By Gurmukh Singh
At the age of 90, Washington-based Dr Shamsher Singh Babra is the grand papa of the three-million-strong Indian community in the US.
Indeed, when young Babra landed in Washington DC in September 1955, there were not even one hundred Indians in the US, barring the old Punjabi settlement of Yuba City in California.
“There were only a handful of Indians in the US. India’s visa quota in those days used to be just one hundred. US visas eased only after John F Kennedy became president,’’ says Babra who was the first Indian to become permanent resident in Washington.
“Actually, there was no Indians in Washington DC at that time except employees of the Indian embassy,’’ recalls Dr Babra who also became the first-ever Indian to get a Ph.D from any
university in Washington.
Then he went on to become the first Sikh to join the World Bank in 1962 and rise through the ranks to head various divisions till his retirement in 1987.
“The only daal we could get in those days was through Indian embassy employees coming from India. I used to go to a Spanish store that sold beans. There are 7-8 gurdwaras here today, but there was none back then. We used to celebrates Gurupurab and Diwali at the houses of Indian embassy employees,’’ says Dr Babra who raised money and got land for the first-ever Sikh Cultural Society center in the US capital.
A witness to the rise of the Indian community in the US, Dr Babra was a classmate of Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal in Lahore.
“Badal and I were classmates at Sikh National College, Lahore. He was not studious. We used to call students from the Malwa region Firozepurias. Badal left for Foreman Christian College after his second year,’’ remembers Dr Babra.
Born at Galotian village near Sialkot in 1927, Babra was among student leaders of Lahore’s Sikh National College who took up arms against the Muslim League on the call of Akali leader Master Tara Singh in 1947.
“Master Tara Singh’s call in March 1947 to oppose the Partition angered Muslims. This led to the infamous `rape of Rawalpindi’ when Muslim mobs attacked Sikh villages of the Pothohar region. In response, over 500 students of Sikh National College, armed by the SGPC, took out processions in Lahore. Police raided our college and arrested seven leaders, including me,’’ says Babra, adding that those events were the start of the Partition riots.
Babra was in his village on bail when the Partition day came. “We wanted to stay back in Pakistan, but when rioting spread, the army forced us to leave on August 30, 1947. For three weeks we lived in refugee camps before reaching Dera Baba Nanak in India to an uncertain future.’’
After a refugee’s short stay in India, young Babra soon left for the UK.
“I moved to Delhi and got my MA in math in 1950 from Panjab University which had relocated some of its departments to Delhi from Lahore. Then I left for the UK. In those days, it was very difficult to get Indian passports and exit permits. When I reached London, not a soul knew me in Britain,’’ according to Dr Babra.
After a few odd jobs, he was lucky to get a clerical job in the Indian high commission in London even as he pursued his diploma in statistics.
Then America beckoned him.
A friend of the first Indian American Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, Babra says, “In 1973 when Saund died, we held his bhog ceremony here. It was the first time that we brought the holy Guru Granth to Capitol Hill.’’
And he counts first-ever Indian American Senator Kamala Harris’ mother as his great friend.
“I knew Kamala’s mom Shyamala Gopalan very well. She was just 18 when she came from south India as a student to Berkeley in 1961. She was a firebrand woman. She came from a well-off family.’’ (This article appeared in the Times of India on Monday, Feb 6, 2017)