Chinese Indians: Deoli, 1962

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1962: jailed for being of Chinese origin

Lawrence Liang, January 31, 2020: ‘'India Today

THE DEOLI WALLAHS The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma & Dilip D’Souza; Rs 650; 248 pages

Indians of Chinese origin who remain in India. The majority of them belong to the Hakka community from whom the dish borrows its name and it is worth recalling that the word Hakka literally means guest as the Hakkas were an itinerant community, their identity not associated with any geographical region.

Joy Ma and Dilip D'Souza's Deoliwallahs … The book tells the story of the internment of approximately 3,000 Indian-Chinese during the 1962 war. The Chinese community in India dates back to the late 18th century and generations of Chinese have been born in India, know no other home and have merged with the local community through marriage and trade while maintaining a distinct cultural identity.

This community found itself caught in the crossfire of the Indo-China war in 1962 when the Foreigners Act was amended to enable the State to arrest and detain "any person not of Indian origin" regardless of whether they were Indian citizens or not. The Defence of India Ordinance similarly allowed authorities to arrest people suspected "of being of hostile origin". Approximately 3,000 Chinese people, including women and children, were arrested, primarily from 'sensitive' towns, including Shillong, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Makum. Families were torn apart, properties were confiscated and these overnight strangers were huddled into packed trains and taken to Deoli in Rajasthan where many would spend the next five years in an internment camp. This sordid tale of arbitrary arrest and detention should serve as a political stain and scandal in the history of India similar to the internment of the Japanese-Americans during World War II in the US. That it does not is indeed the greater scandal and Deoliwallahs is a corrective to this collective amnesia.

Joy Ma, one of the co-authors, was born in Deoli after her family was arrested, while D'Souza is a well-known journalist who wrote one of the first long-form pieces about the internment. Their painstaking effort intersperses oral and personal histories within the larger political history of the Indo-Chinese relationship, reminding us of how critical it is to retrieve individual and private memories from the totalising histories of nations. Many of the narratives gathered in the book are culled from survivors, many of whom live in the US or in Canada. An overseas group, Association of India Deoli Camp Internees (AIDCI) 1962, was formed with the intention of documenting testimonies and seeking an apology from the Indian State. It is telling that the book does not have too many testimonies from Chinese who continue to live in India, for whom Deoli is not just a matter of memory, but a continuing fear. During the 2017 Doklam stand-off, many Indian-Chinese families told their children to say that they were from Nagaland if asked.

In addition to its invaluable task of recalling the injustices meted out to a "minuscule minority", this book needs to be read urgently in conversation with contemporary struggles for citizenship as it reminds us that hospitality is a legal project and strangers are made by law rather than through the accidents of geographical birth.

(Lawrence Liang teaches at the SLGC, Ambedkar University, Delhi)

Postscript: 2018

By Dilip D’Souza, March 2, 2018: The Times of India

The Strange Story of Chinese-Indian Internment

In the bus back to Toronto, the group asked Bobby Wong, in his 70s, to sing. Looking at him and at the other passengers, I assumed idly that he would break into a Chinese song. After all, these folks “looked” Chinese.

Then Bobby sang, and he sang “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh” (“This is a strange story”), the lyrical hit from the 1960 Bollywood hit Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (“My Heart is Mine but My Love Belongs to Someone Else”). It nearly brought tears to my eyes, for two reasons. One, here was this Chinese-Indian man who left India several decades ago, sitting in a bus on the highway from Ottawa to Toronto, singing an old Hindi song. It was charming, but there was also something inexpressibly sad about it. Two, to my chagrin, I realized my assumption was the same one that, decades earlier, sent Wong and thousands of others to a detention camp in Rajasthan. At that time, their only offense was that they “looked” Chinese.

For what happened to them was unjust indeed.

Starting in November 1962, the Indian government detained nearly 3,000 Chinese-Indians in a prison camp. An obvious parallel is the United States’ incarceration of 100,000 Japanese-Americans two decades earlier. The reason for both was war—World War II in 1942 and the India-China border war in October and November 1962. Their respective conflicts spurred the world’s two largest democracies to suspect the loyalties of thousands of their own citizens, solely based on their appearance. Suspicion quickly turned into incarceration.

