Citizenship & Identity Featured Story 

The Strange Story of Chinese-Indian Internment

By Dilip D’Souza

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.

On the morning of Aug. 24, 2017, Bobby and some 50 other Chinese-Indians gathered in the parking lot of the Splendid China Mall in Toronto. They had planned something rather remarkable for the day: an expedition to the Indian High Commission in Ottawa to hold a peaceful demonstration and hand over a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After more than 50 years, this tiny community had decided to speak out and ask the Indian government for redress for the injustices they had endured.

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. I consider myself a generally well-informed Indian, yet I was ignorant of it, too. That changed only about six years ago, when a Chinese-Indian friend came home for dinner one evening. Out of the blue, she asked: “Have you ever heard of the Deoli internment camp?” I hadn’t. She explained the camp’s history, and I was left both profoundly disturbed that this had happened in my country and mystified that nobody ever speaks of it.

But now, some Chinese-Indians are wearying of the silence. Four survivors of the camp travelled from North America to India in 2015 and held a series of public meetings to tell their stories. And when the AIDCI floated the idea early in 2017 to host a demonstration outside the Indian High Commission and demand an official apology from India, members across Canada and the U.S. voiced their approval. About 50 signed up to join the trip.

Still, some had concerns. Indian and Chinese troops spent much of the summer of 2017 in a standoff in the Doklam region of Bhutan, which adjoins territory of both countries. The press and officials traded accusations of territorial incursions and demands for the other side to back down. As the rhetoric ratcheted up, the fear of 1962 settled like a familiar blanket on many Chinese-Indians. As one Indian resident wrote to the AIDCI in Toronto:

“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.”

Following weeks of deliberation, the AIDCI decided to go ahead with its plans, while being mindful of the concerns raised. After all, tension is a fact of life between the two Asian giants, which have never managed to settle their border dispute. Waiting for resolution is futile. And as the youngest survivors of the Deoli camp—like Effa Ma’s daughter Joy, who was born there—enter their mid-50s, the time to speak has come.

This is why the bus was waiting in the parking lot on an early August morning. Pumped up to travel to Ottawa were AIDCI members from Vancouver, Berkeley, North Carolina, and all over the Toronto metropolitan area. The mood was optimistic and even cathartic. The years of silence had grown oppressive and the chance to finally speak about 1962, to ask for answers and a measure of closure, was visibly liberating.

Yet not everyone shared this feeling. One man explained his stance as the bus swung onto the Ottawa highway. He fully supported the day’s effort, he said. Yet even after half a century, the wound of the incarceration remained raw, and he had no patience for rosy illusions about the state that had inflicted it. Polite requests would not cut it. An apology, he believed, would be forthcoming from India only when India was publicly shamed into making one.

This comment set off plenty of discussion among the passengers about the Japanese-American experience. A few AIDCI members have contacted members of that community to better understand how they worked toward getting the U.S. government to officially apologize for the 1942 internment. It was only in the 1970s, and following substantial internal debate, that the Japanese American Citizens League decided to advocate for reparations. After another 10 years of persistent lobbying, a congressional commission started to hold public hearings where several hundred former internees told their stories. The commission’s 1983 report, “Personal Justice Denied,” recommended that those who were incarcerated be paid reparations. Plenty of lawmakers still did not agree. Finally, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, acknowledging the injustice of what had happened, offering an apology, and providing funds for reparations.

A similarly long and arduous struggle may lie ahead for Chinese-Indians who seek redress for the 1962 incarceration. They face the challenges of getting organized, telling their stories, and finding the right elected representatives to make their case in circles of power. They need to act soon, before the already small number of internees begins to dwindle. They will have to overcome the nonexistent public memory of the Deoli episode, as well as their own pervasive fear.

The people on the bus knew that day’s demonstration in Ottawa was purely symbolic. But they saw it as a necessary first step, showing that it was possible to face the fear. They gathered on the pavement opposite the Indian High Commission, carrying placards and banners. They wore identical white T-shirts with a photograph of the camp screen-printed on the front. They chanted slogans. They stopped curious passersby to tell them about 1962. (Among them was a hijab-clad Somali immigrant who had spent 13 years in India, spoke fluent Hindi, and believed she knew a lot about India—but was astonished that she had never heard of the Deoli episode.)

But across the street, the High Commission’s gate was firmly shut. Two Indian men in suits stood inside, filming the demonstration. Staffers trickled in and out. Several stepped through the crowd of demonstrators on their way to lunch and again when they returned, but not one stopped to ask what the demonstration was about. When two AIDCI members approached the gate with their letter addressed to Prime Minister Modi, the men inside politely refused to take it. “We have no orders to accept any letters,” one said. The AIDCI folks taped theirs carefully to the gate and got back on the bus.

On the way back to Toronto, Bobby Wong sang: “This is a strange story.”

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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.

[Photo courtesy of Dilip D’Souza]

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