Review of The Battlefields of Imphal: The Second World War and North East India by Hemant Singh Katoch
Most people associate WW2 with Dunkirk, Pearl Harbour, or Iwo Jima. Few know that some of the greatest battles of the war were fought in Imphal and Kohima in India. Hemant Singh Katoch’s book uses a fresh approach to rediscover this forgotten history
The Second World War was one of the defining events of the last century. As all wars do, it acted as a catalyst for momentous change in the social, economic and political fabric of the belligerent nations. It sounded the death-knell of the British Empire and heralded in the ‘American Century’ with the concomitant period of the cold war that was to cast its shadow over world affairs for the next 45 years. The war was a global conflict; yet, when most people think of the war, they think of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, or, thanks to the influence of Hollywood: of Pearl Harbour, the D-Day landings at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and the fighting in Europe, or the battles of the Pacific, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Overshadowed as they are by the popular Anglo-American view of the war, few people associate the Second World War with India, least of all within India itself. The reason for this collective national amnesia is two-fold. It lies with the fact that the war fell on the wrong side of the divide of modern South Asia’s political history, further compounded by the involvement of the Indian National Army led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. With independence and partition, the events before August 1947 were largely perceived as being irrelevant to India’s national history unless they were directly connected with the freedom struggle. Seen as an imperialist war by Indian politicians and historians, the war quickly faded from public memory. Yet, as the events of 1947 themselves recede into the past, a new generation of South Asian writers is rediscovering this history and examining how it meshes with the story of a global war that took place nearly 70 years ago.
In the last few years we have seen this renewed interest reflected in the writings of authors such as Yasmin Khan (The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War, Penguin Random House India, 2016), Raghu Karnad (Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, Harper Collins, 2016), Srinath Raghavan (India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945, Allen Lane, 2016), all of whom have refreshingly approached the subject from varied and different perspectives. The Battlefields of Imphal: The Second World War and North East India, by Hemant Singh Katoch is in line with this renewed interest in the history of India’s involvement with the war. Even more important, his is a completely unique approach to the subject.
A look at a map of the world showing the battlefields of World War 2 will immediately make apparent the reason why India was, literally, central to the Allied war effort. The war fronts ran in an arc from the Northern Atlantic, through North West Europe, Italy, North and East Africa, the Middle East, Iran, India, Myanmar, China, South East Asia and on to the Pacific. India is the central point of that arc, providing the fulcrum around which the Allied war effort pivoted both towards the west and the east. Apart from acting as a base and springboard for operations, India also made an enormous contribution toward supplying the military manpower needed to fight the war in two of the four major war fronts. Indian divisions served on battlefields in Italy fighting the Germans on the Gustav Line and in the Western Desert against Rommel. They also guarded the marches to India in Persia and Iraq. Indian soldiers were present at Dunkirk and served in the convoys carrying vital supplies to Soviet Russia from Iran. To the east, they fought against the seemingly invincible Imperial Japanese Army in Burma, Malaya and South-East Asia. It is the effort on India’s eastern border, when north east India was at the frontlines of a global war, that forms the subject of this book.
This titanic clash between the Japanese 15th Army under General Mutaguchi Renya and the British 14th Army under General Bill Slim took place in the hills of Manipur and Nagaland. The fighting lasted from March to July 1944. By the end of it, the Japanese ambition of advancing into India lay shattered. Some 30,000 Japanese soldiers are estimated to have died in the fighting around Imphal and Kohima and the subsequent retreat into Burma, while approximately 16,000 Indian and British soldiers were killed and wounded. While the efforts of the 14th Army, famously dubbed the ‘Forgotten Army’ have remained largely just that – forgotten – its exploits received a fillip when a poll conducted in the UK in 2013 dubbed the Battles of Imphal and Kohima as being among the Greatest Battles of the Second World War.
However, this book is not a ‘military’ history of the fighting that took place, nor is it a political history of the war. It instead uniquely examines the events of the past and connects them with the present in a manner that has not been done before in India. Its main focus is the actual battlefields scattered around Manipur and how to allow a visitor to visit and make sense of them on the ground today. The author explains the events that occurred and places them in a geographical context within Manipur. By combining official records and oral testimonies, which bring the narrative to life, he helps the reader to discover for him/her self the sites where much of the fighting took place. The author’s deep attachment to the people and land of Manipur is visible in his sympathetic handling of the subject, which puts the people of Manipur at the centre of his accounts rather than at the periphery.
The book starts by contextualizing the battle of Imphal against the larger backdrop of events that led up to it in 1944, before including Manipuri memory of the world that came to fight a war at their doorsteps. It moves on to describe the actual battles, which are explained in simple terms even a lay reader uninterested in ‘military’ history can understand, before guiding the reader through the actual battlefields as they exist today. In this section, a good map is essential; unfortunately the author is severely let down by his publishers on this account. The book ends with a section on ‘battlefield tourism’ in Manipur and the north east region. Battlefield tourism is known to sustain local economies in many parts of the world, but requires a responsive government and an investment in human and other resources by the state to get it up and running. As a start, the author has already devised a number of themed battlefield tours that are available for visitors to Manipur. These will hopefully pave the way for opening up Manipur and the north east states to domestic and international travellers who wish to rediscover for themselves the forgotten Indian battlefields of the Second World War. This book will serve as an invaluable guide.
Sqn Ldr (Retd) Rana TS Chhina is Secretary and Editor, Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research