For the Chinese community living in Kolkata — the largest settlement of people from China in India — the year 1962, when hostilities broke out along the India-China border, was the first time they felt “unwanted” here.
“The Chinese community seemed to be carving a niche for itself in Calcutta. If not for a great disruption which threw the members completely off keel, the face of the Chinese community would have been very different ,” writes academic Jennifer Liang in her paper Calcutta Chinese – An Oral History.
The loss of faith in the Indian state, which barely acknowledges the internment of the Chinese in India during the war, coupled with other legislation that hurt their economic interests, prompted yet another wave of migration of the community — this time away from the city. According to estimates, the population of ethnic Chinese in the city has declined from about 20,000 to 4,000 today.
From 1780, the first official record of Chinese settlers in Calcutta , the economic migration to India was always meant to be temporary.
In the early 19th century, the waves of Chinese immigrants that had come to the city had always intended to go back, most choosing to bide their time during the Second World War, but the political turmoil in China that followed the war convinced them to stay on.
“In 1949, my father went back to China, but found that nothing we owned remained and decided there was no chance of going back. It was then that we thought that India could be our country. And then the 1962 war happened and we were again made to feel that this is not our country,” said Paul Chung, president of The Indian Chinese Association.
Most Calcutta Chinese were spared arrest. Those who were taken away were intellectuals, teachers, community leaders and anyone seen or even remotely suspected to be ‘close’ to the Communist government in China, Ms. Liang writes.
Returning home from his boarding-school at Liluah in Howrah district for Christmas , Mr. Chung realised that he was now expected to report to the District Intelligence Branch every time he came home, and stay within the limits of Chinatown in Tangra (near Dhapa).
Going anywhere beyond the restricted zone needed special permits; going to the Howrah railway station or Dumdum airport (beyond city limits) needed a separate permit.
And the restrictions were relaxed only in the early 1980s. It is only as late as 1996 that the order restricting the movement of the Chinese was removed, Ms. Liang writes.
After graduating from school, Mr. Chung wanted to take up a job. “This was very important for me… because Chinese custom says that you become a responsible member of the community only after you start working,” he said. But the only job he could find was at a zip-manufacturing factory at Dumdum, and the matter remained in limbo until he could obtain a permit from the police.
The frustrated Mr. Chung shot off a letter to Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and obtained his permit in 10 days. In the prevailing atmosphere , relations between the reclusive Chinese community and the native population were also affected.
Mr. Chung and 60 others residents of Chinatown lost their jobs overnight following a disagreement with the factory’s trade union.
“Before 1962, the Government of India treated the Chinese as ordinary citizens. After 1962, they tightened the belt and the young could not stand it; they wanted to leave,” said Mr. Chung, who himself went back to school to study further and stayed on to retire as the assistant principal of the school.
The fallout of the 1962 conflict for the Chinese Community in India — the internment in the Deoli camp, the deportations, the restrictions on movement, the jobs, shops and homes lost — remained a subject that they did not speak out about. But the events shaped the psyche of the community and there remains a latent fear of a reprisal, should there be another armed conflict.
“Did the Government of India prove a single person to be a Chinese spy? But you [the Indian government] harassed thousands of people for years and never even apologised. If you do not acknowledge our suffering, the community shall always harbour the feeling that you do not want us or understand us,” Mr. Chung said.