Monday, October 29, 2012

A Trust Betrayed

Without  Apologies
The state cares little about the lost years of our ethnic Chinese

S.N.M. Abdi

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.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Our Trampled Days

The road to Deoli
Our Trampled Days
A contented life. Then, years of humiliation ringed by barbed wire

Ma Oy Fong

I didn’t know what Chinese New Year was like until I was 14. We had always celebrated
quietly at our home in Calcutta. Oranges, red purses, large red characters signifying good luck and fortune were about all I knew about the celebrations of the New Year.

Then my brother went to Tangra to join a lion dance troupe. Precocious, I went with him and stayed at his friend’s home. It was an all-night party. Firecrackers popped all night, the smell of gunpowder hung over the fetid air of Tangra. My host had food everywhere: on the big round table, end tables, at the altar. It was a season of excesses, many of which I learned at the expense of other events the rest of the year.

I had to ask my mother, Li Yue Hua. For as long as I could remember we didn’t celebrate the Chinese New Year. The raw excitement, the smell of incense and firecrackers, drums and gongs—why did we not celebrate the new year? She finally told me that year that my family was interned on New Year’s Day following the 1962 war with China, on January 25, 1963. I asked my mother to tell me about that day and the weeks leading up to it. This is what she said:

“The family had just finished prayers at the puja ghar. Since our family was so big, they worshipped your father’s great grandparents in a small building. Bowls of fruit, sweets, special New Year sesame brittle and fried bow-ties stood in front of the large portraits of your ancestors.

“It was different that year. We were there to offer our thanks to the gods, but everyone was nervous. Your grandparents, uncles and aunts were praying. It was the last time the whole family was together. The day before, on New Year’s Eve, your grandfather had given the workers’ families bags of food and gifts. We used to have a feast for all the workers who came to the house and played cards after. Now, the workers were all gone.

“I remember the day they left: November 18, 1962. All the Chinese workers in our factory were interned that morning. Since the carpenters did not speak English, your dad had to interpret their orders for them. They were to leave immediately and had time to pack a few belongings. Each man packed little. They were gone by noon. Their wives and children wept as they watched their husbands and fathers taken away. Your grandfather promised the workers we would look after their families for as long as we were there.

“Soon after that day, we heard that Chinese passport holders in Darjeeling and Assam were being interned. Like our staff, only the Chinese men were taken, not their families. Your dad’s sister, her husband and the rest of her husband’s family were also interned in November. Your grandmother burst into tears when she heard the news. I read her a report from Amrita Bazaar Patrika, about how well the internees were treated. I’m not sure it comforted her, but she seemed a little happier.

“A few days later, the army came to collect our vehicles to use in the war. Our driver went with the car, too. We were told not to leave the compound. Without cars, there was nowhere we could go. Four guard posts were erected around the compound. Each had two men guarding and they were there 24 hours a day. Lal Bahadur, who had worked for us for years, went to shop for our groceries. When Lal Bahadur brought back the vegetables and meat the guards examined his bags.

“The army was billeted at the airport. Every day, the soldiers drilled and marched. Tanks and combat vehicles rolled past. Trucks and lorries drove on the main road which was just a few yards from our gate. From the verandah we watched nervously and told the children not to go near the gate. We lived in uncertainty and fear every day.

“It seemed we were going to have to go to Deoli so we all started packing. Each family member had a suitcase. Your grandfather checked his luggage every day. He was diabetic and 70 years old. Some days he found the suitcase too heavy and unpacked items. The next day he would find them necessary and pack it back into the suitcase. We all did similar things, sometimes laughing at the choices we made. It was strange what we chose to pack. A photograph, our wedding certificate, socks....

“We didn’t have much to do. The factory and sawmill were closed. Our staff, minus the Chinese carpenters who were already interned, was still living in the compound. Then we started culling the livestock. Every day we took a few ducks and chickens and prepared them for meals. Nothing tasted good anymore. Everyone ate like machines, but preparing the food gave us something to do.

“This went on for a month. We followed the newspapers, often afraid of what we would read. The Chinese army had stopped all incursions in December 1962 and had pulled back to their lines. We knew this because our driver and cars had come back from the border. The jeep had been used for transporting supplies and for medical evacuation. It looked like it had been in a war. A week before the New Year, our hopes lifted. Your grandmother got us started on making New Year sweets and cookies.

“On New Year’s Eve, your grandfather pointed to the packed suitcases lining the living room and said, ‘I don’t want to see the unlucky bags. The war is over. I don’t think anything is going to happen to us.’ So everyone unpacked their bags. We were all happy to do so.

“On New Year’s Day, we had finished prayers and just settled to play cards. We play cards every year to see how lucky the new year will be. I lost three games. Then I looked up and saw an army car approach the house driveway. Eight to ten soldiers or police got out and walked to the house with rifles drawn.

“An officer stepped into the house and identified himself. He read out two names: mine and your dad’s. ‘Step aside. You will come with us. You can collect your bags. Don’t take any jewellery. You can take Rs 500 for your family.’

“It was only our family. Even though I knew it was coming, it took me a while to realise they were taking us away. I saw your grandmother crying and your aunts, too. Grandmother packed us a big bag of New Year cookies....

“Since the army car had come with eight men, there was no space for us. We requested the officer to let us go in our car. Our driver Sundar, the same one who had gone to the border, drove us to Siliguri. It took a whole day to get to Siliguri. The cars made several stops. Your brother ate cookies and asked me why I was crying. We reached the jail at 7 pm. The warden met us. I told him we had not eaten. He offered, ‘Have some tea’.

