The two World Wars that occurred over the past century have played a significant role in shaping the lives of every citizen in this planet. The Wars definitively influenced global developments around science, research, technology, warfare, medicine, politics, economics, global alignment and other disciplines. The First World War occurred about a hundred years ago, and is relatively far away from present day memories.
The Second World War is closer to us in years and impact, with several developments having played a tangible role in our lives. For example, the evolution of the jet engine which has revolutionized travel, and nuclear energy which has had resulted in both positive and negative consequences. The Second World War was fought primarily between the American and British forces on one hand, and the forces led by Japan and Germany, on the other. Britain was one of the key players in WWII. A surprisingly well guarded secret here in India is that Britain's most difficult and significant WWII battles were those fought on Indian soil. These battles are collectively referred to as the Battle of Imphal and Kohima.
Battles of what? Imphal? Kohima? Oh? Can you tell me the exact locations of these two places? Well, the North Eastern states are slightly removed from mainstream India, physically and otherwise. The states of Manipur and Nagaland are, unfortunately, known to a tiny minority of tourists, travelers and travel operators. The Imphal Valley is surrounded by mountains on all sides, some of which adjoin the borders of Myanmar (Burma).
Well, the background of the battles of WWII that were fought here in 1944 is that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, a freedom fighter, was the president of the Indian National Congress, but broke away in 1939. His objective was to actively fight for India's independence. The British authorities were understandably concerned at the prospect of losing a huge part of their eastern empire and were not prepared to take this lightly. Subhash Bose was placed under house arrest, but he managed to escape in 1941, and travelled incognito through a land - sea - undersea (submarine) route from India all the way to Singapore via Europe.
Subhash Bose was the first leader to address the Indian nation, which he did from Singapore over the radio. He raised a multi-national army comprised of Indian soldiers who had been captured by Japan and then freed in the Malay peninsula. The army also included Indians who had settled in the region, like workers in the Malay rubber plantations. The army of freedom fighters was called the Indian National Army (INA), or, Azad Hind Fauj (Azad = independent, Hind = India, Fauj = army). Such was the level of motivation and inclusiveness that the army even included an all-women's brigade called Rani Jhansi Brigade led by Capt Lakshmi, who is still alive today at the time of writing (2014).
A FEW OF THE BATTLES
However, not many of us here in India are aware, in some detail, that several major WWII battles were fought in India. The rag-tag forces of the INA traveled through the heat, humidity and disease filled jungles of equatorial Malay and Burma. The INA overran Myanmar and attacked British Indian forces through Indian's eastern borders along mountainous and treacherous routes near Imphal (Manipur) and Kohima (Nagaland).
Major battles were fought between the soldiers of the INA and and the soldiers of imperialistic Britain who were supported by the forces of several members of the Allied countries. These battles are reported to have been vicious and close, fought in the jungles in early 1944.
TIDDIM ROAD BATTLES
One of the bloodiest hand to hand combats was fought along Tiddim Road in the Red Hills area near Imphal. This point was the closest that the INA approached towards Imphal. Victoria Cross medals are awarded to British and Commonwealth soldiers for exemplary bravery. It is significant that TWO Victoria Cross medals were awarded in these battles, to Sergeant Hansen Turner and Rifleman Ganju Lama in June 1944.
A monument was built several decades ago. It stands today, showing Japanese writing and houses armaments used at that time.
The Japanese built a very simple peace memorial in 1994.
The simple inscription in the Tiddim Road memorial says: "This monument shall stand as a prayer for peace and a symbol of friendship between the peoples of Japan and India in memory of all those who lost their lives in India during the last World War. "
A strikingly, simple memorial that exudes a sense of calmness.
THE BATTLE OF NUNGSHIGUM
Nungshigum is a high point that is strategically located around three airfields. A site of several hand-to-hand combats,
The 70th anniversary of the various Battles are being remembered in a low key manner in and around Imphal. However, the rest of India does not have a clue. India does not even know about the Battles. Remarkably, below is a photo of the Nungshigum Day Parade held in the UK on April 13, 2014. (Photo source: "Imphal Campaign - WW2" Facebook page).
