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By Given Calcutta?s unique status with regard to the Chinese, it should not be left out of the itinerary of the next dignitary from China, writes Tansen Sen The author is associate professor, Asian history and religions, the City University of New York
  • Published 13.04.05

The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, just completed his maiden trip to India. Calcutta, which boasts of the country?s only Chinatown and is governed by a communist party, was not on his itinerary. In fact, Calcutta has no direct air link to China, not even to Hong Kong. Not a single educational institution in the city offers advanced courses in Chinese language or history. The ruling communist party is ambiguous about the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping that have transformed China into the most successful communist country in the world. The only noteworthy connection to China today is the excellent Chinese food served in restaurants in Tangra and other locations in the city. But, that too is on the decline as many Chinese restaurateurs move to greener pastures in Mumbai and Delhi.

Calcutta and China parted ways in the early Sixties, when deteriorating Sino-Indian relations resulted in the closure of the Chinese consulate in the city, the expulsion of the manager (and the subsequent closing) of the Bank of China, and the forced deportation of hundreds of Chinese immigrants in West Bengal.

The first Chinese came to Calcutta in the late 18th century with the intention of accumulating wealth. Political upheavals in early 20th century China brought more settlers. The time also witnessed the arrival of many important Chinese personalities. In 1905, for example, the America-educated Tang Shaoyi was sent to Calcutta by the Chinese Emperor Guangxu to negotiate the status of Tibet. The negotiations, which concluded in Beijing, resulted in the British acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Tang went on to become the first premier of the Chinese republic. In the Forties, the Chinese consulate was home to Yuan Xiaoyuan, China?s first female diplomat. During her tenure in Calcutta as the vice-consul, Yuan organized the Chinese community and offered Chinese language classes.

In February 1942, Chiang Kai-shek met Mahatma Gandhi in Calcutta. Chiang had come to India to discuss the possibilities of a joint military resistance to the expansionist Japanese army. In Calcutta, Chiang and his wife, Song Mei-ling, were guests of G.D. Birla. During a discussion with the Chinese guests, Gandhi regretted that the couple was unable to visit his ashram in Wardha. In response, Song Mei-ling is quoted as saying, ?Who knows, we may be back sooner than later. And after all Calcutta is only 12 hours to [the Chinese capital] Chunking.?

Indeed, the proximity of the city to the Chinese border made Calcutta the stage for the Allied forces engaged in the China-Burma-India theatre during World War II. Supplies were sent to the Chinese resistance through the seaport in Calcutta. In Ramgaur, north of Calcutta, the Americans set up a training centre for Chinese soldiers. Calcutta was also the regional headquarters of the US air force, which operated B-29 long-range bombers. By 1945, a telephone line was established between Calcutta and Kunming.

The communist revolution in 1949 triggered the influx of new Chinese refugees to Calcutta and eventually divided the community?s allegiance between Beijing and Taipei. When the first ambassador from the People?s Republic of China passed through the city, the Chinese community in Calcutta gave him an ?enthusiastic reception?. By 1952, however, China?s occupation of Tibet made many Indians disenchanted with the neighbour. The Chinese community in Calcutta was troubled by the new regime?s persecution of landlords and former supporters of the nationalist government. They were also concerned about Beijing?s propaganda machine in Calcutta. Beijing, it seems, was funding a communist newspaper in the city, providing loans to Chinese businessmen, and offering free education and food to the members of the community through its consulate in Calcutta. The pro-Taipei Chinese in Calcutta started a fervent campaign against the alleged communist ?indoctrination? of the community. They called this the anti-communist nationalist salvation movement, which supported and contributed funds for the liberation of Mainland China.

The Indian government sided with Beijing. In November 1954, soon after Jawaharlal Nehru returned from his trip to China, two Chinese residents of Calcutta, including C.S. Liu, editor of a local Chinese newspaper sympathetic to Taiwan, were deported. A third Chinese was arrested under the Preventive Detention Act. Then, in August 1958, the Indian government cancelled a football match between India and Hong Kong, because some of the players in the Hong Kong team were allegedly ?loyal? to the nationalist government in Taiwan.