“Siliguri jail had a criminal ward and barracks. I asked the warden to stay in the barracks. I wanted to be treated as a political prisoner, not a criminal. They separated the women and men. I had your brother with me as he was just eight. Your dad and older brother was in the men’s ward.

“The barracks were three-sided, wooden structures with tin roofs.  We stayed in Siliguri for a month. While we were there, 20 Tibetans came two weeks later. They had been captured while fleeing Tibet. I kept asking the warden when we would go to Deoli. Siliguri was no place to stay for children. Besides, your aunt and uncle were in Deoli. At least we knew someone there, even if it was an internment camp.

“The day finally came when we had a date we were leaving for Deoli. One of the officers I befriended told me to buy certain things that were very expensive in Rajasthan. A bucket. He also told me to buy food for the road. Marie biscuits. We were given a stipend of Rs 2.50 per day for the journey. Your brothers got half of that, Rs 1.25, since they were children. Half an egg each. The train left around noon. It took us three days to reach Rajasthan. We were in two carriages. There were several of us: the Tibetans, our family, and a Hakka jootawalla from Kalimpong and another Cantonese man from Assam who had joined us in Siliguri. It was so hot. I could eat only kakris. And I was soon sick of them. The journey was tense. Eight policemen from Siliguri escorted us. They warned us politely, ‘Don’t show your face at the door. Don’t get out of the train.’ We soon realised why. In some towns people threw cow dung at us.

“We finally arrived in a big station at Kota. An army truck had come to receive us. Each person was interviewed at the office before being driven to the camp. I was so relieved to have reached our destination.

“The camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Four guard posts at corners, with additional posts in between, were manned all day and night. The barracks had been built during World War II to imprison Japanese POWs. The walls were thick, to keep out the blistering heat.

“We were sent to your aunt and uncle’s quarters. They had a small room, so we all slept in the courtyard. I remember the night was clear and cool. There was no dew and we slept soundly on our first night in Deoli.”

I was born in Deoli that year. My family stayed there for four years and was finally released in June 29, 1967.

"Years Of Humiliation" online 

Special Issue: 1962 The China Disaster
Magazine | Oct 22, 2012

 Online Edition  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

T I M E ...

Doing Time With Nehru   by   Yin Marsh 

( Life before the India-China Border War of 1962, events that led up to it, and life with my family at an internment camp )

Doing Time With Nehru
Book — A Memoir
Price: $14.95

 " My hope is that this memoir will encourage other internees to come forth and tell their stories, and eventually lead the government of India to acknowledge the wrong it had inflicted upon Chinese Indians and issue an official apology "

                                                             - Yin Marsh

Thursday, October 11, 2012

2012 Nobel Prize in Literature

Mo Yan ( means "Don't speak" ) has won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, announced Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm today.

Born Guan Moye in 1955 to a farming family in eastern Shandong province, Mo chose his penname while writing his first novel. Garrulous by nature, Mo has said the name, meaning "don't speak," was intended to remind him to hold his tongue lest he get himself into trouble and to mask his identity since he began writing while serving in the army.

As a 12-year-old during the Cultural Revolution he left school to work, first in agriculture, later in a factory. In 1976 he joined the People's Liberation Army and during this time began to study literature and write. His first short story was published in a literary journal in 1981.

With hallucinatory realism Mo merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.

In his writing, Mo Yan draws on his youthful experiences and on settings in the province of his birth. This is apparent in his novel Hong gaoliang jiazu (1987, in English Red Sorghum 1993).

Mo is best known in the West for "Red Sorghum", which portrayed the hardships endured by farmers in the early years of communist rule. His titles also include "Big Breasts and Wide Hips" , "The Republic of Wine" , "The Garlic Ballads" . Mo has written 11 novels and many short stories and essays on various topics.

Red Sorghum was successfully filmed in 1987, directed by famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world in its complexity,at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition.

Despite his social criticism, he is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors.

If you want to start off to get a sense of how he is writing and also get a sense of the moral core in what he is writing I would recommend "The Garlic Ballads".

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Oldest Cemetery



Visit to the Oldest Chinese Hokkien Cemetery

 In the quest to know more about the coming of Chinese to India, we remember that the first group of Chinese came to India led by Chang Ah Chew.

 In order to gather some more information, we decided to go and pay a visit to the Hokkien cemetery with the hope to gather some definite dates on these people and other important data.

 Six members of the Chinese community visited the cemetery at Ghoshbagan near the old number 38 bus terminal known as Mathpukur.

 We were in for a shock as we entered the premises. The once beautiful and traditionally well-kept cemetery was not there anymore. What remained was shambled ground surrounded by few constructed houses spread about with people living in them.

 We could not find any complete tomb structures with the beautiful layout on a respectful atmosphere. We were dumbfounded with what we saw.

We got into the ground not through a gateway but by a narrow lane of about 3 feet wide, between the walls of standing buildings. And the greatest disappointment was, there was not even a single tombstone around. We found the base boundary of 2 graves; one of an adult and the other of child. Besides that, there were one or two small part of a concrete pillar lying around not far from the 2 remaining ruins of the graves.

 The once well-kept pond, was filled with dirty black water. There were houses with people living in it and even a shed where cows were kept.

 After a few minutes of our presence, a small curious crowd appeared, they were watching us to find out what we are doing there. There was no attempt to establish any communication. One of two of them was dressed better than the others.

 We were saddened by what we saw, and left with disappointment.

Now we wonder if we care enough to do something about it?