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What Manipur’s upcoming WWII war museum says about the state today

A forgotten World War II battle and current realities... What an upcoming museum near Imphal says about Manipur today

long reads Updated: Jun 19, 2017 13:41 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Ninglam Tankhul participated in World War II as part of the British army. He retired as a Subedar of the Indian army. He lives in Imphal
Ninglam Tankhul participated in World War II as part of the British army. He retired as a Subedar of the Indian army. He lives in Imphal(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Arambam Angabam Singh is willing to take a wide-angled view of history, and make allowances for lapses in memory, but only up to a point. An engineer by training, and a dedicated history buff for more than 10 years, he has been scouring the Manipuri countryside for relics of the Battle of Imphal-Kohima (1944), a turning point in World War II, fought between the British and the Japanese (along with Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army) in northeastern India. Singh now has a museum to build.

He and his team have found scores of rifles, artillery shells and grenades lobbed by the British at the Japanese and vice-versa. They have also found war witnesses such as Yangmaso Shishak, 80. But the ‘biscuit-and-Bose’ stories of Shishak have been difficult to digest.

Yangmaso Shishak, then a student, was a witness to the Battle of Shangshak, 1944, in Ukhrul district, Manipur. But some of his stories are full of fancy. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

In ’44, Shishak, then a student, had been a runner carrying letters from camp to camp for the British on top of a hill near Imphal. When the British retreated and the Japanese overran his village, he ran errands for them too. Iwaichi Fujiwara, one of the top Japanese intelligence officers, Shishak says, fed him biscuits. Shishak says he also stood next to Subhash Bose on a hill as Bose looked through the binoculars towards Imphal – crying.

Really?

“Bose’s INA had reached Manipur, but not Bose,” says Singh, steering the conversation with Shishak back to that part of the story where the old man stays on the side of facts. When the museum to commemorate the Battle of Imphal (see box) finally comes up, with sections on participating soldiers and war witnesses, not all of Shishak’s accounts will be included.

Further background checks will have to be done when the museum – a civilian initiative awaiting some clearances from the central government and funds from Japan’s Nippon Foundation – comes up on Imphal’s Tiddim Road. We are, however, sitting with Shishak on top of a hill in Ukhrul district, outside Imphal. Tiddim Road is to its north-east.

Faultlines

Daytime in Ukhrul is straight out of a tourist brochure: men lounge outside roadside inns; women sell berries and chips from behind shop-counters; tractors turn slowly on rice fields. The Assam Rifles regiment, a paramilitary force born in the belly of the British Empire, still patrols the area, underlining the difference between night and day. At night there are more patrols, say locals. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is in place in Manipur since 1980.

(Second from right) Angabam Singh, co-founder of a foundation of history buffs in Manipur. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

But Ukhrul is Thuingaleng Muivah territory. A leader of one of the more powerful factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, Muivah is a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur. Meitis, Kukis and Nagas of Manipur have been locked in conflict for years. Angabam Singh, a Meiti, hopes when the museum comes up it will remind them of a time when they fought together, not each other.

Subedar Ninglam Tangkhul, 90, a Naga, fought in the Battle of Kohima. “I was given 200 rounds of ammunition, a rifle and a water can. The British told us to fight, we fought.” Years later when he battled Naga insurgents fighting for a separate nation, as part of the Indian army, he seemed to have applied the same rationale. “I’m a soldier. In a situation where I’m likely to be killed, I will kill,” says the retired Subedar. The north-east’s ethnic conflicts intensified post World War II with various ethnic groups contesting joining the Indian nation.

Chaoba, the caretaker of the memorial Manipuris built in the memory of fallen Japanese soldiers at Red Hill on Tiddim Road. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Nagas, Kukis (people of the Hill) and Meitis (the Valley people), however, participated in the war in no small measure. At the INA memorial in Moirang, the gallery lists at least 20 of them. Some of them went on to have successful political careers: Moirembam Singh (latter-day Congressman and Manipur CM); Laiphrakpam Sanaba Singh, who later became a follower of Irabot Singh, one of the founder leaders of the Communist Party of India in Manipur; Hemam Nilamanisingh, who turned Congressman after being returning home after his release from a Burma jail. “This is India’s forgotten war. We’ve to revive the story,” says Santosh Shekhar, Singh’s counterpart in the Manipur Tourism Forum, joint partners of the museum initiative.

Shekhar’s father, a Malayali, landed in Imphal following his brother, an Armyman posted in the Northeast. His mother is Manipuri. “All the world’s soldiers seemed to have converged here at some point,” says Shekhar with a laugh. “The Japanese lost around 30,000 soldiers here during World War II and they haven’t forgotten it,” he adds. Shishak’s Fujiwara, the main liaison man between Bose and the Japanese army top brass, even wrote a book after the war where he anointed himself “Lawrence of Arabia of Southeast Asia”.

