World’s Greatest British Battle in Kohima-Imphal and things unanswered
By Oken Jeet Sandham
The people of the Northeast India particularly living in Manipur and Nagaland had mix-feelings and prides when they got the news that the Second World War, which were fought between the British Army and the Japanese Army in the Imphal and Kohima sectors in 1944, was declared as the “Greatest British Battle” in the world. And when this news flashed from London, it hit the headlines here in the region of north east India.
Noted war historians presented their papers on the past British wars fought across the globe. They were given 40 minutes to present their papers. This was conducted under the Britain’s National Army Museum to identify “Britain’s Greatest Battle.” And finally, the two victories over the Japanese, which took place in the same region of the north east India over the same period in 1944, were voted on Saturday as the “Greatest ever battle involving British forces.”
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, a distance of 145 kilometers and connected through a National Highway 39 (now 2), received almost half of all votes. This remarkable presentation on “Second World War fought in Imphal and Kohima sectors” was done by Dr Robert Lyman, an author and fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Although people living in the northeastern part of India bordering Burma (now Myanmar) borne the brunt of this Second World War, they still have the pride of telling the stories of these historic and great wars fought in this part of the world. I have come across many grand old men and women who are now in their 80s and 90s could vividly tell the stories of the Second World War. Many of them experienced of being “Forced labor” by the British Army and also used to spy against the Japanese soldiers. Even the British Army who stationed in the Chakhesang and Angami areas also experienced untold miseries at the hands of the British Armies and also the Japanese. The British soldiers even burnt down their granaries with the intention to starve the advancing Japanese soldiers.
The Japanese army coming from the Homatin side of western Burma successfully pushed the British army and occupied the Jessami ridge. When the Japanese were trying to push back the British armies from the Jessami position, there were heavy exchange of fires and both sides suffered heavy causalities. The Japanese also shot down British fighter planes in many Chakhesang areas. After about a week of fierce gun battle; the British soldiers could no longer withstand the onslaught of the Japanese attacks. They had to retreat.
The villagers were so simple that they ran out to see whenever fighter planes flew overhead and enthusiastically watching the explosions of the bombs. They hardly realized that the bomb explosions would hurt them. In fact, many of them got hurt and the British jawans had tough time warning the villagers against coming out while fighter planes were coming and bombing. They even taught them how to dig trenches so that they would use them during bombings and even during gun fights between the British and Japanese soldiers. They instructed the villagers how to dig trenches in “V” shape for hiding themselves during bombings and serious gun fights. But the villagers didn’t pay any heed to such advices; instead they were enjoying digging trenches for the Japanese troops. So many villagers became victims as they didn’t take advices of the British.
The British soldiers were well-equipped and well-versed of the areas, besides more associated with the locals as they had been ruling the Indian sub-continent for years together. On the other hand, the Japanese soldiers coming from their homeland thousands of miles away from these areas of north east India were neither familiar with the locals nor area environment.
On one side, they had to fight the British armies. On the other, they faced a lot of hardships as they had to cope with the locals and area environment. They had to depend on the locals for not only fighting against the British but also for their sustenance. Without the support of the locals, it was almost impossible to fight against the British.
The British armies knew very well of this. They told the locals in advance that the advancing Japanese armies would come in different forms to extract the information of them (British armies).
Like the British army, the Japanese army too had their own intelligent armies who would mobilize information of the British army movement and their activities by using the services of the locals. Unfortunately, the ones mostly used by the British armies before the Japanese arrived at, would be again used by the Japanese to extract more information. Such trend became major threats on the lives of many innocent villagers.
In fact when the Japanese was about to be defeated, they even tried to kill many villagers as they thought they would be reused as spies by the British against them. But on many occasions, they faced strong resistance from the villagers.
