Nestled in pockets of Chennai are colonies for Burmese Indians, who were born in present-day Myanmar during British rule and repatriated to the country after Independence. Many are first-generation repatriates who continue to hold on to memories of their land and families and have a deep desire to return.
Mary was born in Rangoon (present-day Yangon) and repatriated to India when she was just a teenager. Her grandfather, a native of Ramanathapuram in southern Tamil Nadu, migrated to the country in the 1920s after his parents died during a famine.
He was among the many Tamilians who migrated north in the early 1900s, in search of jobs or a better quality of life. Burma at the time was a rich country, with fertile lands. “The Burmese were very good to us. They were generous and had a good mentality. That’s why Indians flourished there,” Mary explained.
In fact, her grandfather, who owned 100 acres of agricultural land, was one of the Tamils who frequently returned to assist youth in migrating to Burma. “He would accommodate them in our house till they found jobs,” she recalled. “Sometimes, he even helped them get married!”
The migration of Burmese to India began during the period of Japanese Occupation (1942-45) but intensified in the 1960s after the military took control of the country and ordered the repatriation of Indians.
Bagyam was among those who boarded ships sent by the Jawaharlal Nehru-led government in the 1960s to facilitate the return of Indians. “There were 500 people assigned to a boat, which took five days to reach the Tamil Nadu coast. The government took care of us and offered us food, but once we landed life became tough. We had nothing to eat… we had to make do with what we had,” she said.
Leaving behind her parents and brother, Bagyam came to India with her four sisters. “I’ve never gone back since, but I long to. My brother is there… Or he may have died by now…”
From learning the language to finding work, several people recall how the transition to India, a country they had never been to, was tough. And most remember how C N Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), was instrumental in setting up houses for them in areas like Vyasarpadi and Roypuram in Chennai, and even opened Burma Bazaar in North Chennai for trade. According to data provided by the Tamil Nadu government in 2005, 1.4 lakh repatriates arrived in India from Burma between 1963 and 1989 and were resettled in the state.
“Anna gave us space here, and a house after we arrived. M Karunanidhi later ensured land was given to us in the city as well,” Bagyam recalls.
Mary, too, remembers Annadurai’s hand in helping the Burmese Tamils. “I am very grateful to India, it is my motherland now. But Burma is a nicer country; the people, and their hospitality… you can never find this anywhere else,” she says. “I would like to go back to Burma as I was born there and my people are there. But it’s difficult now. We won’t get citizenship.”
Echoes of ‘business is bad’ in Burma Bazaar
From electronics to toys, Burma Bazaar has a notorious reputation of selling unauthorised goods. Located along the outer wall of the Chennai beach railway station in George Town, the market was established in 1969 during the Annadurai-led Tamil Nadu government. There are around 900 shops in the market.
George Town has remnants of the Madras Presidency. Old British buildings, now housing the State Bank of India, India Post and other government entities, line the roads of Parry’s.
Mohammad Yasir, a trader in Burma Bazaar, said his family returned to India by ship during the Japanese occupation. “The situation was bad there, so I fled. But when I came to Chennai, it was difficult here too. We had no water or food until the government under Anna settled us,” he said.
Several traders continue to travel to present day Myanmar to purchase goods. Raju, who sells a Burmese sweet in the market, talked about how he’s been all over India, including Moreh along the Manipur border with Myanmar. “The Centre has opened a new route to Myanmar from Manipur,” he said excitedly, adding that this allowed him to travel to states in North India like Delhi, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir.
Yasir, who returned from the country two months ago, said, “I still go back and get goods, but business is bad in Burma now so I don’t have any plans on returning.” He adds that business is not particularly good in India either.
Abdul Rehman, the president of the Burma Bazaar Tamizhan Association, stressed that the community is secular and does not vote as one for any political party. “We have never imposed our political views on anyone. Every family is free to vote for the party of their choice,” he said diplomatically, adding, “The government has been largely indifferent towards us recently; neither do they help us nor do they trouble us.”
Rehman travelled to India in 1963 by ship when he was seven-years-old. “Unlike those days when my father was a trader, the business has changed now. The frequency of customers has decreased,” he said but refused to attribute it to online sales or demonetisation when asked.
In Burma Bazaar, everyone knows Tamil, some know Hindi, but less than a handful speak Burmese.