When India put the Indian – Chinese into a POW camp in Rajasthan

 

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The Indian government never gave a reason but sources indicate that these people were perceived as a threat to national security, following India’s humiliating defeat to China in the 1962 war. India has never expressed regret or made the official documents public. So this shameful history remains virtually unknown to most Indians.

“19 November 1962, at midnight, we heard knocks at our door. The war would end that day. We were picked, huddled into a jeep and put on a train. We had no idea where we were going and why. That night changed our lives forever.” – Michael Cheng, 55yrs.

Michael Cheng was just two years old, when he became part of an over three thousand strong Indian – Chinese community – men, women and children, including infants – who were summarily arrested without trial and placed in a disused World War II POW camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. They were incarcerated for periods ranging from a few months to over four years. Much of their property was confiscated, auctioned or simply allowed to be vandalized.

The Indian government never gave a reason but sources indicate that these people were perceived as a threat to national security, following India’s humiliating defeat to China in the 1962 war. India has never expressed regret or made the official documents public. So this shameful history remains virtually unknown to most Indians.

But just after the war ended, Indians recall how their Chinese classmates never returned. Chinese schools and newspapers shut down overnight. For instance, Shillong’s popular New China Restaurant became the New India Restaurant. Yin Marsh, a teenager then, was plucked out of her schooling at the Loreto Convent, Darjeeling and taken on the seven day train journey to Deoli. Along with her eight year old brother, father (who had already been arrested a month earlier and put in the local jail) and grandmother, who with bound feet could barely walk. She remembers,“As I walked down the staircase to board the police jeep waiting to arrest us, what I felt in me that moment is something I can never forget: We are different and I am a Chinese, not Indian.” Yin, who now lives in the US is the author of Doing Time With Nehru and has returned to India to tell the tale. “We are a group of Chinese Indians, ethnic Chinese who were born in India. We started this campaign because no one knows our story. We want everyone to know who we are and what happened to us.”

She is one among many of the Deoli inmates who became outsiders overnight and whose travails are now in a documentary film, Beyond Barbed Wires.One of them, Joy Ma, who also lives in the US now, was born in the Deoli POW camp. Her pregnant mother, along with her father and two brothers were picked up from their home in the Dooars near Siliguri, well after the war ended. They were taken to Deoli on a day which ironically, was the Chinese New Year. Joy’s family was among the last batch to be released, more than four years after their internment. When they returned to Calcutta, Joy’s father was abruptly rearrested. Again without trial and put in Alipur jail for another year.

Piecing together a family history from the POW camp also means accounting for the dead. More than 20 Indian – Chinese are said to have died in the camps and are believed to be buried in a cemetery in Deoli. Whole families too broke up, as they were released in batches. Michael Cheng’s education was to remain a blur, “In the camp, we had no schools. We were taught English, Hindi and Chinese by volunteers, but it was the same lessons every year and we learnt nothing. After we were released, I couldn’t get admission anywhere and I remained uneducated.”

Steve Wan, who now resides in Canada, was a teenager then with seven siblings. He recalls, “I remember even after our release, as the train entered Howrah, we sensed freedom, our friends who were released earlier and came to receive us were detained for moving about at the railway station. Fear, intimidation and harassment were part of our everyday life. From Calcutta we went to our house in Kalimpong and found all our belongings stolen. Completely bankrupt, we somehow sold our house and left the country.” Some never met each other again for years, even decades. Sadly, no records are available of precisely how many people were arrested, how long they were held and when they were released. Even as truths have tumbled out anyway, with identity cards of the POW camp still with them.

Yin hopes for real closure saying, “We have been silent for 50 years because of a multitude of emotions: fear, humiliation, sadness, not wanting to relive the loss of dignity and loss of identity. We want new generations who have never heard our story to know what happened. We realize the healing process may be a long one, but we have started the journey and hope for peace and eventual closure.” Will India officially come clean and help bring closure to these torn families in 2015?

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