Kohima, present capital of Nagaland state, was a place where one of the fiercest battles between the Japanese troops and the British troops took place in the history of the Second World War. These memorable battles at Kohima started from April 1944 and ended in June 1944. Japan was literally responsible for pushing Asia into full scale war. But most of the people in this part of the world in the 40s were not aware of that. The Japanese, in fact, attacked almost all the Asian nations and captured them. Their invasions of the Asian nations had prompted the Allies to specifically target their bases and even to the extent of dropping atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Kohima siege and the casualties caused to both the Japanese troops and the Allies during the Second World War in Kohima and Imphal sectors were unimaginable. The wars at Kohima and Imphal claimed the lives of 65,000 Japanese troops and 18,000 British and Indian soldiers.
There are three Second World War Cemeteries; one is at Kohima, the capital of India’s present state of Nagaland, while other two at Imphal, the capital of the India’s present state of Manipur. The upkeep of these Second World War Cemeteries here at Kohima and Imphal is under the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The Commission is responsible for the continued commemoration of 1.69 million deceased Commonwealth military service members in 150 countries. Since its inception, the Commission has constructed approximately 2,500 war cemeteries and numerous memorials. The Commission is currently responsible for the care of war dead at over 23,000 separate burial sites and the maintenance of more than 200 memorials worldwide.
Today, it has become a history in this part of the world as to how the allied soldiers valiantly fought against the aggressive Japanese troops as Kohima siege. The Kohima War Cemetery which lies at the heart of Kohima City has today become a living testimony. There are over 1000 grave markers and every tourist visiting this war cemetery will still have visualized how they had fought against the Japanese troops during those 13 days of Kohima siege. They gave their lives for freedom. And one of the famous inscriptions which everyone will remember throughout their lives is:
“When you go home
Tell them of us, and say
For their tomorrow
We gave our today.”
Another remarkable feat was the opening of the Second World War Museum at Kisama, some 12 kilometers away from Kohima. Many utensils, helmets, binoculars, wreckages of fighter plans, guns, etc. which were used by the British and the Japanese armies during the Second World War at Kohima are kept in this museum. Present Chief Minister of Nagaland Mr Neiphiu Rio should be credited for the establishment of this museum. Kisama is a place where famed Hornbill Festival is organized yearly in the first week of December and during this festival, there is an event which is exclusively organized in memory of the Second World War.
It is the Second World War Peace Car Rally where they will drive Jeeps, Nissans, etc. – some Second World War vintage cars while some painted ones likening to 1944 War Jeep models and participants included even the Chief Minister himself. Now this rally started attracting participants from other northeastern states of India. This Second World War Peace Car Rally organized as part of the Hornbill Festival is the most attractive events and the British and the Japanese Ambassadors or rather high ranking officials from England and Japan should be invited to witness this program. The most important message of this rally is to spread the message of peace and not war.
Nagaland Parliamentary Secretary Zhaleo Rio’s decision to build Mini Park at the Second World War tank site about half a kilometer away from the Kohima Raj Bhavan is appreciated and timely. The Parliamentary Secretary is the younger brother of Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio.
Today younger generations have forgotten these historic world wars that were fought in their land in 1944 and even not aware that their grandparents had not only borne the brunt of these wars but also joined British Army.Legendary regional politician and two-time Nagaland Chief Minister Vizol himself joined Royal Air Force from 1941 to 1946 during the Second World War.
Many grandparents could vividly tell the stories of these great wars fought in their places till today. Even my grandmother had the experience of running from one village to another when the British fighter planes bombed in the Imphal City in 1944. They left their homesteads and hid in the remote villages for months.
On one occasion at Imphal, there was a ritual program going on and the British fighter plane mistook it as gathering of enemies and they bombed there. Almost all died on the spot and my grandmother was one among the few survivors.
We have seen from the history as to how the British meddled in the affairs of Manipur. On February 21, 1891 Lord Lansdowne, the British Viceroy of India ordered J.W. Quinton, the chief commissioner of Assam, to recognize Kullachandra as the King but to arrest Jubaraj (Prince) Tikendrajit. Quinton arrived in Manipur on March 22, 1891 with 400 jawans under Colonel Skene and asked Raja Kullachandra to hand over Tikendrajit to him as desired by the British Governor General of India. In the evening of March 24, 1891, the British troops attacked Jubaraj Tikendrajit’s residence in the compound of Kangla Palace, killing many innocent civilians including women and children who were watching a Ras Lila dance. The Manipuri soldiers struck back and the British were put on the defensive. In the ensuing chaos, the people whose children, wives and relatives were killed the British army.
