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Sino-Indian war in 1962 – Bitter Memories

During the Sino-Indian war in 1962, hundreds of Chinese in Assam were sent to a detention camp in Rajasthan. Some were packed off to China. Prasun Chaudhuri narrates the dark, untold story of their tribulations

It takes us a while to find Wang Shu Shin. We go through the narrow alleys of Makum -a little town tucked deep inside upper Assam’s picturesque tea country -in search of the man who, along with hundreds of others, was wronged and disowned by two warring nations. When we finally track him down in Tinsukia, seven kilometres away, he doesn’t talk. Instead, he weeps.

The 88-year-old Indian Chinese, now terminally ill, has seen a side of India that few want to talk about. Earlier this week, a book called Makam, written by award winning author Rita Choudhury, broke the silence. The Assamese novel deals with the story of 1,500 Indian Chinese who were picked up from Makum and sent to a detention camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, while India and China battled in 1962.

People called us names -`Dirty Cheenas, go home!’

“Although many of them had been living in Makum for years and were married to local women, they were accused of being Chinese spies,” says Choudhury. “About 1,000 people were forced to leave India.” Most were deported to China, while some made their way to the West.

Today, there is little to indicate that Makum once had a thriving community of Chinese, who settled down in the area in the 1830s. The ghostly Chinatown -with its desecrated tombs, skeletal remains of a 150-year-old club and dismantled homes -stands witness to the sufferings of the tiny community .

“They picked up all the Indian Chinese early one morning in November 1962 and packed us in a cowshed,” reminisces Wang Shing Tung, former Makum schoolmaster Wang Shu Shin’s son, who was then seven years old. “The police said they’d jail us for `safety’. No one was allowed to carry any money, food, clothes or ornaments.” Fortunes amassed over four generations -the Chinese had come as tea garden workers but some had become successful businessmen -were decimated in a single day .

It took seven days for them to reach Deoli in a heavily guarded train that didn’t stop at any station, lest the “enemies” should escape. Half-cooked khichdi was served on the way , but some of the elderly Chinese couldn’t take the trauma and died before they reached their destination. Those deported to China found themselves ghettoised as “capitalists” from India.

“Most of the male members of our extended family were sent to China in three batches,” recalls Ho Ko Men, 72, who ran a motor garage in Makum when he was sent to Deoli. “Luckily, the antiChinese paranoia had disappeared when our turn came and we returned.”

But when they reached Makum, they found that their houses had either been auctioned as “enemy property” or taken over by neighbours. The Wangs’ saw mill had been sealed and its equipment damaged. On top of it, the locals had started treating them as enemies.

People called them names -`Dirty Cheenas, go home’ was a common refrain -and women were harassed on the streets. Shopkeepers would keep them waiting or overcharge them. Chinese businesses were boycotted.

Our houses were either auctioned as `enemy property’ or taken over by neighbours

It’s a chapter in Indian history that has been kept a secret. While a senior home ministry official declines to comment, maintaining that the developments were too far back in history , Jagat Mehta, former director, China, at the external affairs ministry who later went on to become foreign secretary, admits that India may have overreacted. “But we are talking from the benefit of hindsight,” he says.

“There was a general suspicion against the Chinese though they had been settled in India for a very long time.

They were unfortunately caught in the crossfire,” Mehta, 88, says.

The war left the entire Indian Chinese community vulnerable, but the ones who suffered the most were those who lived in the northeast. In Calcutta, about 500-600 so-called “stateless aliens” of the 50,000-strong Chinese community were sent to Deoli.

They packed us in a cowshed

In Assam, no one was spared. KwaiYun Li, a Canadian author of Indian Chinese origin, says children were taken out of boarding schools and put on the train to Deoli, separated from their families. Some argue that the Assamese Chinese were targeted because they were poorer and less vocal than their counterparts in Calcutta. But the more important reason was that they were from the northeast, which was closer to China.

Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese Association, points out that the Chinese army was approaching Assam before the war drew to a close.

Former editor B.G. Verghese points out that Sino-India ties had deteriorated after India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama. “The government panicked and wanted anyone with any Chinese links out of the northeast. It wanted to keep tabs on them.”

Of course, internment camps for so called enemies were not uncommon. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941, some 1,10,000 Japanese Americans were placed in camps in the United States.
But incidents such as the American camps were well documented -and found place in several award winning films and books. In 1988, the US government even passed a law apologising for the internment.

In India, on the other hand, the treatment of the Assamese Chinese was seldom talked about. “The survivors are scared to discuss the trauma, let alone fight for legal redress,” Choudhury says.

