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Inside an Indian internment camp

This excerpt from a new book chronicles the tragic fate of the Chinese community in India in the shadow of the 1962 Indo-China war

Refugees of Chinese origin fleeing during the Indo-China war of 1962.
Refugees of Chinese origin fleeing during the Indo-China war of 1962. (Photo: Getty Images)

In 1962, as India went to war with China, people of Chinese origin living in the country were rounded up and packed off to an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. Overnight, entire families that had lived in India for decades—some spoke only Indian languages—were arrested on the suspicion of acting as spies for the Chinese state. Around 3,000 Chinese-Indians languished for several years in a disused prisoner of war camp, going back to World War II, living in unsanitary conditions and on meagre rations. Lives were upturned, dreams crushed.

The Deoli Wallahs—The True Story Of The 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment: By Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza,Macmillan, 248 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>650.
The Deoli Wallahs—The True Story Of The 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment: By Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza,Macmillan, 248 pages, 650.

In The Deoliwallahs, Joy Ma, who was born in Deoli, chronicles heart-wrenching first-person accounts from a period in Indian history that is little known to the public. Based on interviews with the Chinese community still living in India and in the diaspora, she records the xenophobia that her people faced in 1960s India, abetted by government policies put in place under the regime of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Dilip D’Souza provides commentary and perspective on the war as well as on the continuing strife between the Asian neighbours for territorial supremacy. Edited excerpts:

Ying Sheng Wong lives in the Toronto area. He was present at the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the internment of the Chinese in India....

Ying Sheng is as comfortable with Hindi as he is with Hakka, often breaking out into an old Hindi movie tune as he did on the bus to Ottawa. In Rafeeq Ellias’s documentary Beyond Barbed Wires, Ying Sheng speaks in Hindi. He reveals that the officials in the Camp were shocked to learn that the Chinese could speak Hindi. They had expected a group of foreigners who could not communicate with them. Having grown up in India, immersed in its culture and language, it was also a shock for the Chinese who first arrived in the Camp to learn that the camp officials in that remote part of Rajasthan knew nothing about them. The wide gap in knowledge and the lack of information about the Chinese interned in Deoli would take years to sort out.

Sheng now reminisces about that day decades ago when his family first heard about their fate and what was to be a long journey from which some did not return.

In 1962, Ying Sheng’s family lived in Shillong, the capital of what is now the state of Meghalaya. On 19 November that year, military personnel went to Don Bosco School and rounded up the Chinese students. (Andy Hsieh, whose account appears later in this book, was studying in Don Bosco and was among the students taken by the soldiers then). ‘I was sixteen that year. I was born in Calcutta and had gone to Shillong when I was thirteen. That day now seems a lifetime ago,’ Ying Sheng says.

He and his family were unaware that the students were being rounded up until a neighbour came to their house and told his father, ‘All the Chinese students were rounded up in the school today. Your family must prepare to leave.’

The next day, on 20 November, a group of six to eight soldiers came to his house. He remembers it was close to 4.30 in the evening when they knocked on the door.

The soldiers met with his father and told him the family was to come with them and to take only a few belongings. They were told to take only a little money because they would be released in a short period.

The whole family was arrested that day: his father, mother, four brothers and twin sisters.

They were taken to the Shillong jail, a place Ying Sheng had passed many times without ever imagining he would one day be inside it. He remembers seeing many Chinese from the nearby area that day at the jail including the families of Shantung men who had married local Khasi women. Most of the children didn’t speak Chinese or spoke just a few words. When the women were given the choice to stay home with their children or go to jail, they all chose to accompany their husbands along with their children. Not one stayed back in Shillong.

After the men and boys were separated from the women, they were sent to the area for the male prisoners. The prisoners were curious about why Ying Sheng’s father and sons were there and asked them, ‘Why are you here? Did you murder anyone?’

His father replied, ‘No, I didn’t kill anyone. I’m here because of the war.’

The prisoners didn’t know about the war so his father had to tell them about it.

Later one of the men advised Ying Sheng’s father, ‘Now that you are here in the jail, you have to act very tough or you’ll have trouble with the jailer.’

His father didn’t know what to make of this. Were they expected to behave like criminals?

The Wong family stayed in the Shillong jail for about four days and was then taken with the others to the Guwahati jail. Every day more Chinese people from all over Assam and Meghalaya were added to the jail. As the jail became more crowded, Ying Sheng stayed close to his father and brothers. Days dragged by with no information from the warden. What little they knew came from his father’s conversations with the other men as they speculated what would happen next.

After about five days at the Guwahati jail, they were taken to the railway station. Ying Sheng remembers the huge clouds of flies that swarmed around the Guwahati railway station. With the toilets overwhelmed, people were urinating on the railway tracks, attracting flies. It is a dark memory that has stayed with him for all these years.

The journey to Rajasthan seemed endless. Besides looking out of the window and listening to all the worried talk of the adults, there was nothing to do. The train would stop outside stations so the cooks could prepare meals for them on clay stoves set up on the side of the tracks.

At one such stop, the passengers were not prepared for what happened. A group of 150–200 villagers gathered, holding chappals in their hands, shouting at them to go back to China. The crowd started throwing stones at the train. Ying Sheng and others rushed to shut the windows.

The soldiers shouted at the villagers to stand back and even threatened to shoot.

At that time, Ying Sheng wondered how the crowd knew that the train was full of Chinese. Who told them that they were going to Deoli? After that incident, the train would stop outside stations for food to be prepared.

It wasn’t until four years ago that Ying Sheng found out why the villagers had attacked them that day. The words ‘Enemy Train’ had been written outside the compartments they were travelling in. There’s a sense of relief that he now knows why the villagers attacked the train.

There was one nice thing that happened on the journey to Deoli though. One day shortly after the Wong family left Guwahati, there was news of a baby being born in the adjoining compartment at daybreak.

They finally reached Deoli at night. The government had arranged a table outside the camp to register every person and everything they had—their belongings, valuables, gold, cash. The internees were given tea and bread, but the bread was so hard, it could only be eaten after it was soaked in the tea.

The Wong family went to Wing 3 to find a place to live. The camp officials had been in such a rush to ready the camp for the huge, exhausted group that they did not have proper arrangements for them all. Military tents were set up with cots made of jute, which is ideal for such a hot place, except that it was November. The internees were freezing. Ying Sheng, like others from the east, had no warm clothes. He mused that even if they had them, they would not have been allowed to bring them as they had been instructed to take just one set of clothes to the Camp. They tried their best to sleep in the cold, falling eventually into an uncomfortable, restless slumber because they were so tired.

In the night, Ying Sheng woke up to the sound of women and men yelling, ‘Snake! Snake!’ The ground was open on all sides, and animals scurried past the cots through the night. Everything was terrifying that first night. The desert. The strange place where they were forced to stay like criminals. Every little unfamiliar sound. When the branches shook in the wind, a terrible sound came from the dark night. Everyone was frightened. It wasn’t until the next morning that Ying Sheng learned the sound was a bird call.

It was the mournful lament of peacocks crying.

Excerpted with permission from Macmillan India.

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