The dalai lama?s defection to India in 1959 and the subsequent border dispute between India and China gave the upper hand to the anti-Beijing Chinese organizations in Calcutta. Leaders of some of these groups wrote letters to the Indian government pledging their loyalty to India and expressed the desires of thousands of Chinese residents to become Indian citizens. In October 1959, 8,127 Chinese in Calcutta were registered as foreign residents. Some of them held outdated passports issued by the pre-1949 nationalist government. Others identified themselves as citizens of communist China. There were also thousands of unregistered Chinese, who were born in Calcutta did not possess birth certificates, and were thus, stateless.

The ambiguous status of Chinese residents in Calcutta proved disastrous for the community in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war. Surveillance over the Chinese in the city increased. Hundreds were charged with anti-Indian activities and detained at the Deoli camp in Rajasthan, and many were subsequently repatriated to Mainland China.

The Chinese population in Calcutta dwindled from about 20,000 to 10,000. Those who remained were perceived as enemies, deprived of rights to free movement and dismissed from their jobs in private and government enterprises. The only occupations that remained open for the Chinese in Calcutta were the restaurant business, tanning and shoemaking. The appalling treatment of Chinese residents and their isolation after the war are movingly recounted in Rafeeq Ellias?s recent documentary, The Legend of Fat Mama.

In 1976, after a gap of 15 years, India and China restored diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level. Since then, the two countries have witnessed substantial growth in political and cultural relations. Bilateral trade has improved from a few millions dollars to about $14 billion a year. The Indian consulate has reopened in Shanghai, and a Chinese consulate established in Mumbai. Direct flights now operate between Delhi and Beijing and between Mumbai and Shanghai. These developments seem to have bypassed Calcutta.

In 1998, the Central government finally allowed the naturalization of the ethnic Chinese living in Calcutta. However, the Indian intelligence community is still adamantly opposed to the reopening of the Chinese consulate in the city and the Chinese commercial mission that existed in Kalimpong before the Sino-Indian war. Clearly, the intelligence agencies continue to perceive China as a threat and cling to the unjustified fear that the Chinese will use their offices in Calcutta to promote anti-Indian activities. This stand not only fails to take into account the improving diplomatic relations, but also shortchanges India?s commitment to confidence-building measures. In the post-9/11 world, the Indian intelligence community should explore ways to collaborate with the Chinese against terrorist groups.

The establishment of the Chinese consulate, commercial mission, and perhaps, a Sino-Indian cultural centre in Calcutta will have a profound impact on furthering diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations between India and China. This will help revive the links between eastern India and the Yunnan region of China. Already, the vice-governor of Yunnan has pitched the economic prospects of this link to the Confederation of Indian Industry and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, during his trip to Calcutta in 2004. The vice-governor had emphasized in an interview that the reopening of the China-Burma-India route would lead to a ten-fold increase in the province?s trade with India, which approached $100 million last year. He also pointed out that Calcutta was only an two hours? plane ride from the provincial capital, Kunming. Indeed, it is time for Calcutta to reclaim its status as the nodal point for India?s contacts with China by re-establishing air, road, and sea links to it.

It is also vital to raise awareness about contemporary China among Calcuttans, including the ethnic Chinese residents and party members. Calcuttans, and indeed most Indians, remain unaware of Deng Xiaoping and his economic policies. They may know about the flourishing mega-cities such as Shanghai and Canton, but are unaware of the successful eradication of poverty in many rural areas. It is also important to understand how policies are implemented in China and why some of the Chinese models may or may not work in the Indian democratic context. While it is for the policy-makers to study, evaluate and implement Chinese models, the public must have a deeper understanding of their neighbour. Perhaps the cultural centre staffed by Indians and Chinese could foster this goal.

No other city in India has had prolonged, albeit erratic, contact with China. As India and China reinvigorate their relationship, Calcutta should not miss the chance to underscore and renew its unique status vis-?-vis the Chinese. So, when the next Chinese leader lands in India, Calcutta should be one of the highlights of his trip.