Society in the West, with monasteries in Hollywood and Trabuco Canyon and convents in Hollywood and Santa Barbara(2). Prabhananda was a much-admired scholar and wrote a number of books on Vedanta and Indian religious scriptures. He attracted a wide following that included Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood (with whom he co-authored a book on Bhagavad Gita in 1944). Swami Prabhananda died in 1976 in Hollywood, California, after 51 long years in the US.

He also established the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894 as his lasting institutional legacy in America. In 1896, while visiting London, Vivekananda urged(1) Swami Abhedananda (1866-1939), his fellow monk from the Ramakrishna Order in Calcutta, to lead this fledgling organization, and Abhedananda graciously accepted the challenge.

While a number of swamis from the Ramakrishna Order came to the US at various times to lead the Vedanta centers around the country, another religious leader with a very different background and approach began to receive public attention in Seattle, WA, around 1905. His name was A.K. Mozumdar (1864-1953). The website(3), “AK Mozumdar: Yesterday’s Evangelist from India”, gives a fascinating account of this individual’s life and achievements.  Born in a well-established high-caste family near Calcutta, A.K (Akhoy Kumar) was closely guided by his devoutly religious mother until her death when he was sixteen. Mozumdar left home, traveled far and wide in India and visited China in 1902 and Japan in 1903. There he started studying Christianity in depth and became highly interested in the subject. Mozumdar then boarded a ship and arrived in Seattle in 1903, “pennyless and speaking little English”. He was taken in as a guest by a kind Swedish family. In their home he started learning English with great fervor. A charismatic orator and a handsome preacher, Mozumdar began giving philosophical discourses. His lectures combined teachings from Hinduism and Christianity into what he called “universal truth”. In 1906 Mozumdar moved to Spokane, WA, and began offering Sunday services from his own church, First Society of Christian Yoga, which became quite popular. – A.K. Mozumdar occupies a distinctive position in the history of Indian immigration in the US for another reason: he was the first Indian to earn American citizenship (on July 11, 1912) through legal action. He convinced a local US District Court judge that he was a Caucasian.. Because Indians were barred under US laws from becoming citizens, the Federal government appealed the decision. In 1923, the US Supreme Court decided in the case of US vs Bhagat Singh Thind that Indians were ineligible for citizenship. With this verdict in hand, the government prevailed in its appeal against Mozumdar, and he was stripped of his citizenship. Later he moved to the Los Angeles area where he established a new church. He died  in 1953.

Swadeshis: Freedom Fighters Seeking a Safe Base

The first two decades of the twentieth century not only saw a few swamis coming to the US to preach and teach but also many young Bengali intellectuals seeking a safe haven to continue their fight against the British rule in India. The British attempt in 1905 to divide Bengal into two parts had particularly enraged young nationalists throughout Bengal. Many were students from affluent families who had to leave India to avoid imprisonment. These idealistic Bengali intellectuals envisioned America as the “land of liberty and justice” and knew that the US was outside the legal reach of the all-powerful British empire. Some of these swadeshis(independence seekers) continued to pursue their political convictions for several decades from their American base while some moved on to non-political careers. The most notable among these swadeshis were Tarak Nath Das, M.N. Roy, Dhan Gopal Mukerji and Sailendranath Ghose. Although all these men arrived in America as idealistic nationalists, their careers diverged widely after the first few years of their lives in this country.

Tarak Nath Das (1884-1958), born in the 24 Parganas district of Bengal, was a brilliant student who joined the Indian independence movement at an early age. Wanted by police, he fled to Japan dressed as a Hindu sadhu. When the British tried to have him deported to India, he escaped to the US and arrived in Seattle, WA, in 1906. (some sources say 1907). After a short stint as a farm worker and then as a student at University of California at Berkeley, Tarak Nath moved to Vancouver in 1908 to join the office of the US Department of Immigration there as a translator. His job was to make sure that “no disembarking East Indian entered” the country(4).  Driven by his political belief, he became a secret coach for Indians attempting to sneak into Canada and the US. This brought him in close contact with many Sikhs aspiring to become immigrants, and he became an ardent political activist. He began publishing a monthly magazine, Free Hindusthan, to attack British policies of repression and brutality in India. He was soon forced to resign from his job, so he moved back to Seattle but continued to publish his magazine from there. Later Tarak Nath joined the University of Washington and received BA and MA degrees in political science. After graduating, he returned to Berkeley and played a key role in establishing the Ghadar (meaning rebellion) Party that later attempted to orchestrate a rebellion in India(4).

