On March 14, 1946, a group of 60 excited ethnic Indian and Chinese refugees gathered at Bombay’s Ballard Pier to board the Largo Bay British naval ship for Singapore. “Bombay is a big and beautiful city but we do not like the flat life here,” one unnamed woman told the Singapore newspaper Indian Daily Mail. “Out in Malaya we all have homes with gardens and open compounds. Some of us found it difficult to breathe freely in our Bombay homes.”

The refugees had arrived in India four years earlier, along with nearly 10,000 others, after escaping the Japanese during World War II. Special government bodies had been set up to look after them, the majority of whom were employed by the government itself. But now the war was over and it was time to head back. The repatriation of Malayans began a few months after the guns fell silent in the Pacific theatre in September 1945. The 60 refugees at Ballard Pier were waiting for their turn to go home.

Japanese invasion

The Imperial Japanese Army launched its attack on the British colony of Malaya on December 8, 1941, with an invasion of Kota Bharu. While these troops advanced south on the eastern coast of Malaya, troops that landed in Thailand advanced down the western coast. Despite their numbers, British, Indian, Malayan and Australian troops were in no position to defend northern Malaya and so they withdrew towards Johore in the south. The island of Penang in the northwest was bombed for nine straight days before the British abandoned it. By February 15, 1942, all the troops of the British Empire surrendered to the Japanese.

Although the Japanese targeted civilians as well, in places like Penang, the British almost exclusively evacuated Europeans, leaving Malays, Indians and Chinese at the mercy of the invading military. “Despite being offered the chance to be evacuated together with the Europeans, none of the local Penang and Province Wellesley Volunteer Corps members, except for one, took up the offer, because the evacuation of their family members was not guaranteed by the British,” William Tham and Enzo Sim wrote in the Penang Monthly. “This act of racial discrimination was later seen as one of the empire’s cruellest betrayals.”

While most Malays, Chinese and Indians were forced to stay back in the Malayan Peninsula and Singapore after the Japanese takeover, around 10,000 of them managed to get to India. Unlike in the case of Indians who fled Burma after the Japanese occupied the country and documented their incredibly challenging journey to India, there are hardly any public accounts of those who escaped Malaya for the subcontinent.

Finding jobs

The best source for any information on the so-called Malayan Evacuees is the Singapore Archives. The Indian Daily Mail report of March 1946 says the evacuees who came to India in 1942 spread out across the country, but were first accommodated in camps in Nainital, Rajkot and Ootacamund (Ooty). The Rajkot camp was merged with the one in Nainital, while the camp in Ooty was shifted to Coimbatore, with up to 3,000 refugees being housed there. Newspapers published in Singapore in the 1940s note that Malayan evacuees were warmly welcomed by the ruler of the princely state of Dharampur in southern Gujarat.

Since many of the refugees who came to India had jobs in the British-ruled bureaucracy in Malaya, active attempts were made to recruit them to work for Indian government bodies. In September 1942, the political department of the government of India sent a letter to Indian states as well as Residents of princely states to explore opportunities to hire evacuees from Burma and Malaya. The department clarified it was not suggesting that “servants of the Burma or Malaya Governments should be employed in posts for which suitable persons, normally domiciled in India, [were available]”. What it wanted was to fill certain categories of jobs for which “existing manpower resources” had been found inadequate.

The policy was perhaps not rigid. Other letters sent out by senior government officials insisted that priority be given to Indian evacuees from Burma and Malaya when hiring since there was a belief at the time that preferential treatment was handed out to Europeans and Anglo-Indians. There was a greater scrutiny of those hired for jobs within the defence establishment, as there were obvious fears during wartime that some of the refugees could be potential spies for the Japanese.

The efforts to employ Malayans were made in close coordination with the first Malayan Representative Office, which was opened on Outram Road (now Purshottamdas Thakurdas Road) in Bombay’s Fort area. Since the Malayan community was spread out across India, the government opened a representative office in Bangalore as well. These offices looked after the affairs and interests of the Malayans in India and were entrusted with paying monthly allowances to evacuees who were family members of servicemen or volunteers. Supplementing direct assistance from the Indian and British governments, a Far Eastern Relief Fund was set up by the mayor of London for the upkeep of Malayans in India.

Return home

Many Malayans living in India had family members back in the Straits and were eager to leave once the war was over in the Pacific. That day came on August 15, 1945, with the surrender of the Japanese. A few weeks later, a British military administration was formed in Malaya, and soon enough, leaders of the Malayan community in India began to talk of moving back home.

The 25th Indian Division search Japanese prisoners in Kuala Lumpur after they have been disarmed. Credit: Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

In October 1945, a 11-member committee flew from India to Singapore to see if it was safe for the evacuees to return. The committee was headed by lawyer John Laycock, Chinese businessman Ng Seng Choy and R Jumabhoy, who was the president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore before the Japanese invasion. Choy told the Straits Times that the evacuees were being given “every assistance, financial or otherwise”, in India but wanted to get back home.

The committee handed a 32-page list of Malayan evacuees living in India. One of the problems it faced was in ascertaining the legal status of homes once owned by the evacuees. Often relatives and servants refused to divulge this information, fearing that the repatriated Malayans would evict them after getting back.

The British authorities were slow to facilitate the return of the Malayans. By December 1945, just 50 people had returned to the Straits. The committee, led by Laycock, made a special appeal to then-Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command Louis Mountbatten to help bring back the evacuees.

Among the problems the evacuees faced was black marketing of tickets and a general lack of berths because of the migration of some Indian businessmen to Malaya in search of opportunities. Luckily for them, these issues were eventually ironed out and, by the end of March 1946, over 2,000 people had returned.

To ease the transition, special camps were set up for returnees who did not have relatives or homes. By December 1946, most evacuees were back, although there were reports as late as in August 1947 that some were still in India.

In December 1947, Edward Gent, the governor of the Malayan Union (which was formed after the military administrators withdrew in April 1946) thanked the government of India for helping the evacuees. An Associated Press report cited Gent as saying that he had heard frequent praise of the kindness and care shown to the evacuees by the people and organisations in India. The report added that the governor desired that the “keen appreciation felt in Malaya for their acts of kindness may be communicated to the persons or organisations concerned”.

The Malayans of the three major races of the country – Malays, Chinese and Indians – eventually became citizens of an independent Malaya in 1957. The country united with North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore six years later to become Malaysia. In 2023, both Malaysia and Singapore have strong and vibrant Indian communities and enjoy good diplomatic relations with India, a country that sheltered a small number of refugees from the Straits at the peak of World War II. It is unfortunate that little was done to document the lives of these evacuees during their four years in India.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.