Alas, India has forgotten the WWII Battles of Imphal, because the family that has ruled India for most of the years since 1947 was not part of the epic battles to win independence in 1944, and have decreed that this part of history shall not get into India's history books.
The terrain in which the battles were fought was extremely inhospitable. The armies marched along steep hill tracks, dry in April when I visited, but slippery and buzzing with mosquitoes during the rains, infested with leeches and several tropical diseases. The forces of the INA all but won. They were finally done in by untimely early arrival of the monsoon rains and a shortage of rations. The troops of the INA retreated in July 1944, back to Burma. Meanwhile, Manipur and surrounding areas were flooded with an influx of Burmese refugees.
Battles of the scale experienced at Imphal and Kohima need significant logistics support. This was probably the key factor that resulted in the British army defeating the INA. Six airports were used to airlift supplies and equipment. Today, Tulihal Airport near Imphal is the only civilian airport in Manipur. It links Imphal with the rest of India. It was a key, all-weather airfield built during the war to support the operations. However, there is not even a sign to commemorate this fact. Visitors have no idea that they are walking on soil that shaped Indian, British and World history.
The Kangla Airfield had been carved out of rice fields, and has since been handed back for cultivation. Again, there are no indications of the importance of this spot, only a general signboard indicating the name of the area.
The most important all-weather airfield was located at Korengei, situated right next to the Indo-Burma Road. Eerily enough, visiting Korengei is like going back decades in time. The airstrip appears to be in the same state in which it had been abandoned 70 years ago (1944 - 2014). It lies desolate and forgotten. I actually felt lonely and little as I walked some distance along the strip, the gravel giving way and making squish-squish sounds under my shoes. The faint sound of traffic on the Indo-Burma road seemed to be filtered quite effectively by the pine trees that shield the airfield from public gaze. It is only after you turn in that a small sign indicates that you are on Defence land. India has forgotten the significance of this abandoned, and now quiet, but once major airfield only 70 years ago.
Manipur is all about "look the other way or blink and you miss the sights". You do need a local guide to help you find these spots.
Soldiers from many countries fought in the Battles of Imphal and Kohima. The British army consisted of soldiers from India, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, East Africa and other parts of the world. Mainly Commonwealth countries, perhaps? The Commonwealth Graves Commission remembers these soldiers by means of two well preserved Cemeteries. One of the two Cemeteries is for overseas soldiers.
Row after row of graves present a poignant sight, each indicates the name, rank, age and other details. Most soldiers appeared to have died while in their early 20's to the early 30's.
Awarded the Victoria Cross, Sergeant Turner of the Tiddim Road Battles fame lies here.
A few visitors were hunting for specific names. Groups of local students sat outside the cemetery, in the middle of a picnic. The cemetery is a quiet, getaway spot! The two Cemeteries are funded by an Commonwealth agency, so the appearance is rather unlike India's tradition of not wanting to preserve our history and environment.
Jemadar Abdul Hafiz of the 9th Jat Regiment was killed in action. He was leading the British troops on April 6, 1944, in the absence of leaders who had all been killed. He was the first Indian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the first of four VC awardees. The Battles of Imphal together resulted in a total of FIVE VCs to be awarded.
Soldiers whose faith demanded burial were buried in neat rows. Soldiers whose faith called for cremation were cremated, and their names were listed in stone memorials.
I was the only visitor at the Indian cemetery. It was very quiet that evening. No traffic, not even birds, only the sound of my footsteps on the grass, until the silence during sunset was pierced by the call to evening prayer from a nearby house of worship.
'INA MUSEUM' IN MOIRANG
One of the significant events of the 1944 Indian war of independence fought by the INA was the hoisting of the Indian tricolour flag in Manipur, for the first time on Indian soil.
Remembrance of this momentous event deserved a few minutes of thought. And wondering why this event is not at all known.
The INA Memorial complex has been constructed at Moirang around the spot where the Indian flag (tricolour) was first hoisted for the first time in India in 1944.
