New Delhi: In two weeks, a group of elderly Chinese-Indians will gather before the Indian high commission in Ottawa, Canada, to tell their life stories as internees detained for years by the Indian government during the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
The timing of the demonstration – which had been in the works for months – coincides with a period of ongoing tension between the two countries. But the organisers of the event feel that their demonstration might be the right time to bring attention to their suffering so that such an internment of an entire minority group never occurs again.
From November 1962, over 3000 Chinese-Indian families were rounded up from all over Bengal and Assam, and sent in trains to the opposite part of India in Deoli, Rajasthan. Overnight, entire Chinese communities in Indian towns vanished as generations of Chinese who had been living in India for over 200 years were corralled into a dusty Rajasthani town, whose barracks had once hosted prisoners of wars and even India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The 1962 war lasted for about a month, but the Chinese-Indians remained in the camp for two to four years. They lived in small quarters under constant scrutiny and barbed wires, with each person given a coupon of Rs 5 per month to buy essentials from a shop outside the house. Their lives paused for those years in the camp, with no employment or education resources and a constant fear of violence, survivors recall. Around 26 of them died in the camp.
Even after they were released from the internment camps, restarting life was an uphill task. Many found it impossible, as they were not allowed to return to their cities of origin and had strict restrictions on their residence, business and movement. Most of them struggled to free their businesses – mainly in the shoe industry – from officials’ hands as they were confiscated for being ‘enemy’ property. Those years were the start of the global scattering of the Chinese-Indian families, which led to the drastic depopulation of Chinatowns in India.
Till a few years ago, there had been a deafening silence as the survivors of the Deoli camp preferred to forget the past. They weaved new lives and raised families in Canada, Australia, US and other countries. Their bottled-up memories, however, became too much as the survivors aged and felt that it was time to talk about it.
In 2010, a group of Deoli-wallahs, who had settled in Canada, formed the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees 1962 (AIDCI). It was the formal shape of a number of annual gatherings that began in 2002, when most of the internees, aware of their mortality, wanted to be with those who understood their trauma.
Four of the survivors even visited India in 2015 to raise ‘awareness’ and map decades-old memories. The association has sent three letters addressed to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding an acknowledgment and an apology for their travails. There has been no response so far.
For the first time, the Deoli camp survivors will gather in a public space in front of the Indian high commission in Ottawa. For about three hours on August 24, around 40-50 former Deoli internees – now most between 70-80 years of age – will be talking publicly about their life in the internment camp and how it marked them to a life of silence.
“Aisa baat ki hamare saath anyay hua, duniya ko sunana chahiye, jise phir kisike saath na ho (I want to tell the world about the injustice that happened with us, so that it doesn’t happen again),” 72-year-old Ying Sheng Wong told The Wire from his residence in Ontario. Wong, who is the president of the AIDCI, is still more proficient in Hindi than in English – a legacy of his 49 years in India.
“All of us have been saying among ourselves ki hum log ka umar itna bar gaya… We have to tell what happened to us. It shouldn’t happen again. Not just in India, but also in other countries,” he said.
An enduring memory for Wong from the camp – even after all the years – was when he had to bury his father who died during the detention in May 1963.
“He died a few weeks after being taken to an outside hospital in Kota. Three out of every four people who went to Kota for treatment never came back. It was so hot, 44 degrees. His body had started to decompose quickly and stink. There was no ice. We have a Chinese tradition that the body should have new clothes. My brother and I made sure of that”.
He finally left the camp in September 1965, but had to re-settle in Kolkata as they were not allowed to return to their hometown of Shillong. Unlike many in his community, he remained back in India and only migrated to Canada in 1993.
But through all his years in India, Wong remained mum – just like many others in the Chinese-Indian community. “Sach bolne mein bahut dar hai. Saanp ek baar katega na, to rassi hilane se bhi dar jayenge (We were afraid to speak out. Once a snake bites, even a piece of rope makes one jump)”.
The association members had been planning the public event in Ottawa for nearly a year, but the latest tensions between India and China brought back memories and an extra urgency in their plans.
