Memories for a Lifetime – The Return of Indians from Burma: A Tale of Trauma and Tenacity

Reshmi Banerjee tries to trace the difficult emotional journey of Indians from Burma.

I have often heard the phrase ‘Burma returned’ uttered with a lot of emotion by my loved ones but could never fully fathom the sentiments behind it. My childhood was filled with stories of Burma, which I had very casually heard without realizing that these stories would seem so fascinating one day. It seemed like a land far away, occasionally generating a lot of dinner table discussion ranging from the beauty of the landscape (especially its rivers) to the inevitable comparison made of Rangoon with Calcutta (with my enthusiastic Bengali relatives vociferously putting forth their arguments). This lively debate would, however, take a sombre turn when the topic of the great march of the Indians from Burma during the Second World War would be mentioned. It would trigger serious expressions amongst many: the loss of the past making its dramatic appearance in the present. I almost felt like an intruder in a space and time which I could never reach or understand. Burma had been part of the identity of many Indians, the separation from which had led to an unfolding of a process of learning and unlearning. Where do we truly belong? This question seems to have divided the lives of many Indians who returned from Burma in the 1940s and later, creating in their hearts two clear memories: a life in Burma and a life without Burma. The place had a magnetic impact on them which some choose to forget while others craved to remember every minute detail.

It is said that distance provides us perspective and the ability to comprehend better but sometimes this distance becomes too difficult to bridge, especially if it is connected to sentiments of anger and pain, experiences of displacement and of a sense of injustice. The Indians have had a long history with Burma, with the two countries seeing free movement of goods and people, during many periods of time, along with the exchange of religion and culture. The British colonial period saw the movement of people across the frontiers, with labourers, traders and the intellectual class setting up their base in Burma. The Chettiars (the moneylenders from Tamil Nadu in Southern India) were an important part of the economy along with the Indian workers (also included illiterate farmers) who were mostly unskilled. Indians were found employed in rice mills, ports, factories, construction places and transport systems. The local population was uncomfortable with this uncontrolled immigrant population (Rangoon has often been referred in history as an ‘Indian city’), the expression of which was seen in the way Indians were referred to as ‘kala’. Separate institutions of learning were established for Indians, and marriages between the Indian males and Burmese females were strongly frowned upon. The 1930s was an important decade for this relationship, a decade marked by economic crisis and anti-Indian riots against the backdrop of the national movement and the eventual separation of Burma from British India. Rangoon became a fractured city, as depicted by O’Connor in the 1904 book The Silken East: a Record of Life and Travel in Burma. The author mentions Mogul Street where, as he put it, ‘latent forces of ancient hate were present because it is a ‘living bit of India. Except as a wayfarer, no Burman occupies it’.[i]

Aversion of the locals towards the Indians and complaints of Indians displacing Burmans was a regular issue of antagonism between the two communities, although James Baxter stated in the 1940 Baxter Commission Report on Indian Immigration that “…there has been a general division of work between the two races and therefore Indian labour in the past has been supplementary rather than alternative to Burmese labour…”.[ii] Meanwhile the poor working and living conditions of the Indian workers was visible for everyone. Gandhi’s sea journey on the S.S.Arnoda to Burma found him commenting on the pathetic conditions in which workers were being transported. He said “…The lower most deck is nothing better than a black hole. It is dark and dingy and stuffy and hot to the point of suffocation…”.[iii] The 1930 Royal Commission on Labour recommended some improvements in working hours and wages for the Indian workers but it was ineffective in improving the poor conditions. The late 1930s saw the introduction of bills in the House of Representatives, apparently to reduce the role and influence of the Indians in Burma like the City of Rangoon Municipal (Amendment) Bill, the Distribution of Lands Bill and the Burma Domicile Bill, all passed in 1937.

