The state cares little about the lost years of our ethnic Chinese
Not too long ago, I visited a restaurant called Beijing in Tangra, Calcutta’s Chinatown, for a Sunday brunch with friends. The Cantonese noodles and pepper chicken, served in square, white plates, were so delicious that half-way through the meal I wanted to compliment the owner. But Monica Liu, a waiter informed me, had not returned from church. She turned up in a pantsuit while we were savouring our dessert. “You are a God-fearing woman providing excellent food to his hungry children,” I remarked. “You are welcome, sir,” she replied. Then she muttered under her breath: “We have a lot to thank the Lord for. I have come a long way from the concentration camp where I was baptised.”
People rub their eyes in disbelief. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Concentration camp? “I am so sorry, but were you in a concentration camp in China?” I asked Monica confusedly. “No sir. We are Indian citizens. We were picked up from our home in Shillong and dispatched to a concentration camp at Deoli in Rajasthan by the Indian government. We spent over four years behind barbed-wire fences patrolled by soldiers whose rifles were always pointed at us.”
I had thought that I knew my India inside out. But I was proved wrong that Sunday. Like the vast majority of my countrymen, I was blissfully unaware of the detention of a huge number of Chinese Indians in Deoli’s Central Internment Camp during the 1962 India-China war. By New Delhi’s own admission, nearly 3,000 men, women and children of Chinese descent—most of them Indian citizens—were imprisoned in Deoli without trial. They were picked up on the pretext that they posed a threat to India’s security. But the only ‘evidence’ against them was the colour of their skin and facial features. The war lasted barely a month, but many internees were rotting in Deoli until late 1967—five years after the armed conflict!
That Sunday, however, Monica had caught a seasoned journalist like me by surprise. Fortunately, we struck up a conversation—if we hadn’t, this book wouldn’t have been written.
I called on Monica after a few days to see her baptism certificate. The pale green paper had cracked at the folds but it corroborated her stunning remark. Born on October 14, 1953, she was baptised on March 23, 1965, in the Deoli camp, according to the signed and stamped certificate No. 67. She recounted her baptism in a makeshift chapel by Reverand Father Benedict Fernandez of the Church of Saint Joseph in Kota. The visiting chaplain had signed Monica’s baptism certificate with a flourish befitting the truly pious.
The baptism certificate is the only proof Monica has of her detention—and she has preserved it. She was a bubbly nine-year-old when the Shillong police picked her up along with her family and packed them off to Deoli in November 1962. Prisoners without trial, they were released in February 1967, traumatised and penniless. No document were ever issued to them. For a government, it’s difficult to get more arbitrary than that.
My account of wartime abuse of Chinese Indians is based on interviews with surviving internees in India and elsewhere. In their recollections, Deoli emerged as a metaphor for state-sponsored oppression, racial profiling and humiliation of persons with Chinese blood. Indian officials who dealt with the Chinese then spoke to me at length. Some talked on record; others shared information and views on the condition of anonymity. Without their version, an objective appraisal was out of the question. I examined hundreds of pages of diplomatic correspondence between New Delhi and Beijing about the persecution of people of Chinese origin in India just before, during and after the war, besides classified home ministry files and records of the Intelligence Branch of the West Bengal government.
The Indian government emptied the Northeast—close to the zone of military operations—of Chinese in 1962. But they were also taken from Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Jamshedpur and elsewhere by special intelligence units and despatched by train to Kota, the nearest railhead from Deoli.
A concentration camp has horrible connotations. So, was the Deoli facility a concentration camp?
Its antecedents were a dead giveaway. Its origins lay in a cantonment established by the British army in Deoli in 1852; in 1942 its barracks were converted into a POW camp for German, Italian and Japanese combatants and nationals. In 1947, the military handed it over to the home ministry. When busloads of Chinese families started arriving at the camp in November 1962, they were subjected to regulations from an old military manual for administering Axis POWs gathering dust in the commandant’s office. For instance, dinner was served at 5 pm and lights were switched off at 7 pm, plunging the prisoners’ wings into darkness until daybreak. The rule was revoked when it was realised that, unlike Axis POWs, 60 per cent of the internees were children or elderly persons.
According to Sunanda K. Dutta-Ray—former editor of The Statesman—the wartime population of ethnic Chinese was around 60,000, with Calcutta accounting for 50,000. But Arun Chandra Guha, an MP representing Barasat, revealed during a 1962 parliamentary debate that there were between 20,000 and 30,000 Chinese in India. The 1961 census pegged India’s population at 439,234,771, or about 440 million. Going by Dutta-Ray’s figure, ethnic Chinese then accounted for 0.013 per cent of India’s population; going by Guha’s, they accounted for between 0.006 and 0.004 per cent. Could this minuscule minority have posed a threat? By no rational yardstick could such a tiny ethnic group have endangered India. But ethno-phobia is triggered more often by hallucination than facts.
The Indian government spoke with a forked tongue while incarcerating persons of Chinese descent. On December 13, 1962, it said it “became necessary to remove all Chinese nationals from that region (Assam and West Bengal) along with others who were security risks when Chinese aggressors had been moving threateningly toward those areas”. On January 8, 1963, it called its action “the minimum any government would take under similar circumstances”. Justifying individual arrests, India said “there were very clear reasons for their detention because of their prejudicial and anti-Indian activities”. But after hurling accusations, the government did a somersault: on February 27, 1963, Union home minister Lal Bahadur Shastri gave the detainees a clean chit! He told Parliament that no internee would be tried for spying or subversion. Shastri was true to his word: nobody was prosecuted. But nobody was set free either: they simply languished behind barbed wires like POWs.
