As India went to war with China in 1962, more than 3,000 people of Chinese origin were sent across the country to Deoli Prison Camp in Rajasthan. Entire families were picked up from border areas in West Bengal and Assam, suspected of being spies or Chinese sympathisers. Deoli had been a prisoner of war camp in the British era, once used to detain Jawaharlal Nehru. Today, it is a training centre for the Central Industrial Security Force.

Ironically, the Indian Chinese families were imprisoned after the war had ended. There are no official records of exactly how many were sent to Deoli, how many were released. Some were detained for a few months, some for four-and-a-half years. Afterwards, many families were left to fend for themselves in Kolkata while others were sent back to China, a land some of them had never seen. Almost none of them made it back home.

Many survivors migrated to the United States, Canada and Australia. This month, four of them – Yin Marsh, Joy Ma, Steven Wen and Michael Cheng – returned to Delhi. They said they had come to seek closure, to ask for an apology from the Indian government, to talk about a history that has gone unacknowledged for so long.

The late Yap Yin Shing, who was  interned at Alipur Jail, a still from Rafeeq Ellias's documentary, Beyond Barbed Wires: A Distant Dawn.

The Chinese in India

The Chinese community has roots in eastern India that go back several centuries. Yong Atchew is the earliest recorded Chinese settler in these parts. He moved to Bengal in 1780, received 650 bighas of land near Budge Budge from Warren Hastings and set up a sugar mill. Yong brought about 100 compatriots with him and the Chinese settlement that grew around the mill came to be known as Atchewpur, later Achipur, 33 kilometres from Kolkata.

Economic migration continued through the 19th century, as Chinese men came to work in the docks and start shoemaking businesses in Kolkata. After 1826, they went to work in the tea plantations of Assam, newly acquired by the British. In Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Shillong and Kolkata, they came to be known as the best dentists and shoemakers. Many set up successful businesses in north Bengal and Assam. Joy Ma, for instance, says branches of her family moved to the Dooars in the 1880s and prospered as contractors. They also owned land in Dhubri.

The turmoil of early 20th century China brought a new wave of migration, as thousands fled war, revolution and the new communist regime. Both Michael Cheng and Steven Wen’s parents moved to north Bengal in the late 1930s. Yin Marsh says her father had come to Darjeeling in 1944, to head the Indian branch of a Chinese import export company. “Then after 1949 when the communists came to power, they wanted him to work for them,” said Marsh. “So he resigned and stayed behind in Darjeeling.”

They remember happy childhoods. “In Darjeeling, there were Chinese, Tibetans, Nepalis, Bengalis, Anglo-Indians,” said Marsh. “Nobody asked who was what or who was who.” Her parents were very involved in the community and had many friends. When you ask her which community she means, you realise she is talking about all the inhabitants of the town, not people of any particular ethnicity. Marsh was sent to boarding school and in the winter of 1962, she looked forward to going home for the holidays.

Wen talks about walking in the Independence Day parade run by Dr Graham’s Homes, a boarding school in Kalimpong. “One moment I was saluting in the Independence Day parade, three-and-a-half months later I was thrown in jail,” he said. "And that is the really sad part of the story."

The midnight knock

In the months leading up to the 1962 war, tensions had started building among Chinese people in the hills. There were rumours of midnight knocks. Marsh says the authorities took her father away first. The family was having tea when there was a knock on the door. “They just asked him to come and answer some questions at the police station," she said. "But then he didn’t return the next day and the next. I asked our parents’ friends for help but everybody shut the door. They were too scared. I went to the convent where I had studied. They said they would pray for me but they couldn’t help.”

A few weeks later, they came for 13-year-old Marsh, her eight-year-old brother and her grandmother, who could barely walk because her feet were bound in the traditional Chinese way.

Wen remembers the day they were arrested most vividly. “We had a wholesale shop in Kalimpong that sold Tibetan, Bhutanese and Nepali merchandise. On November 19, late at night, there was a knock on the door. We thought it was somebody who needed emergency supplies. Instead it was the police and intelligence officials. They couldn’t even come up with a criminal charge.”

Cheng, who was six when his family was sent to Deoli, has no memories of the night they were taken. But he had witnessed his father’s arrest a few weeks earlier. “I remember my father in chains, shackles around his feet,” he said.

Wen’s family were transferred from Darjeeling Jail to New Jalpaiguri station, where they boarded a train filled with Chinese-Indian people from Assam. From there it was four days by train to Deoli. “It was a feeling of fear and uncertainty," he recalled. "Whenever our train stopped at a city or town, there were soldiers and guards at the station.”

Marsh remembers descending to the jeep that took them from their home in Darjeeling, as a crowd of people stood and stared. “They looked at us as if we were criminals. We were suddenly strangers.”

Yin Marsh and Joy Ma, a still from Ellias's film on the captives.

At Deoli

What was life like in Deoli?

“Boring,” Stephen Wen said. “There was not much to do, no proper schooling.” Cheng says he learnt the same alphabets over and over again for two years. They all remember the half-cooked food, the barren landscape, the air so dry that it split the skin on their fingers. Soon the families started cooking their own food. Rations came in a cart at ten in the morning and after that it was a long, desultory day.

