Indian American Community in Southern California

by Inder Singh

Southern California has been the home to the Indian American community for over one hundred years. However, steady growth in the Indian community started with the liberalization of American Immigrations laws in late 1960s. At present, over 250,000 people of Indian origin live in Southern California. Several entrepreneurs, businessmen, farmers, philanthropists, educationists, doctors, engineers, and community activists have made Los Angeles and neighboring cities their karam bhumi. A major Indian shopping center has flourished in Cerritos/Artesia area. More than 100 stores attract Indian community from far and wide.

With the increase in population of Indian immigrants, cultural, religious, social and charity organizations have been formed. In Los Angeles area, an umbrella group, Federation of Indian American Associations (FIA) was started by Inder Singh to celebrate India Independence day, India Republic day, etc. India’s Independence Day celebration was organized first time in 1981 as a whole day Mela in Los Angeles. It is now organized at four places in Southern California, San Diego, Riverside, Artesia and San Fernando Valley. These events, attract over 40,000 Indian Americans, bring the community on one platform, showcase India’s cultural heritage, promote Indian businesses and provide forum to many elected officials and aspiring politicians. Mela style celebration has become a preferred mode of celebration in Southern California and many other cities in the United States. In 2010, India’s Ambassador Mira Shankar was the chief guest at Independence Day celebration in San Fernando Valley and in 2013, India’s Ambassador Nirupma Rao was the chief guest. Again, in 2015, Ambassador Arun K Singh presided over the Independence celebrations organized by India Association of Los Angeles (San Fernando Valley). Ed Royce, chairman, House Foreign Affairs Committee and Congressman Brad Sherman, senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are regular guests at India Independence Day celebrations in Southern California.

The region is dotted with over fifty temples, gurdwaras and mosques, which serve the religious needs of the Indian American community. Some religious festivities such as Janam Ashtami, Ram Naumi, Diwali, Baisakhi, Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh birthdays attract thousands of people. Baisakhi and Guru Nanak Dev’s birthday are celebrated in Los Angeles convention center attracting more than 15,000 people. Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday is celebrated every year on December 25, in Los Angeles County fairgrounds in Pomona. Southern California has also been the home for many Indian religious and yoga awakening movements. Krishnamurti(Ojai, California 1922), Paramahansa Yogananda (Self Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, 1925), Yogi Bhajan (Kundaliani Yoga, Los Angeles, 1968), Maharishi Mahesh, Bhagwan Rajneesh, and many more found fertile ground for spreading their respective missions. The Self-Realization Center at Pacific Palisades still preserves Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes.

California is a farming State. Some Indian farmers own thousands of acres of farming land. An Indian farmer has earned the reputation of “Raisin king of California” The New York Times calls Harbhajan Samra as “the Okra king of USA”. Munger family of Bakersfield is the largest blueberry producer in the world. Dalip Singh Saund, after obtaining Ph.D in Mathematics from University of California, Berkley, could not get a job commensurate with his qualifications. His first job was as a farm worker. Later, he became a farmer and on getting US citizenship in 1949, he was elected as a judge in 1952. In 1956, Saund was elected as U.S Congressman from Imperial/Riverside Counties. Till today, he makes us proud as the first among Asian community in America to be the Congressman in the United States. He was re-elected to the House ofRepresentatives twice. Bhagat Singh Thind got citizenship three times and it was revoked each time. He went to the US Supreme Court in 1924, but the judge revoked his citizenship because he was not a white man. Later, Thind got citizenship as a veteran of WW I through a special law enacted by US Congress.

Over 40% of motels in the United States are owned by Patel community and they have prospered in the hospitality industry. In Southern California, Patel community also has a fair share of the “Inn keepers of the USA.” Several Indians own leading franchises such as Hiltons, Radisson, etc. Southern California Indian American hotel/motel owners have combined holdings of several billion dollars. B. U Patel is one of the highly respected hoteliers in Southern California.

