At the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, Canada, the gate was closed on Thursday. Two staffers stood beyond, using a camera and a phone to shoot the demonstration on the opposite pavement. When asked if they would accept the letter the demonstrators wanted to hand over, seeking an apology for a tragedy from a half century ago, they shook their heads. “We have no orders to receive any letters,” one replied. Meanwhile, several more commission employees emerged after lunching at the restaurant immediately behind the demonstrators. Without a sideways glance or a single word said, they stepped through the small crowd, crossed the street and disappeared into the commission.

Just the usual, and hardly a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Indian official-dom, but a good summary of what the demonstrators are up against. It has been over half a century since India incarcerated 3,000 Chinese-Indians and the most obvious feature of that episode from our history is how totally it has been glossed over by Indian official-dom and forgotten by Indians.

In 1962, India fought a war with China over their differing ideas of the border between the countries. For India, it was a quick, brutal, bitter defeat. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had told us so much about “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai”, never recovered from the psychological blow. Less than two years on, he was dead. A half century later, the border remains a contentious issue. Only a few weeks ago in Ladakh, for example, soldiers from both sides shoved and threw stones at each other, trading accusations of incursions into claimed territory.

Call it collateral damage: also in 1962, Indian authorities began rounding up Chinese-Indians from Assam, Darjeeling, Calcutta and other towns in the east. For no greater crime than their Chinese appearance, they were transported by train to a camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. Some spent up to five years there. Some were deported to China. Those who returned to their homes found them vandalised or sealed as “enemy property”. Over time, unable to rebuild their destroyed lives, many found ways to emigrate from a country that had profoundly betrayed them.

Their story

Many of those settled in or around Toronto. Years later, they formed the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees. The association meets regularly and holds dinners and community events. But they have also long wanted to speak about their history, tell their stories, remind India of what happened to them: in short, these people have been searching for something more meaningful to do, about what happened to them.

Yet they are also conscious of friends and family who remain in India – who are fearful to this day, every time tensions between the two neighbours rise, of another incarceration. After all, many of them are still stateless residents, forced to renew residence permits every year, paying several thousand rupees each time. Would speaking out invite repercussions? Should they maintain the silence instead?

In 2015, four former internees from North America realised they could no longer remain silent. They travelled to India and held a series of public meetings in Delhi and Kolkata to tell Indians what had happened to them.

Nearly two years later, the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees decided to formally and publicly ask the Indian government for an apology. There is precedent for this. The United States and Canada incarcerated over 100,000 citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps during the second World War. Some four decades later, both governments officially apologised to the community and even paid them reparations. Could the world’s largest democracy do much the same now, to the Chinese-Indians from the Deoli camp?

Yeeva Cheng, daughter of internee Michael Cheng, reads out a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi outside the Indian High Commission in Ottawa.

A peaceful protest

The Association of India Deoli Camp Internees chose to hold a peaceful demonstration in front of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa on Thursday. It was meticulously, methodically planned. They wrote well in advance to the high commission, to the Canadian police, and even to the Canadian high commissioner in New Delhi. They arranged a bus to transport the demonstrators from Toronto to Ottawa and back. Lunch and snacks were organised. They carried placards and banners and a megaphone. They wore white T-shirts with a picture of the camp printed on the front.

I travelled with the group on that bus on Thursday. The mood was upbeat, hopeful. Old bonds were renewed. Plenty of Hindi was spoken. Bobby Wong, president of the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees, sang Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh and other Hindi film tunes from the 1950s and 1960s. It was as if, after years of darkness and fear, the internees had arrived at a cathartic moment, a new dawn. They would no longer suppress their stories. They would reclaim their heritage and lost dignity. A country would listen and then respond with grace. How could they not?

The request for an apology was in a letter the association had written, addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their idea was to hand this over to the high commission for onward delivery to the prime minister.

Or at least, that is what they thought they would do. Only, it did not quite work out that way. The high commission had no orders to take the letter.

Deoli’s former internees have decided to end their silence. Maybe they had not bargained that India – at least in the form of its high commission in Ottawa – might choose to keep it going.