Tuesday, July 8, 2014

GARDINER HARRIS - A Largely Indian Victory in World War II, Mostly Forgotten in India // Shamik Bag - The forgotten  frontier

KOHIMA, India — Soldiers died by the dozens, by the hundreds and then by the thousands in a battle here 70 years ago. Two bloody weeks of fighting came down to just a few yards across an asphalt tennis court. Night after night, Japanese troops charged across the court’s white lines, only to be killed by almost continuous firing from British and Indian machine guns. The Battle of Kohima and Imphal was the bloodiest of World War II in India, and it cost Japan much of its best army in Burma.

But the battle has been largely forgotten in India as an emblem of the country’s colonial past. The Indian troops who fought and died here were subjects of the British Empire. In this remote, northeastern corner of India, more recent battles with a mix of local insurgencies among tribal groups that have long sought autonomy have made remembrances of former glories a luxury. Now, as India loosens its security grip on this region and a fragile peace blossoms among the many combatants here, historians are hoping that this year’s anniversary reminds the world of one of the most extraordinary fights of the Second World War. The battle was voted last year as the winner of a contest by Britain’s National Army Museum, beating out Waterloo and D-Day as Britain’s greatest battle, though it was overshadowed at the time by the Normandy landings.

“The Japanese regard the battle of Imphal to be their greatest defeat ever,” said Robert Lyman, author of “Japan’s Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India 1944.” “And it gave Indian soldiers a belief in their own martial ability and showed that they could fight as well or better than anyone else.” The battlefields in what are now the Indian states of Nagaland and Manipur - some just a few miles from the border with Myanmar, which was then Burma - are also well preserved because of the region’s longtime isolation. Trenches, bunkers and airfields remain as they were left 70 years ago - worn by time and monsoons but clearly visible in the jungle.

This mountain city also boasts a graceful, terraced military cemetery on which the lines of the old tennis court are demarcated in white stone. A closing ceremony for a three-month commemoration is planned for June 28 in Imphal, and representatives from the United States, Australia, Japan, India and other nations have promised to attend. “The Battle of Imphal and Kohima is not forgotten by the Japanese,” said Yasuhisa Kawamura, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi, who is planning to attend the ceremony. “Military historians refer to it as one of the fiercest battles in world history.” A small but growing tour industry has sprung up around the battlefields over the past year, led by a Hemant Katoch, a local history buff.

But whether India will ever truly celebrate the Battle of Kohima and Imphal is unclear. India’s founding fathers were divided on whether to support the British during World War II, and India’s governments have generally had uneasy relationships even with the nation’s own military. So far, only local officials and a former top Indian general have agreed to participate in this week’s closing ceremony. “India has fought six wars since independence, and we don’t have a memorial for a single one,” said Mohan Guruswamy, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a public policy organization in India. “And at Imphal, Indian troops died, but they were fighting for a colonial government.” Rana T. S. Chhina, secretary of the Center for Armed Forces Historical Research in New Delhi, said that top Indian officials were participating this year in some of the 100-year commemorations of crucial battles of World War I.

“I suppose we may need to let Imphal and Kohima simmer for a few more decades before we embrace it fully,” he said. “But there’s hope.” The battle began some two years after Japanese forces routed the British in Burma in 1942, which brought the Japanese Army to India’s eastern border. Lt. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi persuaded his Japanese superiors to allow him to attack British forces at Imphal and Kohima in hopes of preventing a British counterattack. But General Mutaguchi planned to push farther into India to destabilize the British Raj, which by then was already being convulsed by the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. General Mutaguchi brought a large number of Indian troops captured after the fall of Malaya and Singapore who agreed to join the Japanese in hopes of creating an independent India.

The British were led by Lt. Gen. William Slim, a brilliant tactician who re-formed and retrained the Eastern Army after its crushing defeat in Burma. The British and Indian forces were supported by planes commanded by the United States Army Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell. Once the Allies became certain that the Japanese planned to attack, General Slim withdrew his forces from western Burma and had them dig defensive positions in the hills around Imphal Valley, hoping to draw the Japanese into a battle far from their supply lines. But none of the British commanders believed that the Japanese could cross the nearly impenetrable jungles around Kohima in force, so when a full division of nearly 15,000 Japanese troops came swarming out of the vegetation on April 4, the town was only lightly defended by some 1,500 British and Indian troops.