A large number of Indian American physicians are practicing medicine in Southern California. The accomplishments of some of these physicians have reached far beyond the boundaries of the region. Dr Deepak Chopra, author of over 80 books, has his Chopra Center for Wellbeing and residence in Southern California. Several Indian American entrepreneurs have multiplied their operations in Southern California. Uka Solanki owns many Big Saver Food stores with an annual turnover of about $150 million. Sudesh Sood has over 50 Jack-in-the-Box franchise restaurants. Zubin Mehta, Ashok and Vijay Amritraj live in Los Angeles. Pandit Ravi Shankar, before his death, lived in Southern California. His daughter, well known Sitar player, Anushka Shankar still lives in San Diego area.

University of California has five campuses with student population of over 136,000 and California State university system has over ten campuses in Southern California with student population of over 250,000. There are a few other universities including well-known University of Southern California (USC). An Indian American, Pradeep Khosla heads the University of California, San Diego, several hold dean positions and many are department chairs, all highly prestigious positions in the university system. Hundreds of students from India and students born of Indian American parents are enrolled in the campuses of these universities.

Many Indian Americans are passionate about giving back to the society and several have donated their wealth for various educational projects or worthy causes. Indian Community has established Sardar Patel annual award of $10,000 at UCLA for exceptional doctoral dissertationson subjects related to India. Dr. M.L. Bhaumik (Pravasi Bhartiya Saman Awardee and Padam Sri Awardee) has instituted an annual International Award of $10,000 at UCLA. Dr. Awtar Singh established a fully funded annual fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley for a top student from Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh for graduate studies. Jagdish Khangura, grandson of a Gadarite, an electrical engineer turned businessman, started “Baba Kartar Singh Dukki Higher Secondary School” in village Larata, district Ludhiana, Punjab, in the name of his Gadarite grandfather. He created “Baba Kartar Singh Dukki Educational Trust with endowment of Rs. 30 lakhs to meet the needs of students for books, bikes, clothes, scholarships, etc.

Indian American Heritage Foundation has been recognizing excellence among high school graduates since 1987. Started with eight scholarships, the Foundation now gives twenty-two scholarship awards. The scholarships criteria includes applicant’s academic achievements as also knowledge about India and Indian American community. The applicants take test based on material about India and the Indian American history and heritage and the test score is includedto determine the selection and ranking for the awards.

Uka Solanki established the Yadunandan Center for India Studies at California State University, Beach. Bhupesh Parikh and his wife Kumud gifted $1 million for the Bhupesh Parikh Health Sciences and Technology building at Glendale Community College, California. Navinand Pratima Doshi have established Doshi Chair of Indian History at UCLA, another chair forIndic Traditions at Loyola Marymount University. Doshis have also established a chair at California Institute of Integral Studies. Dr. Mohinder Sambhi donated $1 million for a chair in Indian classical music in UCLA in memory of his late wife. He also established Mohinder P Sambhi Hypertension Chair and Clinic at the Dayanand Medical College and Hospital, Ludhiana, Punjab.

Dr. Prem Reddy of Victorville, cardiologist and philanthropist, has committed $40 million donation to finance a medical school in the San Bernardino County. Dr. Reddy founded Prime Healthcare Services, which owns and operates 25 hospitals. Dr. Reddy also founded Prime Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit public charity that owns six non-profit hospitals. In addition, Dr Reddy has donated millions toward charities, including college scholarships, public healthcare education and free community clinics.

The University of California at Irvine established Shri Parshvanath, Dhan Kaur Sahota and Swami Vivekananda, presidential chairs for Jain, Sikh and modern India studies, respectively in August 2015. Dr. Georges Van Den Abbeele of the University signed the Jain and Sikh studies agreements in the presence of donors Drs. Jasvant, Meera Modi, Rajesh and Neeta Shah for Jain Studies and Dr. Harvinder Sahota and his wife Asha Sahota for Sikh studies. Dr. Harvinder Sahota donated $1.5 million for the chair in Sikh studies. Dr Sahota is a graduate of Patiala Medical College in Punjab. He is the creator of the perfusion angioplasty balloon. He is affiliated with four universities in Southern California; Claremont Lincoln University, Claremont School of Theology, Loyola Marymount University and U.C. Irvine.