Choudhury, who started researching the subject five years ago, travelled across China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and the US to interview more than 100 displaced people. In China, she met Mailin Ho, who was 20 years old and pregnant when she was transported to China. Her Assamese husband was sent back to Makum -and Mailin never met him again.

Mailin, whose ancestors had come to India to escape a famine at the turn of the 19th century , dreams of a last visit to her birthplace.

But the Makum of her childhood has changed beyond recognition. Most of the houses in the erstwhile Cheenapatutty -or Chinatown -are gone. A stroll through the hamlet reveals the bare structure of the China Club where the Chinese used to play Mahjong on weekends. The Chinese graveyard lies vandalised in a remote corner, with marble plaques covering the graves removed or damaged. The Chinese-medium school turned into a Hindi school after the war, but telltale Chinese characters are still inscribed on the gate.

Wang Shu Shin returned to Makum with his family in 1966, a year before the camps were wound up. The former inmates remember how they didn’t have enough food during their first week in Deoli. Things improved when the Red Cross came with food packets, though the rice and flour were bug infested. The Chinese, however, were allowed to move around, grow their own vegetables and even sell them to local villagers.

But the people yearned to return home, which, for most, was Assam. Social scientist and historian Amalendu Guha, the author of Planter Raj to Swaraj, says the Chinese, originally brought in to grow tea, were well paid and had happily settled down in Assam.

When the inmates returned from the camps, they had to rebuild their lives. Ho Ko Men married an Assamese and opened a new garage in Tinsukia. Wang hu Shin started a restaurant with his wife and later a hairdressing salon. His two daughters have married out of the community, one to a Bengali and the other to a Gurkha.

Today, there are about 500 Chinese assamese in the state. Some 250 people are in Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Lakhimur. Some have given up their Chinese names to ward off local resentment.

Many, like Ho Ko Men, speak fluent Asamese. Ho even wears the local dress.
The family celebrates Assamese and chinese festivals, and their food is a mix. A Chinese painting in the typical Assamese middle class living room indicates his roots.

The Assamese Chinese were well assimilated even in the Sixties, but the government saw them as enemies, detaining them under the Defence of India Act, 1962. Human rights activist Sujato Bhadra describes it as a “draconian” law. The law was repealed in 1968 but the Indian Chinese in Assam never got back their property or any compensation.

“The problem with our community is that we didn’t represent our case to the government,” regrets Chung.

Chung now hopes to unite the Indian Chinese scattered across India and abroad. “After all we have a distinct identity in our unique Sino-Indian culture, reflected in our love for Hindi songs and culinary innovations such as chicken Manchurian and chilly chicken,” he says.

Chinese who were interned in Deoli and later migrated to Canada have formed a group too. A member went to a village in China where some Indian Chinese now live. “He ate at a Hakka-Indian restaurant, visited a home where there was an altar for Krishna, and enjoyed a party where many Chinese wore saris and sang Bollywood or Assamese songs,” says Kwai-Yun Li.

A few tentative steps were also taken on April 11 when Makum was the centre of discussion at Choudhury’s Guwahati book launch. In the audience was 66year-old Alan Wang, another Deoli inmate. “My mother and I were released from the camp, but all male members were packed off to China. We never met or spoke again. Hope they are alive, somewhere on the earth.”

For the Assamese Chinese, though, the dark history is a closed chapter that few want to rake up again. “Let bygones be bygones,” says Ho Ko Men with a deep sigh.

article by Prasun Chaudhuri , Additional reporting by Seetha in Delhi

source: The Telegraph
( Calcutta , Sunday, April 18 , 2010, page 9 , ” 7 days ” )

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Comments

  1. klyl998 says:

    Han,

    Thank you for the good words towards the chinese brothers, sisters and friends. It is the government at the time was in fault, not the individuals.
    I could read your comments all over for the chinese dragon dance, fest and all. The best time will be around Chinese new year, as more detail comes in you will be informed, so keep an eye on this forum do not stray far.

  2. Han says:

    Thank you for the reply well I feel atleast in India according to our structure the government is made up by group of individuals or citizens so indirectly it is our fault. I also needed some more information about china but those are for personal purpose so can you please tell me where and whom shall I contact? because the topic is related to tangra and I don’t want to discuss it in public. Yes as i have become a member I will always keep an eye!

  3. Han says:

    Basically for some reasons I need every details about Chinese martial arts or kung fu that was taught in tangra or if someone still teaches? there are other questions too. I need these informations as they are very important for me.

  4. Guest says:

    Hey Guys,

    I am of South-Indian descent – I am here by accident – after reading through this site – I am almost compelled to write this mail.

