Righting the wrongs done to India’s Chinese
Besides bad food, heat and boredom, what William Ma remembers about the Deoli concentration camp is the parrots.
Ma was just eight when his family was rounded up from West Bengal along with 3,000 other Chinese Indians and transported by train to a former POW camp in Rajasthan. The 1962 war between India and China had just ended, and they were to be imprisoned in the camp for five years.
The parrots used to flock to neem trees in Deoli, and Ma remembers thinking: “Even the parrots have more freedom than us.”
William’s grandfather worked in the tea gardens of Hasimara in West Bengal, and cleared the forest during World War II to build an air force base that is still in operation. His father was born there and later moved to Kalimpong where William’s mother’s side of the family was involved in the Tibet trade.
There was no school in camp, so William and his brother Lynden were taught by their father, who made them memorise the Oxford English Dictionary. Another boyhood memory of William’s is the camp loudspeaker playing the sad Bollywood song Bees Saal Baad over and over again, as if to send the message that the inmates had no future.Read also: Squeezed in the Himalayas, Sean Shoemaker
The prisoners were released in phases. Some were sent to China where many of them had never been before, and did not even speak the language. Others returned home to Calcutta to find their houses and businesses looted or taken over. Most then migrated to Canada, Australia or the United States.
William found a job in Nepal’s nascent trekking industry, and moved up to Kathmandu from Calcutta with his family. His sister Joy, born during the family’s detention in Deoli, has now co-authored a book with Dilip D’Souza. The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment documents the stories of some families, including her own.
As a young reporter on the tourism beat in Kathmandu of the early 1980s, for me William was a trusted source of news. But over the 40 years I have known him, he never once mentioned his family’s imprisonment in Deoli. I found out about it only after reading his sister’s book for this review.
I asked William this week why he never told us about the internment. “After enduring, overcoming and surviving all that, many of us do not want to remember and relive the past. We want to embrace the future,” he replied. “My Dad was psychologically scarred by the shock of being treated as an enemy by his own country even though he did nothing wrong.”
Even now, half a century later, many Deoliwallahs do not want to rake up the past. But some have begun to speak out and to document the injustice before memories fade and the older generation passes on.
Joy Ma, who now lives in California, said in an email: “I found it very difficult to tell the story because every time I brought it up I saw how much pain it caused my family and the people I knew. The breakthrough for The Deoliwallahs was that it is the story of a community. It was a terrible shared experience that they had survived and it was time the world heard about it so it won’t be repeated.”
The British first brought Chinese people to India to plant tea in Assam in the late 18th century, and others fled prolonged war and poverty to settle in Penang, Singapore, and Calcutta. By 1947, there were some 200,000 Chinese in India with businesses spanning tea, tanneries and timber.
The brief Sino-Indian border war had already ended when Chinese families were rounded up in Calcutta, Darjeeling and Assam and brought to Deoli. Like Joy Ma’s book, Yin Marsh’s Doing Time with Nehru documents the physical hardship and psychological mistreatment in the camps, which has strong parallels to the internment of American Japanese after Pearl Harbour.
Marsh was 13 when she was imprisoned with her family. Like William, she moved to Kathmandu after being freed. There are others like Wong Shiao Leung, whose family was also in Deoli and left Calcutta to set up a shoe shop in Bag Bazar in Kathmandu.Read also: Kathmandu's sole, Shreejana Shrestha
There is a larger underlying lesson for the present day from this dark chapter of Indian history. The unwillingness of the Indian state to acknowledge the injustice, and its lack of remorse means this could happen at any time against any other minority. And in fact, it is now happening with the CAA and NRC.
For the imprisoned and their families, an apology from the state would bring some kind of closure. Co-author Dilip D’Souza describes former Deoli prisoners travelling by bus from Ottawa to Toronto in 2012 after the Indian High Commission refused to accept their letter demanding an apology from the Indian government, singing in pure Hindustani, Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh.
He writes: “It is easy to say that such an incarceration can’t happen in 21st century India. . . then in 2019 the National Register of Citizens raised just this spectre.
Pan Macmillan, 2020
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