The Chinese-Indian Prisoners of Deoli are Here and Their Voices Need to be Heard

Can India, in an act of the highest statesmanship, formally acknowledge its mistakes and apologise, as the US government did to Japanese-Americans in 1988?

Buried inside the ‘Himalayan Blunder’ of 1962 – the humiliating India-China war – is a tragic story that is not known to most of India and quietly ignored by successive governments.

It is the story of how over 3,000 Indian-Chinese – men, women and children including infants – were summarily arrested without trial and placed in a disused World War II POW camp in Deoli, Rajasthan.

In an episode painfully reminiscent of the Japanese-American experience on America’s west coast after the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, they were incarcerated for periods ranging from a few months to over four years and much of their property was confiscated, auctioned or simply allowed to be vandalised.

This week, a group of four Chinese Indians who currently live in Canada and the United States are visiting India on what they describe as a ‘pilgrimage’ that began at Rajghat, the memorial to Gandhiji, on October 2, before addressing public gatherings at a host of venues in Delhi.

They are a part of the last generation of survivors from the desert camp and hope to tell their stories – seeking awareness, empathy and a dignified ‘closure’.

The group includes Yin Marsh, who now lives in Berkeley, California and is the author of a book of her experiences, Doing Time With Nehru.

Yin Marsh’s Story

Yin Marsh. Credit: Rafeeq Elias

Yin Marsh. Credit: Rafeeq Elias

“When the border war broke out, we were living happily in Darjeeling. Because it was located near the border, my family, along with hundreds of other ethnic Chinese, were suddenly arrested and sent to an internment camp. After our release, my family was not allowed to return to Darjeeling and we lost all our property. Eventually, we emigrated to the U.S. because life in India was becoming increasingly difficult for ethnic Chinese.

“It was a traumatic time in my young life so I chose to put those memories away and go on with a new life. Now, 50 years later, I have become aware of the fact that this small chapter in Indian history is little known, not only to the outside world, but to native Indians as well. I now feel that I am not only to ready to tell my story but indeed am obligated to share publicly those memories of 1962.

“As I wrote this book, I felt it was important that I not emphasise those events in negative terms. Rather, I wanted to shed light on the unfortunate and sad consequences of government policies, which were more viscerally motivated than reasonably thought out. When actions are hastily taken based on ethnic, racial, and religious divisions, they inevitably have adverse impacts on families and communities, and indeed on the national psyche.”

Source: Doing Time With Nehru (2012)

Yin, a teenager at school then, was plucked out of her studies at the Loreto Convent and sent on a 7-day train journey to Deoli along with her 8-year-old brother, father (who was arrested a month earlier and put into the local jail) and grandmother who could barely walk.

Joy Ma, who now lives in San Mateo, California, the youngest of the group of four, was actually born in the camp in Deoli. Her mother, who was pregnant then, along with her father and two brothers were picked up from their home in the Dooars near Siliguri well after the war ended, ironically on Chinese New Year when all is meant to be happy and auspicious, and taken to the internment centre in Rajasthan.

Joy’s family was among the last batch to be released, more than 4 years after their internment. When they returned to Calcutta with the few rupees they were given, Joy’s father was abruptly re-arrested, again without trial, and put in Alipur jail for another one year.

Steven Wang, who now lives in London, Ontario in Canada, was a teenager then with seven siblings. Michael Cheng who now lives in North Carolina, US, was all of two years of age. Both grew up in the hill district of Darjeeling and they along with their entire families were whisked away in the middle of the night, taken to a local jail and then put on a train to Deoli.

Both families, again, lost their homes and their businesses; their children’s education ground to a halt overnight. All under the dreaded Defence of India rules, whose origins go back to colonial British laws; and in the name of two words that so easily justify every excess – “national interest”.

Some of the internees were released and chose to go on repatriation ships to a China they had never known, a China that was in the midst of the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Some were simply pushed over the border into China while others went back to Calcutta and slowly re-built their lives. In subsequent years, a wave of migrations began – to Canada mainly, but also to the United States, Australia and Europe.

