Indian Exodus From Burma: An Impossible Journey Back Home

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Among the forgotten humanitarian crises caused by wars in the 20th century, is the little-known exodus of the Indian community from Burma during the Second World War. Catch the story of 5 lakh Indians who defied all odds to make it back - only to face an uncertain future.

During World War II and the Japanese invasion of Burma (now Myanmar) in December 1941, a tiny coastal town in Burma shot to prominence. There was nothing inherently remarkable about Taungup, situated on Burma’s west coast. But geography turned it into a gateway for boatloads of Indian refugees, desperate to escape Japanese occupation of Burma and make their way back home.

Indians leaving Rangoon, 1941 | Wikimedia Commons
Indians leaving Rangoon, 1941 | Wikimedia Commons

Still, only half the Indians living and working in Burma – that is, 5 lakh – were able to leave the country. And survival came at a high price. Many who lived through the nightmare trekked hundreds of kilometres through dense tropical jungle, braving starvation, exhaustion, malaria, dysentery and brutal racial and class discrimination from the colonial British, who were also fleeing the advancing Japanese. And Taungup was only one of many exit points.

The exodus of the Indian community from Burma in the 1940s has its roots in the ambitions of the imperial British. With the British Empire stretching into Burma, Indians began migrating to the neighbouring country in large numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1931, there were more than a million Indians living in Burma. In fact, Rangoon (now Yangon) was popularly referred to as an ‘Indian city’.

Manipuri Brahmins in Burma | Wikimedia Commons
Manipuri Brahmins in Burma | Wikimedia Commons

While there was a slice of wealthy Indians there, the majority of Indians were labourers, while a significant number were employed in administrative posts, in the military, or were businessmen and traders.

Things began to change in the 1920s and ’30s, with a surge in Burmese nationalism. Anti-Indian sentiment began to grow and Indians were seen as prospering at the cost of the Burmese. They were also seen as enablers of British imperialism. In the run-up to World War II, rising tensions spiralled into full-blown riots. Scores of Indians died in the violence, and the Indian community had begun planning an evacuation anyway.

In his article A Forgotten Long March: The Indian Exodus From Burma published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, historian Hugh Tinker notes that the British and Burmese governments had begun making it difficult for Indians who wanted to leave even before the Japanese invaded. Indians whose professions were deemed ‘essential’ for the defence of Burma (such as dock workers etc) were forced to stay back.

Rangoon, 39th Street after the Japanese Bombing of the city | Wikimedia Commons
Rangoon, 39th Street after the Japanese Bombing of the city | Wikimedia Commons

The First Wave

The first wave of Indians, around 15,000, living in Rangoon, began the long march home after the Japanese bombed the city in December 1941. They tried to make their way north, to Taungup, from where they hoped to hire boats and reach Chittagong.

But the route to Taungup was deliberately blocked by British Governor-General Reginald Smith, who feared that an exodus of Indians would deplete the workforce and paralyse British defence operations in Burma. So, while Indians were held back, European nationals were allowed to leave in droves, using the last remaining air, water and land transport available.

Indian refugees waiting to cross the Irrawaddy River | Wikimedia Commons
Indian refugees waiting to cross the Irrawaddy River | Wikimedia Commons

By now, Indians in other parts of the country had also started making their way towards central and northern Burma, in the hope of finding a way out. But the Burmese government had instructed local officials to not let Indian refugees cross the Irrawaddy River. The refugees were trying to reach Akyab on the coast, so they could reach Chittagong.

Evacuation by sea from Rangoon had been reserved for Europeans and upper-class Indians only. In fact, ships leaving Rangoon were prohibited from selling cheap deck tickets to Indians, the only kind most Indians could afford.

The efforts of the British Agent in Burma, Richard Hutchings, deserves mention. He persuaded the British-Indian government to send across special ships, which took 70,000 Indians to Madras and Calcutta in January 1942. These were the lucky ones. More than 2 lakh Indians were still stranded in Rangoon and the surrounding region, awaiting evacuation. It was only when the Japanese captured the southern port of Moulmein in late January 1942 that a full-scale evacuation of Indians was permitted.

