War tourism in india: The 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Imphal

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Photo: WW II Imphal campaign foundation
Photo: WW II Imphal campaign foundation

By Col VY Gidh, VSM (Retd)

`A Nation That Forgets It`s Past, Has No Future`
– Winston Churchill

Introduction

The 70th Anniversaryof The Battle of Imphal and Kohimawas held from March to June 2014. It was 70 years ago that Manipur and Nagaland were witness to an epic battle between the British-led Allies and the Japanese and the Indian National Army (INA). Unfortunately not many in India remembered these twin battles and except for a few stray reports, the Commemorations or commencement of War Tourism in India were hardly noticed by our national media. It was a wonderful experience visiting Manipur to participate in some of the events during these Commemorations.

The Battle of Imphal and The Battle of Kohima were voted as `Britain`™s Greatest Battles`™ in a contest conducted by Britain`™s National Army Museum in London in April 2013, beating others like Normandy and Battle of Trafalgar. The result surprised people in England who thought Waterloo was their greatest feat. And yet, many Indians are unaware of these battles, and that Manipur and Nagaland were the key battlegrounds during the Second World War. Field Marshal WJ Slim, Commander of the British 14th Army during the battles, was voted as the best British general of all time with Duke of Wellington, they were both schooled in warfare in India.

70th Anniversary Commemorations

The 70th Anniversary Commemorations of The Battle of Imphal were organized by the Manipur Tourism Forum and 2nd World War Imphal Campaign Foundation from 23rd March to 28th June 2014. The programme involved a series of events to mark and commemorate key dates from the Battles of Imphal. The aim was to draw attention to the extraordinary events that took place across Manipur from March to July 1944 andpay tribute to the martyrs who died fighting during these fierce battles.

The Eastern Heritage Trails, Imphal has recently introduced a series of guided tours focused on the Battle of Imphal. An initiative of MrHemant SinghKatoch, son of a retired Army officer and an ex-United Nations and Red Cross official, it isthe first-of-its-kind of War Tourism in India.Having undertaken field assignments in conflict regions like East Timor and Congo while in the UN, Katoch wanted to come back to India and research about the World War II battlefields in India, when he realized the possibility of War Tourism in India. These half or full- day tours cover prominent sites in and around Imphaland across Manipur related to this historic battle. They include the Battle of Imphal Tour-a half day tourin and around the city of Imphal; the Tiddim Road, the Shenan Saddle, the Battle of Sangshak, the INA and Victoria Cross Tours. The most popular Battle ofImphal Tour includes the Second World War era airfield-Koirenge; the two War Cemeteries (Imphal Indian Army and the Imphal War Cemetery), which commemorates the memories of theIndian and British soldiers who died during the War; battlefield visits around Imphal and the colonial era Gen Slim`™s Cottage, which is now a heritage property in Kangla Fort Complex. It was once the headquarters of the British 14th Army Commander from where he planned and initially fought the Burma Campaign.

Sketch of Battle of Imphal

The Battles of Imphal and Kohima

The Battles of Imphaland Kohimapitted 1,20,000 British-led Allies against 70,000 Japanese and 7000 INA soldiers in some of the bitterest fighting seen during the Second World War. `Fought between 07 March and 18 July 1944, the Battles of Imphal and Kohima were the the turning point of one of the most grueling campaigns of the Second World War. The decisive Japanese defeat in Northeast India became the springboard for the Fourteenth Army`™s subsequent re-conquest of Burma`: National Army Museum, London.

The two battles were the result of the 1944 U-Go Offensive of the Japanese 15th Army under Lt Gen RenyaMutaguchi. The plan was to conquer India and use it as a launch pad of future Japanese military campaigns. It initially involved the capture of Imphal, cut off the key Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur road and prevent any British invasion of Myanmar (now Burma), which Japan had controlled since 1942. During the battle, 70,000 Japanese soldiers marched to Manipur to fight the Allied forces. Imphal, which was heavily invested by the Japanese 15th and 33rd Divisions of the Japanese 15th Army, was defended by the IV Corps of the British Fourteenth Army, comprising the 17th, 20th and 23rd Indian Infantry Divisions, including the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade.

