It was a cold night in November 1962 when the police first came to the door of the Leong family in Shillong and Mrs. Leong knew that what she had feared all these days had finally come true.
“For weeks, we had heard that all persons of Chinese origin were going to be rounded up and taken away. Two weeks ago, my mother had asked us not to go to school — a Chinese establishment — fearing that we may be picked up there. But now the police had come home,” recalled Monica Liu, who was nine and the eldest among five siblings.
It was her mother who woke up first, and when they peeped through the windows, they saw a huge contingent of policemen. The police came to the Leong residence and informed them that the entire family would be taken away, and asked them to gather their belongings.
In the months leading up to October 1962, when the first arrests started, members of the Chinese community had been on tenterhooks. The Hsieh family, shoemakers at Kalimpong in Darjeeling district, were prepared for the impending arrest as both were born in China.
Ming-Tung Hsieh, their son who had just turned 18 in 1962, recalls in his book A Lost Tribe that he had been given instructions on how to run the family’s shoe shop. But the family was in for a shock when they realised that even the children — all of them born in India — were also being apprehended.
Where were they going, Mr, Hsieh, the Leongs, and all the others?
“Our first reaction was that we would be sent back to China. But we were told that for the time being we were only going to the jail in Shillong,” Ms. Liu said.
The Leong family was kept in the jail in Shillong for a fortnight and other Chinese families they knew were also brought there.
“It was there that I developed revulsion for potatoes that stayed with me to this day. The food in the jail was terrible, and for the whole fortnight we were given the same meals — rice that smelt stale, watery dal and potatoes,” she said.
A fortnight in prison was followed by a trip to Guwahati where they were all bundled into a train. “It was coming from Dibrugarh, full of Chinese families from all over Assam. We travelled for eight days and still did not know where we were going. The train would halt for long hours at stations to allow other trains to pass, and I wondered if the journey would ever end,” Ms. Liu said. Eventually, they reached the Central Internment Camp at Deoli in Rajasthan, and the family was allotted a small room.
“The entrance had a big steel arch, exactly like the entrance to any concentration camp one would see in a World War II movie,” writes Mr. Hsieh.
On both sides of the entrance, there were watch towers; each tower had two sentries armed with searchlights and light machine guns. The entire camp, about two square kilometres in area, was fenced with barbed wire. There was an armed watch tower every 100 metres, he adds. The Leong family had lived in a hill station in Shillong and found the move to the sunny Rajasthan difficult to adapt themselves to. And it was here that the family was forced to stay for five years. “I was a 9-year-old girl when I went to the camp. When we were eventually released, I was a 15-year-old,” Ms. Liu recalled.
“During the day, it was murderously hot. It was so hot we couldn’t stay indoors. In the summers, we would sleep outside… Initially, we children were very happy. We did not have to go to school, but my mother broke into tears nearly every day,” Ms. Liu said.
The day was spent on the household chores. The initial arrangement of a central kitchen drew so many complaints (“the cooked rice used to stink and we had to wash it several times before it was edible”) that the families were given raw rations and allowed to cook, Ms. Liu recalled.
Over time, some among the community who were better educated started informal classes for the children. But there was a severe shortage of books and stationery, and the inmates had to beg the authorities to provide them with exercise books in the camp’s canteen, she said.
“On July 4, 1964, a notice appeared on our wing office notice board that the government had decided to release all those detained but they will not be allowed to return to the five northern districts,” writes Mr. Hsieh. Those who lived in Darjeeling, Siliguri, Shillong or Guwahati were not free to leave.
“Many had relatives in Chinatown in Calcutta or other parts of the country, but we had no one. Some of our uncles and other relatives had gone back to China and we did not have anywhere else to go to. So we waited,” Ms. Liu said. Eventually, the families who insisted on returning home to north Bengal or the northeast were issued their release orders, but the wait for the Leong family continued.
“There was a mix-up. My father, Leong Ton Seong, who ran a restaurant in Shillong was mistaken for a distant relative, Leong Kim Seong. My uncle was a teacher and had already been sent back to China,” she explained.
As a result of the confusion, the Leong family was not released, but transferred to a jail at Nagaon in Assam when the camp in Deoli was closed. Three Chinese families and some bachelors spent another nine months in prison until they eventually wrote a petition to the Home Minister of Assam, and got release orders. Ms. Liu, who owns several Chinese restaurants in Kolkata, has difficulty recalling dates now. It is one of the few things she has been able to forget.