By Tania Bhattacharya
One of my neighbors at Jamshedpur, the city where I was raised, was a Chinese immigrant family. On Chinese New Years, magnificent lamps shaped into exotic dragons and other beings would greet us outside their house, and string crackers with a couple of hundreds attached to them would unleash their fury on our ears, announcing the arrival of whichever animal the year represented. The kids were educated at St. Loyola, the male subsidiary of my grade school, Sacred Heart Convent. There were three sons and a daughter, all but one, excellent in the academics. Their daughter is an alumnus of Sacred Heart. Being third generation Chinese-Indians, and growing up in the state of Bihar (South Bihar where Jamshedpur is located, later became the state of Jharkhand), all four children, as well as their parents, were fluent in Hindi, right down to the expletives. They spoke in beautiful English, and Chinese, as well, even picked up some Bangla from their bevy of Bengali neighbors. Like so many Chinese septuagenarians, the original, first-generation immigrants, their grandparents, spoke little of any of the Indian languages but loved this country just as much. Back then, I had only heard of Lata Mangeshkar’s tearful “Ae mere watan ke logon, zara aankh mein bhar lo pani, jo shaheed huen hain unki, zara yaad karo qurbani”, a famous Bollywood song that had evoked much patriotism from the public, after our 1962 debacle. It was later that I became aware of the events of 1962, the watershed year for India’s Defence institutions.
Myths perpetuated by ruling oligarchies, by our seniors and peers, often make lasting impressions on one’s mind. That was my case as far as 1962 was concerned. For what I cared, it was the righteous republic of India, that had fought with its back to the wall, defending its territory, while the aggressors, represented by China, had opened the floodgates to the conflict, stabbing us and shredding Nehru’s ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ proffer to shreds. Mowing down Indian soldiers at the Indo-China border they had then seized what is today, Aksai Chin, and carried away the collective Indian pride, as the spoils of war. Ever since this narrative embedded itself in my psyche, I have had a love-hate relationship, with the Asian Tiger to our North.
In early 2014, a damning report created soon after the Sino-Indian war, but immediately classified by the ruling Congress government as ‘seditious’, was made partially available to readers. Neville Maxwell, an Australian journalist, released some portions of it on the internet. Known as the Henderson-Brooks Report, the document floated out after five decades of incarceration, ready to challenge the perspicacity of conscientious Indians. The rug had been rolled back, and a new appraisal of the traditional narrative of 1962, was beckoning.
For someone weaned on the received history of India’s only, and greatest military defeat in post-colonial times, the Henderson-Brooks Report was a detoxification of years of pedagogy, cultural symbolism, and assuaged discontent. It wasn’t China that had initiated the conflict. It was India, under Nehru. Advice to do so had come from Nehru’s arrogant and domineering sidekick, V Krishna Menon. The decision to open fire first had been India’s. Our troops at the Sino-Indian border had been acting on the orders of the Nehru-Menon intelligentsia. What followed was a sound drubbing by China of our army, that was already crippled from the biting cold of the Himalayas, and deprived of essential rations. It is in times of crises that one realizes who their friends truly are. When the Nehru government approached the United States for help, we were told by NATO to shift our Soviet-NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) allegiance to the Western-Capitalist camp, which was promptly denied. It seems NATO had a change of heart in the end and did funnel the necessary equipment over to us, but perhaps in the hope, that if India won, she would quit being such an insular Socialist administration.
Xinjiang, a province in the northern Himalayas, claimed by successive Maharajas of Kashmir, and the Nehru ruled Indian National Congress at the centre, to be Indian territory, had never before been populated by Indians. Not a single Indian soul either in ancient, medieval, or modern times, had inhabited the torturous, desert terrain, which looks almost barren of any life. On the other hand, the area was host to the Xinjiang pass, a land route linking two major Chinese provinces. Since times of yore, China had used the link. Coming across this barrage of information over a slice of history that had forced my generation into a time warp, was phenomenal! It wasn’t the Chinese after all! They had merely reclaimed what was rightfully theirs, by inflicting a humiliating defeat on us. It was a facepalm moment. I wish that was all I had to deal with. But it is from here on, that the situation snowballed; inside the defeated nation, smoldering from an ego in pieces.
Of all the suppressed incidents of the ethnic conflagration that Eastern India has had to suffer, perhaps one needs to be taken note of, the most. There had been Nellie in 1983, with its toll on unsuspecting Muslim lives. There has been the repeated persecution of Hindus and Buddhists by militia groups in the North East, notably by the NLFT (National Liberation Front of Tripura) in more recent times. But the victims in both cases were South Asians. The community I am going to talk about now, were not. They were East Asians that had made India their home, beginning with the eighteenth (18th) century. They are our very own Hakka Chinese, proprietors and inventors of India’s favorite foreign, fusion cuisine.