The Japanese encirclement meant that those troops were largely cut off from reinforcements and supplies, and a bitter battle eventually led the British and Indians to withdraw into a small enclosure next to a tennis court. The Japanese, without air support or supplies, eventually became exhausted, and the Allied forces soon pushed them out of Kohima and the hills around Imphal. On June 22, British and Indian forces finally cleared the last of the Japanese from the crucial road linking Imphal and Kohima, ending the siege. The Japanese 15th Army, 85,000 strong for the invasion of India, was essentially destroyed, 
with 53,000 dead and missing. Injuries and illnesses took many of the rest. There were 16,500 British casualties.

Ningthoukhangjam Moirangningthou, 83, still lives in a house at the foot of a hill that became the site of one of the fiercest battles near Imphal. Mr. Ningthoukhangjam watched as three British tanks slowly destroyed every bunker constructed by the Japanese. “We called them ‘iron elephants,’ ” he said of the tanks. “We’d never seen anything like that before.” Andrew S. Arthur was away at a Christian high school when the battle started. By the time he made his way home to the village of Shangshak, where one of the first battles was fought, it had been destroyed and his family was living in the jungle, he said. He recalled encountering a wounded Japanese soldier who could barely stand. Mr. Arthur said he took the soldier to the British, who treated him. “Most of my life, nobody ever spoke about the war,” he said. “It’s good that people are finally talking about it again.”


Shamik Bag - The forgotten  frontier
India’s contribution to the Allied war effort is nowhere more evident than in Britain’s greatest battle, fought in Imphal and Kohima

none of the Manipuri World War II veterans have reportedly received any pension or honorarium from the state government, though other states have done so, according to the secretary of the Sainik Board.
Sitting in a wooden chair on the verandah of his Manipur village home, 91-year-old Nehkhosong Singsit (Nehkhosong Kuki, according to army records) wasn’t expecting visitors when we walked in unannounced through the front gate, past a small lawn, and stood in front of his cheerful, sloping-roofed house. As his daughter helps her father into a shirt, Singsit’s son, Paogin, a retired bank employee, narrates the fascination his father had for the army uniform; as a 19-year-old, Singsit enrolled in the British-commanded Assam Regiment in 1943. 

Other than the need to earn a living, the promise of owning an army uniform was the prime motivation when army recruiters came prospecting to their village at the height of World War II. “Back then, people of our Kuki tribe would wear scanty clothes and my father felt a natural attraction for the army uniform. It stood out for him,” says Paogin. Singsit would soon be called to action on the battle front when the British-led Allied forces faced a seemingly indomitable enemy in the Imperial Japanese army that was waiting to overrun Allied-held positions in Manipur and beyond.

As a sepoy, Singsit’s brief was to provide security to the British colonel who led the regiment of primarily Indian soldiers when the Japanese offensive began on 8 March 1944. The Japanese firing was relentless, and one of the bullets found its mark in his dear friend, sepoy Vaiphei. The Japanese began using his body as a shield, firing from behind him—a ploy that Singsit felt was both tactical as well as psychological. “I saw my friend’s dead body getting ravaged by bullets. The disrespect shown to the dead was shocking,” says Singsit, his voice firm, though his body is now bent over by age. “The other motive of the Japanese was to demoralize us by exhibiting the dead body of someone belonging to our own land.” 

In later months, after the Allied forces scored a hard-fought, decisive victory, Singsit would be charmed by Japanese prisoners of war held at Meiktila in Burma (now Myanmar) doing pencil-sketch portraits of his colleagues and him for an extra roti or bidi. War, he found out, can also be about conflicting emotions. In the early 1940s in Manipur, a princely state yet to merge with an India then under British rule, the issue of land, and sense of belonging, was often defined ethnically by the locals. Following his honourable discharge from the army in 1949, Singsit preserved the uniform as a treasured memorabilia of the “fierce” three months between March and July 1944, when the Allied forces clashed with the Japanese. 

