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Turning memories of war into yearnings for peace

By Pradip Phanjoubam

Is Manipur’s spring on the way? Is the state and its people coming out of dark days and beginning to open up to the outside world for a breath of fresh air? Is there any room for optimism that better days are ahead?

Macabre metaphors are tempting. With apologies to T.S. Eliot, in half jest, dark though it may be, it is difficult to resist asking, have all the bombs unknown miscreants plant routinely at peoples’ gates and market places begun to sprout? Rather than terror growing out of them, is there a promise of an outbreak of a riot of colourful blossoms? Have this flicker of optimism, if at all, left far behind the cynicism of the common denominator of “government contracts” to which politics, bureaucracy, insurgency and business have been reduced to in unparalleled absurdity? Is the inverse proportionality between bad public infrastructure and opulence of these contractor classes coming to earn public indifference and abhorrence rather than awe?

Signs are encouraging, although too early for celebrations. The old ways of the state which put itself and its people in the dark era is unlikely to end in a hurry, but the paradigms of people’s aspirations, goals in life, sense of self-actualisation can shift elsewhere. The corrupt would continue to wallow in their mammon worship, let that be. The new generation of the meek and industrious must find a road independent of the vulgar influences and standards set by the corrupt generation. In this brave new world, achievement must come to be defined by contributions each makes to the fund of creative energy of the society.

Often considered as the manifesto of the Christian religion, the “Beatitudes” of Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount”, have this to say on this matter: “Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.” Teachings of all religions, most pronouncedly Buddhism, are indeed built around this beautiful idea. Ultimately, it is those who are honest with themselves and their works who will inherit the earth. When all draws to a close, as all must someday, it is work, not lucre, which will be the ultimate worship.

We do have some shining examples of men who have earned towering statures and reputations in society by the creativity and generosity of their work and not by the number of luxurious apartments they own everywhere. We also have numerous small entrepreneurs of artists, artisans, mechanics, and professionals in various services, creating employments, creating livelihoods. It is they, and the aggregate of their individual contributions, however small, which reflect the genuine strength of the places economy.

Of the signs which indicate potential for change and a new churning is the seeming growth of tourism in Manipur in the past two or three years, ever since the Protected Area Permit, PAP, (virtually a second visa) that foreign visitors were required to acquire to enter the state was removed. Foreigners are no longer a rare sight in the hotel lobbies and streets of Imphal. Understandably, there has also been a corresponding growth of quality hotels, and still more are in the pipeline. All this is happening despite those who continue to sow bombs and not paddy.

Two observations about tourism I took notes of from various interviews are interesting. The first pertains to foreign tourists and is made by a spokesman of Japan Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok, one of the few overseas chambers of commerce of the country as we were told, during a luncheon rendezvous in Bangkok for a group of Indian economic journalists organised by the Asian Development Bank. He said for Japanese investors, the flow of Japanese tourists to any place is a valuable litmus test. Wherever Japanese tourists begin travelling, it is more than likely Japanese businesses would also follow, he said.

The thought is interesting not because a Japanese said it, but for its rationale which would quite obviously be understood universally. The general impression of a place where ordinary people in large numbers like to vacation with their families would first and foremost be one of all round security. Such places would also be seen as friendly and welcoming. All of these qualities understandably would be very important to potential investors.

If tourism is an important herald for an investment climate, tourism itself is a revenue making, employment generating industry in its own right. It is in this regard that I want to consider the second observation common among hoteliers and resort owners in many popular tourist destinations in India such as Gangtok, Kullu, Manali etc. For small and medium hotel and resort owners, who incidentally make up the backbone of any tourist industry, domestic tourists are far more important than foreign ones.

In an economy witnessing an unprecedented growth of the middle class, India’s leisure seeking travelling population is huge and still expanding. Young honeymooners, huge noisy joint families often extending three generations, company staff on group excursions… the section of India’s population on the move is formidable, and as in China, its tourism industry can actually thrive even without foreign tourists.

It obviously is for this reason that today in tourist destinations like Darjeeling and Sikkim, many hotels and restaurants run by Tibetans and Newar Nepalis, communities known for their love of beef and pork, do not have these meat items on their menu anymore for fear they would shy away orthodox Indian tourists. I have had to be content with vegetable momos on popular stalls along the Darjeeling highway, once known for juicy steaming pork versions of them.