In 1914 Tarak Nath secured US citizenship. Emboldened by this development, he went to Germany just before World War I to raise funds for an armed rebellion in India. Tarak Nath also took part in several unsuccessful anti-British guerrilla activities along the Suez Canal, and when he returned to the US in 1917, he and several others were prosecuted and subsequently found guilty of conspiracy (Hindu-German Conspiracy Case of San Francisco). He was imprisoned for 22 months. In 1923, Das was stripped of his citizenship after the US Supreme Court ruled that Indians could not hold US citizenship, as in the case of A.K. Mozumdar. In 1924 he married his long-term friend and financial supporter, Mary Keating Morse, who was one of the founders of NAACP. In 1925 Tarak Nath received a PhD from Georgetown University, left politics, and became a professor of political science at Columbia University. He spent the rest of his life as a successful academic scholar. Jointly with his wife, he established Tarak Nath Das Foundation in 1935 to award grants to Indian students pursuing post-graduate degrees in the US. The Foundation is still active, and about a dozen universities participate in this program. – In a bittersweet development, Das regained his US citizenship in 1946(4) when the Luce-Cellar Act, signed into law by President Truman, restored naturalization rights to Indians. — Tarak Nath returned to India for the first (and only) time in 1952 and received a hero’s welcome. He died in New York in 1958.

Manabendra Nath Roy, or better known as M.N. Roy (1887-1954), was born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya in the district of 24 Parganas in Bengal. He spent only ten months in the US and can hardly be considered an immigrant. However, his short stay in the US had a profound impact on his subsequent career that transformed him from an Indian nationalist to an well-known international revolutionary. As such he occupies a special place in the pantheon of Bengali swadeshis who traveled to America.

As a young man, Roy became convinced that only an armed insurrection would rid India of the British rulers, and he engaged in several daring bank robberies to raise funds for the movement. He came in contact with and was inspired by the great Bengali revolutionary, Jatin Mukherjee (“Bagha Jatin” or “Jatin, the Tiger”) and in 1915, assumed the responsibility for securing arms shipments from the Germans and the Japanese. His attempts were unsuccessful but he did not give up. Hidden in a steamship from Japan, he arrived in San Francisco in 1916 under the pseudonym of  Reverend Charles Martin. There he met Dhan Gopal Mukerji (more about him next), another Bengali swadeshi, and Evelyn Trent, a Stanford University graduate, whom he was to marry later. Roy had hoped to conduct his clandestine contacts with the Germans in the US without being detected and harassed by the British but that turned out to be a false hope. He changed his name to Manabendra Nath Roy and became active in the Socialist Party of America which had a significant following in the country at that time.

m n roy
Manabendra Nath Roy became active in the Socialist Party of America

When Roy was arrested by the American authorities in 1917, he secured a letter of introduction from one Dr. Davis Starr Jordan to General Alvarez, his influential friend in Mexico. Roy fled to Mexico, and with the help of General Alvarez and other high level Mexican officials, settled in the country. In time he founded the Socialist Party of Mexico that later became the Communist Party of Mexico, one of the first such parties outside of Russia. He developed a warm relationship with Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, and was invited by Lenin to the Second World Congress of the Communist International (Comintern), held in Moscow in 1920. He went on to serve as a member of the Comintern’s Presidium for eight years, and at one stage became a member of the Presidium, the Political Secretariat, the Executive Committee, and the World Congress. Roy established military and political schools in Tashkent, and while there, he founded the Indian Communist Party (1920).  But when Stalin came to power, Roy had a fall out with him, and in 1929, he was expelled from Comintern. Dejected and in poor health, Roy left Russia to return to India in 1930 and met with Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. He was arrested by the British in 1931 and jailed for six years. After his release from jail, he was welcomed by Nehru into the Congress Party. However, strong difference of opinion with Gandhi prompted Roy to leave the Congress Party. He developed a strong sentiment against the German and Axis powers and believed that German victory in World War II would be disastrous for democracy in general and India in particular. For the rest of his life Roy pursued a new school of political thought which he called “radical humanism”. – Readers are urged to read an excellent biography by Samaren Roy(5)  for the many adventures, misadventures, accomplishments and failures of this exceptional Bengali freedom-fighter.

