Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Republic Of Shame
May 22, 2015

By Omair Ahmad 

The 1962 war changed the lives of around 3,000 Chinese living in India — their only crime was that they belonged to a country that most of them had never seen

Washington DC can be quite a beautiful city, and its Mall area — not to be confused with shopping malls — is both restful and a way to learn from the museums and monuments. At the intersection of Louisiana and New Jersey Avenues and D Street, there is a quiet corner which is easy to miss. It does not tower like the Washington Monument, nor is it like the great Smithsonian Museums, and it takes a while to realise that it is a tribute to the Japanese Americans who lost their lives in defence of the US in World War II.

It is actually a little more than that, because it also pays tribute to 2,500 Japanese who were held in an incarceration camp in Texas during the war, simply for being Japanese. Actually it is even more complicated; many of these people had American citizenship, so they were not being punished for their citizenship but their origins. And lastly, the camp in Texas was only one of many. Overall the US incarcerated more than a 1,00,000 people of Japanese origin. It has never really come to terms with that, but the small quiet memorial is at least an acknowledgement of something. Countries do terrible things during the paranoia of war, often enough to their own citizens.

 Not us, just them: People of Chinese origin with Indian voter cards at an election in Kolkata, which has India’s only Chinatown. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

In India there is no such memorial, but we acted scarcely better in the one occasion that presented itself. After the 1962 war with China — we call it war, the Chinese call it a skirmish, and the world did not really care because it happened when the nuclear stand off between the US and USSR over nuclear missiles in Cuba was at its peak — India imprisoned around 3,000 people of Chinese origin in an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. This large ethnic Chinese community was living in India’s northeastern states and West Bengal, among those closest to the frontline of the war. The very odd thing is that despite the high tensions before the conflict, these people had never been seen as suspects earlier. In fact, during the war, between October 10 and November 19, 1962 (the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire on November 21, 1962; the Cuban missile crisis ended in October, and the US was getting involved, vacating all areas captured by them), no action was taken against them. At the behest of BN Mullick, the head of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then home minister, signed an order allowing the IB and the state CID teams to detain all people of Chinese ethnicity under the Defence of India Act, 1962. The order was given on November, 17, 1962, and carried out with alacrity within two days, by which time the fighting had ended.

None of these people had actually been accused of doing anything wrong. Certainly no case was filed, and none heard by a court. Instead Mullick alleged in his book, The Chinese Betrayal, that these people, many of them workers in the tea estates of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, or labourers in West Bengal, “had worked in collusion with the Chinese Consulate in Calcutta till it was closed and it was noticed that there was much jubilation amongst these people over the Chinese victory at Nyamkachu and Kibithoo in the month of October.” No evidence of this assertion has ever been provided. Dragged out of their homes, dumped into trains, whole families were shifted to the Deoli internment camp used by the British to hold prisoners during World War II. After weary months, the Chinese government sent a ship to India, and about 2,500 of these internees went ‘back’ to a country most had never seen. The few hundred left mouldered in the camp until it was finally shut in 1968, and then they were sent back to houses that had been ransacked, or left to rot in their absence. They didn’t know what to expect on their return. Journalist Kai Friese told me about his meeting with two men of Chinese origin locked up in Ranchi’s mental asylum for years afterward, only because the state did not know what to do with them.

In my hometown Gorakhpur, my sister’s hairdresser was Chinese. I think her family was from Canton, now Guangzhou. I do not know why they came to India. It happened long before my birth during a time when China was torn by civil war, and when the horrors of the Maoist revolution had devoured more than 70 million lives. But I wonder sometimes, considering how we have treated these people who came to our land for refuge, what they think of us, and what memorial could be large enough to capture the scale of our shame.

Omair Ahmad was educated in Saudi Arabia, India and the US. He has worked as a political adviser on Kashmir, national and international security and legislative issues, as well as working as a journalist in the US, the UK and India.

His published work includes :

The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan (Aleph, travel, 2013)
Jimmy the Terrorist (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India, novel, 2010)
The Storyteller's Tale (Penguin India, novella, 2009)
Sense Terra (Pages Editor, short stories, 2008)
Encounters (Tara Press, novel, 2007)

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