By Utpal Borpujari
Makum. The name is as exotic and beautiful as the terrible history it hides. A small, semi-urban habitat nestled amidst tea and oil country in Upper Assam, right at the heart of the region where India had first struck oil way back in the 1860s, it was here that a young girl from nearby Margherita would wonder about the fractured lives of what people told her were the ‘Chinese’. As she travelled through the area by bus during the 1970s, she would tell herself, “Someday, I will have to know more about these people. ”
Rita Chowdhury, now one of Assam’s best-selling authors and winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award two years ago, not only went on to learn about that little community, but unearthed a sad, forgotten and largely unknown story about its forced displacement during the 1962 Indo-China war. Their only crime: they had Chinese looks and names. It didn’t matter that they had completely assimilated with the greater Assamese community since the time their forefathers had been brought in as indentured labourers by British tea planters in the early 19th century.
It was her chance discovery of this history of statesponsored deportation of Chinese-origin people in Assam – a chapter that went almost unrecorded – that led to Chowdhury’s magnum opus, the 602-page novel Makam, which is into its fourth edition since its publication in early 2010. But for Chowdhury, it’s not about the sales figures. It’s what India, suspicious of the Chinese then – even if they were its own – did to an unsuspecting and innocent lot.
“The least India can do is apologise to them for the misery inflicted by an insensitive state machinery for just being Chinese at an inconvenient time, ” she says. Not only that, she wants the community, members of which are scattered from Hong Kong to Toronto with unhealed wounds in their hearts, to be given back the status of Indian citizens.
During her research, Chowdhury, who weaves history into fiction in her work, found that over 1, 500 Chinese-Assamese had been rounded up on November 19, 1962 and packed off to congested camps at Deuli in Rajasthan before being deported. The government auctioned their properties almost immediately. The author, who is now getting a documentary made on the traumatised families – some of whom had to live without fathers and mothers, husbands and sons, wives and daughters for years on end – has recordings of the deep sadness among members of the community she met during her research trips to Hong Kong and elsewhere.
“They still live with unhealed wounds, still unable to comprehend why they were deported even though they were Indian citizens for generations, ” Chowdhury said recently. “They still suffer from a sense of persecution, so much so that they were initially very reluctant to even talk about the past. But once they began, their emotional bond with Assam and India just flowed out. “
One of the Chinese, who preferred not to tell his name on camera during a recording, recounted in pure Assamese, and with the soft Upper Assam lilt, how he was rounded up by police as he was returning home after finishing a paper in a matriculation exam. “I could never complete my matriculation, ” he told Chowdhury.
“Most of these Chinese, from mainly the Canton region of China, had been brought by the British to work in India’s tea plantations, ” the writer says. “Some had ended up in Assam after fighting as soldiers in the Second World War. The extent of their tragedy can be gauged from the fact that many of them had been marrying into other communities when the deportations happened. Many families got broken up as only the Chinese were sent away while their native-Assamese family members were left behind. “
Makam – which in Cantonese means ‘the golden horse’ – recalls this painful story. Using fiction as the format, it employs two parallel narratives to talk about the wounds harboured by the community and the time when Robert Bruce of the East India Company set foot in Assam in search of what he suspected was tea drunk by the Singpho tribals.
Now, as the Enemy Property Act is being amended, Chowdhury feels it is the right time to try and get at least a sense of justice to the community’s members. “It will be virtually impossible to get them back their properties, as they had been auctioned off, but we can apologise to them for the injustice caused to them. We can also try to get them back their Indian citizenship – for those who want to return. Many of those deported, though, have died already, ” she says.
Chowdhury met Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi who, she says, has assured her full government support in welcoming the Chinese-Assamese back, even if just as visitors. The subject came up in the state Assembly too, with full support from across the board in looking at it as a humanitarian issue.
“Total war declared by governments on civilians is always in violation of the UN’s Fourth Geneva Convention on non-combatants, of which India has been a signatory since December 16, 1949, ” Chowdhury says. “When the incident happened, Indian democracy was in its infancy and the media was not as strong as it is today to take a stand, which is why, probably, such a terrible thing happened. ” Will the golden horse bring a little succour for a wronged people’s pain? There are many who hope it will.
(Published in The Times of India Crest Edition, www.timescrest.com, 27-11-2010)