They call themselves Deoli-wallahs, the people of Deoli. It’s a place they remember vividly even though they lived there over 50 years ago.
The memories seem almost idyllic, of long summer days, slingshots, camels. But it all happened behind barbed wire, under the watchful eyes of soldiers with guns. Deoli, a military camp in the deserts of Rajasthan in western India, was where thousands of Chinese-Indians were interned in 1962 after India and China went to war.
That war lasted barely a month, but the Chinese languished in the camps for four years or more.
That year, on August 15, 13-year-old Steven Wan was marching in a school parade saluting the Indian flag to mark Indian Independence Day. Three months later his entire family was packed into a train that chugged slowly across 1,000 miles until it reached Rajasthan.
The train was filled with Chinese families who had been picked up under the Defence of India Act of 1962, modeled on the same law that the US used to intern Japanese Americans two decades earlier. The Deoli internees were eventually never charged with espionage or sedition. But they were not set free either.
It’s a spot in Indian history that few Indians know about. There was no apology, no reparations. Even the Chinese, traumatized by the experience spoke little about it. When they were finally released many chose to leave India.
Wan was so embittered he never admitted he was from India for years. He would tell people he was from Taiwan.
Michael Cheng, another internee, remembers seeing his father handcuffed like a common felon. He says he was a broken man afterward. Their businesses were seized by others, and for 30 years they waged a legal battle to get their restaurant back, eventually winning in the High Court.
“By then all the brothers had left already,” he says with a rueful smile. He had lived three generations in India but now he lives in North Carolina.
“We left the country because of mistrust. Otherwise today we might still be Indian.”
Cheng, Wan and fellow internees Yin Marsh and Joy Ma from California came to India recently. They had many questions.
Why were they kept in the camp for so long after the war ended?
Why were their movements restricted afterward though no one was ever charged?
Would the Indian government apologize?
Would they build a monument in Deoli?
These are uncomfortable questions. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, India was a founding signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nehru was himself imprisoned in Deoli by the British as a freedom fighter before Independence.
It was a bitter irony that under his watch several thousand Chinese were imprisoned there just for being Chinese.
Marsh titled her memoir of her time in the camp "Doing Time with Nehru." She says going to meetings marking the 50th anniversary of the Japanese internment in the US inspired her to reopen this conversation. Now they are setting up an organization in consultation with an American lawyer to push for answers.
It’s not as if Deoli was a concentration camp. They were not tortured. Cheng remembers how they would take tubing from old tires and make a slingshot to try and shoot pigeons. Marsh laughs as she recalls how the camp cooks once tried to serve them camel meat. Wan remembers the pink medicine that was given for every kind of ailment. But several internees died in the camp from sunstroke, unable to take the heat.
In 1964 the government announced plans to deport them to China, though many had fled to India after Mao’s Communist revolution.
Monica Liu, now a successful restaurateur in Kolkata’s Chinatown, says her family almost abandoned her mother for wanting to go to China while her father wanted to stay in India. When they finally left the camp their troubles did not end. They were broke with nowhere to go. Liu’s mother started selling steamed dumplings at a school to make ends meet.
Wan remembers his family being brought back to Calcutta. Some other internees who had been released earlier came to the station to welcome them. They were promptly re-arrested because they did not have the permit to come to the station. They took shelter in a Chinese temple and funeral home.
“We were woken up at 5 by people bringing a body in for funeral service,” Wan remembers. “We were thrown on the side of the street with our blankets. That was our first night of freedom.”
Now over 50 years later, they say they do not hold out much hope for reparations. But a memorial, some kind of acknowledgement, would go a long way. Liu says she is doing well now. She has five successful restaurants and even opened an Indian restaurant in China for a while.
“I don’t want to remember the bad thing that happened to us,” she says. “But no one will forget.” She says to this day there are some vegetables she cannot eat — potatoes and lauki (a kind of squash). “For five and a half years I was eating that only. I don’t want to smell that even.”