    Even in the myriad of topics in this site I cant help but notice the sense of betrayal during the 1962 war which the Indian-Chinese population continues to feel.

    I wish I was someone with considerable social stature when I say this(it would have carried more weight then)…

    I am SORRY..I truly am… for my fellow country men and for my government for the treatment meted out to your community. I would, however, like to assure you that there are millions – yes millions – of other Indians who would be outraged about this..IF ONLY they knew (I did not know about this until now!!).

    Some one needs to put this out there – I hope one of you or even other passers-by of this site pick this up an put this out there (book/blog etc)- more Indians need to know this – this cant be in the closet any longer!!

    Again – please accept my apologies – if nothing, I hope it is atleast a start!

  5. ycl1688 says:

    Guest,
    Thanks for expressing your opinion on the wrongdoing of the administrative during the darkest hours of the border war, maybe south is too far away, you never knew a thing.
    One legacy of the war is that it has unearthed the evil of human can do to one another, treat the community as dirt, just to terrorize by deportation and concentration camp, label a community with ‘stateless’ status. Just pure nazism. Yet the spirit of a community that never say die continue.
    The end result is exodus of india began and dreams and hope thrive elsewhere.
    We can only forgive and cannot forget.

  6. sb says:

    The worst truth is Nehru & his cohort also knew that they were not chineses spies (well, sorry I don’t have any good feelings for China the country – since I am not a very enlightened person). It was just one of the filthy and disgusting political manuvour to show China that what will happen to people of chinese origin in India. It has happened through out history and does happen even till today. Just a gentle reminder, remember 9/11 and the treatment given to the muslim community. So this is nothing but dirty politics. I can give you one hundred and one such examples, but the truth is in a bengali proverb which literally means “When the kings fight, its the grass that suffers”.
    Peace

  7. sb123 says:

    Can someone tell me why the Indians are still talking about the Sino-Indian war that happened almost half a century ago and deeming it as one of their biggest failures? It seemed to be a relatively minor war comparing to others and really little if at all innocent civilians were killed. It is because they think that hinduism is the mother of all cultures (including the chinese) and therefore they are superior and should not have lost? I don’t know what is so superior when they have been colonized by the British for such a long time.

  8. Jitamber Singh Bedi says:

    The Indian state is notorious for its cover ups……..It is today, almost half a century later I that I have come to know this happened……there was no reference to these internments in the history books that I read at school in Welhams Dehra Dun and Mayo College Ajmer.

    The Indian govt refers to the 1984 Sikh Genocide as “anti Sikh riots”

    I am in the media here in So California and would love to hear from the internees or their descendants…….email me at jsbedi60@gmail.com. Let us work together to uncover yet another sordid chapter in India’s post independent history.

  9. pallab says:

    we have come to know from rita choudhuries great novel makam about the india based chinese people and also the harassment the suffer from the goverment of india and some countrimen of that time.it is really a heart randing event.indian goverment should not oblige them to leave india.mailin who was a wife of an assamese person was forced to leave this country.it was an injustice.those people were not spy.they were just some common people who lived in peace in this country.as a citizen of a republic country we all should regret and protest against such injustice.the present goverment of india should say sorry to them on behalf of the successor leaders formally. we shall wellcome those assam based chinese people here….

  10. Richard Seeto says:

    I am appalled to learn of the draconian and shameful treatment given the Assamese Chinese by the enlightened and democratic India. From my reading of the Sino-India border conflict, the Chinese side treated the captured Indian soldiers well and even returned their weapons to them upon the conclusion of truce. There is no justification in victimizing innocent non participants and non combatants on any side.

    It makes me wonder why Politicians and world leaders never learn from history’s mistakes such as the incarceration of Japanese, Germans & Italians in America and Australia for no good reasons and later have to apologise and compensate.

    How will India become a strong, just democratic society when it practises such abuses of human rights and worst in trying to bury the truth?

  11. ycl1688 says:

    Richard,
    We can debate the ill treatment of Chinese in India during those dark era till the cow comes home, yet the Indians will not wake up to the reality.

  12. Indrajit Das says:

    Finished reading ‘MAKAM’ tonight,eyes moist and a sudden feeling of meeting the people incarcerated by the Indian Govt Machinery.The world would not have known the painful narrative of our own assamese people of chinese origin.I never saw any discussion on this subject untill publication of “MAKAM’.Today every assamese who have read the book ,feels pain and anguish.

    Hope this book will be translated into English for a wider audience.Let the world know futility of war and jingoistic patriotism.