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Updated: November 25, 2012 00:23 IST

The Assamese Chinese story

Rita Chowdhury
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UNHAPPY LEGACY: Lal Bahadur Shastri, as Home Minister, visits the internment camp at Deoli on June 9, 1963. Photo: The Hindu Archives
UNHAPPY LEGACY: Lal Bahadur Shastri, as Home Minister, visits the internment camp at Deoli on June 9, 1963. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The China-India war of 1962 had a crushing impact on a small but significant Chinese population that had made this country its home. The Chinese were transported from Kolkata and Assam to a prison camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. On the other side, Kashmiri Muslims and Ladakhis faced China's wrath.

It is an unfortunate part of history that has been lying hidden in the darkness for forty eight years. It is the history of the Assamese Chinese people, who had been forced to uproot themselves from the country of their birth because of their Chinese origin.

Yes, they were not Chinese; they were Assamese Chinese, an integral part of the greater Assamese society.

The British discovered tea plants in the Singpho kingdom, which was adjacent to British Assam, and established tea gardens in different parts of Assam. This task required a huge and experienced workforce, which was not available in Assam.

So the British brought Chinese labourers, artisans, tea growers and tea makers, employing fair or unfair means, and engaged them in the tea gardens. The migration started in 1838. Life was hard, but they learned to adjust to the circumstances.

Soon, labourers from other parts of India were also brought in, in the same manner. A similar fate and shared tragedy brought the communities close. They soon surmounted the language barrier and started intermingling. Many of the Chinese married local women and established a new society in Assam. A series of voluntary migrations of Chinese from China followed. This broadened the space of the newly established society and made it more multi-cultural and multi-ethnic as the migrants married local girls and settled down. Their physical features changed; the descendents forgot the Chinese language. Through sheer hard work and perseverance, the dislocated Chinese made a new life for themselves and prospered.

Many ‘China Patty,’ or small China towns, sprang up in different parts of Assam — of which the China Patty of Makum was the biggest. There was a Chinese Club, a Chinese school, Chinese restaurants and shoe shops. The population lived in relative peace and comfort. They wouldn’t have imagined what fate had in store for them.


It is not possible to mirror the horrendous trials and tribulations as well as humiliations that thousands of Indian Chinese faced during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The war unleashed a chain of events that compelled the Chinese society living in Assam to come face-to-face with an unfortunate situation. Their very own people discarded them only because of their Chinese origin.

Then came the last day of the war: November 19, 1962.

In the evening, Chinese people living in different places were rounded up by the armed forces and compelled to leave their houses. The administration told them they would be shifted to a safer place for two or three days. They were not allowed to take anything with them except papers.

In Assam, it was difficult for the administration to separate the Chinese from the non-Chinese as most of the people didn’t look Chinese and had Indian wives. Most of them had been living there for two to three generations. As the roots of the Indian Chinese ran deep and wide, it became difficult to say who had to be arrested and who shouldn’t be. The authorities arrested those they thought and believed to be Chinese. In that process, families were separated, hard-earned property was seized as enemy property and later auctioned. Husbands were separated from wives, children were separated from parents, and so on.

In the Makum area, they were picked up and packed into a cowshed, from where they were taken to the Dibrugarh jail. In other parts they were arrested and brought to the police station and put in jails. They were then asked to board a closed train, which took them to the Deoli internment camp in Rajasthan. It was a long, seven-day journey of utter suffering. Infants, pregnant women, the old and the sick were also arrested and sent to the camp, violating all human rights.

After some time the Government of India decided to deport the interned back to China in a few batches. In this process, the already divided families were divided again as the government selected the names randomly. The majority of them were deported to China. Many Indian wives also accompanied their husbands to China with their children. The interned people who were allowed to return to their places after a couple of years again faced a difficult situation. The property of most of the people had been auctioned as enemy property. There was no society and no government to support them. They were compelled to live in sheer misery and isolation. Most of them did not get to meet their deported family members ever again.

I went to Makum and visited the places where these people lived and worked. I also interviewed many deportees who were living in different parts of the world – whose eyes were never dry, whose grief never diminished.

The deportees harbour a wish in the deepest corner of their hearts to visit at least once the place where they spent their youth and also to meet their relatives and friends whom they left behind. Though they live in some other part of the world, India is still their birthplace. They call Assam their janam-jagah, their birthplace, which they want to visit at least once before they die. They still speak the Indian language; sing Hindi and Assamese songs, drink milk tea — they celebrate their memories, and their agonies too.

(Dr. Rita Chowdhury is the author of Makam, an Assamese novel on the plight of Assamese people of Chinese origin)

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Thank you for publishing this forgotten bit of history. What is shocking is Lal Bahadur Shastri was party to this? I wonder whose brain child this idea was...

from:  Radha Ghanagamhank
Posted on: Nov 19, 2012 at 12:08 IST

How about a write-up on the plight of Kashmiri Pundits? Perhaps the
editor would be afraid of being labeled "communal"!

from:  kvjayan
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 13:28 IST

this is common when there is a war between two countries.Japanese and Germans face similar situation when they are in USA during 2nd world war.the same will happen to the Indians who lives in USA or any other European countries if there is a war.
immigrants, human rights,naturalized citizens,Chinese Indians,Indian Americans globalization these are new concepts and thinking.such thought never existed in the past.we should not judge the past in-comparison with future.

from:  sharan
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 12:19 IST

In 1962, India joined other freedom-loving countries like the U.S.A. and Canada by stripping their own citizens of their rights and property by declaring them "enemies" simply because of their ethnic origin. It was Japanese and Italians in the 1940s in North America. It was the Chinese in 1962 in India.

