Every internment survivor in Deoli remembers 18 November 1962. It was the day when the internments began.
The Chinese presence in India – in Achipur and Calcutta to start with, but also in other parts of the country – had slowly expanded for nearly 200 years after [Tong] Atchew’s arrival in 1778. The 1871 Census found 574 Chinese in Calcutta and 531 in Bombay; the 1901 Census listed 1,640 in Calcutta; and at the end of World War II, the British colonial government estimated there were 26,250 Chinese in India.
At the time (1950s and early 60s), many thousands of Chinese-Indians had no valid citizenship papers. Even though many of them had been born in India, they had never needed such documents, like many of their Indian neighbours. Now, with the rise in feelings against China, they scrambled to acquire proof that they were Indian citizens. But there was not enough time for all of them to acquire the security of owning Indian papers before war broke out in 1962. This was a catastrophe for the community, though arguably even owning Indian papers could not have protected them. Chinese establishments were shut down; authorities expanded their surveillance of members of the community; and for ordinary Indians, the war only poured tanker-loads of fuel on the flames of anti-China feelings. Few Indians were interested in making a distinction between their Indian neighbours who had Chinese roots and the China that India was at war with.
So when thousands of Chinese-Indians were dispatched to Deoli Camp, this did not seem cruel or unfair to their neighbours or others along the rail line. The suspicion they attracted was excuse enough to vandalize or steal their property while they were interned. And the suspicion hardly lessened when the war ended or when they returned years later, freed from Deoli Camp. In fact, anti-Chinese sentiment remained high for years in West Bengal in particular, because so many of the Deoli internees were repatriated there. There was also a belief among Chinese-Indians that the central government was particularly harsh towards West Bengal because the state had a Communist government, and they too were somehow linked to the ideology.
One result was that after many decades of steadily increasing population, Chinese numbers in India dropped precipitously after 1962. Estimates vary, but the general consensus seems to be that today, there are less than 5,000 left. What is the reason for the sharp decline? In a word – war. In another – Deoli. Incarcerate a few thousand Chinese-Indians (some of whom die during the incarceration), deport another few thousand, steal their property, do these things that make an entire community feel hated and unwelcome, and naturally they fear for their lives and their future in this country. It should be no surprise at all that many of them started searching for ways to emigrate – to the UK, to North America, to Australia. This exodus happened through the 1970s, leaving just a small number behind in India.
Ying Sheng’s journey
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.
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. ‘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.
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. 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.
The Wong family stayed in the Shillong jail for about four days and was then taken with the others to the Guwahati jail.
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. 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.
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.
The Camp used contractors to cook for the group, but they had no experience cooking for so many people. There were over a thousand internees, and it was unmanageable. The rice was uncooked. The vegetables were burnt.
This carried on for two months until everyone was fed up and angry. The leaders of Wings 1, 2, 2 and 4 were finally able to negotiate with the commandant that the internees would get rations and cook their meals. So the youngsters made a chart to schedule cooking for each wing. The paltry weekly rations given by the Camp included eggs, fish and mutton. One family would buy pork with its own money, but the pork was full of hair and skin. Milk rations were given only to the very old, sick and newborn babies.
Everyone got Rs 5 from the government to spend every month, which the families would use to buy soaps, toothbrushes and personal items. Some of the large families tried to save the allowance because they were very worried about the future. Many people thought, ‘Once we get out, we will have no money.’
There was this one man who used charcoal to mark the days. People would ask him, ‘Why do you bother marking the days?’ He replied, ‘I’m counting the days since I lost my freedom.’ He had been separated from his wife and son. His heart was yearning for freedom, and recording the days he had lost with a black mark was the only way he knew to express his sadness.
This excerpt from The Deoli Wallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza has been published with permission from Macmillan.