The Defence of India Act was passed in the December of 1962. There is little guessing whether it had national security at heart, or hostile finger-wagging at the Hakka Chinese who our government suspected of treachery. Even if the Chinese Indians did feel drawn by instinct and their belly buttons to support their ancestral homeland, they were not showing it, because certain businessmen from the community made massive donations toward the Indian war effort and condemned China. Condemned their land of descent, despite knowing that Xinjiang had always been used by their people back home and never by Indians. But the Defence of India Act was out for revenge. Pursuing the draconian, nuanced missive, Hakka Chinese residents at India’s only China Town, located at Tangra in Kolkata (then Calcutta), were rounded up, shoved into trucks, and send off to internment camps in faraway Deoli, Rajasthan. Recent revelations show that the total number of sufferers had been more than ten thousand (10,000). Chinese-Indians of all ages were made to leave. Many merely had time to lock their homes and shops. Most others didn’t. None of them were permitted to carry any goods, perishable or otherwise, except for the clothes on their backs. Pregnant women, toddlers, infants, the sick, and the elderly, without distinction, were herded out to the hot desert to experience goodness only knows what chastisement. Families were torn apart, upon parents being separated from their children. After Calcutta, it was the turn of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jamshedpur, Shillong, and Mumbai. Wherever Chinese-Indians had a presence and could be sniffed out, the trucks of misery would come for them, rapidly.
During the long journey by road, there was a scarcity of food and water. And this is where the synopsis feels heavy. Many of them died from mere starvation and dehydration along the way. It wasn’t that food and water wasn’t available, it was simply that they were denied any. In the end, some of them protested well enough to the guards in the trucks, for rations to be made available to them. When the food arrived, they found it to be stale, nauseating, and diarrhea-inducing. But it was all they were allowed to consume. Finally, the journey came to an end one day. That day, looming ahead of them, were the silent prison walls of Deoli.
Imagine living in a desert where day temperatures scald your skin, and night temperatures give you hypothermia! This is not what the general Indian is used to, forget our Chinese citizens! Deoli internment camps do not offer protection from the alternating heat and cold, something which initially claimed the lives of a good number of its Chinese-Indian residents. Many families welcomed new members born with a bleak foreseeable future and no access to either healthcare or an education. Had it not been for the resolve inherent in the Chinese, the years at Deoli may have been utterly lost to fate. That was not to be. Insurmountable as the situation may have seemed, the new Deoli interns managed to persuade the administration to aid them with raw rations, firewood, and a small allowance. They build shutters for the windows and scant furniture for their prison interiors, with their own hands. Amusement was limited to catching glimpses of Bollywood’s maudlin flicks loaded with exaggerated body language, music, and dance, that too only visible on the TV sets in the guards’ quarters.
Finally, in 1965, orders were passed for their release. But not for all of them. The release was in a trickle, where the impounding had been a flow. Batch by batch, Chinese-Indian citizens were freed and transported back to the places they had been unduly arraigned at. The last ones were allowed to make their way home two years later, in the middle of 1967. But if you thought that ‘All is well that ends well’ and it is time to break into an applause, you haven’t heard the last of it. After making their way back, they found themselves without any moorings. Their homes had long been wrested by the locals, and businesses and garages, confiscated for either personal or public use. It may have broken their backs at last, because the state of their erstwhile properties made many Chinese-Indians emigrate back to their homeland. Those who remained had to start from scratch, selling Momos, Chowmein, and Moon Cakes at traffic intersections and by the roads. Others took up blue collar jobs as maids, drivers, factory laborers and waiters. What I find incredible in this narrative of resilience, is the sheer gumption employed, and the audacity in hanging on. India had taken away the last ounce of their dignity, but they still had faith in her.
Chinese-Indians and China have long awaited a formal apology from the Indian government. That a community so easily offended and sensitized over the ficklest of issues, should feel no qualms in destroying the lives of thousands of faithful immigrants and not bat an eye, is inconceivable. We like to claim descent from the Indus Valley inhabitants. Our hearts pound faster at the sounds of hymns from our Classical Literature which preaches ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ (The World Is One Family). But with the mistreatment of our Chinese citizens, we may have put the most seasoned xenophobe to shame, for where they would have deported their victims; we traumatized them for no fault of theirs and made them languish in despicable conditions for years. Does it behoove us? When freedom did arrive, our feckless authorities left them staring into a future of poverty and homelessness.
Since then, many of them have emigrated to greener pastures, mostly in the New World.
Even today, decades after 1962, Chinese Indians are not allowed to become citizens of their adopted homeland, which they continue to serve faithfully, in many ways.
December 2017, marked the fifty-fifth (55th) anniversary of the creation of the draconian Defence of India Act and the subsequent unlawful internment of this country’s Chinese-Indian citizens. India owes it to herself, to her ancient ethos of brotherhood, and her legacy of absorbing international asylum seekers she has made her own, to bow to the Dragon worshippers, take cognizance of an interrupted history and apologize wholeheartedly.