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.
Monica’s baptism certificate. She was baptised in the Deoli camp.
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.
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.)
Apropos Without Apologies (Oct 22), this fast vanishing community deserved an apology from the Indian government many years ago for the wrongs done to them. They take pride in saying that they are ‘Indians’, but the raw deal still meted out to them from the State has forced many to migrate.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
My childhood dentist was Chinese,his uncle was my dad's dentist @ school & my dentist's nephew (his dad was a dentist too) was my junior in college, though he studied in the dental school. All of them spoke the perfect Tamil slang of the regions from where there hailed. Now picture that,a Chinese guy talking Tamil slang ... these people have perfectly assimilated into our society and consider themselves one of us.
Ramki .... nobody is asking you or any specific individual to apologize. That is your choice ... either way you make .... and either way doesn't matter much. IMHO you are going tangential with your dislike (and you have all the rights to it) of Nehru and his progencies as well as the Congress Party as their inheritance.
It is for the GoI to apologize or not as an institution representing the country irrespective of who runs the GoI at the time (us as a collective whether we voted for the specific dispensation running GoI at a moment in time) .
In the case of Kashmiri Pundits, the GoI (or for that matter J&K Government) did not incarcerate them on suspicions of sedition for years. So why make the equivalence? Of course, the J&K Government can apologize for not protecting them and maintaining Law & Order which is the basic job of a Government - though on this ground if apologies start, in Desh there will be no end to it - it will be a case of a Million Apologies Now. Remember we are 3rd world - our Governments, democratic or not, cannot provide basic governance to it's people, by definition.
In the case of Chinese Indians, BTW they have moved on and many of them are no longer Chinese Indians anyways - probably Chinese Americans/Candians/what-not by now. And anyways they aren't a people who want to play victim either - they are by and large doing well and they just want to continue and be left alone. So it is a question of GoI recognition of a mistake - because only recognition first can start the process of fixing and possibly getting to "never again". So it is actually needed for ourselves as a people represented by the GoI - not the Chinese Indians.
I guess only from this Article did I get to know of India's treatment of it's Chinese origin citizens (even if small miniscule one). The fact that the Americans did this to the Japanese or Europeans did it to whoever isn't any solace. And here I was always reminding Americans when they got too cocky about freedom and democracy about their treatment only a few decade back of the Japanese origin citizens during WWII.
My bubble has been burst about our founding being different and special.
I am further surprised because in engineering college one of our close friends was of Chinese origin. We spent summer vacations loafing around in Kolkata, I visited him and family in Kolkata and Cuttack. He was of course born before 1962, yet this never came out. For us in college he seemed no different than any of the others. Now I wonder did he or his family went thru this. His generation has of course moved to the west - US primarily but his previous generation still lives here.
I agree the least we can do is apologize with words. Move on, of course we must too which anyways they have done. They are not looking for anything special other than a simple heartfelt "sorry". They are not playing victim either but doing well with their hard work and entrepreneurial skills.
When I was in school in Delhi in the early 1970s, there was a boy of Chinese origin, S. S. Lee, who was a few years ahead of me. He was known for his cricketing prowess. He was quite active in the Delhi league after he left school and even played one Ranji Trophy game for Delhi (1975-76 or 1976-77), probably the only instance to date of someone of Chinese origin playing a Ranji Trophy match. From what I can gather through web trawling, he is still around and active in DDCA. It gives me shivers even now -- all of 40 years later -- to think that he too was probably at Deoli.
Of course, we have to apologize to the Indians of Chinese ancestry who suffered needlessly just as we also need to apologize to other Indians who have suffered needlessly. Not only have we not apologized to anyone, we just seem to add more groups to the list of people to whom an apology is due. How long shall we continue trotting out the "oh, but we are a democracy" excuse? Frankly, it is getting tiresome.
If we really feel sorry about the way Chinese ethnic folks in INdia were treated, why dont we ask the Nehru Dynasty that ruled India in 1962 and continues to rule India 50 years latter to be accountable for same?
The Nehru Dynasty did not consult aam admi for its foolish Hindi-Chini Bai Bai ventures. Nor did it consult aam admi when it decided to unilaterally harras a few thousand Chinese folks settled in India.
Why should, India ask apology for a crime committed by a ruling party and a particular ruling family? I am for apology - not by India, but by the dynasty that was in power then and in power now.
Just like Millions of Germans were not punished for the crimes Hitler did, the 1.2 billion Indians are not responsible for the crimes of a few hundred Dynasty folks and their blind supporters.
Because, the benefits of the loot by the dynasty- from Mundra scam to DLF scam were not shared with the 1.2 billion people.
I know people will dislike my views and hit "Report Abuse" but why should I apologise for a crime done by a party or rather a family which never had my support?
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