Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Price: Rs 650
By Raghu Karnad
What shopping malls were to India in the 1990s, detention camps may be in the 2020s. Few and far-flung at the start of the decade, but everywhere by the end — the essential feature of a decade’s political economy, given form in brick and tile.
In both cases, pioneering designs already existed: In Assam, detention centres for undocumented people have existed since at least 2010. Outside Bengaluru, the first camp in the state of Karnataka had its wall whitewashed by the final week of 2019. And earlier, too, Indians have been forcibly held in camps, especially during war.
In the 1960s, after the short-lived Sino-Indian border war, three thousand people were taken from their homes and into captivity in a camp in Deoli, on the edge of the desert in Rajasthan. In The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment, Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza collect their stories and reveal the practical and ethical facets of that exercise, all of which could not be more relevant to us today.
Bureaucracy is its own law
In his preface, D’Souza recalls a retired army officer telling him that India should now apologise, but that “the Deoli episode … was ‘SOP’ (standard operating procedure) for any country at war”. Compared to the shifty, unstable claims made about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) today, a hard-headed argument did exist in 1962 for detaining Chinese-Indians: in wartime, they might act as a fifth column.
National interest was the argument, but bureaucracy was still the instrument. Open hostilities began and ended in a month (October 20-November 21, 1962) but detention orders were implemented on a different clock: the majority of Chinese-Indians were taken into captivity while the war was ending, or over.
Chinese forces were already withdrawing to their pre-war positions by New Year’s Day, 1963, when Effa Ma — born in Kalimpong in 1934 — was detained from her home in Darjeeling. With her husband, Jack, she was transported by train to truck, from jail cell to jail cell, to Deoli.
By February 1963, there were about 2,100 detainees there, and the number was growing. Effa gave birth to a daughter, Joy, who is one of the authors of The Deoliwallahs, inside the camp. And they were all kept there, in the bewildering silence and stillness, until June of 1967.
By the time the family was released, a whole other war had started and ended. Nehru had died. Lal Bahadur Shastri — who had visited the Deoli detainees as Home Minister — had succeeded Nehru, and also died. Effa Ma’s family was never accused of any crime, nor proven to be any kind of threat. But bureaucratic machinery has its own logic, unconnected to those of law or national security.
Every modern case of detention, right up to Guantanamo, shows how much easier it is to lock people up than to let them out.
Lashed by freedom
Considering how long they spent there, the book does not dwell, for very long, inside the camp. It’s hard to write about years of nothing happening. It might be even harder to remember it. There was a single football. There were no teachers. Rice was rarely washed, often burnt. Later they had vegetable plots. Conditions swung from egregious to benign neglect.
The real tragedy begins once the detention ends. Then you are released from the uncertainty of your limbo to the certainty of your ruined life. The Deoliwallahs were not restored to their homes, but abandoned to them — to ransacked businesses, vanished jobs, derelict houses, absent community, missing years of schooling, and hunger.
The hunger comes first. When Effa Ma was released at a police station near Howrah, after three days in transit from Deoli, she had three children with her, no money, no food or bedding, and nobody to call. The police told her to leave. She refused, bewildered. By night-time, they found a local Chinese family to lodge them. Effa tried to make the children eat, but Joy was so tired she kept throwing up.
Many of the detainees had been named by informants (just as the upcoming NRC had proposed), salting the ground where they were meant to restart their lives. There was no acknowledgement — let alone an apology — and no promise that it would not happen again if another border war boiled up.
A story of detention is a catalogue of things destroyed: Not just years lost to captivity, but all of life’s labour from before. We do some version of this anyway. But societies are beginning to confront the awesome waste of incarceration, and the collective self-harm that is the industrial prison system. Detention lacks even the logic of criminal guilt.
Like the people in India facing detention in the 2020s, the families in The Deoliwallahs were productive, striving members of society. Detention turns them into subjects totally dependent on the state; release turns them into outcasts, free to rebuild from nothing.
Nations make war, war makes nations
Chinese immigrants had arrived in the Northeast over generations, even as Indians migrated elsewhere, percolating through the very multicultural, mobile world of colonial Asia. That world was divided by softer ethnic lines than what replaced it — independent nation-states with identity crises and insecure borders.
Above the surface, the mass detention of an ethnic group is typically the work of a state fighting a war. Below the surface, it’s the work of a nation, using a war to forcibly remove whoever may be in a land but does not belong to it. Perversely, it even accepts the enemy’s definition of who belongs to them.
During World War II, when Britain interned Japanese civilians inside the Purana Qila, many of the internees were picked up from as far as Iran, or Chhapra in Bihar. Many had never been to Japan. It must have been a shock to be designated, and relocated, as a subject of the Emperor.
In Deoli, it wasn’t just Chinese-Indians who were detained — they were joined by many Tibetans. Some were picked up as they crossed the border to seek refuge, and ended up dumped in Deoli. Tibetans were asserting their right to be free, and India was at war with the People’s Republic. But detention draws lines almost on the enemy’s behalf.
Quoting the political scientist Srirupa Roy, the authors write that “the 1962 war began the ‘ethnicisation of the nation’, meaning that it became possible to use ‘blood and race’ to define who did and did not belong.” The 3,000 Chinese-Indians, deemed to not belong in the 1960s, were the early drip-drip of exclusionary nationalism, which now threatens to collapse the ceiling.
Today, without a war, we have found a way to designate a much larger class of residents as not-Indian, again validating the terms of the supposed enemy. These are the cruelties we perpetrate on ourselves when we use identity to decide who belongs in the country and who in the camps.
(Raghu Karnad is a journalist and writer, and a recipient of the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for non-fiction)