Yin Marsh was a 13-year-old student of Loreto Convent school in Darjeeling when she was packed along with her family to Deoli. It was a reunion with her classmates that led her to talk about those years and pen a memoir called Doing Time with Nehru. “After introducing myself (to former classmates), I realised that nobody knew what happened to me. They asked me why there were no Chinese in Darjeeling suddenly. I replied, ‘didn’t you know?’”.
Witnessing the shock on the face of her former classmate after hearing her story, Marsh felt that she had to speak out. “Some of them were in the same building as me. When I realised that nobody knew the story, I felt obligated to write,” she said.
Marsh stated that the timing of the event dictates that the survivors are only now feeling more comfortable to talk about their suffering at this stage in their life.
“They are the last generation of survivors. If they do not come and tell their story, no one will know. They are also a part of the Indian history”, she said.
Settled in Berkley, California, Marsh pointed out that the event had been in the planning stage for a long time, even before the Doklam crisis broke out in late June.
She noted that there was an internal discussion among the survivors on whether a public demonstration at this time would be helpful. “We debated whether it is a good time, whether it will affect our people in India.”
There was also a sense of nervousness among the Chinese-Indian community over this event, she added. “People who are living in India reached out and questioned it. ‘Don’t do anything which will aggravate the government here’, they said. Everybody is nervous about the whole thing,” said Marsh, who last visited India in 2015.
After a lot of “back and forth,” the decision was taken to go ahead with the demonstration on August 24. “We don’t want it to happen again to other ethnic Chinese living near the border or any other ethnic groups. So we wanted the story to be told. We need to break the silence. The more people know about this, the more it will help the government to think twice about what it did in 1962,” she said.
Sheng Lin, who is Ying Sheng Wong’s son-in-law and one of the active members of AIDCI, also confirmed that following the Doklam crisis, there had been voices from the Chinese based in India who called for a more cautious approach.
“We did think that the Ottawa demonstration may be misunderstood and related to the India-China border issue. But this has never been in the mind of the ex-internees that had suffered in 1962 Deoli internment camp. We took into consideration the voices in India where many of our relatives still reside,” said Lin, who was born in India and returns every year to Kolkata to celebrate the Chinese new year.
He shared a letter from a member of the Chinese-Indian community, who wrote that that recent stand-off at Doklam had again “rattled” them.
“We have been trying our best to remain as invisible as possible so as to not attract unwanted attention to the community. We had to assuage our elders that 1962 will not happen to us,” said the letter. Lin did not want the name of the writers be identified due to their concern about the reaction from the Indian authorities.
Stating that he was not sure what the demonstration in Ottawa would mean for the Chinese community in India, the author of the letter asked the organisers to be “careful about what is said and what is demanded”.
Lin said that in all the reporting of the Sino-Indian border conflict, including of the Doklam crisis, he has never seen any report in the media mentioning the Deoli internment camp.
“We need the public to be aware of the 1962 Deoli internment camp and what happened, otherwise, it may happen again. The decision to have a peaceful demonstration is to attract the attention of the world that never again should the Deoli internment camp of 1962 be repeated,” he added.
An apology from the Indian government and a memorial at the Deoli interment camp are among the demands that have been made by the survivors to bring “some peace of mind”.
“Our association is not interested in the border issue between India and China. That is a matter for both the country’s leaders to solve. Yeh hamare level ka nahin hai,” said Wong, who stayed in the camp for two years and nine months.
He noted that during World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans had been sent to camps in both the US and Canada. “Those governments realised that they had done something wrong. They apologised and paid compensation”.
While a formal acknowledgement of the pain that they suffered would be welcome, Marsh said that a key priority was that the elderly Chinese who were born in India between 1947 and 1950 but still haven’t got citizenship should be given the Indian nationality.
“They still cannot get their citizenship. They have to renew their residency permit every year, which is now costing them up to Rs 10,500 annually. That’s the first thing I would like. Give them an Indian citizenship. They have been there all their lives and know nothing else,” she said.