Like Tarak Nath Das and M.N. Roy, Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1890-1936) had to leave India to avoid police harassment.  Born in a Bengali Brahmin family in a village near Calcutta, he witnessed the imprisonment of his elder brother without trial. Fearing the same fate for Dhan Gopal, his family sent him abroad. After a short but frustrating stay in Japan, Dhan Gopal decided to come to the US. He arrived in San Francisco in 1910 at the age of 19 and enrolled in UC, Berkeley. With meager resources at his disposal but needing to pay his college tuition, he tried several jobs until found his calling: writing. This calling took him to unexpected heights as an author, especially of books and stories for children. In 1928 he won the prestigious John Newbery Medal, given annually by Association of Library Services for Children (a division of the American Library Association), for his book, Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. He thus became the first author of Asian Indian origin, writing in English, to win a coveted literary award in the US. –  Dhan Gopal is generally recognized as “the first Asian Indian writer of significance in the United States”(6).

After three years at UC, Berkeley, Dhan Gopal moved to Stanford University, and in 1914 earned a post-graduate degree in metaphysics. He taught for a short time at Stanford as a lecturer in comparative literature. Several books followed in quick succession. Dhan Gopal’s first publications were plays (Chintamini, A Symbolic Drama, 1914 – based on a play by Girish Ghosh; Layla-Majnu, 1916) and collections of poems (Rajani: Songs of the Night, 1916; Sandhya: Songs of the Twilight, 1917). When the First World War ended in 1918, he went back to India and stayed there for several years. There he became involved in nationalistic politics while vigorously pursuing his literary career. Beginning around 1922, he focused on writing books for children. However,Caste and Outcast, an autobiographical book published in 1922 is considered as one of Dhan Gopal’s best works. In the 2002 reissue of this book (which played a key role in reigniting interest in Dhan Gopal’s life and works), Stanford University Press(7)introduced it as “an exercise in both cultural translation and cultural critique”. The introduction goes on to say that “In the first half of the book, Mukerji draws upon his early experiences as a Bengali Brahmin in India, hoping to convey to readers an intimate impression of eastern life; the second half describes Mukerji’s coming to America and his experiences as a student, worker, and activist in California.”  In a book review(7), India West, a weekly magazine published in California, said the following about Dhan Gopal: “A man who, through his writing, offered one of the earliest glimpses into the complexity of an educated immigrant’s life in America. Through his observations and even through what he does not say, Mukerji at once lends his readers a sense of darkness and alienation, as well as great insight and literary skill.” – Another of Dhan Gopal’s books, Face of Silence, on the life of Shri Ramakrishna, was chosen by the League of Nations as one of the forty best books of 1926 and was also selected for the International Library of Geneva(5). Samaren Roy in his book on M.N. Roy reported(5) that Romain Roland became interested in the life of Ramakrishna after reading Face of Silence – and subsequently wrote two well-known books, The Life of Ramakrishna and The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel.

Author of over two dozen works of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and biographies, Dhan Gopal was an idealist who sympathized with the oppressed and the underprivileged and lived uncomfortably at the interface between Indian and Western cultures. Unfortunately, after a six month long nervous breakdown, he committed suicide in his New York City apartment in 1936(6).

Sailendra Nath Ghose (?-?) was another Bengali nationalist who worked with Tarak Nath Das (and M.N. Roy). He was actively involved in the Ghadar movement and was prosecuted, along with Tarak Nath Das, Agnes Smedley and others, in the Hindu-German Conspiracy Case of 1917. The group was accused of collaborating with Germans to provide Indian revolutionaries with smuggled arms. The US government threatened to deport the arrested individuals, so organizing their legal defense became necessary. Sailendra Nath was the founder of the Friends of Freedom for India (FFI), an organization established with active support of many liberals and some labor unions, to lobby for the protection of the political rights of resident aliens in the US(8). FFI published several books and pamphlets to publicize its lobbying efforts. One of them, “India’s Freedom in American Courts”(9), described court cases in which Indian anti-imperialists and other allies in the U.S. were put on trial for violating American “neutrality laws,” and threatened with deportation. The pamphlet urged readers to write to the then Secretary of the Department of Labor to protest the deportations. One New York Times report published on November 29, 1921(10), headlined “S.N. Ghose Predicts Revolution in India”, and went on to say that the “Native Agitator Says It Will Come If British Persist In Outlawing Nationalist Bodies.”  At that time Ghose was the “director of the unofficial American Commission to Promote Self-Government in India.”(10) Apparently at some point Ghose became the president of the American Branch of Indian National Congress. – Unfortunately not much is known about Sailendra Nath’s early years in India and his activities in the US beyond his work with the Ghadar Party and the FFI, including his date and place of death.