I was a student at the time and the anti-Chinese propaganda spewing out was creating such hatred that it was creating an environment for ethnic cleansing. In my college, there were some Malaysian Chinese students studying with us. They had to cut off their studies and flee for their lives.

GOI owes these Indians an apology and full compensation for their losses.They must be granted the right to return to their native land.Anything short is injustice of the worst kind.

GOI also must make sure such gross violation will never be repeated no matte what the provocation is.

from:  K.V.Nagarajan
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 12:04 IST

a very good article indeed......war and fear of something makes us do things that we would oppose otherwise.....feel very sorry for the INDIANS whom we labelled as conspirators........we should ask for their forgiveness

from:  mahesh
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 11:41 IST


was appalled to read that people from North-East India, refer to People from the other states of India as "Main Land Indians", this shows how the Government and the people have India have neglected the North East Indians and how we have marginialised those people. We, The young generation must realise that an Un-divided India is a must for future progress and regardless of our Language, colour and caste must ensure we are united and build the future together.North East India needs undivided attention and we must have an overall development to become a real super power.


from:  Raaj
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 10:59 IST

An another show of fake democracy and violation of human rights in India.People had been treated brutally in north east.Today Also,these kind of oppression prevails under the name of combat operation against Naxalist .These northeast people and adivasis are also indian.And it is responsibility of Government to hear their plea and military to save their life.Any violation of human rights by indian army should treated with stern action by law.

from:  Shivam srivastava
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 10:40 IST

Thanks to the "Hindu" for bringing our own living holocaust of our Indo-chinese brethren to light to those of us not around during that time,now I know why many older Indo-Chinese Hakka's tear up when we talk about India when I meet them here in Canada in the line of my work,what a shameful act of cowardice by the Govt of that day,where's the Humanity of our great land and it's culture.We were as stupid as the Americans when they interned all Japanese Americans when war broke out between the US and Japan in the 40's. I pray for peace and prosperity for our "boomi" and spiritual discernment to prevail with the leader's and NOT to commit such ethnic cleansing in any situation during war or peacetime based on race,religion,language etc. Arvind.

from:  Arvind
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 10:36 IST

About eighteen years ago, my wife and I were traveling to Narvik in Norway from Stockholm in Sweden. We had to change trains at Boden (just below Arctic Circle) and we had a few hours to kill while waiting for the connection. So, we went in to the town and walked in to a Chinese Restaurant. We were surprised to listen to Hindi film songs being played in the restaurant! Later the owner came out and introduced himself, as a Chinese ethnic of Indian Origin. He had immigrated to Sweden from Kolkatta via Singapore and was running the restaurant. He had become a world citizen! Friendly to all nationals. It reminded me of Ashoka the Great sending his daughter as a bride to a Korean Emperor - building bridges and not obstacles.

from:  Sathish
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 10:21 IST

How shameful to treat people like this, who have lived as Indians for many generations? India should issue an apology to all those who were rounded up and their descendants and give them the choice of "person of Indian origin" status and eventual citizenship if they choose to do so.

from:  Balasubramanian
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 10:14 IST

As a person of Indian origin, I feel sorry and ashamed to learn of this injustice, caused by sheer ignorance on the part of political leaders in India. This is not what Indians are about. My mother and family lived in Malaya during the 2nd world war. Indians and Chinese helped each other then. The Chinese bore the brunt of atrocities by the Japanese occupiers. Many Chinese orphans were adopted and raised by Indians. The humanity shown by Indians in that war stands in stark contrast to the treatement meted out to Assamese of Chinese origin. The Indian Government must rise to the occasion and show some measure of regret to those innocent families whose lives were so cruelly interrupted.

from:  CS Venkat
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 09:55 IST

Whatever the origin of people they are human being first and has all the rights to be treated likewise. The International Human Rights Covenant, to which India is a signatory, also safegurds the rights of humans at time of wars. But, most importantly, this being their place of birth because most of them were second generation at the time of Chinese invasion makes them a naturalised Indian Citizen. I am not as ashamed of an Indian capitulation against Chinese Invasion as appaled at the plight of people in this country, whether at war or not. As the largest democracy of the world we have a responsibility to set benchmark for human rights and values. Instead we are today one of the frontiers of its negligence. Its incredibly hurting that such things happened at times of Nehru, Shashtri et al, who were true leaders and not mere politicians.

from:  Renuka Singh Sinha
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 09:10 IST

I dont know why we see china as problem for us. In current Circumstances I see china as solution instead of problem for us. There can be many examples where china is doing business with us but during this process it is providing solution for our day to day social, agricultural and economical challenges.

from:  Umakant
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 09:01 IST

Calling Assamese Indians as Chinese is an insult. These authors will write anything different to gather attention. Our parents came to India from Pakistan during Partition that does not make us Pakistani Indians. Why to differentiate, why not to call them Indians. By adding Chinese in front of Assamese, is author not misrepresenting and differentiating? It is sad, our media supports wrtings of disintegration rather than integration in national stream.

from:  harshi
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 08:48 IST

its very tragic to know that indian gov acted like is rightly said that those who are in power have no race,they behave same

from:  ashutosh kumar mishra
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 08:00 IST

Thank you for making us aware of this extremely shameful episode in our country's recent history. It is still not too late for the government and other Indians to apologize and make amends for the gross injustice visited upon a group of our fellow Indians.

from:  William Crompton
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 07:44 IST

Very pathetic reading. In what way we are better than the British who did the same everywhere they went. I shed tears for such fellow human beings. What compensation can one pay for separated families. God created the Universe and we are still dividing it as mine, yours and theirs

from:  Mani Iyer
Posted on: Nov 18, 2012 at 05:24 IST
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