The boundaries of India may be clearly marked on a map but much of what lies there is blurred in the public consciousness. Largely unnoticed in the national media, this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the battle of Imphal and Kohima. A closing ceremony is planned for today, 28 June, where representatives of the British, Japanese, U.S and Australian governments are expected to attend.

The Battle of Imphal-Kohima was voted as Britain’s greatest battle last year by the National Army Museum in London, edging out Waterloo and D-Day, two iconic events that we are more familiar with, even in India.

The British armies of 120,000 that fought these battles were largely composed of Indians and Gurkhas. More importantly, their opponents also included Indians of the Azad Hind Fauj, better known as the Indian National Army. The INA was formed after the fall of Singapore in 1942, under Mohan Singh, and then taken over by Subhas Chandra Bose in 1943. The strategy called for the Japanese to break British defences in Imphal. The INA would then march in and the people, it was thought, would rise up against the British.

What happened was a little more complicated. The Japanese and the INA faced stiff resistance. The British Indian army came from all parts of the country of: 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 soldiers from East Africa. The 11th East African passed through Imphal on their way to Burma. The Imphal War cemetery has 40 graves of East Africans.

A major reason behind British victory was air power. The U.S provided air support as well as medical and ambulance services. Canada, New Zealand and Australian also sent planes. This made it possible to keep the Japanese air-force out and gave Allied forces crucial support for ground battles, as well as kept a life-line open for supplies and munitions. It ensured an Allied victory.

A turning point

The Japanese had won their way through Burma all the way to Kohima, but here they faced stiff resistance from a garrison they outnumbered ten to one. They were defeated, as Keane Fergal writes in Road of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944, in some of the most ferocious and brutal encounters, marked by ‘remorseless savagery’. They fought over obscure villages and hills with brutal determination. Two Victoria Crosses, the highest award for valor, were given for the battle of Ningthoukhong, the Manipuri town not far from where the Japanese have now built an India Peace Memorial. The battle for Kohima became a turning point in the Burma campaign. It stopped the Japanese march into Asia.

General William Slim, a highly respected commander who led the British forces, praised the Japanese for their courage, even when the odds were stacked against them. He wrote, "Whatever one may think of the military wisdom of thus pursuing a hopeless object, there can be no question of the supreme courage and hardihood of the Japanese soldiers who made the attempts. I know of no army that could have equaled them."

More deaths were caused by malaria and starvation: the Japanese lost over 50,000. The INA forces were also largely decimated by malaria. The war ended badly for them, but as the British leader of the Labour Party Clement Atlee put it, “The axiomatic superiority of the European over the Asiatic sustained a severe blow. The balance of prestige, always so important in the East, changed."

In the northeast, the Japanese were usually careful to treat the local population well but many of the Naga opposed them and fought with the British Indian army. There were others who helped the Japanese as they saw them as liberators who shared a common ethnic background. Japanese colonialism always presented itself as a liberator of the East, and its wars as a fight against the domination of the West. Japanese forces initially won support among the Malay and Burmese, Indonesians and the Philippines, as their armies established the greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Japanese were brutal towards the local Chinese populations and gradually their rhetoric of fighting Western colonialism and their oppressive and brutal control of the areas they occupied lost them the sympathy of the people they had ‘freed’.

Imphal-Kohima and the Indian freedom

A major effect of the war was a great churning of this region. War caused death and destruction but it also dragged the quiet region of tea plantations into the modern world. The armies had to be housed and transported, fed and clothed: roads, barracks and hospitals were constructed. Businesses sprang up to service these new needs. The chaos of war threw people out of their settled lives, sent them to the outside world. This massive movement of refugees created new rivalries, discontents as well as opportunities that are still with us.

The larger political impact of the INA has also been marginalised in public consciousness. 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.

Large-scale public demonstrations ensured that the sentences were not carried out, but former INA soldiers were kept out of the regular army because it was feared they would undermine loyalty to the Crown. The INA trials affected serving soldiers and inspired a series of revolts in the Royal Indian Navy in February 1946, as well as other mutinies in the army. Arguably, these mutinies played a crucial role in hastening the Indian freedom.

The story of the Imphal-Kohima battle does not really end there. The war has been transformed from a memory of contending visions to one of reconciliation as war veterans, Japanese and British, have re-thought their actions and pondered over the brutalities they committed in the name of patriotism. Yet the large numbers of Indians who died on the ‘White Bone Road’ from Imphal to Kohima, and in the Burma Campaign, have been erased from our memory. Remembering them is a way to restore their place but also a way to think about the future.

Brij Tankha is a scholar of contemporary Japan.