The INA memorial complex houses a replica of the INA Memorial in Singapore, the foundation stone of which was laid by Netaji Bose, but destroyed by the British forces.
The statue of Subhas Bose is as good place as any to have my photograph clicked. One for the books. I wondered, how many statues of Subhash Bose are there in all of India? He is also called the "First Soldier of the Last War of Indian Independence."
The INA museum is an extremely humble affair.
Photography is prohibited inside the exhibit rooms that show photographs, maps, documents, armaments, Azad Hind currency notes, march past in Singapore and other elements of WWII in the region.
Right outside the INA complex lie the excavations of a large building that dates back 70 years to the days of WWII. I was told that the shell of a huge bomb was found here recently.
'IMPHAL WAR MUSEUM' IN IMPHAL (Private museum)
While trying to I check out a map on my mobile phone, I received an email from a friend that an "Imphal War Museum" had been inaugurated the same morning in Imphal. This was a massive coincidence! We happened to be only a few kilometres away at that time. The word 'museum' conjured up visions of a somewhat large building. However, the museum turned out to be housed inside a home, which took some searching to locate.
The new Imphal War Museum is an entirely private initiative, fueled by the dedication of the family of an Indian soldier who was part of the British army during the war. Family and friends go out on expeditions to unearth memorabilia. They even buy artefacts from villagers.
Ms Geeta Arambam supports family members and friends as they scour the countryside, often leaving home very early in the morning on their expeditions.
The photo below shows Ms Geeta and my guide Bashan Waikhom. Ms Geeta's grand-father was a war veteran.
Some of the items on display, like a Willys Jeep parts catalogue and wartime correspondence. There was a power cut at that time, so photography was a problem, with the flash reflecting off the glass and flash less photos being of poor quality.
Not only had the Azad Hind Fauj launched a radio station based in Singapore, the Azad Hind Bank had issued currency notes to conduct business.
A seat from a crashed aircraft is on display, and a little cycle used by the Japanese soldiers for short errands.
The soldiers used to store rations at a height from the ground, hung around a metal frame.
A shovel, currency notes and family photographs found in dead soldiers' pockets. The official INA Museum in Moirang houses similar artifacts, as well as a large collection of correspondence, maps, photographs of the forces of the INA, including the ladies' Rani Jhansi Brigade. Photography is not allowed in the official INA museum.
An engine from an aircraft that crashed in the fields, found during the excavation trips, buried in the soil.
With Ms Geeta in their home-museum, with the aircraft engine visible in the background on the left side.
As we prepare to leave, we pause a moment to photograph the home-museum and the ladies who support the initiative with tremendous dedication.
The day had been a vast learning experience for me. India's embarrassing apathy towards preserving history is evident all over the country. It is generally believed that tourism and development have been neglected in the North Eastern states. The neglect would probably rank higher with the North East's association with the WWII, the two states involved being Manipur and Nagaland.
The Battles of Imphal and Kohima have been voted ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ by the National Army Museum, ahead of Waterloo and the D-Day landings, which I remember studying about while in school. The British victories in Manipur and Nagaland enabled them to extend their reign, and prevented India from winning independence in 1944. These are as significant as any global historical event can get. While the world recognized that the Battles of Imphal and Kohima that were fought on Indian soil to be the most difficult of the Battles fought by Britain in WWII, India has all but erased these battles from memory.
Just the facts. Uncensored.
It is probably not a coincidence that those who have controlled India most of the time since the British left India in 1947 had no role to play in the epic battles for Independence in 1944.
Further, there is strong apprehension that North-East India's role, specifically, as a subset of India's role in shaping Indian, British and World history may gradually be forgotten. I was left wondering whether any correction in the History curriculum in Indian schools is likely to happen in my lifetime, or in anyone's lifetime.
For more information:
(2) Battle Of Imphal Tour Services
(3) Manipur Update Online Newspaper; April 4, 2014
(4) The case for a Second World War museum in Imphal, E-PAO; April 28, 2014
(5) Facebook: "Imphal Campaign - WW2"
The picture below is from the "Imphal Campaign - WW2" Facebook page.
The posts in this series are listed below.