Sadly, even 50 years later, the Indian state has no regrets. There are no pangs of conscience, no symptoms of soul-searching. Questioned about excesses, Jagat S. Mehta, retired foreign secretary who manned the China desk of the external affairs ministry during the war, told an interviewer that India may have overreacted. “Today we are talking from the benefit of hindsight. But during the war Chinese were suspects, although they had been settled in India for a very long time. They got caught in the crossfire when China attacked India.”
In the countdown to war, apparatchiks were cocksure about men of Chinese lineage swelling the ranks of an advancing PLA. A jittery nation was warned that distinguishing between invaders and their collaborators would be impossible because of their identical features! Betrayal was imminent, they insisted: a Fifth Column would suddenly spring into action at the appointed hour, inflicting heavy losses. When nothing of that sort happened despite the PLA marching deep into the Northeast, it was propagated that the Fifth Column was keeping its gunpowder dry and waiting for India to drop its guard before blowing up regimental headquarters, bridges and dams.
A case was systematically built against potential saboteurs, or subversives in waiting. The unfolding reality rubbished every single intelligence report, though. So, in the end, the internees remained just suspects—evidently innocent and harmless—compelling a hard-boiled diplomat like Mehta to concede as much after five decades.
Key Indian officials of that era said they feared a repetition of events in Europe during WW-II. They claimed that Germany’s Blitzkrieg 22 years earlier gave them sleepless nights when reports of China amassing its forces on the border began to trickle in. Officials subscribed to the widely-held view that Norway, Denmark and France wouldn’t have fallen in three months without internal saboteurs. Indian officials, particularly those who had worked with British defence strategists until 1947, believed that Germany’s lightning conquest and rapid destruction of the three countries’ armies was greased by a formidable Fifth Column nurtured by the Third Reich. And they concluded that China had taken a leaf out of Hitler’s book and raised a network of agents—particularly in the Northeast—to help the PLA overrun India.
Moreover, Indian officials brazenly cite America’s treatment of ethnic Japanese after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese navy bombers to justify the internment of ethnic Chinese. Detentions in India, they said, paled into insignificance before the world’s biggest democracy and a superpower like the US throwing 1,20,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps without batting an eyelid. According to them, the two democracies were compelled to intern persons with Chinese or Japanese genes in their national interest. To be sure, India’s Foreigners (Internment) Order of November 3, 1962, was cast in the mould of Executive Order No. 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorising detention of the Japanese to prevent sabotage and espionage. But the parallel goes no further because surviving internees in the US eventually received a fat redressal cheque and a letter of apology from the president.
In 2008, I suggested in an opinion piece published in The Times of India and Khaleej Times that our government should at least say sorry to the Deoli internees. I also wrote that India’s civil society is unlikely to allow a repetition of such state-perpetrated atrocities unopposed in future. Thanks to the internet, I was flooded with e-mails from Deoli victims and their families, now settled in various countries. But the response of Mao Siwei, consul general of China in Calcutta, to my initiative was rather intriguing. Siwei read my piece and wrote back: “Thank you for standing up and speaking out for the Chinese community in India. I remember that in the early 1980s when the so-called Cultural Revolution was just over, there were two schools of thought about what China should do. One was to check the history of the Cultural Revolution thoroughly and making it clear what was right and what was wrong, and get justice to everyone. The other was to Look Forward and not argue too much about the past for the time being. Mr Deng Xiaoping adopted the latter approach. The history of the last thirty years has proved that Deng was right. The former Soviet Union kept checking its history of 70 years but the state collapsed. China has allowed some of its historical issues to remain unsolved but the Nation became stronger. I am afraid that you can get all the justice for the Chinese but then you would find that the remaining 3,000 Chinese have left Calcutta forever. Middle Path is the main feature of Chinese culture. Maybe I am wrong.”
Siwei is indeed wrong, exclaims Paul Chung, Indian Chinese Association president. Chung believes that an apology is a must, as the community’s wounds have not healed. “Unless the government acknowledges that the Chinese were unnecessarily targeted and tortured, how can there be healing? Nobody has owned up responsibility for our suffering. It’s necessary for the Indian government to publicly admit its guilt so that the victims feel reassured,” he advocates.
“Chinese culture hinges on harmony. And rebellion is the antithesis of harmony. Importantly, destiny is supposed to penalise the perpetrators of injustice. That’s why Chinese reaction to the grave injustices of 1962 was to leave India and go away without protesting—without disturbing the harmony. But that’s a typical Chinese approach. I have been brought up differently by Christian priests. Western philosophy demands justice. It encourages people to fight for justice. It’s not fair to wait for justice. The bully has to say sorry, acknowledge his guilt and even offer financial compensation to remove bitterness. While a typical Chinese would leave it to destiny, I would rather pull out all stops to seek justice for harmony’s sake.”
(S. N. M. Abdi is deputy editor of Outlook. These are excerpts from the opening chapter of his forthcoming book on the persecution of ethnic Chinese during the Sino-Indian war.)