“My mother and father never got back together. We could never see our grandmother again.”
“I never got to attend school till after my teenage years. I still fail to understand what our fault was.”
Yin Marsh was 13-years-old when her father was suddenly taken away from her. With her mother away in Nepal in search of business, the teenager had to care for her ageing grandmother and her eight-year-old brother all by herself in Darjeeling. As she struggled, she wondered why her otherwise cordial neighbours never reached out to her. And even before the girl could make sense of what she described as a “traumatic situation”, she was “reunited” with her father — in the prison.
Marsh wasn’t the only one. Eight-year-old Monica Liu and her family were all packed and ready in Shillong when the police came for them. They understood the signs and were sure they were going to be away for long.
As a war broke out between India and China, several Chinese people of Indian origin were rounded up under the Defence of India Act, 1962. Suspected of being spies or Chinese sympathisers, more than 3,000 Indian Chinese living in Kalimpong, Shillong and Kolkata were put on a train and transported thousands of miles away from their homes to an internment camp in Rajasthan’s Deoli.
“When the war broke out, my father was more concerned about the welfare of the Indian soldiers. He felt they were not suitably clad for the warfare in the cold mountains and were supplied poor weapons. Suddenly one afternoon, someone came to our house to speak to my father and asked him to go with him to the police station for questioning. He never returned home,” recalled Marsh, who is now residing in California.
Marsh, who was well-known because of the family restaurant in the locality, wondered why no one came forward to help. “We didn’t know where our father was and why he was taken away. Initially, I tried to seek help from our friends and even visited the convent school I used to attend. But everyone appeared to be scared. No one came forward. We were advised not to venture out. For a whole month, I felt clueless and worried about us being taken away as well,” she added.
Echoing similar sentiment, 67-year-old Liu recalled how as a kid, she first went to the Shillong jail with her kin before being pushed onto the train.
“The General had come for all the Chinese residing in Shillong, Kalimpong and Kolkata. Many of the Chinese, who settled here years before the war broke out, had married local women and had families. When the police arrived, the wives refused to let their husbands go alone and the families decided to leave together,” the popular restaurateur in Kolkata said.
The Deoli camp was originally built for the British to house prisoners of war in the 1940s. After 1947, the Indian government converted it into a jail in the wake of the 1962 war. The camp was divided into five wings and surrounded by watch towers on all sides. The entire campus was fenced with barbed wires.
The fact that some of the camps had individual buildings while the others housed the ‘prisoners’ in large rooms spoke of how little the government was prepared to detain such a huge number of people.
At over 40 degrees Celsius with no fan, little did the families imagine what was in store for them.
“My family of seven was kept in a small room with one door and window. We used to collect the sacks in which the ration would arrive to use them as curtains. We would have to soak them in water and hang them out to keep ourselves cool but given the extreme temperatures, they would get dried within 15 minutes,” Liu said.
She also recalled how a majority of the deaths that took place during her stay in the camp for over five years were mainly due to heat stroke, besides diarrhoea. “I had a friend from Assam in the camp itself. We used to play together. One afternoon, someone came running to our room to inform us that he had died. We later learnt that it was due to the heat,” she said.
Besides the living condition, the survivors also recalled the horrible food they were compelled to eat till they were allowed to cook on their own. “In the beginning, the food was almost inedible. I don’t think the staff ever had to cook for thousands of people. The rice and dal were always undercooked. At one time, we were even given camel meat which was tough and rubbery. We assumed that they must have found a dead camel and decided to cook it for us,” Marsh said.
It was not until the internees rebelled that each of them was handed over their own share of ration to prepare food. “With time, the food improved. In the beginning, there was always rice, dal, chapati and some vegetable. On rare occasions, we used to get meat,” she added.
After a week or so, the Indian government offered the detainees the choice of returning to China on repatriation ships. Initially, rumours made the rounds that only the men would be sent and women kept behind. Later, the government made it optional for those who wished to leave. While some agreed, others opted to stay in the camp and wait for their release.
“My brother and I were the first ones to be released after three months. We were picked up by the friends of my mother and taken to Delhi, where we were put on a plane to Nepal since she was already there. My grandmother was released after eight months due to poor health. She lived with my uncle and cousin in Kolkata and they left for Taiwan in 1964 when life in India became intolerable for them,” Marsh said.
On the other hand, Liu recollected how her parents remained divided over the issue.
“All that my mother wanted was an education for us. But my father said that we had no one in China. At one point, my mom even proposed to leave with three of her kids while keeping the remaining two with my father. After many fights, they dropped the idea and stayed together.”
Those who waited spent at least five years in the camp although the war lasted just a month. Pregnant women gave birth to children at the camps. Some died due as there were no good doctors.
Joy Ma was among those born in the camp. “We were the last to leave the camp in July 1967. My parents were not allowed to return to Hasimara and were taken to Kolkata where there were given no resources to rebuild their lives. They had to start from the scratch,” she said.
It was around 1968 that the remaining internees were freed from the Rajasthan camp. But their ordeal was far from over. A few families spent nine months in an Assam jail until Liu wrote a letter to the then Assam Home Minister and was visited by an official. “After a few days, the government decided to free us. They asked us where we wanted to go. My father chose Shillong since we were already living there before the war,” she added.
The victims of the war were compelled to begin a new life in misery and seclusion with no support from the government whatsoever. With their property already either sold as the “enemy property” or ransacked, the process of picking up the pieces of shattered lives and homes gradually began. “My mother used to prepare momos and sell them across schools. I got myself enrolled in Class 6 to begin with. I struggled with my basics and used to make a lot of spelling errors. I never secured good marks and managed to scrape through,” Liu said.
The mental agony that these people were put through will definitely last them a lifetime. “My father found a job with a Chinese newspaper. He also taught in a school but found life difficult, especially since he had no family support. He finally decided to leave India in 1967 and remarried. We never got to see him ever again,” Marsh said.
She added: “I’m saddened to see that the border conflict between India and China could never be resolved. In the event of another war, I hope that the Indian government does make us victims once again.”
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