The Second World War and the Japanese invasion in the early 1940s aggravated the discrimination and insecurities which the Indians were already going through, as they started their journey northwards from Rangoon to escape the chaos and horrors of war. They now faced discrimination from the British authorities as exit routes – in the sea and the air – were controlled; the only difficult option left for many of them was to trek to India, either via Arakan to Chittagong, via the Chindwin valley to Manipur, or via Ledo in north Assam. Hugh Tinker wrote, in his aptly named book A Forgotten Long March of how the Burmese government’s orders to not allow any adult Indian to depart on any ship as a deck passenger created challenges and sealed the fate of many. They were left with no option but to walk, a walk which, sadly, many did not finish.[iv]

Over the course of this forced journey, many saw their loved ones dying before their eyes with nothing to restore their broken spirits. The complete ignorance of the difficult terrain in the border areas was, in a way, a blessing in disguise, as it created an environment of hope – but at the same time, it was the reason why many were not prepared enough for this treacherous escape route. Thus they found themselves in inappropriate clothing with no blankets or boots. This was the case with many refugees who expected to be air-evacuated from Myitkyina in Upper Burma but found themselves completely stranded. Interestingly, the Indian Tea Association of Assam provided support to the refugees, the former knowing the eastern frontier well.[v] Help came from different quarters, from the members of the Rama Krishna Mission who were assisting the planters to the Women’s Volunteer Service Camp which was organized by the wife of the then Governor of Assam, Lady Reid.[vi] Lekhapani, a small town in the Tinsukia district in Assam (North East India), finds mention due to the reception station for refugees there, called the Tea-pot Pub. There, evacuees in transit found themselves served with hot tea, biscuits, cheese and jam; a luxury in exceptionally gruelling circumstances.[vii] In spite of the efforts that were made, many refugees fell to both physical and psychological collapse. Most suffered from starvation. Several towns of North East India like Margherita and Tezpur in Assam and Dimapur in Nagaland were witness to the trying times, to the disorientation and trauma suffered by the Indians. Those in transit belonged to different professions: doctors, lawyers, coolies, firemen, engine drivers, betel sellers, astrologers and painters. Their destinations were also different: some went from Burma to Quetta in the then North West Frontier Province while others to Kathmandu; some went to Rawalpindi while others to Bombay.[viii] But what was common was their desire to survive, to make new beginnings.

The resilience of the Indian refugees from Burma was exemplary. They faced hard times with determined pragmatism and looked towards the future with an expectation for a better tomorrow. Burma remained and will always remain a part of their being – one’s roots not easily forgotten. While people have looked at Indian communities in Burma, there has not been much work on the returnees. I hope my ongoing research on this issue is able to unravel some of the mystery which surrounds this community. The starting point for me is my own family circle of knowledge. My relatives still remember the wonderful aroma of Burmese food but also equally remember the troubles that they faced in finding employment and a new home in Calcutta. Shuttling between places in India in search of a stable life was an unnerving experience, the uncertainty of the future affecting every member of the family. However some still yearn to visit the country as it continues to be a big part of their memories. Every interaction with this group has been illuminating as I can easily recollect my family’s interaction with everyone’s ‘Burma uncle’ (never got to know his real name) in our old neighbourhood in Delhi in the 1980s; his name powerfully overshadowed by his Burma links.

Do we still completely know the journey of this community? Some don’t reveal the aspects of their lives transformed by a historical connection to Burma; for many this is a part of their past that was probably never properly asked about. Others don’t want to explore their past feelings as it is uncomfortably painful – for them, the veil of silence works best. The sands of time might be a great healer, but the wounds of separation remain.

[i] O’Connor mentioned in Keck, Stephen L. (2015), British Burma in the New Century, 1895-1918, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, p.124.
[ii] Chakravarti, Nalini Ranjan (1971), The Indian Minority in Burma – The Rise and Decline of an Immigrant Community, Oxford University Press, London, p. 42.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 46-47.
[iv] Tinker, Hugh (1975), A Forgotten Long March: The Indian Exodus from Burma, 1942,  Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol VI,  No 1, March, p.5.
[v] Tyson, Geoffrey (1945), Forgotten Frontier, W.H. Targett & Co Ltd, Calcutta, pp. 23-24.
[vi] Ibid., p.42.
[vii] Ibid., p.72.
[viii] Register of Evacuees from Burma – Part II – Indian Evacuees (1943), Compiled at the request of the Government of India (Department of Indians Overseas), Evacuee Enquiry Bureau, Calcutta (Accessed from the British Library, London).

Image: Manipuri Astrologers and Brahmins in Burma/Vincent Clarence Scott O’Connor/1 January 1904/Wikimedia Commons

Author: Dr. Reshmi Banerjee

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).