There ought to be a word for the opposite of xenophobia—not in the sense of love for people from other nations (which is xenophilia perhaps, the love of things that are foreign), but in the sense of fear and suspicion of the citizens of the same nation. The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza leaves the readers concerned about the gaps in the Indian citizens’ knowledge about their nation and the absence of vocabulary that can explain this absence. The book is about the consequences that the Indians of Chinese origin had to face when India and China went to war in 1962. Its study of history combined with testimonies from the survivors of the community makes for a shocking read.
The one-month long India-China War in 1962 was the result of conflict over border issues. While the two nations had always observed a customary, traditional border, it had not been formally or officially accepted by China for it claimed that the colonial-era McMahon line, as it is known, was a British imposition. A series of arguments led to the war at the border. In India, it meant more than battles—it involved going on a hunt for the Chinese spies. The government and the police officials found around 3,000 Indians of Chinese origin in the north eastern parts of India and incarcerated them in a camp in Deoli in the northwestern state of Rajasthan. The survivors continue to call themselves “Deoliwallahs”.
The survivors share the same story: people asked to leave with the police immediately without packing anything much, getting shifted to a jail for preliminary inquiry, being attacked by others on the train journey to Deoli, and the arrival at the camp. There are stories of idleness and hopelessness, stories about lack of food—about pieces of bread so hard that they would bounce back when thrown at the walls, or stories of the freezing cold.
The experience in the camp is too disturbing to be described. Joy Ma narrates how Ying Sheng’s horror at the sight of his father’s dead body:
He couldn’t believe that the mutilated figure before them was their father. Both his eyes were gone. His chest was like a spider web after some horrible operation. He had been stitched back together with a thin nylon string. There were cuts of about six or seven inches on both his hands, which had been stitched up. In a daze, too afraid to say anything out loud to his brothers, Ying Sheng thought to himself, ‘Why would his hands have cuts? What was he thinking of in his last moments?’
Some internees chose to go “back” to China in the three ships sent by China. Some, like Joy Ma’s family, chose to stay in India, the only place they knew as home and because they saw themselves as Indians. These Indians did not understand that in asking them to choose between going to China and staying in India, the then Home Minister (and later Prime Minister) Lal Bahadur Shastri meant that staying in India would mean staying in the camp.
The real struggles for the Deoliwallahs began after they were released. They were left on the roads in most cases. Some of them were prohibited from going back to their homes. While some of them were continued to be observed by the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) officials, all were rendered helpless by the bureaucracy. One family was asked to pay the income tax for the years they spent in the camp. Another had to fight a case in the court to get their property back, and that without a permit to visit their home/city.
The authors’ approach of complementing history with oral history succeeds in making Indian readers confront the meaning and criteria behind citizenship, at a time when the citizenship laws are being amended to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities based on religious affinities. Their approach also points the readers towards the origins of communal hatred that is openly expressed through acts of violence in India:
This is the legacy of 1962. In every hateful stereotype expressed about one or the other community today, every murderous attack on members of a different religion, every call to go to Pakistan, every unthinking use of words like chinki and kalya, you can trace roots that stretch back half a century to that prison camp.
We don’t realize, but this is what Deoli has done to us.
Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza have opened a neglected area for further investigation. For instance, it would be interesting to hear from the internees who chose to go to China. How do they remember Deoli, or would they too call themselves (or allowed to be a part of) the Deoliwallahs as a group? Another question looming large is the silence about the episode itself. Considering that people would attack the train in which the Deoliwallahs were packed to be sent to Deoli and that even China knew about the existence of the camp, how did the memory and knowledge of its existence get wiped out from the national memory?
These questions, apart from the larger one about what to call the fear and suspicion of citizens, remain to be explored. The possibilities of answers might change the dominant narratives around the modern history of South Asia.