Andy Hsieh was 18 years old and studying in a boarding school in Shillong when war broke out between India and China in October 1962. Early one morning, he was summoned to the principal’s office, where policemen told him and a few other Chinese-Indians to pack their belongings and leave with them. A week later, Hsieh was put on a train that would take him across the breadth of the country to Deoli, a small town near Kota in Rajasthan.
Although Hsieh was born in India, his family, which ran a restaurant near Digboi in Assam as well as shoe and furniture businesses in Kolkata, was of Chinese origin. They were among 3,000 Chinese-Indians who were rounded up and sent to an internment camp to wait out the war. The war lasted only a month between October 20 and November 21. But Hsieh and several others left the camp only four years later.
Now, as India and China are caught in a border stand-off at Doklam, the Chinese-Indian survivors of the Deoli internment camp intend to speak out about their ordeal in Ottawa, Canada, the country to which many of them migrated after being released from the camp.
On August 24, the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees 1962, an organisation of the survivors of the internment camp, will demonstrate outside the Indian High Commission in Ottawa to highlight their stories and demand that the Indian government at the very least acknowledge the fact that the internment camp existed, if not apologise for having uprooted so many lives.
“We are escalating this now because of border issues,” said Sheng Lin, the Association’s spokesperson. “The Indian government has never acknowledged the internment camps in 55 years, even if it talks about the border issue.”
Though the proposed protest happens to be timed with the escalation in tension on the border, the group had been planning it for months before the Doklam stand-off began.
“The timing has been not great, but we had already been mobilising people and had applied for a permit,” said Joy Ma, a member of the association. “It was a difficult decision to continue now, but we realised the timing is never going to be right, whether in peacetime or now. We just want to keep this alive while we have the repository of information.”
This is not the first time the Association will speak about the internment in public, Sheng Lin said. The first time was in 2012, when the organisation marked the 50th anniversary of their internment with a memorial in Canada. In 2015, a small group of former internees and their family members spoke in New Delhi about their experiences.
Born in the camp
The Deoli camp had been used to house prisoners for long before the Indo-China war – freedom fighters, Bengalis who led the Chittagong armoury raid in 1930, leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan during the Quit India movement. During the second World War, the British kept prisoners of war from Germany, Japan and Italy at this camp. After the Partition, it served as a refugee camp for Sindhis fleeing the newly formed Pakistan.
The first Chinese-Indian internees at the camp were detained in October 1962, at the height of the war, but detentions continued well into January 1963.
Joy Ma, a content marketer who lives in California in the United States, was one of the few people to have been born in the camp. Though she grew up hearing stories of her family’s experiences there, the first time she ever acknowledged it to her Indian friends was in 2012, when the Association marked the 50th anniversary.
“It was such a stigma that even though we spoke of it at home, I never told my friends in school [in Kolkata] or in college [in Delhi],” she said. “It is tough especially when I speak to people of Indian origin. They don’t know about it and are so horrified that this has happened.”
Joy Ma’s family was not among the first batch of internees, though they were among the last to leave the camp. In January 1963, her family learned that all people of Chinese origin in their area were being rounded up. So, they too packed to go to the camp. The Chinese New Year was on January 25 and the entire family was sitting around, waiting with their boxes. Finally, after an entire day of sitting around, Joy Ma recalled her family telling her, they unpacked a few boxes. They had just sat down to celebrate, when army trucks drove up and they had to scramble to pack all over again.
Joy Ma’s mother was pregnant with her at the time. Her father’s family had settled in India in the 1880s and set up a saw mill. Her father, a contractor, recruited Chinese carpenters to work there.
The mill workers were the first to be interned, Joy Ma said. Many of them had married local women and raised families, which they were forced to leave behind. In the months before they too were taken to the camp, Joy Ma’s grandfather had promised to take care of the workers’ families. After Joy Ma’s own family was taken to the camp, they lost track of the workers’ families.
Hsieh, a former president of the Assocation, said he will never forget the day he arrived at the Deoli camp one morning towards the end of October 1962. Although the internees arrived in the morning, they were not permitted to enter the camp until around 5 pm. They had not been given food all day and when they finally were, it was stale bread passed around in a jute sack and some tea with little milk.
The bread was hard and rock-like, Hsieh remembers. When he dipped it into the tea, it did not soften at all. Frustrated, he threw it against the wall – only to see it bounce back. “Some of the older people broke the bread with stones and soaked it in the tea,” he recalled. “I did not eat anything until next morning.”
For four years, Hsieh did nothing in the camp. During the day, the internees were allowed to mingle but at night they were shut into their barracks. “We stopped thinking about our future,” he recalled. “One year went by, two years, three years and when it was four years, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m 21 now. What will we do with our lives now? Will we ever get out?’ The anxiety really hurt you.”
Some internees did leave much before anyone else – but to China. India sent to China three ships bearing hundreds of Chinese-Indians who had opted to go there. Many of these people, whose families had been in India for generations, had never set foot in that country before. Decades later, the Association, which is primarily formed of expatriates, has not yet found any person who returned, apart from those who later shifted to the West.
Hsieh’s time at the camp spelt an end to his education, something he regrets to this day.
In 1963, Lal Bahadur Shastri, then India’s home minister, visited the camp. Several internees have vivid memories of that day. Hsieh told Shastri he was in high school and asked it he could attend a school in the town nearby or whether a teacher could be arranged to come to the camp. Shastri said he would have to consult with the higher authorities in Delhi before making a decision. That was the last anyone heard of the matter.
Michael Cheng, too, regrets the loss of his schooling. He had just started school in Darjeeling when he was taken to the camp. There, some volunteers started to teach the children, but the most educated of them opted to go to China early on. Those who were left behind were good business people, but not well educated. “We didn’t learn anything in the camp,” Cheng said. “It was poorly funded, we had no pencils or paper to write. We just had slates. So most kids didn’t end up going to school at all. We just played.”
By the time Hsieh’s family was released in 1966, their restaurant in Tinsukia had been demolished. Their furniture factory and shoe shops had also gone. For three months, they stayed with a friend of his father’s before moving to Kolkata. Hsieh had to get a job in a restaurant there to support his family. One of his younger brothers moved to China to study while his younger sisters and another brother continued their studies in India.
Hsieh moved to Canada in 1973. He got a job at a factory manufacturing heavy electrical equipment because he had not completed his formal education. “I thought it would be better when we were released, but it was not really,” he said. “We faced a lot of hardship to make ends meet.”
The worst part for Cheng, the president of the Association, was the way he was released. “We were just dropped on the side of the street in Calcutta and told we are on our own,” he recalled.
Cheng’s family of 14 had to split up to stay at different relatives’ houses. He stayed with someone with a laundry shop. Though Cheng went back to school for a few years, he dropped out in the seventh grade when he turned 16 and was old enough to run his father’s shoe business.
While Hsieh, like many others at the camp, later shifted to Canada, which had a provision for those with Commonwealth passports to travel there, Cheng and Joy Ma went to the United States.
Years after they left the camp, Joy Ma asked her mother why they did not leave India when the war began. “My mother said they just thought everything would be fine,” she recalled. “They had weathered the Second World War in India and continued their businesses even after Independence. Even when they saw the signs, they thought they would be all right.”