We as Indians have been a little too good to sieve out history from our colonial past. We take pride in some of the colonial legacies we still possess like the railways, military establishments, judiciary, development of cities like Mumbai and of course- the gift of a democratic system of governance. Many installations and establishments are even a part of UNESCO’s heritage lists. But while work of civil servants and even the Olympic gold in 1936 by the Indian hockey team days of the colonial rule is recognized, the acts of valour by Indians fighting under the armies of the British Empire have been lost from our memories.
It has been just a fortnight since I visited Imphal, the theatre for some of the toughest and bloody war exchanges from WW II. Unknowingly, it was exactly 70 years to the days the areas around Imphal and Kohima were under a heavy offensive by the Japanese army. Some of the key road intersections in Imphal held hoardings talking of the anniversary and some events lined up to commemorate the sacrifice and bravery of the locals.
While there was no great enthusiasm amongst some of the locals I met there about the war or the commemorations, the fact that delegates from United States, Australia and even Japan were to assemble in Kohima on 28th June as a part of the closing ceremony. Evidently so, The New York Times carried an article called ‘A largely Indian victory in WW II, Mostly forgotten in India’. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/world/asia/a-largely-indian-victory-in-world-war-ii-mostly-forgotten-in-india.html?_r=0)
I got the shivers to imagine how would be a war where the two armies where split only by an asphalt tennis court, how come we missed this part? How come we never heard about it in any news reel, movie or even a write up? Frankly, not all is ignored; the fact that the British National Army Museum recognises this war at Imphal and Kohima as the greatest the British were involved during WW II was in the Indian media last year. (http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/britain-says-its-greatest-battle-was-fought-in-imphal-and-kohima-371391). But how many Indians today actually know about this so called ‘Stalingrad of the East’?
Well, to be honest, the history text books I read had the Japanese mentions only with regards to Pearl Harbour and then Hiroshima-Nagasaki. At times a small record that Subhash Chandra Bose formed the Indian National Army (INA) with the Japanese support and was handed over Andaman & Nicobar.
But since India under the British rule had refused to acknowledge the war as its own, we have possibly forgotten that Indian soldiers were involved in fighting in Africa, East Asia as well as the Eastern Indian frontier. The Imphal War Cemetery, managed by the Commonwealth Graves Comission, had head stones dedicated to soldiers who were English, Australian, West African, Chinese and also recognises some Indians from various army cadres. (Officers, EME, Riflemen and also Labourers).
Just 20 kms outside Imphal is Red Hill (Lokpaching), the place were Japanese were held up and later forced into retreat. The Japanese government has erected the India Peace Memorial at the spot and today it is no less than a site of pilgrimage for Japanese tourists visiting the area. A further 25 kms down the same road is Moirang, the place where INA has a memorial. I have found a memorial for the Italian PoW’s who died in India under captivity in Mumbai. Even an Indian Doctor from Solapur, Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis has been recognised by China for his efforts serving against the invading Japanese army. But honestly, how many Indians are aware and really do care?
I confess as an individual, I do get a lot of my heads up from movies and features on NatGeo, Discovery and History Channel. Not to mention mini-series like Band of Brothers and The Pacific also added the bits which still don’t get the coverage. To know about the war in the East, I picked a quick read, but that didn’t help much. So over a period of two days, I watched ‘The bridge on the river Kwai’ and all 10 episodes of The Pacific to get the complete picture. In my opinion, the Japanese offensive was far too intense and ruthless than what the Nazi’s. No Nazi believed in Kamikaze, hara-kiri, would set of a grenade when surrounded by the forces and even booby trap native women and children.
The war in Asia was possibly fought over a far larger area and in much tougher conditions. Sure, they faced harsh winters in Europe and Atlantic, but the APAC had tropical forests, hills and rains. Beach landing on so many islands and yet, so much has been missed out on this part of history.
Anyways, my initial thought was that WW II is a war fought on Indian soil and has seen many Indian soldiers lay down their life as a part of their duty. Possibly the best memorial we can build is host their memories in our hearts and give them their due respect. Let us believe and not forget this part of our history.