There were several other Bengali nationalists in the US who were contemporary of Tarak Nath and Sailendra Nath and who collaborated with them on the Ghadar movement and many anti-imperialist activities. Unfortunately very limited amount of information is available on them. Among them were Rajani Kanta Das  (who wrote several books on Indian laborers in the US and in the subcontinent), and Khagendra Chandra Das and Adhar Chandra Laskar (established “India Independence Committee” in California, probably around 1907).

Prafulla C. Mukherji (1885-1982) was also a nationalist when he came to the University of Pittsburgh as a student. However, he went on to pursue a successful career as a research metallurgist with US Steel and Firth Stirling Steel Company. He retired in 1956 and moved to New York City. In his obituary New York Times reported (11) that “he was executive secretary of the Tagore Centenary Committee for America, which organized the celebration of the 100th birthday anniversary of the Indian poet Sir Rabindranath Tagore in 1961…. and in 1971, he helped plan the bicentennial anniversary program for Rammohun Roy, one of the early leaders of social and religious reform in India.” His wife, Rose, was also active in community organizational activities.

Political Activism of a Different Kind

Not all Bengali political activists in the US in the first half of the twentieth century were transplanted Hindu intellectual “freedom fighters”. Some were scholars who chose to pursue academic lives, and some were students interested in higher education (more about them next). Yet others were Bengali working-class Muslims, and they fought for a different cause. The most notable among them was Ibrahim Choudry (?-?), who later anglicized his name to Abraham Choudry. Born in the district of Sylhet (now in Bangladesh), Choudry attracted police attention and left India as a crew manager (serang) in a steamship. He arrived in New York City sometime in the early 1920s(12). During the Second World War the British government had opened clubs for British sailors in many ports around the world, including the one in New York City. This club was strictly for white sailors in British merchant ships. To Choudry’s credit, he convinced the British consul general in New York City to open an “Indian Seamen’s Club”(12). The club was a great success, and Choudry was very active in club activities and helping fellow seamen from India, including many ship-jumping laskars, in personal and legal matters. In time Choudry owned and operated a successful restaurant, Bengal Garden, in the New York City theater district that was frequented by Bengali Muslims and became a hub for political activism. He became heavily involved in efforts to convince the US government to change its laws to allow Indians living in the country to become American citizens. To that end he wrote a bold and moving letter in 1945 to the Congressional Committee on Naturalization and Immigration (13). His focus was on gaining rights for Bengali Muslims in the US, and he became increasingly pro-Pakistan in later years.

Scholars and Students: To Teach and To Learn

The door for India-America cultural exchange that was opened by Swami Vivekananda and his fellow monks from Calcutta was not only used by Bengali nationalists but also by a steady stream of students and scholars from India. A University of Washington (Seattle, WA) report(14) shows that as many as twenty “Hindu” students passed through that university during the years 1908 to 1915 (including one Muslim student mislabeled as Hindu). Out of the twenty students, ten were from Bengal. All these students are listed in the report by names, with their years of attendance at the university. Tarak Nath Das was of course one of these students. Surely many more Bengali students attended other west coast universities such as UC-Berkeley, UC-Los Angeles or Stanford but details on them are hard to find.

Universities on the west coast of America were favorite destinations for Bengali students because of the ease of passage through Japan but some students did attend universities in the midwest and the east. For example, Rathindranath Tagore (1888-1961), son of Rabindranath, studied agricultural science at the University of Illinois (Urbana, IL)(15) from 1906 to 1909 at the urging of the poet who believed that India needed more technologists and engineers ready to serve villages and villagers than urbane intellectuals skilled in political debate. After finishing his studies, Rathindranath returned to India and played a pivotal role in translating the poet’s vision of balanced education into action. For over four decades he was associated with Shantiniketan, and became its first vice chancellor when it became Viswa Bharati, a central university. Two other students accompanied Rathindranath to the US(15), Nagen Ganguli and Santosh Chandra Majumdar, but little is known about their destinations and subsequent careers.

