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)