India's Forgotten Chinese Internment Camp

Following a brief border skirmish in 1962, India held 3,000 ethnic Chinese people in prison camps. A half-century later, survivors are still seeking justice.
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chinaindiawarbanner.jpgArmy soldiers carry the coffin containing the remains of Karam Chand, a soldier who died during the 1962 Indo-China war. (Reuters)

Michael Cheng was six years old in 1962 when the police came to take him and his family away. They arrived, armed and in force, in the middle of the night. Some of the officers, many of whom had known the Chengs for years, were apologetic. They were just following orders, the men assured Michael's mother, and the family was being taken somewhere safe "for your own good."

The Cheng family wasn't the only one. Andy Hsieh was a student at a boarding school in Shillong, in northeast India. One day, he and several of his classmates were called into the headmaster's office and told that they would be going away for an indefinite length of time.

When police came for Wong Ying Sheng's family, they were packed and ready to go. Wong's mother had escaped the Japanese invasion of Singapore and knew the signs.

Michael's family, too, was unsurprised when the police arrived. Michael's father had been imprisoned for the previous week, one of dozens of "suspicious people" in the tiny Chinese-Indian community scattered around West Bengal who were arrested by the authorities in the first days of the 1962 Sino-Indian Border Conflict. But what was a surprise was how far the family -- Michael, his parents, and his older brother Moses -- were taken. Over the next days they were transported 1,000 miles west to a remote prison camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. They would spend the next two years there -- prisoners of a war that was never declared.

From today's vantage point, a war between China and India - the world's two largest countries by population - seems remote, a relic of ancient history. And initially, relations between the newly independent India and the recently established People's Republic of China (PRC) were strong: Nehru's India was one of the first nations to recognize Mao Zedong's Communist regime when it took power in China in 1949. Despite one major sticking point -- the two countries shared a long and poorly-defined Himalayan border -- relations between China and India were mostly cordial through the 1950s.

Tibet proved to be the catalyst for worsening relations. Initially, India reassured China that it had no designs on the territory, which Beijing annexed in 1950.  But relations soured when, after a failed Tibetan uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to Dharmsala in India's Himachal Pradesh. In response, a furious China claimed over 60,000 square miles of Indian-controlled territory and demanded "rectification" of the disputed Himalayan border. Beijing's proposal was rejected, and the two countries began years of "military incidents" and minor skirmishes.

Then, on October 201962, People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops crossed the border in force, overwhelming the unprepared and undermanned Indian defenders. Within a month, Chinese forces had largely occupied the territory they had claimed in 1959, and on November 19 China declared a unilateral ceasefire. Both countries retreated to the unofficial "Line of Actual Control" that existed pre-1959, though China retained de facto ownership of Aksai Chin and India was forced to abandon any territorial ambitions to the east. For Indians, this was a national humiliation.

***

Chinese immigration to India started in earnest over 100 years before the 1962 conflict when the British recruited laborers from Hong Kong and Guangdong to work in tea plantations, and by the middle of the 20th century there were some 3,000 ethnic Chinese and Tibetans living in the newly independent Republic of India. These "hyphenated Indians" became the scapegoats for the country's defeat in the 1962 war with China.

"The Indian government thought all border Chinese were potential spies," Michael Cheng says, sipping a soft drink in Meizhou, the sweltering Guangdong Province city near his ancestral homeland. Michael, now a naturalized American citizen, described how he and his family, along with most of their neighbors, were transported to the Deoli prison camp, where some remained for as much as six years -- five years and 335 days longer than the war itself.

The internment of Chinese-Indians, which contravened both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which India was a founding signatory) and India's own constitution, was established by the Defense of India Act 1962 which permitted the "apprehension and detention in custody of any person [suspected] of being of hostile origin." This broad power ultimately allowed for the arrest of any person with a drop of Chinese blood, a Chinese surname, or married to a Chinese person. Some of the arrested "Chinese" families had lived in India for generations and regarded themselves as Indian.

"One Hindi teacher we had, who was absolutely Indian -- he had a Chinese name or something like that -- somehow ended up in the camp," Cheng says. "You'd see people who didn't look Chinese at all -- they looked completely Indian."

***

The Deoli camp was originally set up by the British to house prisoners of war in the 1940s. Following independence, the Indian government converted Deoli to a prison for Chinese- and Tibetan-Indians, many or them children or infirm. Trains ran from Makum, an area near the Burmese border with a large ethnic-Chinese community, to Assam. It was there that Michael and his family joined hundreds of other "potential spies" for the long trip west to Rajasthan.

The trip took over a week, in a cramped train with the word "enemy" scrawled on the side. In "Deoli Diaries", a collection of interviews with camp survivors, Wong Ying Sheng recalled how the internees were kept under armed guard at all times. Once, when the train stopped near a town, locals threw stones and hit the carriages with sticks, yelling at those inside to "go back to China". Other internees, small children at the time, spoke of being separated from their families during the trip and shoved into carriages alongside other youngsters.

Most of those who chose to stay had strong roots in India, like businesses and homes. It was their life you know, they didn't want to leave.

Upon arrival at Deoli, internees endured the notoriously inefficient Indian bureaucracy as they were processed, one by one, into the camp.

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