In October-November 1962, India and China fought a bitter war over their contested border. Over a month, China delivered a crushing defeat to India, then withdrew its forces to pre-war positions. The border issue has stayed unresolved since, though at least not fought over on the same scale as in 1962.

This much is known. What is much less known is that India rounded up a few thousand Indians of Chinese origin, largely from our northeastern states, and incarcerated them in a camp in Deoli, Rajasthan – some for up to five years. The charge? None, except for the suspicion that they were loyal to China. The evidence? None, except that they looked Chinese.

There was a precedent for this, of course. The US did the same to some 1,00,000 of their Japanese-American citizens during World War II. Both that episode and India’s effort in 1962 raise a question: How, in an era of the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other such efforts at a shared humanity, does a country – even if at war – justify imprisoning thousands of its own citizens solely for the way they look?

Easy: with legal fig-leafs.

The US’s fig-leaf was President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order #9066, “authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas”. From these prescribed areas, read the order, “the right of any person to enter, remain in or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War…may impose in his discretion”. Note that Order #9066 made no mention of Japanese-Americans. Nevertheless, it was used to remove all such people from much of the US West coast and transport them to internment camps for several years.

Detention of Chinese Indians

India’s first fig-leaf was this November 13, 1962, amendment to the Foreigners Act of 1946:

“In view of the present emergency, it is necessary that powers should be available to deal with any person not of Indian origin who was at birth a citizen or subject of any country at war with, or committing external aggression against, India or of any other country assisting the country at war with or committing such aggression against India but who may have subsequently acquired Indian citizenship in the same manner as a foreigner. It is also necessary to take powers to arrest and detain and confine these persons and the nationals of all such countries under the Foreigners Act, 1946, should such need arise.”

There was more. Eleven days later, India passed the Foreigners Law (Application and Amendment) Act, which clarified that “person”, as used in the Foreigners Act, meant “any person who, or either of whose parents, or any of whose grandparents was at any time a citizen or subject of any country at war with, or committing external aggression against, India”.

There was still more. On January 14, 1963, India passed the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, declaring that these defined “foreigners” could not “enter into or remain in” a number of “restricted areas” – which included all of Assam, Meghalaya and five districts of West Bengal.

With one exception, all these laws about foreigners made no mention of Chinese-Indians. (The exception is the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, which defined “person of Chinese origin” using “parents” and “grandparents”.) Nevertheless, they were used to remove plenty of Chinese-Indians from our northeastern states and transport them to the Deoli camp.

Let us understand: With these fig-leafs, India justified the internment of a few thousand innocent people, some for up to five years. Only because they looked Chinese. Only because a war spurred many of us to hate our Chinese-looking neighbours. Plenty of those people later fled India; others have spent half a century living in fear that they will be targets again.

Why examine this history now?

Because the Deoli incarceration raises hard questions about what citizenship means in India. Is being an Indian or a foreigner to be decided, for example, the way policemen across the North East did it in practice in those months in 1962 and 1963: based on what a person looks like? True, we did not then and have not since seen fit to codify that particular criterion into law. But we did codify a person’s ancestry into law, with mentions of “Chinese origin” and “grandparents”. Where does this logic take us and where does it end? Who is a citizen and who is a foreigner? Those questions caused immense suffering in the 1960s, and in different forms, they haunt us today.

Indian Chinese protestors demonstrate outside the Indian High Commission in Ottowa in August 2017.

Citizenship Amendment Bill

In particular, our lawmakers are currently debating the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955.

Under the heading “Acquisition of Citizenship”, the 1955 Act spells out five different ways for a person to be declared an Indian: by birth, descent (but only through the father), registration, naturalisation, and the incorporation of territory. Ostensibly to address the issue of migrants into this country, the 2016 Bill seeks to change the Act in a fundamental way. The Bill proposes that people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh will be eligible for Indian citizenship, subject to requirements of their length of stay in India.

Now there are arguments to be made over these time criteria, but they are essentially secondary considerations. The fundamental change that the Bill envisages is this: that only a certain sort of people will be so eligible for citizenship. Not – let it be said – the Chinese-looking sort. We still have not codified that into the law. But the Bill will offer citizenship to people from those countries who are Buddhist, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs and Christians.

The conspicuous omission from that list of religions? Muslims. (Also Jews and atheists and Taoists and Shintoists and agnostics and Baha’ists, but nobody seriously thinks this Bill means to take note of them, even by omission).

And it is this omission that is truly a reminder of 1962. Then, the amendments to the Foreigners Act offered the legal authority to imprison people who looked Chinese. Now, this amendment to the Citizens Act will offer the legal authority to target people who profess Islam.

In both cases, the question of citizenship becomes an embodiment of the deepest prejudices some of us hold. Should that decide who is to be called an Indian citizen?