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How battles in Northeast changed the course of WWII
The Battle of Imphal-Kohima marked its seventieth anniversary last year which was hardly noticed by the national media except for some few stray reports. It was also voted as Britain's greatest battle on April 2013 by the British National Army in London, beating historic battles like Normandy, Waterloo and Battle of Trafalgar which the people are more familiar with. Unfortunately, not many in India remembers these twin battles, let alone what lies in the boundaries of India even though it may be clearly marked on a map and even the majority of the Indians do not know that Manipur and Nagaland were the main battle grounds during the Second World War.
Of the 120,000 British armies, it was largely composed of Indians and Gurkhas. The opponents, Indian National Army (INA) or Azad Hind Fauj formed after the fall of Singapore in 1942, under Mohan Singh, and then taken over by Subhas Chandra Bose in 1943 also include Indians. When the INA marched in it was thought that the people would rise up against the British but the British Indian army came from all parts of the country: 8th Royal Garhwal Rifles, 6th Rajputana Rifles, 14th Punjab Regiment, 5th Mahratta Light Infantry, Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners, 9th Jat Regiment and the Assam Rifles. Out of a total of 49 infantry battalions, 16 were Gurkha infantry battalions.There were also soldiers from East Africa. The Imphal war cemetery has 40 graves of East Africans.
One of the reasons behind the British victory was air power which kept the Japanese air-force out and gave the allied forces vital support for ground battle,supplies and munitions. The U.S provided air support and medical and ambulance services. Canada, New Zealand and Australia also sent planes.
Even though Japan won their way through Burma till Kohima, they were faced with a tough opposition from a garrison they out-numbered ten to one and were defeated.They fought over unknown villages and hill with 'remorseless savagery' and brutal determination. The battle became a turning point in the Burma campaign and it stopped the Japanese from marching in to Northeast. The battle of Ningthoukhong (a Manipuri town not far from where the Japanese have now built an Indian Peace Memorial)received two Victorian Crosses,the highest award for valor.The war ended badly for the Japanese and the INA with malaria and starvation decimating their soldiers.
The Japanese, in the northeast, were careful to treat the locals well but many of the Nagas opposed them and fought with the British Indian army. And then there were others who helped the Japanese as they saw them as liberators who shared a common ethnic background.
The war whisked a great effect on the region. Roads, barracks and hospitals were constructed to meet the needs of the armies as they had to be housed and transported, fed and clothed. Businesses rose to cater to these needs dragging the quiet region to the modern world. With the death and destruction, the massive movement of refugees created new rivalries, discontents as well as opportunities.
After the war, the INA were brought back to India and tried by the British for "waging war against the King-Emperor." Between November 1945 and May 1946, ten courts-martial were held of the captured INA. The first, and most famous, was when the leaders Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Shahgal, and Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon, were tried at the Red Fort. Congress leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhulabhai Patel, Kailashnath Katju, Asif Ali and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru rose to their defence, as did the Muslim League. This was to be the last time the two parties would be together on an issue. The political impact of the INA were being marginalized in public consciousness.
Although a large number of public demonstration ensured that the sentences of the former INA soldiers were not carried out, they were not allowed to join the regular army as it was feared that they would threaten loyalty to the Crown. The trials of the INA in February 1946, influenced serving soldiers and other mutinies in the army and sparked a series of revolts in the Royal Indian Navy, perhaps playing a key role in accelerating the Indian freedom.
The account of the Battle of Imphal-Kohima doesn't end there. Converted from a memory of struggling visions to one of the reconciliation, war veterans- Japanese and British, have assessed their actions and contemplated over the brutalities they committed in the name of patriotism. The large number of Indians who died on the 'White Bone Road' from Imphal to Kohima and in the Burma campaign have long been forgotten from our memories. To consider the fact of what our future lies ahead, we need to remember the slain heroes and the sacrifices they made.