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Glimpses of a period of flux

Principal appeal of book lies in its close examination of some of complex circumstances and anxieties that were generated by presence of Chinese nationals in British India

Argha Kr Banerjee   |   Published 17.03.23, 04:12 AM

Book: Chinese Sojourners in Wartime Raj, 1942-1945

Author: Yin Cao


Publisher: Oxford

Price: ₹1,795

I n October 1947, the ministry of home affairs of the newly-formed Indian government handed out a deportation notice to Liu Yiling, the secretary-general of the Kuomintang headquarters in India, for prolonging his stay in the country without official authorisation from the Indian immigration office. The ministry also alleged that Yiling was involved in local gambling and smuggling businesses in contravention of laws and regulations. Yiling’s vehement denial of the charges, coupled with requests from the Chinese consul-general at Calcutta, failed to alter the stand of the Indian government. The Chinese government mentioned that the false charges against Liu Yiling were specifically designed by  “certain British officers used in Indian intelligence sectors, who had long discriminated against the Chinese.”  Citing the incident, Yin Cao asserts in this book that “both the colonial and postcolonial Indian states took quite similar attitudes towards the Chinese sojourners”  which eventually contributed to mistrust and suspicion on both sides.

Yin Cao’s vivid socio-political treatise lucidly traces the emergence of new Asian national identities during the twilight period of the British raj and the postcolonial era. The Second World War witnessed British India emerge as the epicentre for China’s preparation of war against the Japanese as Chinese combatants and other professionals conglomerated in India for training and exploring various other commercial opportunities. The Chinese military involvement in the war alongside the British contributed to a rather ambivalent situation for the colonisers. Yin Cao’s study underscores this dichotomy between the political and military cooperation between the British and the Chinese on the one hand and the distinct lack of trust coupled with chronic anxiety plaguing the colonial mind on the other.

The principal appeal of  Chinese Sojourners in Wartime Raj lies in its close examination of some of the complex circumstances and anxieties that were generated by the presence and the activities of Chinese nationals in British India. As Yin Cao points out: “… the experiences of the Chinese seamen, smugglers, deserters, pilots in wartime India, and the Chinese authorities’ nation-building projects of disciplining and training them in that country, stimulated the British anxieties.”  Yin  Cao vindicates his argument through meticulous archival research, drawing the attention of the readers to the British decision to recruit erstwhile colonial police officers conversant in Chinese from places like Malaya, Hong Kong and Shanghai along with the local Chinese Indians as an integral part of the South Asian intelligence network.

Besides the succinct introductory and concluding notes, Yin Cao also divides his monograph into four distinctive chapters titled: “Sailors”, “Smugglers”, “Deserters” and “Pilots”. The first chapter, “Sailors”, exposes the deep rifts between the Chinese nation and its ordinary citizens by exploring the conflicting narratives of official responses and various personal experiences. It reveals how the British and Chinese authorities both struggled to control the Chinese sailors stranded in Calcutta during the time. “Smugglers” offers an alternative political insight by tracing the link between the interests of the State and the smuggling activities in modern India and China. The incisive analysis asserts that the State also had its share of interests in smuggling activities. The third section, “Deserters”, meticulously analyses, with relevant instances, the efforts of the Chinese nationalist government to discipline its overseas subjects coupled with the underlying geopolitical concerns of the raj. The final chapter, “Pilots”, grippingly examines the complex socio-political dynamics addressing key strategic questions ignored by the historians. For instance, Yin Cao insists that the experiences of the Chinese sojourners in wartime British raj  are inextricably bound to the significant socio-political developments of the time (the Royal Indian Navy mutiny and the Chinese civil war).

Yin Cao’s outstanding research makes for a lucid perusal for the scholarly and the general reader. The research also provides a subaltern perspective on the evolution of present-day India-China relations. Underlining various forms of colonial intrigues and vested interests, the hypothesis explores their continuity in the shaping of contemporary geopolitical concerns and narratives. The book is strongly recommended for students and researchers across numerous disciplines.

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