Like Rathindranath, Basanta Koomar Roy (?-1949) came to the US to a midwestern university  but decided to stay in the US after completing his studies.. Roy arrived at the University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI) around 1910 to earn his BA degree and decided to pursue journalism because he believed that the American media at that time portrayed India mostly through British eyes and thus incorrectly and poorly. His mission was “to bring India closer to America”(16). To that end he focused his immediate attention to bringing the works of Rabindranath Tagore to the American public. His first book, Rabindranath Tagore: The Man and His Poetry,was published in 1915, just two years after Rabindranath received the Nobel Prize for literature. It was the first biography of Tagore written in English, and the book was a big success. An article(16) on Basanta Koomar’s life  notes that “the critics liked it (the book) mostly because it was written by a fellow Bengali who read Tagore in his mother tongue and not his translations.” Basanta Koomar went on to publish at least three more books on Rabindranath and his works (and a translation of Anandamath, a famous book by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay that inspired many Bengali young men to take up arms against the British). The article also states that “Roy was one of the three people primarily responsible in making Rabindranath well known to the West. The other two being (sic) WB Yeats and Ezra Pound.”

Rabindranath came to know of Basanta Koomar’s efforts to popularize his works through his friends in America. At first he was pleased to learn of this development but soon soured on Roy and his efforts. Exact reasons behind Tagore’s rejection of Basanta Koomar remains a mystery. Rebuffed by his idol, Roy the journalist turned his attention to unmasking British misrule through many newspaper and magazine articles(17,18) and lectures(19) around the country. Last but not the least, Roy joined hands with Tarak Nath Das in organizing the Indian immigrants in the US and protecting their rights. Basanta Koomar died in New York in 1949.

Slowdown in Traffic

It seems that the number of students and scholars (and swamis) coming from India began to slow down in the 1920s. Exact causes are not known. One factor responsible for this slowdown might have been the economic disruption caused by the First World War. Another factor might have been the US Supreme Court decision in 1923 that barred Indians from gaining American citizenship. Nevertheless there were at least two Bengalis who came to the US in the 1920s and left lasting legacies.

Haridas Muzumdar (1900-?) came to the US in 1920 with “the express purpose of spreading Gandhi’s work” in America(20) and apparently to study in Columbia University (he completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees later from Northwestern and Wisconsin, respectively(20))  However, he found employment right away at Western Union under Henry Miller(21), the famous American author (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn), and they developed a life long friendship. Muzumdar started writing about Gandhi’s life and work soon after arriving in New York City, and in 1923 published Gandhi The Apostle: His Trial and His Message, his first of many books on Gandhi. He went on to write many more books on Gandhi and became an “interpreter of India and Gandhi for the American public.” Haridas returned to India in 1929 and participated in the Salt Satyagraha but returned to America within a year at the urging of Motilal Nehru(20) to spread word about Gandhi. Muzumdar established Gandhi Institute of America in Little Rock, Arkansas. He became a US citizen in 1947, and in 1956, sought (and lost) Republican party nomination for a Congressional seat from Iowa(22).

Another notable Bengali immigrant who arrived in 1920 was Nani Gopal Bose (?-?) (also spelled as Noni Gopal Bose). What little is known about him is through brief comments made to the press at various times by his famous educator-inventor-industrialist son, Amar Gopal Bose (born in 1929 in Philadelphia), the inventor of the well-known Bose speaker systems. Like so many Bengali young men before him, Nani Gopal was a student at the university when he was arrested and imprisoned by the British police. He subsequently fled from India, and as Amar Gopal recollected in an interview(23), “he (father) arrived at Ellis Island in 1920 with five dollars in his pocket”. Nani Gopal had a tough time financially but settled in Philadelphia, PA, and married an American schoolteacher. Recalling his childhood days, Amar Gopal said, “We had a small house in suburban Philadelphia, and Indian people would come stay with us for days, weeks, or months. The food we ate was Indian, and both my mother and father were very deep into the ancient philosophy of India, so it could well have been an Indian household. There were challenges. The prejudice was so bad in the United States at that time that a dark person with a white person would not be served in a restaurant. My father, mother, and I would try it occasionally. We would sit there, and the food would never come. My father would ask for the manager. He would pretend to be an African American because the prejudice was against them, not Indians. He would say in a quiet voice: “I notice that we are good enough to earn money to cook the food, good enough to earn money serving the food, good enough to give our lives in the war for our country. Could you explain to me why it is that we are not good enough to pay money and eat the food?” When he spoke in a quiet voice like that, everyone in the whole restaurant would fall silent, too, and listen to it. Then he would say to my mother and me, “It is time for us to go.”” Amar Gopal went on to note that his father “lectured from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., for 15 years for the Indian underground movement, describing the atrocities he had seen under British rule in India that were not unlike those in Nazi Germany.”

