India election: how will the Chinese community factor play out in Kolkata?

  • West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress woos Kolkata’s Chinese community as it faces a tough fight from Narendra Modi’s BJP
  • Though they do not have the numbers to influence government policy, the head of the Chinese Indian Association says voting is an important activity if you want to feel part of a country

Restaurateur Monica Liu, 66, is an ethnic Chinese but has lived in the Indian city of Kolkata all her life.

She and her family are among the estimated 6,000 Indian citizens of Chinese origin living in the country – with about 5,000 of them living in Kolkata, many with Hakka heritage.

They are mostly descendants of those who fled to India in the middle of the 19th century to escape turmoil caused by the clash between British forces and Qing dynasty troops known as the Opium Wars and the bloody rebellion against dynasty known as the Taiping Uprising.

The Chinese community has long been marginalised by Indian authorities despite their presence for over 200 years. Those of Chinese origin born before 1950 cannot get Indian citizenship, leaving them holding on to Chinese and British passports while some have ended up being stateless after deciding not to renew their temporary resident permits.

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But for those who are citizens, more have decided to participate in politics after community leaders began mobilising people to get their voter identity cards in the last two decades, said Bean Ching Law, president of the Chinese Indian Association.

Kolkata voters will go to the ballot booth on Sunday, the last day of polling in India’s mammoth six-week general election
. In recent weeks, election wall graffiti in Chinese, requesting votes for the candidate of the Trinamool Congress party (TMC), appeared on the walls of Kolkata’s Chinatown in the Tangra district. Trinamool runs the state government in West Bengal, where Kolkata is situated.SUBSCRIBE TO THIS WEEK IN ASIA
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Members of the community say it’s the first time they’ve seen this sort of outreach to them. Most think that it is an extension of the Trinamool’s grass roots-level growth in the state. After all, no one from the party has approached the elders of the Chinese community for votes. Also, Kolkata North, the constituency within which the Chinatown falls, will see tough fight between the candidates of the TMC and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, making every vote a crucial one for either side. A history of exclusion

Law, a 49-year-old entrepreneur, has fought for the rights for the Chinese community since his return from the US in 2007. One of his strategies has been to attempt to obtain Overseas Indian Citizenship (OCI) for those born before 1950. The OCI, which gives foreign citizens permission to work and live in India indefinitely, will help such individuals avoid having to spend around US$156 annually to renew a permit allowing them to stay in the country.

“However, these applications were rejected [by authorities] saying those individuals never showed the need to become an Indian citizen,” he says. “This is false: people applied for passports in the 1960s and were rejected outright. In fact, it was this rejection letter that helped them get other countries’ passports.”

Law has been encouraging the community to vote. “Voting is the most important activity if you want to feel part of a country. It differentiates you from a person from another country. It is a sign that you belong here…..For any other Indian, why is it important to vote? The same reasons apply to us,” he said.

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But he is pragmatic, pointing out that they do not have the numbers to influence government policy, even about themselves.

“[This is the] weakness of democracy as far as microscopic minorities are concerned. Democracy is always about the majority; the minuscule minority is dirt,” he said.

For Liu, the memory of how her family was snatched from their homes and thrown in prison for five-and-a-half years after the Sino-Indian war
, remains.The clash between tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese troops took place between October and November 1962, after a series of border incidents sparked by India’s decision to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama after a failed Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule.

China declared a ceasefire on November 19 but that was when the danger began for India’s ethnic Chinese residents.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, greets her supporters in Kolkata. Photo: Reuters

Liu recalls how her mother saw it coming, her intuition sharpened by listening for Japanese bomber aircraft and running for cover in her village in southern China during the Second World War.

“She packed bags full of clothes for each of my siblings and tasked me with equipping them with the bags, when the police came for us,” Liu said.

It was 5am when the police knocked on the door and explained that all ethnic Chinese were being rounded up, days before India’s Parliament passed a law that allowed the detention of people assessed to be “of hostile origin”.

The Indian government has never released the numbers, so estimates on the number of detainees vary: of the roughly 40,000 Chinese-origin individuals in India at the time, between 3,000 and 10,000 were detained, although no one was successfully prosecuted.

Mass deportations to China and migrations to countries like Canada, the US and Australia, mostly from the affluent members of community who were Hakka, followed the detentions. Liu’s family was offered deportation to China soon after internment but her father chose to remain in India. “My mom wanted to go. My daddy didn’t want to. Dad said, “I have nobody in China. When I go back, what will I do?,”she said.

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Indian filmmaker Rafeeq Ellias compared the Chinese internment in India to when Americans of Japanese origin were detained during the Second World War.

“People have not even spoken about their experiences even to their own children,” said Rafeeq, who made a documentary, The Legend of Fat Mama, about Kolkata’s Chinese community in 2005.

Ellias has also written about the need for the Indian government to acknowledge the internment. The Japanese Americans documented their experience and were able to obtain an apology from the US government. The ethnic Chinese in India have been unable to do that.

“They have been so marginalised and so few in number and the young people have all migrated at the first opportunity,” he says. “They don’t even have a sense of history or continuity.”

Sinking roots

But things could be changing. Singapore-based Rinkoo Bhowmick, who founded the CHA project, said she saw younger ethnic Chinese choosing to remain in India instead of migrating to countries like Canada, the US and Australia because the economy was doing well.

The CHA project has been attempting a revival of Kolkata’s Old Chinatown in the Tiretta Bazaar area, which is where the first migrants settled, before pollution regulations forced the creation of a New Chinatown in 1910 in Tangra, about 7km away. The project plans to transform the Old Chinatown into a vibrant public space through events and heritage conservation.

“The decision of these youngsters to stay back should eventually give rise to a sense of belonging,” Bhowmick said.

Others like Thomas Chen, 42, joint secretary of the Indian Chinese Association (ICA), one of the many organisations for ethnic Chinese, have been working to promote Chinese culture and heritage among Indian society. Chen speaks with pride of teaching a contingent of the Indian Army a Mandarin song about friendship.

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“I also wrote a Chinese song on the Mid-Autumn Festival for the Indian Chinese Association. It was telecast twice last year on China Central Television.”

The now-defunct project of the ICA, which has only 10 members, also saw the association organise Chinese-language classes for Indian companies Tata Iron and Steel, and Infosys.

Robert Hsu, secretary of the ICA, said he knew of community members who were uncomfortable at how the Indian media took a jingoistic line on the 2017 border stand-off between the armies of India and China
. Indian soldiers wanted China to stop construction of a road extension project in a location claimed by its ally Bhutan as well as Beijing.But Hsu pointed to the organisation’s name and said it served to show that for India’s ethnic Chinese, “it has always been about being Indian first”.

Indian PM Narendra Modi at an election rally in Mathurapur, south of Kolkata. Photo: AP

For Monica Liu, who now owns five busy restaurants in Kolkata, the state came knocking at her door again some years back but it was for a more pleasant reason: the then-chief minister of West Bengal wanted to dine at one of her eateries.

Asked about her feelings about India and her identity, Liu offered a food analogy.

“People always ask me: is your food Chinese Indian or Indian Chinese,” she says. “I reply that my food is exactly Chinese. Is there Indian masala in my food? No. The only thing is that we add more of some ingredients to enhance the flavour for the Indian customer.”

Her Chinese identity is rooted in India, she continued. “Indian people have never asked me whether I am Chinese. But I am asked this when I visit China. I tell them that I am Chinese, my parents were from China, I was born and brought up in India, I am doing in business in India and my features are Chinese. I then tell them they shouldn’t be asking me that question,” she said.

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