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The Life and Times of Mubarek Ali Khan

Anu Kumar ( is a writer and journalist based in the United States.

The life story of a crusty champion of Indian immigrants in mid-century United States who worked tirelessly for their rights to citizenship.

In the early 1940s, Mubarek Ali Khan, then based in New York, campaigned and lobbied tirelessly for South Asians, especially for their rights to citizenship and residency in the United States (US). As president of the India Welfare League, an association he formed around 1937, Khan pleaded before government authorities that racial provisions of the 1917 immigration laws, and upheld again in 1923, be set aside and that emigrants from India already resident in the US be permitted to become citizens. In this instance, he was different from Sardar Jagjit (J J) Singh, the other Indian lobbyist who was a strong advocate for a “quota,” to encourage better qualified, better educated Indians to emigrate to the US.

Khan was aged around 24 years when he moved to the US in 1922. His early life in India remains ambiguous. A recreation of his past is possible via his many letters to newspapers, especially the local papers in Arizona, where he moved permanently in the late 1940s. He was a regular, albeit cantankerous letter-writer, seeking to set right prevailing misconceptions about South Asia, or his own story. In one instance, his letter had nothing but his name spelled correctly over and over again (he insisted on the last “e” in his first name).

Mubarek Ali Khan (Arizona Daily Star, 11 December 1959)

An article quoting from Mubarek Ali Khan's letter emphasising the spelling of his name (Arizona Republic, 17 September 1958)

His naturalisation papers show he was born on 9 September 1898 in Sultanpur, in the United Provinces, British India. From his letters to newspapers, we learn he was arrested after leading a rally (perhaps in the United Provinces) comprising mainly of students from lower-caste groups in 1912 (he would have been 14 then!), in support of their access to education. He fought in the British Indian armies during World War I seeing action in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). On his return to India, he worked briefly with the Indian National Congress. In 1922, he sailed to New York via London.

In New York he had an “import shop” (bringing in exotic goods from India), but he worked consistently to help his compatriots. Besides being associated with the Friends of Freedom for India set up by Agnes Smedley and others, and his own India Welfare League, Khan also set up the Indian Benevolent Association in the 1940s. Most Indians then in the US worked in farms, or as industrial and service workers. Some taught or studied in universities, or travelled as itinerant lecturers (including sadhus and yogis), and businessmen.

In 1939, Khan was interested in a bill moved by Senator Samuel Dickstein to define the status of “natives of Hindustan” residing in the US. Since 1917 the Immigration Act had excluded Indians (and other Asians) as immigrants, considering them “undesirable aliens.” In 1923, the US Supreme Court ruled that “East Indians” already resident were racially ineligible for citizenship. Other laws implemented in different states did not grant them or rescinded their rights to own land and there were strict miscegenation laws as well. South Asians sometimes worked their way around such laws, entering into secret agreements with citizens or marrying Mexican women, as historian Karen Leonard has detailed about California (Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans, 1994).

Between 1939 and 1946, Khan testified eight times before the US senate committee on immigration and naturalisation. Khan was guided by the political context of his times in how he chose to respond to the committee’s queries. He invited two anthropologists, John Montgomery Cooper, who headed the anthropological society of America, and Harry Shapiro, a lecturer at Columbia University, who testified that “the people of India were Indo–Aryan and members of the Caucasian race.” This very same “race-related” argument had been used in a different way in 1923 when Bhagat Singh Thind’s citizenship had been rescinded on grounds that as an Asian he was “different,” racially so, from Caucasians.

In his pleas before the committee, Khan also asked that Indians already resident in the US be granted citizenship, for they were more or less American in their ways. In 1945, he met Arizona’s Governor S P Osborn seeking the latter’s endorsement so the 215 Indians and their families settled in Salt River Valley as farmers could become American citizens. J J Singh (Indian League for America), who appeared before the same committee argued for an annual quota of 100 for Indians (the Filipinos were the other group considered); new émigrés would form 75 of these. The Luce-Cellar Act finally came into effect on 2 July 1946. It granted a quota of 105 to new Indian émigrés, while around 4,200 Indians already in the US became “naturalised.”

Around this time, Khan also wrote about his ideological disagreements with Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and M K Gandhi. Khan had hoped for a free united India, where all communities lived in a spirit of equality and harmony. But, soon, differences between the Congress and the Muslim League in India on the matter of power-sharing post independence became irreconcilable, and Khan came to accept the inevitability of partition.

After independence and partition, Khan formed the Pakistan Welfare League, or as it was later called the Pakistan League for America, evincing his support for Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the new Pakistan government. For the rest of his life, he remained a spokesperson for Pakistan before the American public and press.

Khan moved to Phoenix soonafter; he married Alice Hribar in 1949 (the ceremony taking place in neighbouring New Mexico). He obviously felt at home in Phoenix. As the Arizona Republic writes, along with a banker friend he donated Shah Jahan’s ceremonial robe to the Phoenix public library. The richly brocaded ceremonial court robe apparently cost around $6,500.

Mubarek Ali Khan's presenting Shah Jahan's robes to be displayed at the Phoenix Public Library (Arizona Republic, 26 May 1963)

He remained an inveterate letter-writer, and also a perennial candidate for Congress and the Senate, though he never made the final cut. On four occasions—1952, 1954, 1958 and 1962—he announced plans to seek the Republican (once) and Democrat (thrice) nomination to represent Arizona in the Congress or Senate. He was querulous when neither newspapers nor electoral officials took his name (misspelling his first name) or candidature seriously.

He wrote in 1960 about the miscegenation laws that barred interracial marriages. The Arizona marriage bill, for example, made marriages between Hindus and Caucasians illegal. Khan chided the lawmakers’ ignorance. He cited the same anthropological study relating to race that had been presented earlier during the citizenship debate.

In 1963, the Arizona Republic and other newspapers mourned his death. He was “a dignified little man with a bristling white moustache,” who fought “for peace and unity in the world.” The obit went onto say that though wonderful people lived in Phoenix, Khan’s presence added to it all, and he would be missed.

Khan resented the fact that his contributions in the naturalisation and citizenship debate were often glossed over, and “rivals” like J J Singh and Dilip Singh Saund, the first US senator of Indian origin, were given more credit. In several senses, he also embodied the tragedy of the “Muslim cosmopolitan” in the post–World War II period. Their dilemma in a changing world order was that they were rooted in their faith and yet there was a certain cosmopolitanism in their outlook. They believed that personal beliefs had to stay separate from political necessities; it was more important for a new liberal and secular world order to be established.

In Singapore, for example, Karim Ghani, the Malay leader of Indian origin, envisaged a swathe of Islamic nations working in unity, across South and South-east Asia, that would espouse socialist ideals. Syed Hossain, the ex-Congressman from India who lectured in the US, spoke for a liberal, united India, and there were leaders like Sikandar Hayat Khan of the Punjab Unionist Party who wanted a class-based alliance across faiths for the creation of a united Punjab, another option in the independence–partition debate. In a postcolonial world, Mubarek Ali Khan might appear an anachronism, rather a disillusioned idealist, but via his work all through the 1940s and 1950s, he raised awareness of the Islamic world in American minds, especially in forums that allowed him a voice.

[Images acompanying this article are available on the EPW website.]


Updated On : 31st Aug, 2019


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