Features | Society | South Asia

The 1962 Internment of Chinese Indians

The specter of another Sino-Indian war has raised worries that one of the horrors of that conflict could be repeated.

By Aadil Brar for
The 1962 Internment of Chinese Indians
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Many still don’t know that the Indian government interned Indians of Chinese heritage at a camp in the state of Rajasthan during the 1962 war with China. The members of the Chinese community that were interned at the Deoli camp have only begun sharing their stories in the last few years.

Now, with tensions spiking at the border again, there are worries that shameful history could repeat itself.

The history of ethnic Chinese people in India can be traced back to the Tibet trade during the 18th and 19th century. During the boom years of tea plantations, the British tea plantation owners brought Chinese workers from southern China, Hong Kong, and around Southeast Asia to India’s Assam and Darjeeling.

According to Ellen Oxfeld, the Chinese community in the city of Kolkata, where many of the internees were from, is made up of Hakka Chinese that entered the leather manufacturing industry in World War I, Cantonese from Guangdong in the carpentry and craft industries, and a small community of Hubeinese that primarily practice dentistry.

The large majority of Chinese in India can trace their heritage to the Hakka (客家) culture, a term often used for the Chinese diaspora in Hong Kong, Macau, Southeast Asia, and other parts of Asia. The deep cultural legacy of the Chinese community in India can be gleaned from the popularity of Hakka Chinese or Indian Chinese food in India.

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Following its military defeat during the 1962 war with China, the community was caught in the crossfire. India detained and interned approximately 3,000 Chinese Indians at the Deoli camp.

Following the end of the 1962 war, India amended and passed a series of laws that allowed the detention and incarceration of individuals considered to be “committing external aggression against India or of any other country assisting the country at war with or committing such aggression against India.”

The government of India amended the Foreigners Act, 1946 and passed the Defense of India Ordinance, Foreigners Law (Application and Amendment) Act and the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, which together allowed the detention of Chinese Indians and others in the months following the end of 1962 war.

The series of laws developed a legal framework that the Nehru government used to incarcerate Chinese Indians and other people. In January of 1963, India passed the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, which restricted “foreigners” from entering or staying in the “restricted areas,” which included Assam, Meghalaya, and the then five districts of West Bengal. The Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order explicitly excluded “person(s) of Chinese origin” – someone “who, or either of whose parents, or any of whose grandparents, was, at any time, a Chinese national.”

The reference to “person” in the Foreigners Act, meanwhile referred to “any person who, or either of whose parents, or any of whose grandparents was at any time a citizen or subject of any country at war with, or committing external aggression against, India.”

Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma are the authors of a recent book “Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment.” Ma’s own parents were interned at the Deoli camp for four and a half years. Joy was born at the Deoli camp.

“My mom and my dad came from the area near Siliguri (West Bengal) and my mom had lived in Kalimpong before that. The camp grouped people depending on where they came from” Ma told The Diplomat.

“The people who were sent to the camp were mostly from Kolkata and the Northeast, Kolkata, Tinsukia, Makum, Shillong and all those cities. There were a few people from Bangalore and Mumbai but not too many” D’souza told The Diplomat.

The selection of people for internment seemed haphazard at best. “Sometimes they just picked up all the members of a Chinese family, and sometimes they picked up men only,” Ma said.

“They randomly picked up people and they had informers who would say this person was a ‘spy.’ Some of the informers themselves ended up in the camp as well. In some cases, they took the father but didn’t take the rest of the family, and sometimes they took one part of the family and left the other half behind” D’Souza added.

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Experts have speculated that Chinese Indians who were interned were detained because they had either traveled to China for business or someone informed that a particular family had “alleged” ties to China. There was no clear pattern to who was detained, the only common thread being that they were perceived to be Chinese.

Along with Chinese Indians, Tibetans were also incarcerated at the Deoli camp. According to a former internee of the camp, there were 200 Tibetans, kept in Wing 1 at the camp, along with Chinese Indians. The Tibetans that were interned at the camp blamed the Chinese Indians for their fate.

“The Tibetans hated us. They said that it was because of us they were in the camp. We kept telling them ― No, we are not from China, we are from Shillong or Darjeeling or Makum, just like you,” internee Chris Liu recounted in an interview.

“No one really knows how the GOI [government of India] in 1962 decided who was to be rounded up for the internment camp, and how it decided who should be released and when. There was no method to the madness” Yin Marsh told The Diplomat, although she noted that “The majority of the internees lived in the border regions.” Marsh and her family were detained at the camp; she wrote a book about her experience titled “Doing Time with Nehru: The Story of an Indian-Chinese Family.”

In 1962, the property and businesses of the Chinese Indians were confiscated. Some like the Tang family from Shillong received a small compensation for their business, which was confiscated after they were released.

Despite a series of diplomatic and military-level talks, the possibility of an armed conflict along the Line of Actual Control remains high. To some, that has raised the prospect that Chinese Indians could be targeted for detention once again.

Marsh told The Diplomat, “I believe legal frameworks do exist which allows the government of India to intern people of other ethnic groups. I believe the Foreigners Act was amended in the 1970s when India and Pakistan went to war, and again recently in 2019.”

The strained bilateral relations between China and India resulting in the clash on June 15 at Galwan Valley has amplified the voices across India calling for a boycott of Chinese goods, businesses, and food.

“I feel for the Chinese Indians living in India who are scared (especially the older generation) that 1962 will be repeated all over again,” Marsh said. “A member of the government who recently encouraged natives (Indians) to boycott Chinese imports, as well as Chinese restaurants and other Chinese businesses surely doesn’t help but inflame the situation and give people the green light to harm Chinese Indians.”

While reflecting on the recent events at the China-India border, D’Souza said, “This is what exactly happened in 1962. There were these calls to boycott Chinese food and businesses, and all that prejudice finally got translated into putting these people into prison camp”

A large group of surviving internees of the Deoli Camp now live in Canada. They have formed the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees 1962 (AIDCI) and they have been trying to tell the world about the internment of Chinese Indians. In July this year, AIDCI wrote a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to “monitor the threat to the Chinese Indians in India and grant those who are persecuted refugee status in Canada.”

China has itself detained over 2 million Uyghur Muslims in “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang region. China’s human rights violations have earned Xi Jinping and the Communist Party sharp rebuke from countries around the world.

If India wants to maintain its moral currency in the current geopolitical climate, they should avoid repeating the blunder of the internment of Chinese Indians in 1962.

Aadil Brar is a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in the BBC, The Quint, The Wire India, Devex and other publications.