While 16,000 on the Allies side were either killed or wounded at Imphal-Kohima, 12,000 of them died during the Battle of Imphal. An estimated 30,000 Japanese soldiers died due to fighting or disease in the simultaneous battles of Imphal and Kohima, and on the retreat back to Burma.Soldiers carried the injured back towards the Chindwin river. Those who could not be carried were left behind. The fingers of many of the dead were cut to be cremated back home. It was the greatest defeat on land in Japan`™s history and the vast majority of casualties occurred during the Battle of Imphal. Among the 7000 INA men who accompanied the Japanese till Moirang, about 400 were killed in the battle, while 1500 died of disease and starvation during their withdrawal towards Burma. Till this day skeletons presumed to belong to the dead soldiers are found in Manipur.

The British military historian Dr Robert Lyman who played a prominent role in preparing the case for the Battle of Imphal and Kohima, notes that Imphal-Kohimawas one of the four turning-point battles of the Second World War; the Battles at Stalingrad, El Alamein, and in the Pacific between the US and Japanese navies were the other three. The Victoria Cross (VC), the highest British military decoration for bravery, was awarded to five personnel during the Battle of Imphal and two during the Battle of Kohima.

The ProgrammeDuring the Commemorations

The Inauguration Ceremony held on 23rd March 2014 was attended by several dignitaries including the Japanese Ambassador to India, Mr Takeshi Yagi. Thecommemoration of the prominent battles started with the `Battle of Sangshak`™ on 26th March, where troops from 152 ParaBn with 4/5 Maratha held the garrison against a strong Japanese force. While 152 Para Bn later fell back to the Imphal plains, 4/5 Maratha (now 4 Maratha LI) was ordered to hold the defences around Sangshak. The delay imposed by the battalion on the advance of the Japanese Army enabled the Allies to land forces by air at Imphal and reinforce Kohima by land, thereby saving the fall of these two important locations. The first battle fought on Indian soil from 21-26 March 1944, it was a prelude to the famous battles of Kohima and Imphal. The next was the `Start of Imphal Siege`™ at KanglaTongbi on 7th April, where the Japanese forces planned to capture the large supply depot. A handful of non-combatants of mostly Ordnance soldiers belonging to the Advance Ordnance Depot led by Maj Boyd repulsed a series of attacks of the Japanese forces before troops from the erstwhile 14 Punjab and 9Jat Regiments could arrive. This epic stand enabled the Allies sufficient time in moving back 4000 tons of war-like stores.The Depot was selected to accompany the British Commonwealth Occupation Force to Japan after the war. Today KanglaTongbiWar Memorial is a revered shrine visited by all. A tradition still followed by all young AOC officers is that upon commissioning they first visit the memorial at KanglaTongbi. The DG Ordnance Services and Senior Colonel Commandantalong with WW II veterans and their families from Britain and Japan laid a wreath on 7th April.

The `Battle ofNungsigum`™ was commemorated on 13th April, where Jemadar Abdul Hafiz of 9 Jat Regimenthad won the first VC on Indian soil at Runaway Hill on 6th April 1944. This 1000 feet massif located North East of Imphal town which dominated several road junctions and the vital Koirenge airstrip, was recaptured by the Allies on 13th April after its fall to the Japanese forces.

