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Say Sorry to Indian Chinese

ONE of the most positive outcomes of the thaw in relations between once-estranged nuclear neighbours India and China is the reopening of the Chinese consulate in Calcutta after 45 long years. The diplomatic mission in the West Bengal capital was re-launched a few months ago without much fanfare. But recently the consulate threw a lavish party in the Hyatt ballroom and lawns to usher in the Chinese new year.

The evening had a distinct flavour as there were over 300 inmates of Calcutta’s crumbling Chinatown among the 400 invitees. But as the wine flowed and ethnic Chinese rubbed shoulders with Bengali and Marwari guests and gave the ‘dragon’ dancers and other performers a big hand, I looked at the inscrutable faces of elderly Chinese men and women and wondered if they still nursed bitter memories of their shameful persecution after the 1962 war or had forgiven and forgotten.

Beaten hollow by the People’s Liberation Army in the Himalayas, the government unleashed a reign of terror against the Chinese diaspora settled in India since 1780. Calcutta witnessed the biggest crackdown as it had the largest Chinatown with about 50,000 residents in those days. Now there are barely 4,000 left!

The victimisation of the ethnic Chinese in Calcutta and other parts of India is reminiscent of the nightmarish experience of ethnic Japanese on the US west coast after the Pearl Harbour attack. Throwing principles of pluralism and rule of law to the wind, the political and security establishment hounded the community, one of the tiniest in India, so mercilessly that it never recovered.

Labelled China’s spies — a charge never proved — the community paid a heavy price for its ethnicity. There were midnight arrests, assets seized and bank accounts frozen. Auction of Chinese-owned properties and businesses by the government created a fear psychosis.

Restrictions were clamped; residential permits had to be compulsorily renewed. Work permits surfaced which had the effect of squeezing the Chinese out of jobs. Countless Chinese dock workers in Calcutta Port were sacked. Thousands were pushed into China at the border. An estimated 3,000 Calcutta Chinese were packed off to Rajasthan to live in police-run camps for alleged anti-Indian activities.

Mumbai too had a Chinatown, albeit small compared to Calcutta’s. In the words of a Mumbai film-maker, “one morning in 1962, my Chinese classmates stopped coming to school, a Chinese school and a newspaper were shut down, Chinese hawkers on bicycles were thrashed by angry crowds and the little Chinatown never celebrated the new year again”.

Nearer Calcutta, in Jamshedpur there were 75 Chinese families. The men, employed in the Tata steel plant, lost their jobs because the local administration, obviously acting on New Delhi’s orders, refused to issue work permits after the war. Loss of livelihood forced them to sell their properties and quit India. Now only four families are left. The smiles painted on their doors are no index of their joy. They are merely a pointer to their profession — dentistry.

Tangra, or Calcutta’s Chinatown, was the worst hit though. State-sponsored persecution triggered waves of immigration to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Austria and United Kingdom. By 1981, population shrunk to 10,500. Now it has dwindled to 4000 and is falling.

I asked Paul Chung, president of Indian Chinese Association, if wounds had healed with the passage of time. He bluntly replied that they had not. “Unless India 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 to admit the guilt so that the victims feel reassured”, the 66-year-old former Don Bosco school teacher said.

What should be done today? India and its leaders should on their own say sorry to the Chinese who suffered as they are not strong or vocal enough like the Koreans who have sought and won an apology, however guarded, from the Japanese for their war record. But the residents of Calcutta need to go one step further to live up to their self-perception. They consider themselves cosmopolitan and tolerant, without bigotry or jingoism. What better way to end a sorry chapter than for the mayor of Calcutta to host a reception and honour leading members of the Chinese community still in the city.

To lend the event a unique flavour, among those honouring the Chinese can be Jyoti Basu, who was jailed during the 1962 war under the Defence of India Rules. I don’t know if the government of India formally said sorry to him. It didn’t really matter as he went on to become India’s longest serving chief minister and would have become prime minister too if his party allowed it.