Joy Ma was born in the camp. Her mother had been pregnant when they were arrested and she wanted to have an abortion, but the camp authorities wouldn’t let her. So she had to get a permit in advance to go to a hospital outside the camp and have the baby. There was so little to life in Deoli, Ma said, that people started trooping to her parents' quarters to pet the new baby.

And the guards? Steven recounts how the camp commanders confiscated all their money when they entered Deoli and never returned it. “They checked you if you had to pass in and out of the gates, otherwise they left you alone,” he says.

But they were always fenced in and watched, guards at checkposts waiting to shoot if they came too near the barbed wire. Wen gave a detailed description of the barbed wire fence, nine feet high with great whorls of wiring coiled around the top. When asked about the structure of the camp, he drew a map of it, as if it was the most natural thing to do after all these years. Five wings arranged around a square, each divided into three or four barracks. “I was in barrack number 20 in Wing 1,” he said. “All of us here stayed in Wing 1.” Marsh and he exchange notes about which family lived next to them, who lived opposite.

Marsh later found out that they were quartered in the same building where Nehru was once detained. So in 2012, when she wrote a book about her experiences in Deoli, she wryly called it Doing Time With Nehru.

The return

Marsh stayed in Deoli for a few months. Ma’s family were kept there for four-and-a-half years. They were one of the last batches to be released, in 1967. “We passed through Jaipur where a man came up to us and asked, ‘What are you people still doing here?’ He had been a prisoner of war in China in 1962 and had come back.”

All of them have harrowing stories of return. “They didn’t tell us where we were going,” said Wen, whose family was released 22 months later. “The train took us to Howrah station in Kolkata. There we had a surprise waiting. Two detainees who had been released earlier came to meet us and the police arrested them. We took shelter in a Chinese temple near Tiretta Bazar and fell asleep around two in the morning. At five in the morning we were woken up.” There was going to be a funeral service at the temple, they were told, the sleeping family had to make way for the dead bodies.

Cheng said that the night his family was dumped in the streets in Kolkata, he suddenly grew up. He was around eight at the time. A relative who ran a laundry shop in Kolkata’s Bow Bazar area took them in. There wasn’t much space so young Cheng had to sleep on an ironing board.

Home was gone. Their property in Darjeeling and Kalimpong had been taken over by local people and they weren’t getting it back. Only Cheng's family managed to get their shoe shop back two years later. And they were not really free in a strange and hostile Calcutta. The old Deoli inmates were still kept under surveillance and needed permits to go out of the city. Cheng remembers his proud, dashing father going to the authorities day after day, begging for a permit, the routine humiliations that broke him down and made him fearful.

To people outside the Chinese community in Kolkata, the former Deoli internees were traitors or spies. People within the community kept a distance from them out of fear. “My mother used to keep having dreams when she was in the camp and when they were in Calcutta,” said Joy Ma. “She used to wonder whether we would ever get out. All the bitterness now actually comes from the time in Calcutta.” In wartime Calcutta, there were 20,000 to 30,000 Chinese people in Chinatown. Today, the population has dropped to about 2,000.

It was fear that kept the Deoliwallahs silent all these years, even after they had moved west. “We built walls of silence around ourselves,” said Ma. “But within the community, we talked about it with the people we knew.”

Said Wen, “As a Chinese Indian, I have gone through life with a sense of suppression, a loss of dignity and a lack of identity.”

Added Marsh, “But now that I’ve started talking about it, I don’t want to stop.”

Effa Ma, Joy's mother, a still from Ellias's film.

The listeners

The four of them spoke to an emotional audience at the India International Centre in Delhi on Tuesday, after a screening of Rafeed Ellias’s documentary, Beyond Barbed Wires: A Distant Dawn, on the old Deoliwallahs.

As they spoke, hooks of memory seemed to draw in the audience. A man called Gautam Das got up and introduced himself to Marsh. He had gone to North Point school in Darjeeling, near Marsh’s old school, and did she remember such and such person, and that other girl, and another one? Marsh remembered them all. “It was a lonely place after you all left,” Das said. Marsh asked whether it was true that North Point boys had been given rifles by the army. Yes, Das replied, but that was before the war and they didn’t know why all the Chinese people had been taken away.

Filmmaker Jahnu Barua, who was also in the audience, shared his memories of growing up on a tea estate in Makum, in Assam, where they had a neighbour whom he called “Sina Mama" or Chinese Uncle. Sina Mama married an Assamese woman and had five children. All of them were arrested except the eldest son, whom Barua’s mother helped to hide.

Suddenly, strangers in a room were chatting about old acquaintances, going back to childhood experiences. The Chinese have faded from everyday life in India but pockets of memory remain. Wen wasn’t the only one who had to suppress memories of Deoli: an entire country has done so for more than 50 years.

At one point while telling his story, Cheng asked whether he should stop because they were running out of time. Keep talking, said a gray-haired man in the audience, we want to listen.