Bird’s Eye View
By Pradip Phanjoubam
The news that the battle of Imphal-Kohima during the Second World World War (WWII) was voted in Britain as Britain’s most hard fought and significant battle in its entire history, ought to excite more than mere wonderment in the two states that remote as they are, they had been the pivot around which an important chapter of the history of the world actually turned so significantly. There undoubtedly would be a mixed sense of awe, pride and victimhood in both the places at the confirmation that they had been in the eye of a violent campaign of a magnitude they had never ever imagined before. There would also be an equally understandable sense of sudden importance at this revelation. These senses of elation, expectations and awe however can only at best be ephemeral, popping up and acquiring a place in the iconic memory of the place for a brief period before fading and ultimately disappearing into the nebulous pit of oblivion public memory is generally destined for. That is, if no tangible official effort is made to capitalise on this sudden turn of world consciousness.
More than all else, it ought to be the Government of Manipur whose antennas are up at the news. It would be display of criminal myopia on its part if it did not think of making this development leave a permanent mark in the way Manipur (and Nagaland) is looked at by the world. In all these years, the Manipur government has been toying with the thought, though rather half-heartedly, of campaigning for the Kangla Fort to be recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. If at all it is still serious about this desire, the recent importance given to the battle of Imphal-Kohima in Britain cannot but be a golden opportunity to push the issue. No doubt, the orientation and strategy of this campaign would have to adjust to the nature of the opportunity. The WWII heritage of the Kangla Fort needs to be placed at the focal point of the new campaign. The Kangla Fort, as it is, is important and probably deserves to be a UNESCO site in its own right as a unique centre of an isolated civilisation, but its intimate association with the WWII campaign in this sector has now given it an immense modern significance as well, and this can be, and indeed needs to be capitalised on. Should the government manage to get the UNESCO recognition for it, the touristic significance of the Kangla Fort would have taken a quantum leap. The government should now think of urgently bringing heads together to consider new relevant preparatory projects, such as converting the Slim Cottage inside the Kangla Fort, as well as other structures from where the military administration and strategies of this war front were drawn up, into a WWII museum.
There are more sites of extreme significance beyond the Kangla in the light of this new development. The record book mentions of five wartime airfield in the Imphal valley. Three of them are all weather facilities and still exist today, the Tulihal airport, the abandoned Koirengei airstrip, and another abandoned one at the Pallel-Kakching area. Two more fair weather airstrips have now been reclaimed by paddy fields, but they too can still be marked out for preservation. All of them could and should become part of this heritage project and preserved as places of historical importance for posterity, and more immediately, to bolster war tourism in the state. There are also a great many battle sites all over the state where the battling armies suffered great human casualties. They too could become important sites of war heritage. Many of these could be converted to outstanding eco-trek destinations. The Nungshigum hills near Sawombung where more than 200 Japanese soldiers are estimated to have lost their lives, along with a lesser number of the Allied troops including five tank officers of the Grenadiers of Scotland, is one such. The Laimaton ranges where the Japanese set up a stronghold and later came down to fight the Red Hills (Maibam Lokpa Ching) battle in which another estimated 400 Japanese troops is estimated to have perished, is another. Likewise the Sinam ranges on the Tengnoupal-Moreh stretch of NH-39, Shangshak village in Ukhrul district, Sanakeithel along the Iril River, Maram, are some more places which could be developed for the same purpose.
If the government, and in particular its tourism department has any foresight that extends beyond daily politicking and other governmental grinds of routine matters, it should already have been in the process of making hay while the sun shines. In this effort, there will be no dearth of private partners. As for instance, there is already a commendable Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, INTACH- associated project to develop WWII tourism in the state which the government could approach for possible partnership.
This would also be a fine opportunity for Nagaland and Manipur to sink their petty differences and cooperate for mutual benefit, and to preserve a common heritage from the not so distant past.
As most newspaper readers in the state would be aware by now, the following is an abridged account given in a report in the The Telegraph, London, in its April 20 issue of the manner this war front was voted as the most significant:
The two victories over the Japanese, which took place in the same region of north east India over the same period in 1944, were voted the winner of a contest run by the National Army Museum to identify “Britain’s Greatest Battle”.
Taken as a single victory, Imphal-Kohima was on a shortlist of five battles which topped a public poll and on Saturday, they were selected as the ultimate winner by an audience of more than 100 guests at a special event at the museum, in Chelsea, west London. Imphal-Kohima received almost half of all votes.
In second place was D-Day and Normandy, in 1944 (25 per cent), ahead of Waterloo, in 1815, (22 per cent), Rorke’s Drift, during the Zulu War in 1879 (three per cent), and Aliwal, during the First Sikh War in 1846 (two per cent).
At the event, each contender had their case made by a historian giving a 40 minute presentation. The audience, who had paid to attend the day, then voted in a secret ballot after all five presentations had been made.
The case for Imphal and Kohima was made by Dr Robert Lyman, an author and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
An article by Dr. Robert Lyman will be appearing in an INTACH published book edited by Pradip Phanjoubam, editor Imphal Free Press, and conceived by Hemant Katoch of INTACH, due to hit the stands this year.