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Home / Lounge / Features /  A must-read in Covid-19 detention

This extraordinary moment in 2020 is as close as many of us will come to understanding what it’s like to be detained. But as we grapple with our fears about mortality, isolation, claustrophobia, longing for things we can’t have (a lingering kiss is top of the list for many singles) because of our self-imposed coronavirus quarantine, this might be the perfect time to spare a thought for the state-sponsored, unvarnished, “real" version of what we are experiencing. Many countries, including ours, have such dirty secrets in full view.

When our internet slows, let’s think of the people in Jammu and Kashmir who have struggled to share their stories with the world since August (and whose doctors are currently struggling to download the latest virus protocols). Let’s stand in our balconies and clap, shout, sing, bang pots to remember the 28 people who have died in Assam’s six detention camps that house 988 suspected illegal immigrants, according to Union home ministry data released in 2019. Since 2008, inmates of these camps, now numbering six, have been separated from their families and denied access to work and recreation. In short, treated worse than convicts.

Unlike the threat of detention that looms for fellow citizens if India muscles through a slew of citizenship measures despite widespread protests, our self-imposed imprisonment is luxurious and, in moments, oddly comforting.

It even offers new opportunities. Our homes are brimming with books we bought but never got down to reading and Netflix shows we have been meaning to watch; there’s extra time with our spouses (that may or may not lead to divorce and/or babies); home improvement projects we can finally complete; and a never-ending supply of comfort recipes, art supplies, skincare products or alcoholic beverages for cooking, painting, pampering or bingeing respectively during our period of social distancing.

Contrast this with being rounded up without warning from school and from your home by the government because of your ancestry. Take only few belongings, you are told by soldiers, you will be back soon. It’s what happened to 3,000 Chinese-Indians after the 1962 Sino-Indian war at a time we were grappling with that familiar question: Who is an Indian?

The recently released The Deoliwallahs, authored by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza, is a searing account of that internment that began on 18 November 1962—a date that is forever carved in the memories of many survivors.

Back then India tweaked a few laws and detained these citizens for up to five years in a World War II prisoner of war camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. Ma was born in Deoli, where her family was held for four-and-a-half years.

Seventeen-year-old Andy Hsieh’s principal tried to reason with the armed police officers who showed up at his school in Shillong and offered to stand guarantee for his students. The final examinations were two weeks away and the principal told Hsieh and his friends to take their books with them, write Ma and D’Souza.

After being locked up in local jails, they were transported to Deoli on a train that was stoned when it stopped for supplies. Survivor Ying Sheng Wong, who was on that train, later found out why it was attacked. “The words ‘Enemy Train’ had been written outside the compartments they were travelling in," the authors say.

Some of these Indian citizens died in the camps, some whose families had lived in India for generations were deported to China on ships. Many came out to find their life’s earnings gone and had to start from scratch. Ma’s family was among the last six families to leave the camp in June 1967.

Now their story is out in this account of what real detention feels like and how its impact amongst the affected community is likely to be multigenerational even as their trauma finds no place in the collective memory of the nation.

At a recent event around the book in Bengaluru, D’Souza said that most Indians he meets haven’t heard about this episode of history. Ma writes in the book that she, like many others, was unable to talk about this trauma for a long time. In recent years the survivors have banded together with one demand: They want an apology from the Union government.

Many of them have stories about then home minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s 1963 visit to the camp. Hsieh recalls their conversation in the book: “‘Mr Shastri, I’m eighteen now,’ I told him. ‘I’m supposed to be in high school. Right now, I can’t study anymore. Can you do something? Can we study in the town during the day and come back to the Camp.’

He said, ‘We shall discuss this when I go back to New Delhi.’

That’s it. I never heard from him again."

Which brings us to an awkward historical fact: prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader who stood for compassion and tolerance, ordered these internments. Shastri took over as PM after Nehru died in 1964. The book also carries an account by Yin Marsh, the author of Doing Time With Nehru, about life in the camp. Nehru himself did time in Deoli during the freedom struggle and lived in the same quarters that Marsh and her family were assigned.

Ma, who was born in the camp, says she began to connect the dots when she was five. By then her family had been released and was living in Kolkata. They were looking at family albums when Ma realized there were no photographs of her. “We were at the camp and we didn’t have a camera when you were born," she recalls her mother explaining.

At 14, Ma celebrated her first Chinese New Year in Kolkata’s Tangra neighbourhood. When she asked her mother why they had never gone there for the traditional festivities, she learnt that her family had been interred on Chinese New Year in 1963.

“I didn’t want to celebrate it after that," her mother said simply.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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