Like the Japanese in the U.S., the Chinese have a long history in India. Starting in the late 18th century, they arrived as traders, tea-plantation workers, cobblers, dentists, and more, settling mostly in small towns across India’s northeast. As the generations slipped past, several families became integrated enough that they spoke only Indian languages. They were so much part of the local fabric that, in some of those towns, you can still find precincts known as “Chinapatty” (the best translation might be “Chinese ‘hood”).

But when war broke out with China in 1962, India’s President S Radhakrishnan signed the Defence of India Ordinance, allowing authorities to arrest people suspected “of being of hostile origin.” Despite the years of living side by side, many angry Indians across the northeast had already begun thinking that their neighbors from Chinapatty who “looked Chinese” were of “hostile origin.” Security forces then swung into action, knocking on Chinese-Indian doors in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, Tinsukia and Makum, telling bewildered families to pack a few essentials and report to the police station. They were then bundled onto a train for a weeklong journey across the country. Along the way, fellow-Indians threw stones and screamed, “Go back Chinese!” at the hapless travellers. The train finally stopped in Deoli, a dusty town on the edge of the desert in Rajasthan. There they filed into an old British camp that, among other things, had been used for German and Japanese POWs during World War II. The detainees were given numbers, identification cards, and an assignment to one of the camp barracks.

Many Chinese-Indians spent up to five years in that camp. Some died there. Some were deported to China on ships—a bewilderingly cruel fate for people whose families had been Indian for generations, who spoke only Indian languages, and for whom China was just as foreign a country as Rwanda or Peru. Others who made their way home after the internment were reduced to poverty, finding their property stolen or vandalized. Effa Ma, for example, was pregnant when she went to camp and gave birth there. Months later, the family was released and sent home. In a recent short film (Rafeeq Ellias’s Beyond Barbed Wire), she recalls her return to Calcutta: “It was July the first. It was raining. … Where [could] I go with these three kids and not a pie in my pocket? … I had nobody to come to receive me!”

From these dire straits, the community had to rebuild. Some managed to get by running moderately successful restaurants and beauty parlors. But it was hard to win back the acceptance of their neighbors. As the years passed, many chose to leave the country that had so profoundly betrayed them, emigrating to Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere. Toronto in particular has a substantial population of these émigrés and their families.

After years of keeping in touch informally, Chinese-Indians in North America formed the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees 1962 (AIDCI) as a nonprofit in 2010. The AIDCI organizes picnics and an annual lunch for camp survivors and their families. It also participates regularly in the cultural activities of the wider Chinese-origin community in Toronto. But its declared mission is “to raise public awareness of [the internees’] historical plight by developing a network of survivor contacts and by ensuring that those who tragically lost their lives at the camp are not forgotten.”

That is, social gatherings aside, the AIDCI is also aware of the elephant in the room.

For more than half a century, members of the community in India and abroad have been silent, terrified of speaking out and drawing attention to themselves. They fear those sinister knocks on the door, and being rounded up and sent away to a prison camp once again. Moreover, many of those living in India are considered stateless, forced to pay thousands of rupees each year to renew their residence permits. What repercussions might they face if they start to talk?

It’s easy to say that a mass incarceration couldn’t happen in India in the 21st century, but then nobody thought it could happen in India circa 1962, either. Unwilling to repeat history, Chinese-Indians have not broken the silence around the 1962 detentions. But nor has anyone else. The entire episode has been forgotten, left out of school curricula and without official comment. A brief online history of the camp includes only one mention: “This camp was converted into a detention camp to accommodate about 3000 prisoners and was known as Chinese camp.” Wikipedia’s entry for the city of Deoli has a line that’s just as enigmatic: “In 1962 it was established as detention camp for people of Chinese heritage living in India.”

It’s no wonder most Indians haven’t heard of this incarceration

“We want you to know that this recent India-China standoff over Doklam has again rattled the community in India and we are still on tenterhooks. We have been trying our best to remain as invisible as possible so as not to attract unwanted attention to the community. [We] have had to assuage our elders that 1962 will not happen to us. We are … not sure what the demo in Ottawa would mean to us here—if it would have any effect at all—but [this is] just a sincere request from [us] to be careful about what is said and what is demanded. The last thing we would want here is to provoke the Indian government. … Since they can’t get back at China directly, [I] am concerned they might take it back on us. Already, many of us are on the radar of the Indian intelligence agencies and I know because I get frequent visits from them.”

Dilip D’Souza is a former computer scientist who now writes about politics, society, travel, sports, and mathematics. He has won several awards for his writing and is the author of seven books. He lives in Bombay.

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