the most notable among them was Ibrahim Choudry (?-?), who later anglicized his name to Abraham Choudry. Born in the district of Sylhet (now in Bangladesh), Choudry attracted police attention and left India as a crew manager (serang) in a steamship. He arrived in New York City sometime in the early 1920s

The third noteworthy Bengali immigrant to arrive in 1920 was Swami Yogananda Giri (later called Paramhansa Yogananda)(1893-1962). Unlike other swamis who had arrived earlier, Yogananda was not a monk of the Ramakrishna Order. Born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, he was interested in spiritual pursuits from childhood. After searching for a guru for several years, he became a devout disciple of Swami Yukteswar Giri who named him Swami Yogananda. At age 27, he was invited to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, being held in Boston, where he lectured on “The Science of Religion”. That same year he established Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinatas, CA, to share his knowledge of Indian spiritual teachings and of yoga with his followers. Author of a hugely popular book, Autobiography of a Yogi (published in 1946), Yogananda introuduced to America the “science” of Kriya Yoga. Although Swami Vivekananda was the first to make Americans aware of the powers of yoga, Swami Yogananda was the first monk to spend his entire life teaching and popularizing yoga in this country. He went on to write several other books. His organization, Self-Realization Fellowship, is still actively spreading his messages.

Resurgence of Interest in America: 1946-1967

If the 1920s were lean years in terms of number of Bengali students and scholars arriving in the US, the 1930s and 1940s were downright barren. The 1923 Supreme Court decision had led to voiding American citizenship of individuals like Bhagat Singh Thind, A.K. Mozumdar and Tarak Nath Das. That news must have dampened the enthusiasm any Bengali student or scholar might have had for coming to America. The Great Depression of the thirties also cast a chilling spell on the US economy and on the flow of visitors and immigrants. However, with the enactment of the Luce-Cellar act in 1946, Indians were allowed to become American citizens, and students and scholars from India began to get attracted to the US once again. Additionally the unambiguous victory of the United States in the Second World War had catapulted America to the rank of the greatest superpower in the world, economically and technologically. Science and engineering students and researchers in India began to look favorably to major American universities for post-graduate studies and academic positions. In 1947 India gained independence, and travel restrictions on Indian citizens were eased significantly.

Amiya Chandra Chakraborty (1901-1986) was one of the Bengali scholars who arrived in America soon after these momentous changes. In 1948 he joined the Department of English in Howard University (Washington, DC). Chakraborty was a poet and a scholar who had served as Rabindranath Tagore’s personal secretary and as a trusted friend for many years, had earned a DPhil from Oxford university, and was a close associate of Gandhi. In 1953 he moved to Boston University as Professor of Comparative Literature. He received many honors during his life for his contributions to literature and service to India, including the Padma Bhushan in 1970.

Rustom Roy (1924-2010) received his PhD in ceramics in 1948 from Penn State University (University Park, PA) and went on to become one of the best-known materials scientists in the world. Author of over 1000 scientific papers, Roy was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. As a young boy growing up in Patna, Bihar, he came in contact with Gandhi and other Indian leaders of the time. Roy believed in “integrative science” and was deeply knowledgeable about the major religions of the world. He was admired as an educator and was fondly called  a “citizen scientist.”

The tempo of Indian students arriving for post-graduate studies in the US increased rapidly during the 1950s. Older readers of this article have probably known or heard of some of these individuals. Many of these Bengali students stayed in the country and went on to highly successful careers as academics, authors, scientists, engineers and industrialists. 