On 14th April, the INA day was commemorated at Moirang. Col Shaukat Ali Malik of INA had hoisted the Indian tricolour for the first time in India at Moirang on 14th April 1944, where the INA Memorial and Museum stands today. The INA`™s 1st Division had participated in the Battle of Imphal, which included the Gandhi, Subhash and Azad Brigades, as well as INA Special Groups attached to the Japanese Divisions. The other battles commemorated were the `Battle of Tengnoupal`™ near the Indo-Myanmar border on 19th May;`MaibamLokpaching`™(Red Hill) on the Tiddim Road on 29th May, where Sergeant Hanson Victor Turner of West Yorkshire Regiment and RfnGanju Lama of 7th Gurkha Rifles won their VCs at Ningthoukhong on the Tiddim Road; and `Silchar-Bishenpur Track`™ on 25th June, where NaikAgansingRai and Sub NetraBahadurThapa of 5th Gurkha Rifles won their VCs on 26 th June 1944.Some old Manipuri elders who had witnessed these battles as children, also narrated their experiences at many locations.

Since our Battalion, 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal) had served in Manipur during late 1990s`™ while insurgency was at its peak, we have very fond memories of our two years tenure in the Imphal Valley. MaibamLokpaching (Red Hill or Point 2926) was located in the unit area and I proudly recollect meeting Viscount Slim (son of the famous Field Marshal) in April 1998, when he visited Imphal with a British delegation comprising of 50 war veterans of the 14th Army and wards and sons of men killed in the War. The Viscount`™s son, Dr Hugo Slimwas also among the group. MaibamLokpaching was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles involving hand to hand combat fought on the hillock code named Red Hill, adjacent to the Imphal-Tiddim Road. Fought in the last phase of the Imphal Campaign in May 1944, this battle turned the tide of the war in favour of the Allies. Red Hill was later Gen Slim`™s Tactical Headquarters during the initial stages of the Burma Campaign.

The Japanese War Veterans had constructed `India Peace Memorial`™ at the bottom of Red Hill in 1977 in memory of the Japanese martyrs who sacrificed their lives in the battle. The memorial`™s gate faces Japan and is a pilgrimage for Japanese tourists who pay homage to their fallen comrades.

The Closing Ceremony of the three-month long programme held at the Imphal War Cemetery on 28th June 2014 was attended by representatives from Britain, the United States, Australia and Japan. Dr Hugo Slim, grandson of Field Marshal Slim was among the dignitaries. The highlight was the presence of few World War II veterans including 93 year old Sokhojang, who had fought in the Battle of Imphal.

AtSangshak, 84 year local YA Shishakproudly showed us his museum set up at home. It contains rare Allied, Japanese and INA artefacts, photographs, medals, flags, paintings besides other collected items from the World War sites. The SangshakWar Memorial honouringthe valour and sacrifice of the martyrs of 152 Para Bn, 4/5 Maratha and locals of Sangshak village was made many years back, while the Japanese have recently constructed a War Memorial in honour of their martyrs who died during this battle. In Imphal, we were delighted to visit a similar war museum set up at home by one of the founding members of the 2nd World War Imphal Campaign Foundation.

Importance of the Battles

Dr Slim says, `The India/Burma Campaign was long known as the `Forgotten Army`™ in the UK. In the British popular image, the greatest battles and heroes were all in Europe. Scholars the world over are recognizing the significance of the Campaign as the beginning of modern integrated mobile warfare (air supply etc) and a model of defensive and offensive warfare. The Campaign is now taught in the UK and US military academies. Imphal is now recognized as the longest battle of WW II and the combination of so many different nationalities in the XIV Army makes it an important example of what today is called diversity.`

Louis Allen in his book `Burma `“ The Longest War`™ writes, ` Imphal`¦the last place on earth one would choose as the venue of a vast military campaign. Yet it was here that Japanese, British, Indians, Gurkhas, arrived in 1944 to kill other in their thousands. The Japanese were driven by the dream of invading India: the others by the need to stop them.`

Unfortunately, we in India seem to have forgotten these famous battles. Independent India has never shown any care or concern about these war veterans, as they are a living memorial of India`™s colonial past `“ men who fought a `foreign war`™ for a foreign government.It was for the first time that the Indian Army fought a foreigner invader on Indian soil. And it was for the first time the seemingly invincible armies of the Emperor of Japan were decisively beaten by Indian soldiers. It makes us proud of the contribution of our Armed Forces. As per one of our war veteran `“ `Victory in the Second World War has been, by far, our biggest military achievement, yet hardly anyone in India talks about it. The country that sent the largest voluntary Army in history to fight the war, has forgotten the sacrifices of our soldiers`. Fortunately, this seems to be changing with the Indian government gradually acknowledging the significant role played by our Armed Forces during the World Wars.