In other words, Manipur must prepare and encourage both varieties of tourists. Each have their own important places to fill in the growth of the tourism industry.

It is with these considerations in mind that we must look at the three months long state wide celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Imphal and Kohima which concluded last week. Thanks to the organizers, the celebrations were befitting, with respectably high level official representations from the Britain, Japan, Australia and the USA attending the functions.

Much has been said of the World War II experience of Manipur, and how although forgotten all this while, this battlefront was one of the most important turning points as well as bitterly fought of the entire war. As Field Marshal Sir William Slim wrote in his book “Defeat Into Victory”, and so many other war historians have endorsed, these crucial and brutal battles were the turning point of the Japanese Imperial Army’s fortune leading to its ultimate defeat in 1945.

Till then, in the Asian theatre, the Japanese were virtually invincible having bulldozed away Allied troops from the entire SE Asia, the last of which was from Burma. They were then not only stopped in Imphal and Kohima but also given a crushing defeat. A total of 45,000 Japanese and INA troops perished. The Allied forces which had almost complete air superiority, lost 17000 troops (figures vary but not radically). The scale of casualties itself is an indicator of the intensity of the battles. The sufferings all involved must have gone through, the Japanese in particular, but also the Allied troops, and not the least the local people on whose soils these foreign wars were fought, is anybody’s imagination.

Unfortunately, for a long time these skirmishes were virtually forgotten, for reasons that had probably to do with the geographical remoteness of these battlefields thereby, a reciprocal psychological remoteness to the empires waging these wars. But quite by coincidence, or providence, or better still ‘karma’ if you prefer, as the 70th anniversary of these battles approached a series of events somewhat broke the decades of silence. Foremost of these was a poll in Britain which voted these battles as the most crucial in Britain’s war history, ahead of even Stalingrad, Normandy and Waterloo.

The second is an awakening to the reality of the history of this war at home, the agent provocateur of which are certain enterprising men behind two campaigns to publicize the matter, first of which is Battle of Imphal and Kohima which runs a website and a WWII guided tour service. Following on its heels is Imphal Campaign WW2, which runs a commendable private museum, a website, and keeps a voluntary team of men to discover WWII battle sites and artefacts.

So much for the brief recap of the run-up to the 70th anniversary celebrations, but the important question now is, what next? While most of the participants in the concluding function engaged in recounting the roles their nations played and heroic sacrifices their soldiers made, one speaker, Dr. Hugo Slim, grandson of the Field Marshal Slim, the chief architect behind turning defeat into victory for the Allied troops here 70 years ago, may have provided a fine clue to the question.

The academic grandson of the army general suggested that the approach should be one of pilgrimage and reconciliation. It is a supreme irony that it was war that brought the world to meet in Manipur 70 years ago he noted, and it is again memories of that war which is bringing the world back to Manipur. The occasions for the two meetings are different yet connected, just as war and peace are different yet integrally related. If the earlier exposes the violence embedded in humanity, the latter demonstrates the same humanity is capable of remorse, therefore still sane. The Manipur chapter of this war experience must now be about promoting this sanity.

Dr. Slim suggested, or bought into the idea of converting the Slim Cottage in the Kangla, the house where his grandfather, Gen. Slim planned out his defeat into victory strategies, into a war museum. Not a museum dedicated any particular nation or army he was quick to add, but to all who won, all who lost, all brave soldiers who died, all victorious soldiers who lived to tell the tale, all non combatants and civil population who were caught in the crossfire, all shattered dreams, all trophies won, all the shames and sufferings of failure, all the joys and rewards of success.

In short, this suggestion is about shaping this museum be a monument to recall the human capacity for reconciliation, remorse and conflict resolution. What a wonderful idea for governments to pick up from and translate into a tangible policy. Indeed, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Japan, Y Kawamura, fully agreed and said he would be following up the proposal with his embassy in New Delhi and home government in Tokyo. Hopefully, the Manipur government would also do its own bit of homework and following up.

Last fortnight, three cities of the former Pyu Kingdom in Myanmar were declared as UNESCO World Heritage Sites for the ancient temples located in them. It is worth a consideration why the government of Manipur should not take up initiatives to bring UNESCO to notice the importance of the Imphal-Kohima battle sites and given similarly recognition.




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