TODAY -

Of India’s Forgotten War and my encounter with a Japani

Kamal Baruah *

 'When you go home, tell them of us and say for your to-morrows these gave their to-day'. (An epitaph of John Maxwell Edmonds during World War I at Kohima, Nagaland  )
'When you go home, tell them of us and say for your to-morrows these gave their to-day.' An epitaph of John Maxwell Edmonds during World War I at Kohima, Nagaland



Grandmas are always ready with a hug. They have lots of great stories of family’s cultural heritage to tell. The fear of Japanese aggression had panicked them, where Axis Military General Hideki Tojo committed numerous atrocities against civilian and Allied Military Forces. Residents excavated primitive air raid shelter and moved elsewhere for safety...

The screen popped up Japani Sai. I was filled with curiosity and politely enquired, if I could be known. History revisited India’s forgotten war at the Battle of Imphal and Kohima (1944). Tales about the cruelty of Japanese troops in various parts of the world was not true in case of North East. They never harassed people and even paid for carrying rice to resident during World War II.

Now they are searching for the remains of Japanese soldiers in the hills of Manipur killed in war. Their soldiers were cremated at Red Hill where a Japanese India Peace Memorial was built to commemorate 50 years of the battle at Imphal. In recent years, there has been renewed interest by Japanese organising cultural exchange programmes with Manipur and Nagaland.

The flooding back history saw devastating international conflict in World War II (1939-45) involving over 30 countries for a loss of over 50 million lives which broke out two decades later of World War I (1914-18) because of the instability created in Europe. With Germany and Nazi party rearmed with Italy and Japan, on Sep 1, 1939 the skies lit up over the Baltic Sea as battleship opened fire and Hitler invaded Poland that made Great Britain and France to declare World War II against Germany.

Soviet invaded Poland too. Stalin occupied Baltic States and defeated Finland. Germany invaded Norway, Belgium, and Netherlands and occupied Denmark. With Hitler into action, Italy declared war against France and Britain. Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria also joined with the Axis. German overran Yugoslavia and Greece.

The attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec 7, 1941) served US to declare war. In 1945 Germany surrendered after Hitler committed suicide. US authorized the atomic bomb on Japan to surrender finally that took lives of million people. And the global power shifted from Europe to US and Soviet Union.

Memories of the war run deep in Manipur. There are many Manipuri took part in the battle under the British and INA. Japanese asked people to joint through loudspeaker by giving a rifle and two hundred rounds ammunition. World War II came to India’s sub continent after Burma fell (Burma Campaign Jan 1942 - July 45) to the Japanese and Manipur became a buffer state. Lakhs of refugees fleeing from Burma flowed into Imphal. Bombs fell on Imphal, forcing its residents to flee further west. They left for villages and dug bunkers to live in jungles since their houses occupied by soldiers.

The Maharaja of Manipur had supported the British in the World War I. When the World War II broke out, the king sided with the British but many of his Subjects went with Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA. Up in the hills, the Thangkul Nagas of Manipur Hills supported the British while Kukis, the hill tribe locked in war with the Nagas over land, joined the INA and supported the Imperial Japan and Thailand.

It was the fiercest battle fought in various phases from 8 March until 3 July 1944 and battle sites are spread across Manipur and Nagaland. The Japanese 15th Army, 85000 troops led by General Mutaguchi attempted ritual do or dies mission to capture Imphal and Kohima but Japanese were driven back into Burma led by British Lt Gen William Slim. US Army Gen Joseph W Stilweell supported India by planes. The Japanese, without air support or supplies, eventually became exhausted, and on 22 Jun, the Allied forces pushed them out of Kohima and Imphal.

Prof Fayaz Hussain recalled war memory from his father, who worked in WT Channel over day and night for British. Manipuri Soldiers fought for colonial government with banzai charge (martial ability) face to face. Even British women fought war during those days. People saw fallen heroes and many wounded Japanese soldiers were caught at Golaghat Assam. War time memory gave rise to unexpected fume and resulted in famine throughout the region.

India’s forgotten war is not much known to other Indian. But UK National Army Museum recognised Imphal-Kohima war was Britain’s Greatest Battle ever. It was a turning point for a drastic hit to the fortunes of the British Empire where northeast played a big role fighting for both sides.

Japanese Operation U-Go to invade Crown ruled India was a historic blunder. The war Kohima and Imphal was a huge defeat to that date in Japanese history with 53,000 casualties, with many of the deaths resulting from starvation, disease and exhaustion suffered during their retreat. The Allied forces also suffered 16,500 casualties.

After the war, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission set up cemeteries in Imphal, and Kohima to commemorate the soldiers engraving on their gravestone “When you go home, tell them of us and say for your to-morrows these gave their to-day."(An epitaph of John Maxwell Edmonds during World War I). Guwahati War Cemetery “Their name liveth for evermore” also has major memorial connection with graves & commemorations belonging to commonwealth servicemen.

Grandmas are always ready with a hug. They have lots of great stories of family’s cultural heritage to tell. The fear of Japanese aggression had panicked them, where Axis Military General Hideki Tojo committed numerous atrocities against civilian and Allied military forces. Residents excavated primitive air raid shelter and moved elsewhere for safety after enemy fighters flying ultimate low at extreme sonic booms.

Our ancestors’ great grandfather Sansing also left Myanmar for the Garo hills Meghalaya after British occupation at Burma (1824-1948). I belong to eight generation of the descendants of ‘Thura’ (brave, gallant) community from Mon Kingdom. Enemy dropped leaflet propaganda to win the psychological warfare. Air raid siren indicated blackout over the perimeter of the Aerodrome to fight against foe followed by all clear flashing lights. I still recall some of those grandma’s stories of duck and cover from World War II to Burma fall to Japan (1942-45).

Her hands and face were wrinkled by age yet the old lady broadly smiled. She was like my late grandma. I was keying on keyboard for Annual Identification for her Pension Life Certificate. The screen popped up Japani Sai. I was filled with curiosity and politely enquired.

Karbi parents named her Japani since she was born during World War II where Japanese invaded to Manipur and Nagaland after Burma fall (1942). Say is her surname from her late Naga husband Sufang Say, an animal keeper at Guwahati Zoo, who left Nagalim then, driven by Japanese fear.

Hideki Tojo, the General of the Imperial Japanese Army was the mastermind behind that created a climate of fear. Grandma’s story over the years had unnerved us at childhood days. After eighty years of World War II, I have encountered with another grandma “Japani Say” at my office where the past comes alive, the relics of by-gone war during Crown rule (1858-1947) in India. North easterners haven’t forgotten this battle. Shouldn’t India remember it too?


* Kamal Baruah wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer is a resident of Guwahati and can be contacted at kamal(DOT)baruah(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on February 26, 2019.



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