Photo taken in Bangalore, India, in April 2005. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh).
Photo taken in Bangalore, India, in April 2005. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh).

During the rare trips outside New Delhi with my family as a child, my India-born Chinese mother had to report her whereabouts to the local police station after arrival and before departure until she acquired an Indian passport. I remember her telling us how humiliated she felt at having to do so, to be treated like a criminal. This policy was put in place in India during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962 over the disputed Aksai Chin area and continued well after it. Before the war began, my maternal uncle who was teaching Chinese at the National Defense Academy was asked to leave his post. Even after he took up a teaching position at Delhi University, he had a police officer permanently posted outside his home throughout the conflict and for some time after, monitoring his family’s movement. In a newspaper article that appeared a few years ago on the Chinese diaspora in India, he recounted his experience one evening of the officer on duty rushing over to the nearby market to inform him and my aunt that unexpected guests had arrived at their place, highlighting the absurdity of this surveillance.  

My Chinese relatives were really a few of the lucky ones in their treatment at that time by the Indian government. In 2010, Assamese author Rita Choudhury penned a novel Makam about 3,000 or so Chinese diasporans who were rounded up under the Defense of India Act, 1962 and then interned at Deoli Camp in Rajasthan and Nagaon in Assam during the Sino-Indian war. [1] Many of them were Indian citizens and descendants of Chinese migrants brought to work in Assam’s tea plantations from Canton during colonial rule. Living in India since the early 1800s, some had married Indians and were part of the social fabric of areas like Makum, a small town in Assam located close to the border near China. Makum had a thriving Chinatown called “Chinipatty” till 1962 when they were branded as “enemies”, accused of acting as Chinese spies. [2]  Reportedly, close to one thousand migrants were forcibly expelled from the country and many others continued to languish in the Deoli Camp for several years, well after the war which lasted one month, had ended. Choudhury writes about 20 year old Mailin Ho who was pregnant when she was expelled to China and separated from her Assamese husband. She never saw him again.

Sixty percent of the internees at the Deoli Camp were children and elderly persons. When these diasporans were finally released and returned to their homes, they found that their houses and businesses had been sold as “enemy” properties or occupied by others. The locals no longer accepted them, hurling insults like “dirty Cheenas, go home” at them, refusing to patronize their businesses, and harassing them. Many diasporans subsequently left for other countries, including Canada. Those who were deported to China were not accepted there, and labeled as “capitalists”.

After Choudhury’s book was released, many Indians expressed their dismay over this hidden, grim chapter of India’s history. Well-known Indian journalist SNM Abdi who has written a (yet unreleased) book on the persecution of these diasporans during the Sino-Indian war, made a case recently for a formal apology from the Indian government to the Deoli internees as a way of ensuring that such unnecessary and tragic episodes are not repeated.[3] So has the novelist Choudhury. The history of discrimination and segregation of the Assamese Chinese is markedly similar to experiences of Japanese-Canadians and Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Both countries later expressed contrition over these detentions and provided reparation to the internees. 

Fifty years have passed since the detention and expulsion of the Assamese Chinese diaspora in India. However, the question of loyalty, belonging, and value of the diasporas in their country of settlement remains as relevant today as it did back then, only the group to be targeted and vilified has changed. So has the detention of unwanted and undesirable migrants, who are seen as “outsiders” and “enemies” and “threats”.

My family’s unusual history and own work on the contemporary hyper-anxiety and negativity surrounding the presence of marginal migrant groups in India and South Africa has made me acutely aware of the sharp contradiction in the prevailing discourse on diaspora and development. There are two conflicting dimensions, where the sheer euphoria over the economic and productive value of a diaspora to the country of origin is powerfully tempered by constant fear and anxiety over their presence in the country of residence. Unfortunately, this fear only seems to be mounting in many migrant-receiving countries. The profound irony here is that the various ways in which destination countries are now enforcing the detention of unwanted migrants has strong resonances with the internment of diasporans in the past. So, actions which are now deemed unacceptable when evaluated in that historical context are  tolerated and welcomed in the present.

It is not surprising then that despite a marked focus on migrant agency and their role in social transformation of areas where they migrated from, the protection of migrant rights and their inclusion as equals with other residents in receiving societies is one of the weakest, neglected dimensions of the continuing debates on diaspora and development. There is also a real danger that the overreaching, negative aspects may penetrate and drown out the constructive ones. For those of us whose research awkwardly straddles these competing strains, the challenge is to constantly manage these tensions by disrupting the exclusionary tendencies and highlighting the hitherto unexamined positive elements associated with the diaspora.


[1] Prasun Chaudhuri, “India’s Shame”, Telegraph, April 18, 2010, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1100418/jsp/7days/story_12351075.jsp

[2] Prabin Kalita, “Bleeding Hearts of Makum”, Times of India, March 14, 2011, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-03-14/guwahati/28687713_1_makum-sonitpur-nagaon

[3] SNM Abdi, “Without Apologies”, Outlook, October 22, 2012, http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?282589

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.