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A Forgotten Long March: The Indian Exodus from Burma, 1942

  • Hugh Tinker

There is no significant historical lesson to be learnt from the narrative which follows, except the lesson of human endurance. The Twentieth Century, even more than any age before, is the age of the refugee. In almost every instance, the refugee instinct is spontaneous — unpremeditated — disorganised; it is individual, or familial. Nobody directs the refugee to depart; no regular organisation assists him on his way; and when he arrives eventually at his destination, nobody really wants him to stay. The refugee who is assisted to settle in a new environment, or the refugee who is expedited back to his former home, are the exceptions to the normal rule that once people become refugees they never entirely lose that status. The refugee is the world's most unwanted man. But somehow he survives. The present narrative is a story of survival.

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1 The account by Collis, Maurice, Last and First in Burma (1941-1948) (London, 1956), includes a chapter, “The Refugees”, which dwells unduly upon British official activities. The valedictory history of the Indian Civil Service, The Men Who Ruled India, vol. ii, The Guardians by Philip Woodruff (London, 1954), similarly conveys an impression of the British being in control in the section “The War in Burma”, and singles out only one incident to illustrate the agony of the Indians.

2 The India Office material is mainly collected in a bulky file of the Public and Judicial Department, “The Evacuation of Indians from Burma”, originally numbered P & J 110. Q, and now listed as L/P & J/8/436. This includes the Hutchings and Wood reports, quoted in the text. The Indian National Archives includes a number of files of the Indians Overseas Department of the Government of India relating to the subject: 126-8/42, “Evacuation from Burma, Land Routes”; 126-9/42, “B. J. Marathey: Special Evacuation Officer”; 126-14/42, “Burma: Indian labour leaders”; 126-18/42, “Burma: Evacuation and allied matters”; 126-28/42, “Burma: Evacuation by Assam land routes”; 126, 70 (II)/42, “Report on Evacuation from Burma into Assam”; 144/1/42, “Miscellaneous complaints on evacuation”. Other files contain reports delivered to the National Defence Council with details of the refugees: 144/7/42, 14-5/43, 131-1/43.

3 The files of the Indian National Congress, located at the J. N. Memorial Library, contain little that was written immediately following the exodus: C. Rajagopalachari seems to have been most involved. The M. S. Aney papers (recently acquired, and still uncatalogued at the time of my visit) contain a large number of letters from people with relatives in Burma or from refugees. Aney was then the Member for Indians Overseas.

4 I have a number of my old letters, written from the field to my parents in England during and immediately after the exodus from Burma. They are totally useless as evidence. I was so concerned to appear as a gallant and gay young British officer in the Rupert Brooke mould that all the more grim aspects of the situation were omitted. I do not think that this reticence was induced by knowledge that these letters might be censored, but was part of the role-playing I then considered due. The letters are only corroborative evidence that the British movies of the 1950s about the second world war, in which the heroes always laconically joked in the face of disaster, were remarkably authentic.

5 The scale of the Indian exodus was discussed in detail in correspondence on the Indians Overseas Department file 126-10/42: “Burma, Malaya, Ceylon, Evacuation of Indians”. The conclusions were in line with those given in the text. On casualties, Brigadier Short, senior medical officer in charge of the central (Manipur) area, reported a total of 220,000 Indians reaching safety and 4,268 known deaths. He reckoned that the actual total was probably double: for the Manipur sector. Losses suffered by the Indian Army in the Burma campaign numbered 3,670 died and 6,366 missing: a low total in proportion to the army.

6 The principal work on the subject — Chakravarti, N. R., The Indian Minority in Burma: the rise and decline of an immigrant community (London, 1971) — sees 1942 as “The End of Indian Interests in Burma” (Ch. XI).

7 Among the complaints Rajaji put forward was that of R. G. Iyengar, that “Persons of the middle class, like clerks, educated mercantile assistants, teachers, etc, and their families should not be herded together with the labourers” (Rajagopalachari to Aney, 2 February 1942). Caste and class counted, even in the struggle to survive.

8 Woodburn Kirby, Major-General S. and others, The War Against Japan, Vol II, India's Most Dangerous Hour (London, 1958), pp. 93-4.

9 Maurice Collis draws a strange picture of Dorman-Smith, alone in a deserted Government House playing billiards. Eventually, his aide threw the billiard balls at the portraits of former Governors: “it was a massacre”, he recorded. Last and First in Burma, p. 105.

10 Report by Security Control Officer, Chittagong, to Government of India, 12 March 1942.

11 In a report to the Viceroy's Private Secretary, Bozman of the Indians Overseas Department stated that up to that time (14 May 1942) 200,000 refugees had passed through Chittagong. He would be careful to check his figures thoroughly as he knew this report would be passed to the Secretary of State and eventually to Parliament (Telegram, Viceroy to Secretary of State, 9 June 1942, repeated this figure). Hutchings, in his final report on the exodus, stated that 100,000 passed over the Taungup route. It is a considerable disparity, which in lieu of other conclusive evidence may be resolved by accepting Bozman's total.

12 Vorley's report was said to contain “criticisms of government and government officers ... all through”, according to a note in the India Office files. The actual report is missing from the records, both in London and Delhi, and appears to have been suppressed.

13 Sir Arthur Clow to Lord Linlithgow, June 11, 1942

14 Telegram, Viceroy to Secretary of State for India, May 29 1942

15 Telegram, Viceroy to Secretary of State, May 30 1942

16 Aney to Kunzru, May 11 1942, and Kunzru to Aney, May 19 1942. These letters are i n the uncatalogued Aney papers now at the J. N. Memorial Library. The Governor of Assam resented the “peevish criticism” expressed by Kunzru (Clow to Linlithgow, June 2 1942).

17 British Minister, Berne, to Foreign Office, August 5 1942.

18 General Sir A. E. Hartley to the Bishop of Calcutta, May 11 1942 (papers of the Metropolitan of India, deposited in Bishop's College, Calcutta; box labelled “Army”: File: “Complaints against military department”).

19 Amery's denial was given in reply to a House of Commons question by Stephen Davies, MP, on May 3 1942.

20 Indians Overseas Department file: “Burma, Malaya, Ceylon, Evacuation of Indians, material for proposed question in parliament”.

21 R. H. Hutchings: “Report on Evacuation from Burma”; main report signed September 4 1942, confidential appendix signed November 17, submitted to the Viceroy. Major-General E. Wood: “Report on the Evacuation of Refugees from Burma to India (Assam), January to July 1942”, signed, Calcutta, October 1 1942. Both reports are quoted frequently in this paper. The statements by Brigadier Short occur in the Wood report.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
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