Pseudo liberal intellectuals are supporting the Congress and opposition propaganda that implementation of the CAA-NRC exercise will single out poor Indian Muslims who will be sent to detention camps for failing to produce adequate documents proving their ancestry. Not just that these fears are imaginary, they remind us of a forgotten incident that took place in 1962 under the watch of the Nehru government, where an entire community in Assam was sent to detention camps in Rajasthan for three years. Last week, while vacationing in Assam, I met one such person, who was a victim of the government's highhandedness, insensitivity and neglect for more than five decades.
This story is of John Wong, who belongs to a minuscule community of Indians of Chinese origin.
Assam was on the boil due to the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The Mohanbari airport of Dibrugarh was closed for operations for three days. Airlines issued the full refund to passengers who had bookings up to 15th December. We landed in Dibrugarh in the morning of 16th December and rushed to Arunachal Pradesh, which was unaffected by the protests. As the situation started to normalise, we paid a quick visit to Digboi and Margheritta on 21st December. A friend, who has spent several years in the North-East as an activist, strongly recommended us to visit Makum Junction and neighboring Chinese colony locally known as Cheena Patti. He told us that he read about a novel named “Makam” by Rita Chowdhury, which is a fictionalised historical account of the Chinese Assamese people in North-East India.
When I asked my Assamese car driver to stop at the train station, he said that he lived in Makum and there is nothing to see at the train station. Yes, there is a Cheena-Patti area but no Chinese people live there. As far as he remembered, there is only one Chinese house left. I insisted and drove to the train station as well as the lane opposite to it. However, like he said, I found nothing 'Chinese' over there. Later that day, as a sheer coincidence, we went to a Chinese restaurant named ‘Hong Kong’ in Tinsukia. When I found that the restaurant was established in 1970, I enquired with the staff, if it belongs to a Chinese owner.
The owner, John Wong had gone out for some work. I approached him when he returned. I told him that I had come from Mumbai and was curious about the Chinese settlement in Makum. He requested us to finish our meals and in the meanwhile came with a photo album.
His tragic story tells us how an entire community was punished for no fault of theirs. It was done by the Nehru government, which is presented to us as a shining example of democracy and liberalism.
British colonial officers forcibly brought Chinese people to Assam in the 19th century to work on in the tea plantations. They intended to break the Chinese monopoly on tea cultivation and trade, and were under the impression that every Chinese person knew how to grow tea.
After they realised their mistake, the Chinese were replaced by tribals like Santhals and Oraons from the present-day Jharkhand.
The Chinese people stayed there and prospered in several occupations such as carpentry, saw-mills and agriculture. More people came in for jobs and trade as Burma was part of the British India and whole region was buzzing with economic activity.
Wong’s grandfather came to India in 1930s and owned a saw-mill. The Chinese civil war in the first half of the 20th century and devastating earthquake in 1950 brought more people. Makum, which means a meeting point in Chinese language, became a China town. It had Chinese architecture buildings, a Chinese school, a club and other institutions. The Chinese families in Makum were well to do and were socially respected as Sahibs.
As Pandit Nehru’s government laid great emphasis on strengthening Sino-Indian relations, and gave a call ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ , the Chinese origin people were having a good time. Over a period of time, they had integrated with India and began to speak a mix of Assamese and Chinese. At one point, there were close to 2000 Chinese people in Makum.
The leadership of Pandit Nehru and Defense Minister V Krishna Menon ignored warnings from leaders like Sardar Patel to Veer Savarkar and blindly trusted the Chinese.
The dream of Hindi-Chini brotherhood however was short-lived as Mao’s China annexed Tibet, claimed 40,000 sq miles territory in Ladakh and NEFA, and built a 179 km road through India's Aksai Chin, connecting Xinjiang with western Tibet.
India responded with a ill thought and prepared forward policy. The chapter culminated into a brief China-India war and India’s humiliating defeat in 1962.