But he had to burn the same uniform voluntarily a couple of decades later. A violent anti-India secessionist movement led by the Mizo National Front (MNF) was brewing in neighbouring Mizoram in the mid-1960s and Mizo underground military recruiters often visited Manipur villages dominated by Kukis, with whom they shared a close bond. “The Indian Army had a strong presence in our area. I was afraid that if they raided my home and found the uniform they might have misunderstood me for a Mizo militant. I felt extremely sad burning the uniform, but the Indian Army personnel didn’t know, nor would they have cared about my role as an Indian soldier in World War II,” says Singsit. Epic scale Forty kilometres from Imphal, Singsit’s rural home is a short drive off what some refer to as “The Road of Bones”.

Beyond the insistent beauty of the land of cloud-collected hills, meandering rivers and green fields, is the sobering backdrop of the dead. Around and away from the 138km stretch of road from Imphal in Manipur to Kohima in Nagaland is where around 70,000 soldiers and civilians committed their lives to the cause of world domination over those three tragic months. The battles fought in the tough terrain of Manipur and Nagaland and spread over a 600-mile (around 965km) area have since been recognized as among the biggest—and bloodiest—battles fought by Indian forces. Seventy years on, when diplomats and participants from Britain, Japan, the US, Australia and India gathered in Imphal on 28 June to commemorate the Battle of Imphal/Kohima—declared in 2013 as Britain’s greatest battle by the country’s National Army Museum, over other notable battles like Waterloo and D Day/Normandy—the memory of the dead, and a prayer for peace, hung like a veil over the proceedings.

Delegate followed delegate in remembering the thousands who lie interred at multiple cemeteries in the region, including those maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in Imphal and Kohima. In just two cemeteries in the two cities, over 2,500 Indian soldiers are named; many more lie in cemeteries and memorials spread across the region. Y. Kawamura at the India Peace Memorial in Red Hill, Manipur While Scott Furssedonn Wood, the British deputy high commissioner in Kolkata, spoke about the “epic” scale of the battle where 200,000 soldiers and airmen from Japan, Britain, India, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and Canada fought in harsh conditions, others, like Kolkata-based US consul-general Helen LaFave, brought up the issue of missing American soldiers and the continuing search for them. Y. K

awamura, charge de’affairs and minister and deputy chief of mission, embassy of Japan, spoke of eternal peace. At the extreme end of ferocity, Japanese and Allied troops engaged in almost hand-to-hand combat in the Battle of the Tennis Court, fought around the strategically positioned deputy commissioner’s bungalow in Kohima. The Battle of Kohima saw 4,064 British and Indian casualties, according to the CWGC. In Manipur, casualty-heavy battles were fought at Nungshigum, where three squadrons of the Royal Indian Air Force supported artillery operations to flush out the Japanese; at Kanglatongbi, where a vastly outnumbered Allied unit held out determinedly against the enemy’s design to capture a supply depot; and at Sangshak, where, from 21-26 March 1944, the first battle of World War II was fought on Indian soil. 

The six-day battle saw the 2nd and 3rd Guerrilla Regiments of the Indian National Army (INA) fighting alongside the Japanese. The Japanese army was known for its ruthlessness and innovative ways of thwarting the enemy, like mimicking bird calls and creating tools that relentlessly sent out the rat-tat-tat sound of machine-gun fire. “Often (Japanese) soldiers stood out in the open with their guns with total disregard to their own safety,” writes Arambam Angamba Singh, co-convener of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Imphal event, in the official souvenir. 

While a Reuters report on the Battle of Imphal/Kohima topping 2013’s Britain’s Greatest Battles poll describes the country’s forces in the World War II campaign spread over North-East India and Burma as what many consider “The Forgotten Army”, similar opinions have been voiced in India on the collective amnesia regarding the Indian contribution to the Allied war effort... Read more