Rebuilding their Burma dreams
They are not refugees but repatriates who returned to their native soil penniless after being hounded out from a land they adored and believed it to be their own.
Offering their prayers in a Buddhist shrine.
Until a few years ago all the advertisements for Government jobs contained a special quota mentioned under the category called `Burma Repatriates'. Who are these repatriates? Most people mistake them as refugees and group them with the Chakma or the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar. But the basic difference lies in the words, refugee and repatriate. These Burma repatriates are the ones who migrated from India to make that distant land (then part of the British India) their home decades ago. Later, after gaining nationhood, a fascist dictator one fine day decided to call the show over and they became aliens overnight, and had to trace their steps back to their original motherland for survival. And Visakhapatnam is home to most of such repatriates.
If one goes down the history it could be seen that a large number of landless poor people migrated to Burma from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu region. There is a theory supporting the claim that the actual migration started at the time of Emperor Asoka, when one of his sisters by name Indrani sailed from the historical port town of Korangi now in Srikakulam district with a group of natives to Burma to preach Buddhism. But the most accepted logic is that economically backward people in groups from the Andhra region migrated to Burma in the mid-18th century. The landless peasants migrated for better opportunity and they used to brave the sea in catamarans and small boats that sailed from another port town by the same name Korangi Reva Patnam now in East Godavari district to reach Rangoon. The fortunate reached their cherished destination while others perished at sea. In fact the migrants were initially called by the Burmese as Korangis. Such migration continued till early 1940s when people mostly from Visakhapatnam, Chicacole (now Srikakulam) and the Godavari basin used to board the steam ships, Jala Durga and Chilka, to make a few quick bucks.
Everything was in tune with the dream that these migrants saw till 1942. They went as daily wage labourers but soon earned the trust of the innocent Burmese people and rose to good positions and accumulated a lot of wealth. Their dreams took the first setback when the Japanese launched their Burma campaign in 1942 against the Allies to take control over the strategic Malacca Straits and the route to China. The deafening explosion of the Japanese bombs and the news of Burma falling to their 55th division sent the docile Indians to retrace their steps back to their native motherland.
"People had to trek for miles through the Arakan range for days without food and water to reach Calcutta as there was no other means of transport available. Many old and weak people died on the way and they were buried in hurriedly dug holes or just left behind for the animals to feast upon, as they could not be cremated for fear of detection by the overflying Japanese fighter planes. The fleeing migrants were treated as traitors and spies by both the Allied and Japanese forces and the unfortunate who were caught were tortured. The sick had to be deserted as they could not be carried because they would slow down the pace of returning home. Every batch of such repatriates had to cross the corpses of fellow repatriates with a few known faces among them. But they were helpless," says Satibabu who heard the tale from his grandfather who was one among the 1942 repatriates.
"Every week one train from Calcutta loaded with these repatriates used to pass Visakhapatnam and we used to assist the Prema Samajam for distributing food and water. They were in pathetic condition and we would be moved seeing them," remembers K. Jagganadha Rao.
The exodus continued till 1945, when the Japanese forces were routed and Burma was free from the colonial rule. U Nu took over as the Prime Minister of free Burma and things slowly returned to normalcy. The Indians who stayed back once again flourished until 1960, when the country was taken over by the military junta leader, General Ne Win, in a violent coup. Overnight the migrants who were regarded as their own people by the Burmese became aliens. The socialist regime under the fascist General devalued the currency, reducing the affluent Indians to paupers with a stroke of the pen. The migrants were asked to discard their government jobs to accommodate the local people and they lost their nationality. The green pastures turned thorny for the surviving Indian migrants. They were left with two choices either live as second rate citizen with an identity card around their neck or leave the country.
"Suddenly the lovable and affable Burmese community started to treat us with disdain. The respect we commanded for the only reason that Lord Buddha was born in India turned into deep-rooted hatred. We were asked to pay more for everything including for public transport. The Indian preference was crushed under the heavy boots of the gun-toting soldiers. Though there was no violence inflicted on us, the message was stern and threatening and we were left with no other alternative than to come back to India leaving behind all our properties," says the State president of Burma Andhra Repatriates Central Association, M. Arjuna Rao.
That was the beginning of another exodus. Vice-Admiral Katari Ramdas, the then Ambassador to Burma, apprised Jawaharlal Nehru about the plight of Indians and the Prime Minister immediately passed a Government Order (GO) to rehabilitate the repatriates under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam
The destitute and old repatriates still live with the belief that the pension scheme will be revived soon.
"Though housing and jobs formed the basic requisite of the GO, the implementation was not done as it should have been. The 7,538 repatriated families were dumped in temporary transit camps at Kancharapalem, Dairy Farm, Atchutapuram and Kanithi. For nine months we were put under sub-human condition with a daily allowance of Re.1 per family. Starvation forced quite a few male members to desert their families and a few women had to take up odd jobs to keep the wolf from the door. The camps were disbanded after nine months and we were left to our fate. By that time whatever small resources we could smuggle out of Burma under the watchful eyes of the soldiers were exhausted, and we were put to a real test. To tackle the situation the first step taken was to bring the various repatriate societies under one roof and that was the inception of Burma Andhra Repatriates Central Association. Subsequently a concerted war of letters, memoranda and dharnas were staged against the Government. Finally the GO was implemented in 1970, under the guidance of the then District Collector, S.N. Achanta," says Arjuna Rao.
Over 2,000 families were given jobs in spinning mills in Hastinapur (UP), Nellore, Karimnagar and Rajahmundry and rehabilitated. The remaining 5,000 odd families were sanctioned loans worth Rs.5,000 for constructing a house on the allotted land and an additional amount of Rs.5,000 was approved as working capital to enable them to start a business. Seven colonies exclusively for the Burma repatriates were initiated at various locations within the city limits like Kancharapalem, Old ITI junction, Sriharipuram, Ashok Nagar and Pedagantyada.
The rapid industrialisation of the city in the 1970s was a blessing in disguise for the repatriates. Many found themselves placed in public sector organisations like Visakhapatnam Steel Plant, BHPV, Hindustan Shipyard, VPT and Naval Dockyard under the quota system.
"Though the loans were officially allotted for all the families staying in Visakhapatnam, only around 2,000 families were the actual beneficiaries. The remaining are still pending even after the loans sanctioned have been written off by the then Union Minister, Jalagam Vengal Rao, in 1985. The State Government also stopped the pension scheme for the surviving old people since last two years. At present only 14 persons survive from the original list of 30 destitute old persons, and the pension amount is only Rs.180 per month, even that proves to be costly for the Government, " says the secretary of the Association, E. Eswara Rao.
Though the Burma repatriates live in different parts of the city they are a well-knit community. Since most of them have embraced the Mahayana sect of Buddhism they still don't miss to join their Hindu brethren in celebrating their festivals. The old never forget to reminisce their Burma days whenever they meet on such occasions. "Because of this harmony we have been able to sail through the troubled times with dignity," says Mr. Arjuna Rao.
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