Dr. Ushakant Thakkar and his Indonesian wife Dr. Irma Thakkar gifted $1.5 mllion for the establishment of Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies within the School of Humanities at University of California, Irvine in May 2015. In August 2010, the couple donated $1mllion to Simi Valley (California) Hospital, for the expansion of ER department—now called the “Thakkar Family Emergency Pavilion”. Dharma Civilization Foundation is a California-based non-profit organization that seeks to promote and enhance philanthropic giving to promote the systematic study of India religious traditions. Thakkars own and operate Kidney Center of Simi Valley – a renal dialysis center –near the Simi Valley hospital. They also have several dialysis centers.

Fiber-optics pioneer, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany established Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair of Sikh Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1998. He endowed a Chair of Opto-Electronics at the Baskin School of Engineering, University of California, Santa Cruz in 1999. He endowed another chair in 2012, Narinder Kapany Professorship in Entrepreneurship at the same school. He also established Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery of Sikh Art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 1999. Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Trust established a chair in Sikh and Punjabi Language Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Hakam Singh of Los Angeles, a scientist and a scholar, has established the Sardarni Harbans Kaur Chair in Sikh Musicology (Gurmat Sangeet) at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York.

Sikand Foundation founded by Gunjit S. Sikand, gave $1-million gift to Cal State Los Angeles in March 2015 to establish the Gunjit S. Sikand Faculty Endowment for Research in Urban Sustainability. “Gunjit had established the Sikand Scholarship Fund, the Gunjit Sikand Civil Engineering Endowed Guest Lecture Fund and the Gunjit Sikand Civil Engineering Endowed Senior Design and Freshmen Design Fund,” said President William A. Covino. Gunjit S. Sikand died in 2014 at the age of 86. He came from India when he was 20 years old and earned a master's degree in engineering from the University of Colorado. He was a businessman, philanthropist and civil engineering professor at Cal State Los Angeles for more than two decades.

Lajpat Rai Munger of Bakersfield donated $3.5 million, in two installments, to BakersfieldMemorial Hospital. The family built regional campus of Punjab University at Hosiarpur, at a cost of Rs 20 crores. Lajpat Rai came to USA in 1966. He worked as a laborer, rose to own 8,000 acres of land. He is the biggest blueberries baron in California. Pravin and Sudha Mody donated $1million to Pratham USA for setting up Mody Technical Institute in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. The Institute will provide residential training in courses of 3 months duration to 200 youths at a time in technical trades like electrician, welding, construction, plumbing and maintenance. Pravin Mody came to USA to study Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma University. He married Sudha in 1969 and has a son Ameer and daughter Sujata. He is the founder of GBS Linens, one of the three biggest party linen supply companies in the US. Ganpat Patel spent over Rs.15 crores to establish Ganpat University in Gujarat. Some friends contributed Rs. 10 crores while total cost was estimated to exceed Rs. 50 crores. In 2005, Gujarat government recognized Ganpat University as an independent university. Ganpat had also started Manjulaben Science College by donating Rs.1.5 million. Ganpat came to USA for a degree in Chemical Engineering. Instead, he graduated in electronics engineering in 1969. He started Cherokee International where he made enough money to invest in education in India.

A large majority of first generation Indian Americans is emotionally attached to India and constantly makes an effort to reconnect with their Indian roots. These ties to the roots often translate into charitable contributions for poverty alleviation, healthcare, educational and other projects undertaken by non-profit organizations. Some of the leading non-profit organizations, which have been regularly organizing events to raise funds in the United States, include America India Foundation (AIF), Share and Care Foundation and Sewa International USA. Several India based organizations, such as Pratham, Ekal Vidyalaya, Akshaya Patra Foundation, Sankara Eye Foundation, Child Relief, and Asha for Education, have established their units in America and organize events to raise funds from Indian Americans. Some Indian Americans put their faith in individuals, community associations or faith-based groups and donate their share towards the development of their villages, schools, roads and similar targeted projects.

Indian American philanthropists have one ulterior motive, to advance human welfare in the mother country.

Inder Singh regularly writes and speaks on Indian Diaspora. He is the author of The Gadar Heroics – life sketches of over 50 Gadar heroes. He is Chairman of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO). He was president of GOPIO from 2004-2009, president of National Federation of Indian American Associations(NFIA) from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California. He can be reached