A passage to India
The current Rohingya crisis seems like a throwback to the forced migration of Indians from Burma
The Rohingya case continues in the Supreme Court, where two petitioners have challenged the Union government’s decision “to identify and deport illegal immigrants, including Rohingya", according to a Reuters report. Photographs and videos of the forced Rohingya migration have flooded social media, making their plight visible to the world.
There are eerie similarities with another exodus, a migration that occurred in two stages—the first during World War II, the second in the mid-1960s—when a large community of Burmese Indians made the fraught journey to safety in India.
Shanta Batra, 94, is sitting on the edge of her king-size bed at her home in north Delhi; her youngest sibling, 80-year-old Sharad Rekha Grover, is sitting in a chair near her. The sisters were born in Burma (now Myanmar) but fled their birthplace to seek asylum in India, Batra in 1942, and Sharad, once again, in 1965. “I was born in Mandalay on 19 August 1923, but at the time of the bombings, we were settled in Maymyo (now called Pyin Oo Lwin)," recalls Batra. Batra’s birthplace was a vital theatre of war between Japan and Britain, as part of the World War II Burma Campaign.
But for her family, which was of Indian origin, there was more to fear than Japan’s aerial offensive. Indians in Burma had faced mass ethnic violence in 1930 and 1938. Violence was expected to increase once the British left, or if the Japanese seized control of this imperial province.
“We thought that we would leave by ship from Rangoon (Yangon) and started packing," says Batra, straining to remember events. “Just then we heard that bombs had been dropped there, so that way was closed for us. Travel by road was the only way." The bombings in December 1941 were the first of Japan’s air raids on British-held Burma. But her family had to reach Sargodha, in west Punjab (present-day Pakistan), some 2,600km away. So her parents, six siblings and she began the great walk.
Burma was, of course, part of the British empire, which meant that many Indian-origin people had settled there during the colonial period.
Even today, some 2% of the Burmese population is ethnically Indian. At its peak, in the 1930s, that figure was as high as 7%. The Indian community quickly became economically dominant, fuelling resentment among locals. Political mobilization centred on anti-India and anti-Indian rhetoric became common. Batra’s father was also one of these Indian-origin persons who had struck gold after emigrating to Burma.
“Having lost his father as a toddler, my father had started working for a cloth merchant in Peshawar in his early teens," says Batra. It was there that he heard that “earnings in Burma were good". Batra’s father took a loan of Rs50 to catch a steamer to Mandalay, the erstwhile seat of Burma’s ousted monarch, and its second-largest city. There, he began by selling wares on the roadside. By the time Batra was born, he had built a thriving wholesale business. “My father was a wealthy cloth merchant and we had a big house, bigger than this one," she says, comparing it to the bungalow we are currently sitting in, “but all we could take along (when we left) was a little rice, flour, a few utensils, and four sets of clothes per person (to keep loads light)."
Over the next two months, more than 400,000 Indian-origin people would make the “Forgotten Long March": over hills and into forests to reach India’s border at Moreh (present-day Manipur).
Batra remembers this harrowing experience in impressive detail, unlike Sharad, who was just 4 at the time. “We took a train from Mandalay to Monywa, a town over 100km away," says Batra. From the next stop, Kalewa, they had to walk for more than two months before reaching Moreh. “We walked all day in large groups, moving through marshy land, climbing hillocks, crossing dense jungles," she says. “After a week of walking, we reached the first camp." There, long bamboo platforms served as communal beds to rest before resuming the walk. After Moreh, says Batra, the colonial British government had set up camps for the migrants. They provided the fleeing population with rations (at designated shops)—chura rice and chana dal—and medicine for haiza (cholera).
“That rice variant (typically fed to cattle) had to be sifted vigorously to derive an edible portion," says Batra. Water had to be boiled. “People would die of cholera, just like that," she adds, alluding to the cholera epidemic that claimed thousands. Her parents had taken ill too—her mother contracted malaria and her father’s liver was damaged. “We were lucky that our whole family reached alive," says Batra.