Not all the Bengalis who came to the US during this period were scholars and students. Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) (born Chinmoy Kumar Ghose) arrived in 1964 with a keen desire to spread Indian spiritualism throughout America. He did not advocate monastic life to achieve peace within and union with God. He preached meditation and athleticism to his followers, wrote poems and hymns in Bengali and English, lectured widely (and held weekly prayer meetings at the United Nations in NYC) — and attracted a wide following within the musician community. Sri Chinmoy developed close relationships with famous musicians like Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin and Roberta Flack. As a young man, Sri Chinmoy was a follower of Sri Aurobindo, the revolutionary-turned spiritual leader who had established an ashram in Pondicherry, and believed that physical strength and well-being were as important as spiritual life style. His physical prowess became a folk lore during his life time but was later alleged to be exaggerated or staged. He was also accused by a few female followers of sexual advances. Author of many books, Sri Chinmoy established a meditation center in Queens, NY.

1968: Another Watershed Year for Immigration

This article began by referring to 1893, the year of Swami Vivekananda’s speech in the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, as a watershed year in the history of Indian (and Bengali) immigration to the US. 1968 was an equally momentous year. That year President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. As noted on the “About Us” page of this website, this law “abolished the previous national-origins based quota system that favored immigrants from northwestern Europe and openly discriminated against Asians and other non-white races for immigration.” People from India and other countries who were actively prevented from immigrating to the US in the past were now allowed to apply for entry into the US as immigrants. This dramatic change in US immigration policies had a profound impact on the number (and types) of applicants from India and other non-European countries. That will be the subject of the next (and final) part of this series of articles on the history of Bengali immigrants on the US.

This article originally appeared in


(1)   See

(2)   “Photo Gallery/Monastic Disciples of Sri Ramakrishna”, Vedanta Society of St Louis (

(3)   “A.K. Mozumdar: Yesterday’s Evangelist from India” by David H. Howard (

(4)   “New, Thinking, Agile and Patriotic: Hindu Students at the University of Washington,1908-1915”, Tarak Nath Das, University of Washington  Libraries(

(5)   “M.N.Roy: A Political Biography”, by Samaren Roy, Orient Longman Limited, Hyderabad, India,1997

(6)   “Dhan Gopal Mukerji”, Encyclopedia of World Biography


(7)   “Caste and Outcast” by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Stanford University Press, 2002 (see (see

(8)   “Across the Nation: Indian Freedom Fighters in the United States,” Indo-American Heritage Museum (

(9)   “India’s Freedom in American Courts”, Friends of Freedom for India, New York


(10) “S.N. Ghose Predicts Revolution in India,” New York Times, Nov 29, 1921

(11) “Prafulla Mukherji, 97, Research Metallurgist”, New York Times, April 23, 1982

(12)  “Bengali Harlem” by Vivek Bald, pp 180-188, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013

(13)  ibid, pp 4-8

(14)  “Hindu Students at the University of Washington, 1908-2015”, University of Washington Libraries (see

(15) “Rabindra Smaraka Grantha”, Nov 9, 2011, Unknown author


(16)  “Basanta Koomar Roy – The First Indian-American Journalist,” Sudipta Bhawmik,, April 12, 2012 (see

(17) “When India Fights for England”, by Basanta Koomar Roy, The Independent, April 19, 1915 (for reprint, see

(18) “Pacifists Rebel Against British Rule in India”, by Basanta Koomar Roy, The Pittsburg Press, Sept 11, 1921

(19) “Basanta Koomar Roy, A Lecturer with a Prophetic Message”, Promotional pamphlet (see

(20) “Colonial Displacements: National Longing and Identity among Early Indian Intellectuals in the United States”, by Paromita Biswas, PhD Dissertation, University of California, 2008 (see

(21) “Haridas Muzumdar – Miller’s Hindu Connection”, Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company: A Henry Miller Blog”, March 20, 2006 (see

(22) “Gandhi Aide in G.O.P.”, New York Times, Feb 26, 1956

(23) “Amar Gopal Bose (1929-2013)”, July 13, 2013 (see

A native of Puri, Odisha, Debajyoti received BSc from Ravenshaw College (Utkal University) and BTech from IIT-Kharagpur. He came to Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN in 1967 for his PhD degree. He first worked at General Electric Research & Development Center in Schenectady, NY as an R&D manager and then in The BOC Group as a senior executive. Debajyoti retired in 2000, lives in Denville, NJ with his wife, Smee (Sikha), and enjoys traveling, writing, photography and spending time with his family. He is active in Ananda Mandir, a religious and cultural organization serving Bengalis living in the greater NJ-NY area.

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