Routes taken by the refugees through Burma to reach India | Wikimedia Commons
Routes taken by the refugees through Burma to reach India | Wikimedia Commons

Those who were trying to make it to Taungup had to walk more than 200 km across hilly terrain. Many died during the journey due to starvation, dehydration and sheer exhaustion. Making things worse were local Burmese officials, who demanded bribes to allow access to the Taungup route. Only Europeans and wealthy Indians could afford to pay these bribes. Lack of proper sanitation facilities led to the outbreak of cholera. It is estimated that 2 lakh refugees made it to India via Taungup, defying all odds.

Fleeing Mandalay

A gross miscalculation by the British gave the Japanese an edge, allowing them to eventually occupy Southern Burma. This happened as the British refused to believe that any military force could penetrate the hilly and thick jungle terrain of Burma, let alone take it from them!

Indian refugees fleeing from Mandalay | Wikimedia Commons
Indian refugees fleeing from Mandalay | Wikimedia Commons

By the end of February 1942, the Japanese had control over most of Southern Burma, with the 1 lakh Indians who lived in and around Mandalay scrambling to push northwards to reach India. There were only two possible routes remaining now: the first was via the Tamu pass, which led to Imphal in Manipur; and the other was the perilously long route via the Hukawang Valley to Ledo in Assam. This later came to be known as the Valley of Death.

By mid-March 1942, the Japanese were closing in on Mandalay. Indians living in makeshift refugee camps were constantly harassed by Japanese air raids, resulting in many Indian casualties. As the Japanese continued to push northward, thousands of migrants began moving towards Kalewa, along the Chindwin River valley. After this, a dirt road led to the Tamu Pass, close to the border with India. This is the road that led to Imphal.

The ‘roads’ used by the refugees were no more than dirt or mule tracks. But even these trails were subject to discrimination, as there was a ‘white route’ and a ‘black route’. The ‘white’ route traversed easier terrain and was equipped with basic medical facilities, whereas the ‘black’ one was extremely unsafe in certain sections and was largely unmanned.

Japanese troop movements and the retreat of the British Army | Wikimedia Commons
Japanese troop movements and the retreat of the British Army | Wikimedia Commons

British Forces Retreat

At the end of April 1942, Commander of the British forces in Burma, General Harold Alexander, gave the order for a general retreat. This would leave Burma to the Japanese, while preserving British forces who would retreat to India. Unfortunately, the route the troops would take was the same one being used by Indian refugees. What little help the migrants had thus far received from the authorities soon evaporated as priorities were reversed immediately. Military needs were paramount, which left the refugees to fend for themselves.

The onset of the monsoon in May 1942 made things much more treacherous for the Indian migrants. The landscape was dotted with deep ravines and rivers, which were now flooded. Trails were often washed away and loose soil turned into slushy mud, which made movement through the dense, hilly jungle virtually impossible.

The never-ending Japanese advance now made the Tamu Pass untenable. The last remaining route was across the Hukawang Valley, the northernmost access to India from Burma. Braving all this misery and in driving rain, thousands continued to struggle along this route, with refugees still coming in as late as September 1942!

Refugees on foot, trying to reach India | cbi-theater.com
Refugees on foot, trying to reach India | cbi-theater.com

An Uncertain Future

Around 5 lakh Indians made the death-defying exodus from Burma to India, via various routes. It is believed that nearly 1 lakh perished. Many began their journey, only to disappear somewhere in Western Burma, their bodies and belongings found months, even years after their fateful expedition. Those who made it to India faced an uncertain future – with an ongoing war, an independence movement in full swing and the daunting prospect of rebuilding their lives.

Despite its scale, the exodus of Indians from Burma was overshadowed by the ‘Longest retreat in British military history’ after the war. The failed Japanese invasion of India in 1944 and the subsequent liberation of Burma by the Allies in 1945 relegated the story of the Indian migrants to the footnotes of history.

It is only recently that scholars have begun to explore the events of those fateful months. This will hopefully help remember the Indians who made the impossible journey to their homeland, and, in the process, created history.

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