Being a ‘Refugee/Repatriate’ from Burma – But in 1942, Not 2017

Hundreds of thousands of Indians fled Burma when Japan invaded in 1942, including my father and his family.

Indians walking to cross the border with Burma in 1942. Courtesy: cbi-theater.com

Indians walking to cross the border with Burma in 1942. Courtesy: cbi-theater.com

While rummaging through some old papers at home some time ago, I came across a slim, burgundy-coloured, cloth-bound book. The label on it said ‘Natesan Rajan, SSLC Book’. It was my late father’s SSLC certificate.

He had passed the exam as a student of the Danish Mission School in Tiruvannamalai, in 1943 at the age of 14, with flying colours. It had no previous record of his studies in the school and he had been given exemption from Tamil. The reason: he was a ‘refugee/repatriate from Burma’.

At a time when the Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar in hundreds of thousands, few recall another exodus from that country, in 1942, when the Japanese marched into Burma during the Second World War. The British Army retreated, and fearing both the Japanese and Burmese, hundreds of thousands of Indians fled at the time. My father’s family was among them.

I heard the story many times from my grandmother.

My grandfather and his brothers had gone to Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1915, with their paternal uncle who already lived and worked there. In those days, many Indians were employed by the colonial British government, mostly in the office of the auditor general or in the railways.

This had led to the development of a well-off, educated and upwardly-mobile Indian community in Rangoon in the pre-war years. My grandfather and his brothers too found employment in the office of accountant and auditor general of Burma in Rangoon. They came back to India briefly to marry, and returned to Rangoon with their wives.

My father, his siblings and cousins were all born in Rangoon. Accounts of that time say there were one million Indians living in Burma at the time. There was already some hostility towards Indians from the Burmese and there had been some riots in the years before the war came to Burma.

The destruction of Rangoon in the aftermath of the Second World War. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The destruction of Rangoon in the aftermath of the Second World War. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1941-42, a double tragedy struck the family. My grandfather died and Japan invaded Burma. When the British retreated, the Indians feared the worst. Though some stayed behind and discovered those fears were not well founded, others decided to leave for the safety of India. My grandmother and some other adults in the family decided to pack up from Rangoon.

My father was 14 years old then, one of a large brood of siblings and cousins. Some fortunate Indians had left earlier by boat, but the service quickly closed down for Indians. Stranded, my father’s family, like thousands of others, had no option but to trek to the Indian border.

My grandmother’s memory of it was that it was a never-ending walk, lasting many days, during which two members of the family died horrific deaths. I cannot recall now if she told us the distance they walked or the exact number of days. But on the map it is a staggering 700 miles and according to other documented accounts, it took people two months or more to cover.

Families and friends walked together in groups, with some groups making more miles and going on ahead. Others like my father’s family, which included infants in people’s arms, small children who had to be carried for the most part and the elderly, lagged far behind. My father and his younger brother took turns carrying the younger children.

The entire group was already broken in spirit, having left behind precious, valuable processions and memories, locked in their houses or buried in their backyards, in the fond hope of picking up where they had left off, when/if they returned after the war. However, their cup of woes was still not full. The eldest cousin fell into a whirlpool. I cannot recall now if it was during a journey by boat. There are accounts of river crossings of the Irrawady during that exodus.

Later, the family would be dealt another blow. Unable to stand the rigours of the journey, my father’s baby sister died.

Indians attempting to cross the Irrawaddy in 1942. Courtesy: cbi-theater.com

Indians attempting to cross the Irrawaddy in 1942. Courtesy: cbi-theater.com

My father rarely spoke about his flight from Burma. I recall one rare occasion when he did open up. We were driving in the Connaught Place area in Delhi one Christmas Eve and when we came up to the church, he told us how he would go to the midnight mass at the church near his home in Rangoon. Then he told us the whole story of how they left that city and came to India. I know from these rare conversations that the horrific memory of helplessly seeing his cousin being pulled down in the whirlpool, of seeing his sister die, stayed with him through his life. We were quite happy for him not to speak about this part of his life too often because he would become depressed.

The bedraggled group of refugees, now broken in body as well as spirit, entered India near Imphal. Staying for a while in refugee camps run by the Ramakrishna Mission, they tried to make contact with relatives in Tamil Nadu. My grandmother’s father travelled to Calcutta by train to look for the family, who had by then reached Calcutta by bus. With much relief, he returned with them by train to his home in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu.

The healing began almost immediately, and my father and his brothers ultimately did well for themselves. My father joined the government and was additional secretary in the Ministry of Industries at his untimely death in 1982. His brothers joined other professions. One became a doctor, another joined the railways.

As I follow the news of the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, I am aware that there is no real comparison between our stories. My relations returned to a county that received them well. They lost almost all their material possessions but they were able to find a solid foothold in India. The Rohingya, on the other hand, don’t have that privilege. They won’t get a school report card with that line in it: ‘EXEMPTION GRANTED FOR REFUGEES/REPATRIATES FROM BURMA’.

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