Lost to history
Remembering the ‘forgotten’ WW II era battles of Imphal and Kohima
This year, on August 15, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. That nearly global conflict touched all the inhabited continents except South America, with nearly forty million people dead, hundreds of millions more injured, rendered homeless, ejected from their homelands, or imprisoned for who or what they were. Even in this age of the Coronavirus, as the pandemic portends the creation of a brave (and uncertain) new world, nations around the world held grand (or as grand as possible) events to mark the milestone, where all these human tragedies will be recounted, mourned and reflected on.
However, some events in the Second World War have been more remembered than others. For our immediate environs, even as we Indians celebrate the role of our soldiers in beating back the threat posed by the Axis powers in Africa, Europe and West Asia, many of us remain unaware that there is a forgotten campaign in the northeastern part of our country that was equally brutal and was fought against an enemy who, in close quarters at least, was debatably an even more fearsome foe than Nazi Germany or fascist Italy. This is the nearly-forgotten moment in history when the two Asian powers — and now firm friends — directly fought one another in the battleground towns of Imphal and Kohima, capitals of Manipur and Nagaland respectively.
The Japanese assault on mainland India came about as part of a series of expansionist moves starting from the invasion of China in 1937, where, under the banner of a 'Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere', Japan sought to expel the European colonial powers of Asia, and substitute them for its rule instead. As the war internationalised, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941, following it up with a lightning strike on all of Southeast Asia. By 1942, the Japanese empire stretched into Burma (Myanmar); the next step was to dislodge the jewel in the European colonial crown. Aided by the Indian National Army, led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the Japanese invaded the northeastern part of India in order to establish a beachhead from which to funnel troops into the heartland.
And yet, the Japanese suffered a crushing military defeat in Imphal and Kohima in the summer months of 1944. The reasons for defeat, as well as the reasons for the British Indian Army's success, are not hard to understand. The Japanese were overtaxed, at the end of their logistical supply chain, and troubled by bad decisions made by their commanders. Even after the tide had well and truly turned in the late stages of the invasion, senior officers remained set in their attitudes not only of ultimate success but also by ideologies fed to them by their superiors in Tokyo, of the ultimate superiority of the Japanese people, of struggle until death. This caused them to become blind to the situation on the ground, leading finally to disaster.
On the other hand, the British won the battles of Kohima and Imphal because of three interrelated causes: strategic cohesiveness in the battlefield, which led to the inflicting of grievous losses on the enemy at comparatively less cost to oneself; international cooperation, as the British fought with the (not inconsiderable) aid of their American allies' airdrop of supplies, an option the Japanese did not have; and finally, the cooperation of their northeastern subjects, among whom they had lived for decades, and who, ultimately, chose to side with them rather than the alien new would-be overlords.
At the time, the battles of Imphal and Kohima, and the defeat of Japanese forces there, were lauded as pivotal victories that turned the tide in the land war in Asia (a judgment history has maintained). Yet, as the war ended, and a newly independent India took the place of the departing British, they were forgotten. Why was this so? As Lydia Walker points out in an article written for the WashingtonPost, this was because Indian leaders were not only ambivalent about the fact that the INA, led by a former member of the Indian National Congress, had fought on the 'enemy side', but also that the army that had defended the territorial sovereignty of India was a colonial one, with a multi-ethnic composition of Indians, Nepalis and even Africans. To this might be added the intricacies of global politics, as India sought to rebuild a closer working partnership with former aggressor Japan during the Cold War. As a result of all these factors, it was probably thought politic to forget these pivotal engagements.
The writer is a PhD in Japanese Studies from the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University