I would also request Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, who tries to live up to his famous surname, to invite the Chinese to the Independence Day high tea in Raj Bhawan as a confidence-building measure.

What can Calcutta do to ensure that this sort of thing never happens again? It has to be vigilant about civil liberties. The good news is that there is now a strong civil society movement which is unlikely to allow such state perpetrated atrocities unopposed. It made a loud noise over Rizwanur Rahman’s death and Singur-Nandigram. More recently it won a notable victory by forcing the book fair to shift venue on environmental grounds. The city has to remember that eternal vigilance is the price of cosmopolitan civility.

SNM Abdi is a senior Indian journalist and political commentator. He can be contacted at [email protected]

courtesy: Khaleej Times

Comments

  1. Bill says:

    The author Mr. Abdi is planning a book about the persecution of the Indian Chinese community post 1962. He can be reached by the email address at the end of the article, he lives in Calcutta. If there are any one remaining in Calcutta that has a compelling story about their sufferings during this period, contact Mr. Abdi and he will get that into his book. The Japanese Americans in the US finally got their apologies after half a century, it is high time the Indian Chinese also receive their apologies from the Indian Governmemt. Hopefully the publication of Mr. Abdi’s book will go a long way towards achieving that.

  2. Dan says:

    Bill,

    Thanks for the follow-up with encouraging words. It appears you have contacted SNM Abdi to get words out of his forthcoming new book. Apparently, it will detail out the post 1962 events of what remains – after the impending exodus of Indian Chinese to foreign shores.

    Here, I would invite everyone who have a compelling story or stories to share but who have gone abroad for good to please contact Mr. Abdi. Whereas for those who still remain in India and would like to be heard and share experiences, it would be good for them to give their stories to Mr. Abdi also ( surname only for publication ) as potential threats of backlash ( a norm in Indian society ); or else who would dare to stand out unless he or she is Mamanta Banerjee, who deserves our salute.

    I look forward to the book and herewith thank Mr. SNM Abdi for his tireless efforts and dedication to research into the Indian Chinese community well-being; hopefully to bring a ray of hope to those long suffered of persecution of this marginalized minority.

    With lingering patience in silence for decades, when Mr. Abdi’s new publication is out; hopefully, the Indian Chinese shall hear an apology from the Indian Government.

    Jai Hind !!!!!!!

  3. Bill says:

    Dan,

    You are absolutely correct about backlash for those whose stories appear in Mr. Abdi’s book and are identified to be still in Calcutta. Yes, I did contact Mr. Abdi and he revealed his book project on this painful subject. He is passionate about it and wants to do justice by including factual cases of those who suffered during this period. As Dan said, I urged ALL overseas Indian Chinese who want their stories to be heard to contact Mr. Abdi.

  4. Pradeep says:

    The oiece on saying sorry to Calcutta’s Chinese community is very appropriate. If Calcutta is all that we tell ourselves we are, we should flood the Mayor’s office with email ([email protected]) or regular mail and ask for the apology.

  5. chiru sur says:

    Now that chinese have made a great effort to get into the mainstream of bengali culture…..I think we should embrace them whole heartedly.I do remember the days when I had fantastic chinese friends from bentick street shoe shop families and other eateries in school.Inspite of the onslaught of china war ….some came to see films on Saturday afternoons to Lighthouse or New Empire in a big group long handled outstreched motorbikes and never wanted to mingle with others.Then party in Trincas and create a roar as they exited towards Tangra…..’dhapar maat’ was out of bounds for us during the naxalite movement.We did cycle thru for excitement.But those were the ‘Enter the Dragon’ days with Bruce Lees scaring the shit out of us….after having qued up for long ,punched and kicked to get a Rs0.75p ticket in New Empire.The Calcutta chinese were there too.My good friends have all gone away to Canada or Australia.I do not see why we have to apologise….Lets shake hands to please the ones for their own reasons if need be.

  6. rolls says:

    This website is absolutely wonderful!! As a middle aged man who spent his first 16 years in the US, this site brings back memories. I am so delighted to have this background.