World War II veteran 90 years old subedar AS Ninglam Tangkhul. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

In the Battle of Imphal, Manipuris fought on both sides. With the British and the Japanese. Henkholun Vaipei, a Kuki, 92, who joined up as a rifleman with the 3rd Assam Rifles of the British army, says he heard the Japanese appealing to Manipuris in their language to join them over loudspeakers; but he didn’t do so. Desertion was an option he did not exercise, he says, as “the times were confusing”.

An ordinary soldier like Vaipei went to battle against the Japanese because he was asked to, without any stakes. At the end of it he had a character certificate. It said his character and his musketry were “good”. “I went without water for days. I couldn’t move my tongue. The war taught me to fight. And it taught me to stay alive,” says Vaipei, now a farmer.

Side effects

The Manipuris’ dream of being an independent people (Manipur was conquered by the British in the 1890s and merged with India in 1949) with a new post-colonial destiny was virtually finished by the time World War II was over.

“The monarchy had been humiliated into obedience, Manipuri generals hanged in the time of the British…. Manipuri youth even today hardly know their history,” says Sam Tonsingh (name changed on request), a retired scribe whose relative was one of the front-ranking leaders of the United National Liberation Front, one of Manipur’s oldest insurgent groups. “After accession to India, the history books that Manipuri children grew up reading were full of Rajputs, Aibaks, Tughlaqs… and other stories about mainstream India.”

The Japanese corner with photos of Japan officers, including Fujiwara, in the makeshift museum at Arambam Singh’s home in Imphal. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Integration with India in Manipur, is, however, not a done deal. The conflict is still talked of behind closed rooms. Youngsters who point to the growing number of Audis or brightly-painted stand-alone restaurants on Imphal streets still give no straight answer to whether separatism is dead or alive. The Battle of Imphal, which Manipuris call the ‘Japanese War’, in such circumstances, seems a neutral terrain on which many Manipuris appear ready to build a new history of reconciliation – with its own divided ethnic groups and with mainland India.

“There is no problem in being with India. I mean we don’t think about it,” says Singh while going on to add that “anyone who is 70 plus now and was in the British army and then the Indian army, has fought in the Battle of Imphal. Air Marshal Arjan Singh [the only Indian Air Force officer promoted to a rank equal to a Field Marshal] flew Spitfires around our skies.”

Japanese enthusiasm to remember the Battle of Imphal has also provided tourism professionals like Singh with opportunities. “We were surprised by their interest – for the 70th anniversary day function, the Japanese ambassador was the first to confirm his participation,” says Shekhar.

At least 15 Japanese (veterans, soldiers’ children, academics) visit Manipur every month to re-connect with their personal histories or individual quests. Singh and Rajeshwar Yumnam, his co-founder at 2nd World War Imphal Campaign Foundation, are the go-to guys for all sorts of war-related projects these days. Even bone collection!

Relic-hunting also has its funny moments. The first time the group came across a hand grenade was on top of a hill in 2014. “We were terrified,” says team member Jayanta Luwangcha, a swimmer and a telecom professional. “We threw ourselves on the ground and threw stones at it. And waited. The outer part of these things are rusted but the TNT is still alive. We even had a stretcher ready….” Collecting relics across the state also gave them an opportunity to understand that there could be multiple narratives about the war.

Japan love

The Battle of Imphal wrecked local economies and lives. Trees were burnt, bridges blasted, people died. The number of Manipuris who died in that battle is still unclear. “For the British we were just a buffer state between them and Burma. There is not much documentation about us,” says Shekhar.

In the ’60s, Maibamlotpaching, a little village in Manipur, near the proposed museum site, decided to make history on its own terms. Or let’s put it this way: its people just have a very big heart.

Henkholun Vaipei, a Kuki, joined up as a rifleman with the 3rd Assam Rifles during the Battle of Imphal. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
Henkholun Vaipei’s Burma Star. The Burma Star is a military campaign medal given the UK to its soldiers who served in the Second World War, especifically in the Burma Campaign from 1941 to 1945. The Battle of Imphal is considered tobe part of the Burma Campaign. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

The Japanese had been aggressors but had the British been any different? “We had seen death at close quarters. There were bodies of Japanese soldiers everywhere and no one to take care of them. They were far from home... We decided to honour the dead. We cremated them and built a memorial,” says Gourmohan, a local, who began the initiative. Veterans of the 33 Japanese Division returned to this village and erected the pillars. A Japanese professor teaching in Imphal paid for the fence.

Everyone loves a success story. Should nation-states not embrace, or at least acknowledge their failures and miss-steps, people who aren’t on the right side of the story, people with whom they go to battle? The price of forgetting one’s own history has always been steep.