The Indian Army During the World Wars

During the First World War, 1.3 million Indian soldiers played a major role in the fighting in European, Mediterranean and Middle East theatres. They won 11 Victoria Crosses, while 74,000 soldiers died and 66,000 were wounded. 2014 also happens to be the Centenary year of First World War.

During the Second World War, the Indian Army began the war in 1939 numbering just 2,00,000 men. However by the end of the war, it became the largest volunteer Army in history, rising to over 2.5 million men. It fought gallantly in North Africa, Middle East and Italy, though a major force was committed to fighting the Japanese Army. Their valour and grit was recognized with the award of 31 VCs. These campaigns cost over 36,000 lives, whilst 34,354 were wounded and 67,340 became Prisoners of War.

War Tourism

Many Western countries and some South East Asian countries have preserved the World War sites.`The Battle Box`™ is one of the most important WW II sitesand premier tourist attractions in Singapore. War Tourism is a flourishing industry in Europe with Tour Operators conducting `battlefield tours`™ of World War sites and War Memorials for scholars, tourists and families of war veterans. The 70th Anniversary Commemorations of WW II at Monte Cassinoor Normandy in May and June, or the Centenary Commemorations of WW I this year are fine examples. The visit to Imphal for the 70th Anniversary was enriching, given this was the first-of-its-kind of War Tourism in India. Among the distinguished visitors I could interact with in Imphalwere a group of British scholars, wards of war veterans and the Curator of The Kohima Museum at Imphal Barracks, York. They later left for Kohima to visit the battlefield sites and pay homage to their martyrs at the famous Kohima War Cemetery.

We had a fine taste of War Tourism last year, when we visited the Italian battlefields where our 257 year old unit, 14 PUNJAB (NABHA AKAL), the erstwhile NABHA AKAL INFANTRY had fought with distinction against the Germans during WW II. It was very heartening walking through some of the remote locations and villages in Italy where our troops had served, and the locals speaking well of the Indian soldiers who fought during the War. We later paid homage to our unit and other Indian soldiers commemorated in the famous Cassino War Cemetery and other War Cemeteries in Italy.

Conclusion

Manipur and Nagaland have great potential for tourism in terms of natural beauty,adventure, culture or tribal celebrations.Manipur, knownas `Jewel of India`™ by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, has inspired descriptions such as the `Switzerland of the East.`™ Famous for its indigenous sports and sportsmen, it has produced icons like Mary Kom. The `Manipur Sangai Festival`™held in Imphal from 21`“30 November and the `Hornbill Festival`™ in Kisema, near Kohima from 01-10 December every year draws many tourists from India and abroad. The 6th and 7th Manipur Polo Internationals were conducted in Imphal during November 2012 and 2013 respectively with teams from the US, Germany, some South East countries and India participating. This new form of `Polo Tourism`™ was a big success. There have been British and Japanese tourists who come to visit the war cemeteriesand memorials in Imphal and Kohima.The successful culmination of the 70th Anniversary Commemorations in Imphal this year shows that War Tourism is one area where these states can focus on.The British Fourteenth Army was a multinational force and the Battles of Imphal and Kohima provide us an excellent opportunity to project ourselves to the rest of the world and reach out to those countries which fought in these battles. The 75th Anniversary of these famous battles will be commemorated in 2019 and we should plan to conduct the same in a befitting manner. War Tourism would not onlyhelp in curbing insurgency by providingall round development in the region, it would also assist in promotion of India`™s `Look East-ActEast Policy`™.

(This article by the author had originally been published in The Infantry (India) Journal, December 2014 issue and is reproduced here with permission.)

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