Unifying Indian Diaspora: The Remarkable Journey of an Indian Businessman

JJ Singh had been a member of the India League for America for merely two years, but he was already tired. Its 12 members had a penchant for discoursing Indian philosophy and lofty literature, when the need of the hour, according to Singh, was for “politics and propaganda”.

Sirdar Jagjit (JJ) Singh, a six-foot-tall Sikh from a village in the northern Indian state of Punjab became an unlikely champion for Indian immigrant’s rights. JJ Singh joined Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement in India at the tender age of 21st and eight years later, in 1926, he arrived in New York after successfully serving in the Indian British army during World War 1.

J J Singh is a well-known Businessman

Selling the “finest clothes in all of India”, JJ Singh soon become a very successful businessman in New York. In the 1930s, to reduce import taxes, Singh established the India Chamber of Congress of America as a lobbying group. Though unsuccessful, this experience of lobbying the US government won him a lot of supporters who would help him in his future endeavors. He was a brilliant salesman with a forceful personality which had made him incredibly wealthy and very active in New York City’s social circles.

After experiencing the oppressive actions of the British Empire towards Indians, Singh attempted to get US officials’ support for India’s independence.  Recognizing that he would need broad support to achieve this goal, he took over the leadership of the India League of America (ILA) in 1938.

All this while, his business kept him in close touch with the developments in India. In the mid-1930s, when Singh set up the Indian Chamber of Commerce, hoping to establish bilateral trade relations between British India and the US, he saw how British rule inhibited India’s trade potential.

“They Also Fought for Freedom”

J J Singh’s fight for the rights of Indian immigrants was based on these core principles:

  • Firstly, Indians had fought gallantly alongside, and for, the British and Americans during World War I and continued to support their interests in Burma, Italy, and North Africa.
  • Secondly, granting Indian nationals US citizenship rights would counteract Japanese propaganda that Indians were being used by the Americans and not viewed by them as equals or being worthy of US citizenship
  • Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the treatment of Indians in America was wildly inconsistent with American values and ideals of freedom, equality, and community.

Right man, right place

Historians and commentators of the period – most notably, Robert Shaplen in his 1951 New Yorker profile headlined One Man Lobby – have written about Singh’s commitment and tenacity of purpose. But, as historian Vivek Bald notes, there were other key figures and organizations in the fight.

These included Tarakanath Das’s Free Hindustan; the India Association for American Citizenship; Mubarek Ali Khan, who led the India Welfare League; and Anup Singh, who was once part of the India League for America and later of the National Committee for India’s Freedom. As Bald says, “There was also a precedent for Singh’s lobbying and activism in the Friends of Freedom for India, a New York-based organization formed soon after World War I by Agnes Smedley and Sailendranath Ghose.”

“Still, Singh played a critical role in articulating the interests of India and Indians in the US.”

J J Singh’s Life and Education

Jag Jit Singh was born on October 5, 1897, in Rawalpindi in what is now the Punjab province of Pakistan. His father was a judicial officer, and a young Singh would sometimes accompany him on his travels to hear civil suits across Punjab’s small towns. Around 1920, Singh was drawn into the ferment of agitation that swept Punjab in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

Four years later, Singh moved to London to study law, but what caught his fascination was the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, with its fine pavilion design incorporating elements of Delhi’s Jama Masjid and Agra’s Taj Mahal.

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