  7. Stella says:

    Chiru Sur’s comments above need introspection and soul searching.

    Not sure if he’d interpreted the persecution of innocent Indian Chinese “community” by mainstream Indians (as penned down by SNM Abdi article) was a glorifyiny and deserving act – simply just because, at some point in time, he and maybe his friends had some unpleasant “personal” experiences with some Indian Chinese youths and then were too afraid to venture into Tangra during Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon era. Isn’t that shameful.

    I would not dispute Sur’s descriptions of how some of the Indian Chinese youths ( during those years as late teens ) behaved on Saturday afternoons to watch a movie in Lighthouse or New Empire and then enjoy themselves at Trincas before returning to Tangra. Shouldn’t these kids like all other Indian kids have the freedom to do so – as far as they did not break or violate the communal or traffic laws.

    Even though Sur may have some Chinese friends from his school days whom he had mingled with ( now migrated abroad to Canada or Australia ), is he sure that with that few minor personal relationships that he had could erase and forget the anger, frustration and fear of many thousands of Indian Chinese who had suffered during the 1960’s era.

    It is not just a matter of hand-shake to wipe off dirt or please anyone – as the world is eagerly waiting and watching, especially from those Indian historians, intellectuals and acadamics who would like to see justice done.

  8. Bill says:

    Stella,
    Well said. As a Cantonese growing up in Calcutta, I too had some run-ins similar to what Sur experienced. As in all society, there will always be some elements that behave in a bullying manner or snobishly towards others, that does not mean that they represent the entire group of people of which they are a part of. Some of my best friends are Hakka from Tangra, and I also had fights with some Cantonese. Just because Sur had some run-ins with some Chinese Indians from Tangra, he should not assume that they represent ALL Chinese Indians.
    After the Indo-Chinese border war, many Indians took advantage of the Central Government’s position to persecute ALL Chinese. Thousands from Calcutta were sent to Rajasthan concentration camps. Those who were not arrested were harassed and intermidated in other ways that made life miserable for the vast majority and intolerable for others just because of our ethnicity. Is this the how a democratic society behave? To brush this suffering off as if it were trivial iconvenience is a major failure to understand the underlying issue, that one cannot toss the rule of law to the wind for personal or political expediency. One can point to the US and say that they behaved the same way towards Japanese Americans. However, most Americans recognised this as unacceptable and pushed for redress from the American Government. And they received it in the form of a formal apology and monetary compensation. The Chinese Indians are not seeking compensation, just a formal apology from the Indian Government and assurance that this type persecution will not recur to anyone else in the future.

  9. Abhay says:

    Sur had definitely got history wrong. If not, he is too naive to pass such comments on making a gesture of “shake hands to please the ones for their own reasons if need be”. Who is he proposing to shake who’s hands ?

    In 1960’s, the persecution of Indian Chinese rocked the nation (India) and stirred up worldwide attention around the globe of cruelty and sufferings put upon innocent Indian Chinese lives, many of whom in fact were Indian citizens holding Indian passports. At that point in time, the guilt was on Chinese ethnicity that was revealed on one’s face by the colour of yellow skin and unique physical features.

    Suggest that Sur reads Kwai-Yun Li’s short stories book titled: Palm Leaf Fan and then watch Rafeeq Ellias’ documentary titled: the Legend of Fat Mama (available in this blog) to get all facts right in order. Here, ALL Indian Chinese were put on restricted travel with many innocents’ private property confiscated and auctioned; then put into concentration camps in Deoli, Rajasthan (without charge or trial); whereas Sur was referring to some trivial personal opinions and experiences that he had encountered with a few unruly Indian Chinese youths on Saturdays around the city while merry-making.
    The fact of the matter is not simplistic as can be easily eroded as if nothing serious had happened. A formal apology is appropriate and timely due from both the Central and State Governments of India on behalf of the Indian people. This is what true democracy is all about having morality to live up to expectations and acknowledge wrongdoings of the past. Jai Hind !!!!

  10. pradeep says:

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