On March 31, 1891, the British Government declared war against Manipur (the Anglo-Manipur War) and 3 army columns from Kohima (under the command of Major General H. Collet), Silchar (under the command of Colonel R.H.F. Rennick) and Tamu (under the command of Brigadier General T. Graham) were sent to Manipur. Tikendrajit led the Manipuri army in this war. The British army finally took possession of the Kangla Palace on April 27, 1891.
This “Anglo-Manipur War of 1891” was also popularly known as “Khongjom Lal.” The Manipur Government observes yearly the Khongjom War Memorial.
Major Maxwell took over as the chief political agent. Later, Manipur became a princely state and Churachand Singh, a minor was placed on the throne of Manipur. Tikendrajit and other leaders of Manipur subsequently went underground.
The special court, formed under Lt. Col. John Mitchell for the trial commenced on May 11, 1891. The court found Tikendrajit, Kullachandra and Thangal General guilty and they were sentenced to death. The Governor General confirmed the death sentence passed on Tikendrajit and Thangal General and converted the death sentence of the Maharaja and Angousana into transportation for life. The order was announced on August 13, 1891 and Tikendrajit and Thangal General were publicly hanged at 5 pm of the same day at Kangjei-bung (Polo ground) in Imphal.
After independence, this ground in Imphal where he was hanged is renamed as Bir Tikendrajit Park, while one of the main markets at Imphal named as Thangal Bazar. The British hurt the sentiments of the people of Manipur when their General and Prince were publicly hanged. In memory of this tragic incident, the Government of Manipur along with the people observes “Patriotic Day” on August 13 yearly.
The British is also responsible for the turmoil the Naga people have been facing till today. Sections of people who had seen and studied the Second World War here in this part of the world got attracted to it and formed the opinion that they would be able to achieve what they wanted by taking up arms. But in the case of Nagas, who were fighting to live as a free nation, did not use those thousands of firearms left unattended after the war. These firearms were later collected by the Government. One thinks sometimes if these thousands of firearms, which were left by the British and Japanese armies after the war ended, were used by the rebels in the late 40s, what would be the fate of the Indian administration.
I still wonder as to why they had to take such a decision to feed opium to the Kanyaks while they were here. And because of this acts committed to this innocent tribes, they still remain enslaved as the most backward people educationally, economically, technologically and in fact in many areas. Opium is such a powerful substance that will dull the senses and make people shy away from meeting others. They are still struggling to catch up with their counterparts forget about other people in the world.
I even imagine how our parents and grandparents had endured when the Second World War took place here in Nagaland and Manipur if that particular war was adjudged as the “greatest battle ever fought on this earth.” Only God knows. There might be numerous untold stories of tragedies encountered by our parents and grandparents who witnessed this “greatest war of 1944 on earth.” This “greatest war on earth” did not benefit the people of Manipur and Nagaland. It was only “horror stories” when I listened to our parents and grandparents who witnessed this “greatest war on earth.” It only made us retrograded to centuries back. Had there been no war such as Second World War of 1944 in Nagaland and Manipur, by now we will be totally different.
Sometimes, I think the time has come for the British to acknowledge the services rendered by the people of Manipur and Nagaland not only maintaining the “War Cemeteries.”
There were many things left unanswered till today.
At the same time and of course, it would not be wrong to say that the lives, cultures and traditions of the people of Nagaland and Manipur had been greatly influenced by the Second World War. They knew what war is to them and may not like again to experience another war in this part of the world.
Many of our grandparents could still speak broken Japanese while many of them could also speak broken English though they never had formal education in their lifetime. Interestingly, many people in the north east India today can speak English fluently.
All these were also unique history. And when the war fought by the British armies against the Japanese troops in this part of the north east India was voted as the “Britain’s Greatest Battle” in the world, it only reminds me of what my grandparents and many elderly people said to me and it would never be complete without remembering of our forefathers and leaders who too sacrificed for the defense of our motherland.