BOOK CORNER: THE DEOLI WALLAHS: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment … Joy Ma … Dilip D’Souza


    ‘THE DEOLI WALLAHS—The True Story of the 1962 Chinese—Indian Internment’ by Joy Ma & Dilip D’Souza.

    The subject title was first published in 2020 by Pan Macmillan. A citation at the bottom of the cover page of the book by Pratap Bhanu Mehta an Indian Political Scientist says, ‘Humanly compelling, beautifully told … brings to light a forgotten chapter of Indian history, one we need to remember in these troubled times.’

    The title is an untold account of the internment of some 3,000 Chinese—Indians just after the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The narration commences with a long ‘Preface’ followed by the ‘Origins’ chapter which explains where these Chinese-Indians came from. It describes the Chinese debut in India in Achipur and Calcutta, to begin with, and later their migration to other parts of the country which slowly expanded for nearly 200 years after Atchew’s arrival—The first ancestor of the Chinese in India.  

    The title is a mid-length narration of fewer than 200 pages divided into 17 chapters plus Notes and Annexures. In Chinese, they refer to Deoli Camp as chap chung yin (Hakka) or chi chung yin (Pinyin) which translates into a ‘gathered-together camp’ or a ‘concentration camp.’ The Deoli Camp was also used for incarcerating Indian political prisoners and for prisoners of war during World War II.

    Just after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, about 3,000 Chinese-Indians were sent to languish in a disused World War II prisoner of war camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, marking the beginning of a painful five-year-long internment without resolution. At the time of war with China, these ‘Chinese-looking’ people had fallen prey to government suspicion and paranoia which soon seeped into the public consciousness just because their features were Chinese. This is a page of Indian history that comes wrapped in prejudice and fear and is today largely forgotten. But over five decades on, survivors of the internment camp are finally starting to tell their stories. So, is there an apology due from the Government of India to them is a point in question raised in the book.

    The authors of the book record these untold stories through extensive interviews of survivors of the Deoli internment. Through these personal accounts, the authors not only discover a crucial chapter in our history but also document for the first time how the Chinese came to be in India, how they made this country their home and became a significant community, until the war of 1962 that brought on a terrible incarceration, displacement and tragedy to them. The narration is primarily structured around the Chinese-Indian community, who open their hearts and minds to the authors. The Chinese-Indians were considered spies during those times of the Indo-China conflict. I know it for sure because I lived in Shillong then, where my father was a minister in the Assam Cabinet. But then the government had little leeway in terms of thinking otherwise.

    And now my observation on the storytelling. The narration could have been even more forthright. The language is plain English in easy to read format. Since the narration has many personal accounts it gives you a feel as if much is happening in the book but the general plot moves slowly. I particularly found the chapter titled ‘A CONTESTED LINE’ to be very interesting and informative. It gives you a good open view of why the Chinese conflict took place at all. After the Indian-Chinese were released from Deoli Prison they had a long struggle rebuilding their lives. Some stayed back in India and some left for greener pastures abroad. Not many would know that even a ship had docked at the Madras port to take the internees from Deoli to China the ones who were willing to go. The book is a gratifying mix of the China conflict and Deoli’s internment camp in the 5th chapter titled ‘WAR.’ But was there any sense in adding this chapter to the narration because to me it diluted the central agonizing story of those interned at the Deoli camp? However, the chapter titled ‘War’ does raise the Indian flag when it describes the Rezang La Ridge, the scene of the fierce battle that is still remembered in India as the lone glorious chapter in the otherwise depressing story of the 1962 war. But yes, the continuity of the story is momentarily derailed by the chapter titled ‘WAR.’ The book has some illustrating pictures of the Deoli barracks too. The narration lacks the flourish of emotions considering what the families of the protagonists underwent. The authors could have definitely scripted the narrative to be more emotional taking into account the sentiments of the protagonists. The narration of the central plot is not a continuous happening in the book. It is in staccato-bursts because of the several personal accounts. The sequencing of the chapters could have been better. The historical facts are engrossing and interesting when you look back. I guess the chapters don’t sequence well because of certain heavyweight chapters in between the normal chapters that override the main plot of the book but then they are vital for the consummation of the ultimate story. The plot reveals that the Indian Government’s approach towards the ‘Chinese-Indian’ in those times was not soft due to their being treated as spies.

    The authors have compared the Deoli prison camp with the Manzanar prison camp in the US where American-Japanese prisoners were housed during World War II. The book makes a gentle request to the Government of India for a ‘Chinese-Indian memorial’ to mark their trauma. The narration compares the Chinese-Indian prisoners of India with the Japanese-American prisoners of the US which is asymmetric. It highlights that a majority of the Japanese internees remained in the US after their release and even got an official apology from the government of the US after forty-six years, whereas a majority of the Chinese internees left India to start a new life in other countries and never got an apology from the government of India. Towards the end, the narration expresses a flurry of holistic emotions.

    As a reader, I felt the narration should have been more along the central theme of the book than deviating from it off and on or the sequencing of the chapters could have been shuffled when the authors had a meaty story to tell. Of course, the book is more like a personal account of several families that were interned.

    Buried under the ‘Himalayan Blunder’ of 1962 – the humiliating India-China war – is also a tragic story of many Chinese-Indian that is not known to most of India and was quietly ignored by successive governments. Did one know that Deoli in Rajasthan had an internment camp during World War II? Starting in 1931 the British used to detain various leaders of the burgeoning Indian freedom struggle. Five hundred freedom fighters from Bengal to begin with and then, in the 1940s, Jayaprakash Narayan, S.A. Dange, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.T. Ranadive, S.S. Batliwala, S.G. Patkar and many others were detained here. In the National Archives in New Delhi, there are petitions from the wives of some of these men, asking for a maintenance allowance during their husbands’ incarceration or for their travel expenses to meet their husbands to be reimbursed. The British not surprisingly, rejected them all.

     What I liked about the book was the initiative of the authors to have woven a book around the happenings of the Indo-China conflict which otherwise was unknown to Indians especially when it affected only a minuscule of Chinese-Indian population. The story sets you thinking.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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