More than 20 people died in the camps and are believed to be buried in a cemetery in Deoli. Whole families broke up as they were released in batches. Some never met each other again for years, even decades.

Sadly, no records are available of precisely how many people were arrested, how long they were held and when they were released. Efforts to obtain these under the Right to Information Act have been unsuccessful so far.

Joy Ma in Yin's House. Credit: Rafeeq Elias

Joy Ma in Yin’s House. Credit: Rafeeq Elias

My own connection with India’s Chinese community goes back to 1962 when some of my Chinese classmates in Byculla in Bombay stopped coming to school as the war broke out. A Chinese school and a Chinese newspaper in my neighbourhood in Agripada, Bombay also shut down.

Years later, photographing the community in what was now Kolkata, I realised that the 1962 war and its tragic aftermath was a defining moment for them, and for India – when a whole community was stereotyped and targeted unfairly and arbitrarily.

My film for BBC World in 2003, the Legend of Fat Mama was the first to talk about it. In 2012, on a visit to Canada and the US, I met members of the Indian Chinese community who, despite their pain and anger, continue to maintain links with India through food, films and music. I began recording the voices of ex-detainees who had settled there; voices that are part of my new film Beyond Barbed Wires: A Distant Dawn.

Most disturbing, however, are the stories of ex-internees who continue to live in Calcutta, many of whom struggle financially (other than those who own restaurants and tanneries in Tangra). They live in the labyrinthine lanes around Terreti Bazaar and in decreasing numbers as the young migrate, leaving an ageing population that still prefers the warm familiarity of Calcutta to North American winters.

Ex-detainees here are tight-lipped out of fear that they will be arrested again or their small businesses hampered. The few who are willing to talk do so with great hesitation. My haunting memory is of seeing prison IDs that a few families have preserved – a little folded card with a picture and description. I particularly remember the ID card of the tiniest ‘prisoner of war’, a black and white picture of an infant with the inscription: Baby Chang, Age: 6 months.

Girls from local Chinese school in Calcutta in 1955 await the arrival of a delegation from China. Credit: LIFE magazine

Girls from local Chinese school in Calcutta in 1955 await the arrival of a delegation from China. Credit: LIFE magazine

Each family has its own story but what hurts each one above all is how arbitrarily they were yanked out of their homes and businesses, usually in the middle of the night. The utter helpnessness and humiliation as even friends and neighbours, carried away by the rhetoric and hysteria of war, overnight turned their backs on them.

The alienation continued after their release. Till a few years ago an Indian-Chinese could not step out of his or her home city without a permit from the local police. Those considered ‘stateless’ or ‘foreign nationals’ despite having lived here for more than several generations still need to renew their permission to stay every year for a fee.

That they were a minuscule minority, tarred overnight as the ‘enemy’, made it impossible for them to protest. For decades after, the internees simply did not talk about the episode to family or friends – or even to their children as they grew up. This was a ‘stigma’ for a community that believes in Confucian self-respect.

Poet Ann Muto, a Japanese-American who was born in the internment camp of Poston, Arizona in 1944 tries to come to terms with the effects that traumatised her parents, an experience about which they never spoke, but which forever changed them:

My sorrow is that we never talked:
How it was for her,
How it was for me.
– from “Regret”
Our parents hid
Their history from us
They swallowed
Their pain
They didn’t want us to lose our way
In bitterness or anger
– from “Questions”

This is the first time that a group of ex-detainees have chosen to speak to the country that was once their home. Can we build a memorial in Deoli that archives their history, their contributions to our country and the human tragedy that took place after the 1962 war? Can we, in an act of the highest statesmanship, formally acknowledge our mistakes and apologise, as the US government did to Japanese-Americans in 1988?

Rafeeq Ellias is a film-maker

Note: The story has been edited to correct the date of the Pearl Harbour attack.