Every now and then, I come across another name. George Takei. Satsuki Ina. Daniel Inouye. Paul Kitagaki. Sono Fujii. Japanese-sounding names, or at least partly so. If there’s a picture attached, they are all Japanese-looking, whatever that really means.
But they are all also Americans. Of Japanese ethnicity, yes, but full-fledged Americans. Satsuki Ina is a psychotherapist. The late Inouye was a US Senator, named “President pro tempore” of the US Senate from 2010 until his death in 2012. That is, he was the US Senate’s second-highest-ranking officer, and thus third in line to the Presidency. Takei is an actor who made his name in the Star Trek films.
These are Americans like any other. Yet what forever marks them, and other Japanese-Americans, is that starting in 1942, the US incarcerated over 100,000 people like them in prison camps. This happened because the US and Japan were enemies during World War II, and these Japanese-Americans were seen as potential traitors to the country in which they lived.
Ina was born in such a camp. Takei spent a year-and-a-half in another. Inouye only side-stepped the internment by, ironically, enlisting in the US Army. He lost his right arm to a grenade and was later awarded the Medal of Honor, his country’s highest military award.
Just Americans. Yet we know their names today. We know about the internment today. We know there are memorials to this shameful piece of history. We know that people visit the sites of the camps. We know that after several years of campaigning and lobbying, the US formally apologised in 1988 for the internment, and paid reparations to thousands of families. The story of the internment is relatively common knowledge across the USA.
William Ma, Yin Marsh, Ying-Sheng Wong, Joy Ma, Ming-Tung Shieh – these people, and a few thousand like them, still wait. hese are Chinese-Indians. They were sent to a prison camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, starting in 1962. Like Satsuki Ina, Joy Ma was born in that camp. Will the country where they were all born ever find the compassion and strength to acnowledge their incarceration, if not yet apologise for it and pay reparations? Will there come a time when the story of their internment also is common knowledge across India?
That’s what they would like to see happen. That’s what they believe must happen.
A quick summary of this sad tale: indeed, when India fought a short and bitter war with China starting in 1962, Indian authorities began rounding up Chinese-Indians from across the country’s North East. These were people whose families, in many cases, had been in India for generations. But when war broke out, they were immediately the target of plenty of hostility and hatred from neighbours and, eventually, authorities.
Plucked from their homes, they were put on a train that trundled west for a week to Kota in Rajasthan. Along the way, their fellow-citizens threw abuse and stones at the train. From Kota, they were sent by bus another 85 km northwest, to the town called Deoli where the camp was.
Ironically, the rounding-up actually began after the end of the war, in late November 1962 (59 years ago as you read these words). But some families – like Joy Ma’s – were only released years later. When they returned to their homes, they often found them vandalised or burned down, their property stolen.
Over the years since, many Chinese-Indians emigrated abroad, to the extent that their once-vibrant presence in India has dwindled to a shadow of itself. Today, there’s a sizeable group in Toronto, with others scattered across North America. They have formed the AIDCI – the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees – to spread the story of their treatment by India, and to seek acknowledgement and an apology from the government of India.
In reality, though, it took them several decades to start publicly asking for these things. They are naturally afraid of history repeating itself. After all, border tensions between China and India continue. Every time there’s a flare-up, and even when the coronavirus pandemic erupted, there’s unthinking hostility directed at them. Who can credibly assure the community that the 1962 incarceration will no happen again? So why attract any attention to themselves?
In August 2010, the AIDCI wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Noting that the 50th anniversary of the conflict and the incarceration was just two years away, they appealed to the Prime Minister to erect of a monument [in Deoli] in memory of the ethnic Chinese who lost their lives in the camp”. Such a monument, they noted, would “remind citizens of today of the value and meaning of human rights, civil liberties and social justice”.
This letter got no response.
In January 2011, the AIDCI wrote to Prime Minister Singh again. They reminded him of their earlier letter, noting, “We have not received a response or an acknowledgement of receipt ... we anxiously await your favourable response.”
This letter got no response either.
In August 2017, a group of 50 AIDCI members travelled by bus from Toronto to the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, carrying a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This letter appealed for “the Indian government [to] do the honourable thing and apologise” to the Deoli internees. Standing outside the High Commission, they even read the letter out through a loudspeaker. But the Indian officials refused to accept the letter, so the AIDCI delegation taped it to the gate and left for home.
This letter got no response either.
Earlier this month, the AIDCI wrote to Prime Minister Modi again. They reminded him of their three earlier letters, enclosing copies. They referred to “the emotional and psychological wounds we have all suffered”.
Especially as 2022 is both the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence and 60 years since the war with China, they believe “it is time to start the healing by acknowledging that innocent civilians and Indian citizens of Chinese descent were punished unjustly.” They repeated their appeal for an apology.
Will this letter get no response either?
“We can no longer be silent,” write these Indians of Chinese ethnicity in their letters. Will the country they called home in 1962 dump its silence and do what it must?
Dilip D’Souza is the author of eight books. His most recent work, with Joy Ma, is The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment.