At the end of March, the coronavirus lockdown triggered an enormous migration of millions of migrant workers in India. Deprived of a livelihood and with no money for food or rent, a sea of migrant workers in towns and cities decided to go back to their home villages. But with public transport shut down, many decided to set out on foot.
News cycles were filled with stories of despair and misery; of migrants being killed in accidents, of families having lost loved ones who were just a little too far away, a little too weak.
Yet, all this suffering is not unprecedented. The exodus that accompanied the Burma Campaign during World War II almost 75 years ago bears a phantasmal similarity to the present day. While this event has faded into the recesses of history, hopefully the stories, struggles and sufferings of the migrants of 2020 will be recorded and remembered for posterity.
It was a quaint Tuesday morning when bombs began falling over Rangoon. The Japanese had formally begun their operations against the British in Burma, having declared war on the United Kingdom two weeks prior on December 8, 1941. What followed was an ignominious campaign for the British, riddled with logistical failure and a lack of military strategy. The British Indian forces were pushed back all the way to the borders of Northeastern India by the middle of 1942.
The retreat – the longest in the history of the British army – was undertaken through the inhospitable jungles of Western Burma embattled not only by the Japanese, but by endemic malaria, dysentery, and scrub typhus.
Parallel to the British retreat was another, equally attritional but less remembered exodus: that of the Indian community in Burma. Nearly half a million Indians walked across some of the harshest tropics of Asia in order to escape the Japanese Army, and all that their regime would bring. Most endured the extreme climate, topography and terrible physical strain to reach the safety of India. Some never made it.
Indians in Burma
The late 19th and early 20th century saw many Indians migrate to Burma in search of employment and economic prosperity. By 1931, there were more than a million Indian migrants living and working in Burma. While most were involved in various forms of manual labour, Indians also made up a considerable portion of Burma’s administrative staff, business owners and military servicemen. Their vitality to the Burmese economy and government, along with their relative affluence, allowed the Indian community to hold considerable influence.
However, rather than allowing for greater integration in Burma, this proved to be detrimental for the community. In the 1920s and 1930s, the idea of Burmese nationalism began to take root. In the eyes of the now politically-mobilised Burmese, Indians were seen as a colonial malaise: brought in by the British, taking over Burmese jobs and reaping the benefits of Burmese resources. Anti-Indian sentiment became widespread.
Several anti-Indian riots broke out in the years leading up to the war, and the Indian community grew insecure and restive about their place in Burmese society. Rangoon, which was often considered by many to be essentially an “Indian” city, was witness to intense communal violence. In 1930, the infamous Dockyard Riots broke out in the city resulting in the deaths of one hundred people and injuring more than a thousand. Nearly all were Indians.
In 1938, another riot broke out of even greater magnitude leaving 200 dead and causing extensive damage to property owned by Indians. Thus, by the time the war broke out, the Indian community’s presence in Burma was already febrile.
The Japanese are coming
Once the bombing of Rangoon began at the end of 1941, a large number of Indians living in the city began to leave. The initial wave – estimated to comprise 15,000 individuals – planned to travel North to the small coastal village of Taungup. Here, they would hire boats and make the short voyage to Chittagong.
But the British administration had other plans. Fearing that the lack of a workforce would paralyse the British defence in Burma, Governor General Reginald Smith deliberately blocked the route to Taungup. This was the first in a series of flat-footed decisions taken by the government with regard to the Indian migrants.
To further enforce this, in an act of blatant racism as well as tacit class discrimination, the ships that were leaving from Rangoon itself were prohibited from selling the cheap deck tickets to Indians. As this was the only ticket most Indians could afford, this effectively reserved sea travel to rich Indian families and the European community.
It was only in late January 1942, by when the Japanese had captured Moulmein and were 300 km from Rangoon, that a full-scale evacuation of the Indian community was sanctioned. While 70,000 Indians were transported by ship back to India, more than two lakh remained in Rangoon and surrounding regions.
Without arranging for their transportation, most of the British administration had packed up and moved North – only the Governor and a few other officials remained. Powerless without his administration, Smith thought it wise to unilaterally renounce his temporal duties, remain cooped inside his residence, and resign himself to playing billiards. With the Japanese closing in each day, the Indians took it upon themselves to find a way out. Ships had stopped coming to Rangoon out of fear of the Japanese Navy, so they resorted to their initial plan of finding vessels near Taungup.
Most of the way to Taungup was without any road, and the migrants had to walk more than 200 km over hilly terrain to reach the coastal town. The entire route only had one British officer – Robert Hutchings, the Agent from the Indian Government – to look after food and accommodation arrangements for all those making the journey. Accentuating this dire situation were some Burmese officials.
Knowing that the British were being pushed back and now had very little official oversight, the local police began demanding “fees” to access the Taungup route – bribes in the form of false red tape. With very few facilities for sanitation, cholera broke out and began killing by the dozens. Mass graves were hurriedly dug to abate the spread of the deadly disease. Drinking water too became scarce, and many died simply due to the inability to access clean water. Dr Sen, an epidemiologist from Rangoon, was one of few medical officials on the route. He often noted scores of corpses littering the trail. In certain places, he found it impossible to walk without stepping on a body.
Nevertheless, between 1.5 lakh to two lakh migrants made it to India via Taungup. The exact number of Indians who died while undertaking the perilous journey is unknown – conservative figures have been in the thousands.
Such waste of life and needless suffering was only a precursor for what was to come. By the end of February, the Japanese had control over most of Southern Burma. This caused the remaining Indians, most of whom lived around Mandalay, to push Northwards to reach India. Two trails were primarily used by the migrants. The first was via the Tamu pass which would lead to Imphal; the second, further North, via the Hukawang Valley to Ledo, later known as the Valley of Death.
The damned and forsaken
The fall of Southern Burma resulted in a mass movement towards Mandalay. By the middle of March, more than one lakh Indians were living in refugee camps around Mandalay. With the Japanese shifting their campaign’s schwerpunkt towards central Burma, bombing intensified, and the paucity of proper bomb shelters resulted in the deaths of many residing in the camps.
The resulting chaos caused thousands of migrants to begin moving towards the Tamu Pass, anticipating a quick collapse of the military. The route involved moving Northwards by road towards Kalewa along the Chindwin Valley, after which a long dirt trail led to the Tamu Pass and then onwards to Imphal.
Most Indians had to begin walking from Mandalay itself as there were very few vehicles available. The few motor convoys that were making the journey to Kalewa were reserved exclusively for the Anglo-Indians and Europeans, most of whom were employees of the Burma Oil Company. This discrimination even extended to the trails leading to the Pass, with a “White” Route and a “Black” Route. The former went through easier terrain and was equipped with basic medical facilities, while the latter was often treacherously unsafe at certain points and remained unmanned.
On these routes, as was on the passage to Taungup, suffering was ubiquitous. Narasimha Ramamurthy, a 13-year-old at the time, along with the rest of his family was among the thousands trekking across the Tamu pass via the Black Route. During their 14-day walk, they subsisted solely on grimy porridge made from the little rice they carried. That his whole family survived the journey was a near miracle. Ramamurthy himself witnessed a weak middle-aged man leave his two children on the side of the dirt track. Having nothing to feed them and unable to carry them any longer, he could merely leave his children to die. The man’s wife had perished a few days previously.
Donald Menezes, another teenager making the gruelling journey, was luckier, as his story was recounted in Yvonne Vaz Ezdani’s New Songs of the Survivors: The Exodus of Indians from Burma. His family had access to the White Route, and they were helped by military servicemen at multiple points during their journey. Yet even among the privileged, crisis heightened inequality. One morning, Menezes woke up to great tremors. Believing an earthquake had struck, he got up in panic only to find a procession of elephants passing by. The passengers sitting atop the howdahs were wives and children of European employees of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. The Menezes family themselves had to walk most of way, traversing challenging terrain at altitudes of 7,000 feet and more, and completed the crossing in three weeks.
At the end of April, the British called for a general retreat. Whatever little logistical and humanitarian aid was being provided to the evacuees was now prioritised for the quick exit of the British Army. The same week Governor General Smith, the senior-most civilian officer, flew out of Burma. Even though there were thousands of migrants slowly making their way to India, the armed forces kept little rear guard resistance. With the military command essentially having called quits, there was little between the defenceless migrants and the Japanese.
Moreover, the onslaught of the monsoon in early May made the trek across to India even more treacherous. Trails were washed away, rivers flooded, and malaria became widespread. What had been difficult before had turned nightmarish. Corpses lay littered throughout the trails with death striking in multifarious manners; starvation, physical fatigue, disease and natural calamity. Thousands, however, continued enduring their way across the Tamu Pass. Members of the Congress, the Marwari Association, and the Indian Tea Platers Association had been organising temporary camps to receive the migrants and were shocked upon meeting the scores of emaciated families.
As the relentless Japanese advance continued northwards, the route via the Tamu Pass became untenable. The remaining Indians were forced to trek across the Hukawang Valley, the Northern most access into India from Burma. Alfred Fernandes, an engineer employed by the Burma Railways, was among those who made the 450-km crossing and often told his family about his ordeal. Having sent his family home by steamer right before the Japanese invasion, Fernandes had not been allowed to leave because his was considered an essential job. He made the crossing along with a friend. Before the crossings made due to war, the Hukawang Valley had previously only been traversed by five European explorers. None of them did it during the monsoon.
Steep rock faces along with dangerous rapids had to be negotiated by Fernandes and his fellow travellers, all of whom had nothing except the clothes they wore. Many were simply swept away during river crossings. Others fell to deadly tropical diseases that had heightened due to the wet climate. Human detritus was everywhere, and the odious stench of rotting corpses often made breathing impossible.
Yet amongst all this wet misery, there were a few sparks of humanity. Fernandes, and many others who travelled along these routes, never once saw the looting of any dead corpse. Apart from shoes being taken by those who had worn out their own footwear – Fernandes himself had to take five different pairs from corpses; a testament to the exacting environment – the bodies of the dead often holding much money remained untouched. Twenty-two gruelling days after setting off, Fernandes did eventually make it to the Assam railhead and with it, a resurrected assurance to life.
Many continued straggling through the inhospitable jungles of Burma over the summer of 1942. Even as late as September, Indian migrants were making their way through the jungles into the Assamese Plains. By the time the final few groups reached safety, at least 40,000 Indians had been estimated to have perished. The exact figure was hard to ascertain, with many groups having begun their journey only to disappear somewhere in the Western reaches of Burma; their bodies and belongings found months, in some cases years after their fateful excursion. In comparison to the inexplicable loss of civilian life, the British army – while fighting a superior enemy force – lost less than 10,000 soldiers.
At prima facie, such unnecessary loss of life was fundamentally caused by the clear apathy and unpreparedness of the British administration. Yet not one administrator or governmental entity was held accountable. A report by Indian legislative members was in the pipelines in 1943 only to be shelved by the British administration in London in the interests of “national security”.
By the end of the Second World War, most had begun the all-too-easy process of forgetting such a humanitarian crisis. The migrants themselves after reaching India began the difficult task of rebuilding their lives, and few cared to document their harrowing passage into India. At a historiographical level, the Burma Campaign, along with rest of the conflict in Southeast Asia, has mostly been sidestepped when compared to the European or Pacific theatre.
Either due to where it was fought, or for that matter, who fought in it (mostly South Asians), this chapter of the war is often disregarded. This, even more so for the civilians impacted by it. Yet for all the suffering endured by those who choose to escape to India overland, against such overwhelming odds, the perilous journeys made by the Indians in Burma remain mostly forgotten.
Currently at SOAS, Ranvijay Singh is a keen, albeit amateur, aficionado of military and South Asian history as well as mountaineering literature. His Twitter handle is @ranvijayhada.