She continues her journey’s narration beyond Moreh. “After a week’s stay in Imphal, a truck ferried us to Dimapur," she continues. “From Nagaland, we crossed the Brahmaputra on boats to reach Guwahati." Here, Batra stops, asking me to consider the asylum seeker’s condition: the urgent desire for shelter, being seen as threats despite their utter vulnerability, proclaiming a shared race or religion as criteria to be eligible for the compassion of the people granting refuge, through an episode that happened in Nagaland.
“When we reached Nagaland, it was raining heavily and my parents were ill," she says. “We found a house with a big courtyard that appeared empty, and we entered it to dry ourselves. The owner of the house, an Anglophone, came in with a daraati (a grass-cutting tool) in his hand and made to charge at us trespassers."
Batra’s memory of that moment is so clear that she plays out the scene for us. She folds her hands and assumes a pleading tone. “Please, listen to us," she says, assuming the role of her brother Shiv Lal Verma that day. “Then you can do whatever you want."
“Are you Christian?" the houseowner asked. “Yes, we are Christian," she recalls her brother answering. “My brother had lied. And that man really did spare everyone because he thought we were Christian."
From Guwahati, they travelled to Lucknow by train. These trains “were reserved for refugees". She emphasizes the generosity of the people they came across. “We were greeted with so much love and delicious food—poori aloo, maa ki dal and roti—wherever our train halted."
In Lucknow, her father received medical aid. The family moved on, stopping at Jalandhar to regain their health before travelling to her father’s childhood village—Jhawarian, near the Jhelum river, close to Sargodha town. Unaccustomed to life in a small town, the family moved once again after three months—this time to cosmopolitan Lahore. In 1944, at the age of 21, Batra married a Lahori.
After World War II ended and Burma was back under British rule, Sharad and the rest of her family left for Burma, in September 1946. Batra stayed on with her husband. Within a few years, she was a refugee again, fleeing to Shimla and then to Delhi, where she and her husband settled.
The last time Batra visited Burma was in 1959, for Sharad’s wedding to Bhim Sain Grover, an affluent trader from Mandalay. The Grovers now live in the same Delhi neighbourhood as Batra. The couple was forced to leave Burma in 1965. Bhim Sain says: “A sudden 9pm radio announcement told us that the military government was seizing our businesses. The next morning, our shop keys were taken away, and that was it. Chaman Lal Om Prakash, the name board on our shop, was replaced with one that read ‘Government shop number 9010’. They had it all prepared in advance." Ne Win’s military government, which took over Burma through a coup in 1962, nationalized much of the economy. In 1964, shops were nationalized, to economically isolate and eject non-Burmese people. “We survived on our savings for a year, and, in October 1965, came to India," he adds. “The Burmese government did not allow us to bring anything along. We started from zero here." Sharad was pregnant with her third and youngest child. Bhim Sain, who had learnt photography in college, started working as a freelance photographer.
His family had been forced to move in 1942 too, to Sargodha, where they had family staying. They returned to Mandalay in 1947 to escape the Partition violence, only to find that their house had been destroyed by a World War II Japanese bomb. “We were destroyed thrice—in 1942, in 1947, and then in 1964," says Bhim Sain.
“The Indian government did nothing to help us, who had lost everything in Burma," says Bhim Sain. “But the government ferried Indian-origin people from Rangoon to Madras (Chennai) in steamers without charging anything," Sharad interrupts. The Grovers, though, came to India on a BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) flight. “The government offered 100 sq. yard houses or plots (in Janakpuri, Ashok Vihar, Jhilmil in Delhi, for instance) on subsidized rates and monthly instalments." Sharad says, adding, “It also reserved seats in educational institutions for the children of Indians displaced from Burma."
Sharad says they sold their house in Janakpuri to meet their day-to-day expenses, the children’s education, and to buy photography equipment for Bhim Sain. “Our financial condition stabilized when she started earning as a school-teacher in 1977," Bhim Sain says.
Suddenly, all the hardship takes a back seat as Bhim Sain says wistfully, “Bahut mann karta hai jaane ka (I dearly wish to visit Burma)". Lost in thought, he recalls that he had, in fact, never boarded a plane since his 1965 BOAC flight out of Burma because he developed a phobia of flying. Sharad adds that her husband even missed a chance to visit Burma with her because of this phobia. She visited her niece in Burma three years ago and stayed for two months. “It felt like I had come back home".