One sunny morning in Shillong, as he was eating breakfast with other students in the mess of Don Bosco school, the police came for the teenager. “Because of the border issue, the Indian government wants to take care of you,” an officer told 16-year-old Andy Hsieh and nine others. “You need to come with us for your own safety.”
It was November 1962, and India had been at war with China for just over a month. Across India’s North East, approximately 3,000 people of Chinese origin who had lived in India for generations were being rounded up. They were put on trains and transported 2,000 km away to a detention centre in the dusty Rajasthan village of Deoli. By the time they got there, the war was over.
“What have we done wrong?” Hsieh wondered. “What is going to happen to us? We are students, what have we done to be imprisoned like this?’
Hsieh and his family were kept in the camp until September 1966, long after the war had finished. Many others were interned for up to five years. As they were locked away, the property and businesses of many families were vandalised or confiscated. Some were deported to China.
Astonishingly, some are still stateless and live in India under residence permits every year, paying thousands of rupees each time.
The shameful, little-known story of how India incarcerated people whose families had lived in the country for decades simply because they had their roots in a country that was suddenly deemed an enemy is the subject of The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma, who was one of the five children born in the camp.
In an interview with Scroll.in, D’Souza discussed the new laws that made the internment of India’s Chinese community possible, the scars it left on the people in the camps and the striking parallels the episode has with the current Citizenship Amendment Act controversy.
How were people identified for internment? Why were they taken in after the war was over?
The short answer to the first question is that they were identified by their looks. Anyone who “looked Chinese” in that way we all know well was a target. But there are also tales of informers who pointed out potential prisoners to the police. At least one of those, we heard from more than one internee, later ended up in the Deoli prison camp himself.
The short answer to the second question is that the war ended so suddenly, so soon (just about a month). That is, by the time the machinery of internment kicked into gear, the camp, the arrests, the transport—the war was close to done. So the great majority of those dreadful knocks on the door actually sounded only after the end of the war. My co-author, Joy Ma, knows of less than ten people who were picked up before the war ended.
What were the legal changes that made the internment possible?
There were several laws promulgated and amended that gave the internment a legal fig-leaf. During the 1962 war with China, President S Radhakrishnan signed the Defence of India Act, which was designed to allow preventive detention during wartime. Days later, we amended the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, “to deal with any person, not of Indian origin who was at birth a citizen or subject of any country at war with, or committing external aggression against, India … who may have subsequently acquired Indian citizenship in the same manner as a foreigner.”
A few more days later, we passed the Foreigners Law (Application and Amendment) Act. This spelt out what “person” in the Foreigners’ Act meant: “any person who, or either of whose parents, or any of whose grandparents was at any time a citizen or subject of any country at war with, or committing external aggression against, India”. And in mid-January 1963, we passed the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, barring foreigners from a number of “restricted areas”, including all of Assam, Meghalaya and five districts of West Bengal. This last Order explicitly barred from these areas “person(s) of Chinese origin”—someone “who, or either of whose parents or any of whose grandparents, was, at any time, a Chinese national”.
Together, these laws formed the legal fig leaf for the Deoli incarceration. They translated into official practice the prejudice, suspicion and hatred for the Chinese that months of hostilities and the outbreak of war had catalysed in many Indians.
How did it all end? Some were allowed to return to China but others who were allowed to stay in India weren’t permitted to return to their homes. Why was that?
It ended in different ways. With no particular method that I can detect half a century later, some internees were allowed to leave after a few months at the camp, while others stayed years. Some were offered the choice to go to China—“return” is incorrect because these people were all taken from their Indian homes and lives—on ships from Madras. Those who returned to their hometowns often found their homes or businesses vandalised or appropriated, or seized as “Enemy Property”. There was no particular urgency on the part of authorities to restore any of this to the internees, or indeed to give them some measure of justice.
And, in fact, some of the internees were prevented from returning to their homes at all, for the earlier-mentioned Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order remained in force.
What effect did this have on their lives? How do they discuss this now?
It’s not hard to imagine the effect on their lives. They were left bereft and devastated, not forgetting bewildered that their country would treat them this way. Many tried to pick up the pieces of their lives without much success: the years in prison coupled with the hostility of neighbours often proved too much to overcome.
Over the years many in the community found ways to leave India—which is why, for example, there is a substantial number of them in Toronto. Those still in India try to stay inconspicuous so they will not attract official attention. From all I’ve read, Chinatown in Calcutta is a shell of the vibrant community it was before 1962. And many Chinese-Indians feel the 1962 fear constantly, given the tensions between the countries. It escalates every time there is some escalation of hostility on our border, like in 2017 in Doklam.
As for discussions: as I understand it, most people in the community have preferred not to talk about their Deoli experience all these years. That may slowly be changing, though. In 2015 Joy Ma and three other camp survivors held a number of meetings in Delhi to tell their stories. In 2017, a busload of survivors travelled from Toronto to the Indian High Commission in Ottawa to hand over a letter addressed to Prime Minister Modi, asking for an official apology for this tragic episode.
What parallels do you see with the Citizenship Amendment Act and the planned National Register of Citizens?
Many. There’s the idea of detention camps. The one under construction in Assam’s Goalpara even carries an eerie reminder of Deoli in the number of internees it is designed for 3,000, the same as the number of incarcerated Chinese-Indians. There’s the promulgation of laws to spell out who is “foreign” and who isn’t. There are the prejudices, hatreds and stereotypes that, arguably, are codified in these laws. There is the fear that naturally rises in people who think the process will target them. Above all, there is the notion of citizenship itself. Who is really Indian, how do we define and determine that, and what should it all mean?
What lessons should India draw from this episode?
Again, many. Phrased as questions, here are some: What does turning on a tiny community in this way say for and do to a country? Where will we end if we start acting on our hatreds, enacting them as law? If this episode destroyed so many lives, what kind of chaos, let alone wholesale injustice, can we expect with citizenship laws and tests applied much more widely than in 1962? Is there strength and grace to be found in apologising?
Perhaps there are also lessons for the world, in how we consider immigration and citizenship. Does such a precedent open a door for inhumane and cruel laws elsewhere too?
How did we manage to forget this so completely?
For one thing, we were soundly beaten in that war. We don’t like remembering anything about it except the impression that we were profoundly betrayed by China. For a second, the incarceration speaks in different ways to some of our deepest prejudices; I suspect there is still some shame attached to thinking about it. For a third, this was and is really a tiny community. In a nation of 1.3 billion, who really cares what happened to a few thousand people?
Who really speaks for them?