Friday, April 4, 2014
Are you from Japan?
My guide Bashan Waikhom took me to a site in Imphal that was among the first places to have been bombed by Japanese bombers during the Battles of Imphal.
It was a full moon night in 1943 during a local festival at a temple.
An old photograph hangs in the hall that was very badly impacted. There were about 100 deaths that night, and many injuries.
The members of the Committee that is trying to preserve the site showed me a simple 1-page description and a register for visitors to sign. This effort is completely private, funded by the local community aided by meagre donations of a handful of visitors who happen to stop by. Another private initiative, like the private INA Museum that I had visited.
A plaque helps us remember the tragic occasion.
Near the plaque hangs a temple bell. On the other side of the plaque, a senior Manipuri lady sat in a small enclosure. She was bust working on a sewing machine. She looked up at me, smiled, and asked me something in Manipuri.
I stepped closer to her so that I could hear better, and she repeated her question. She was asking me in Manipuri: "XXXX XXXX XXXX Japan"?
It dawned on me that she was trying to figure out whether I am from Japan. I smiled back, shook my head and responded in one word, "India". The shake of my head was a very sad one. All I could manage was to look down at the floor in embarrassment.
The experience was an overwhelming one. A memorial of the first day of WWII bombing in India. A tragic occasion. Over 100 deaths. A very simple memorial funded by a humble community effort. An innocent old lady wanting to know whether I am from Japan.
My guide had remarked earlier that many Japanese and British visitors travel to Manipur to take in the WWII sights and pay their respects to their ancestors. He also said that very few Indians visit. The simple lady's innocent question reaffirmed his statement. It hit me hard.
Seventy years (1944 - 2014) have elapsed since the Battles of Imphal and Kohima were fought on Indian soil. This set of battles has been voted ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’, ahead of well publicized battles like Waterloo and the D-Day landings.
Unfortunately, a relatively tiny number of Indians know about these events. Little private initiatives keep the spirit going. The spirit to acknowledge and record events of the past and present the facts.
I recall learning in our History books in agonizingly painstaking detail about the time of day when Mughal Emperor X scratched his backside, or how many times Mughal Emperor Y drank wine and visited his harem. We were made to believe that a bulk of India's history began with the Khiljis and ended with the Mughals. Relatively insignificant amounts of ancient and modern history have been taught in schools. The bias towards Northern history and the invaders from the North-West is evident.
Unfortunately, India has allowed its History books to be coloured. It appears that those who have controlled the content in our History books do not want the 1944 War of Independence and the heroics of the INA to come to light. Consequently, India's teachers and students know virtually nothing about India and the North-East's role in shaping Indian, British and World history. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded by the British in these battles, which tells a story. On the other side, soldiers of the INA backed by the Japanese forces sacrificed their lives fighting for India's independence in 1944.
Sadly, the memories of the brave acts of soldiers on both sides of the battle lines have faded away into the mist.
The old lady's barely audible question continues to ring softly in my mind. "Are you from Japan"?
The posts in this series are listed below.