When my grandfather came back from Europe in 1918, he had a medal and a clutch of documents. Those official signs of recognition disappeared a long time ago in the smoke of another brutal conflict. But what our family does retain are the stories Montha Kamei Abunglaona told us about the one-and-a-half-years he and 2,000 other men from the North East spent on the battlefields of France during World War I as part of the Naga Labour Corps, helping the Allies build and maintain a network of roads, railways, canals, buildings, camps, stores, ammunition dumps, telegraph and telephone systems.

I did not know Apou, as I would have called him had he not died about 35 years before I was born. But his adventures are very familiar to me: my father narrated them to me, my brother and three sisters often. Apou’s experiences in those faraway lands have marked our family for two generations. It was because of my grandfather’s exposure to other ways of living and thinking that he compelled his eight children to go to school.

As for myself, I have made the travels of Apou and other Nagas to Europe during the Great War and how they transformed not just my family but the entire region a part of my PhD studies. When the men came back, they carried with them small mementos of strange lands – and a new national consciousness. In 1918, some of them gathered in Kohima to form the Naga Club, the first organisation to attempt to unite the various Naga tribes. Three decades before India’s Independence, the Naga Club petitioned the British government for the right to self-determination.

The war in Europe also sparked a conflict in the North East. In 1917, the Kukis of the region refused to join the Labour Corps, resulting in the two-year Anglo-Kuki War. Shortly after, the Zeliangrong sub-group of the Nagas launched the Heraka reform to return religious practices to their indigenous roots and resist Christian influences. This movement soon developed political ambitions, calling for the establishment of a Naga Raj.

Teacher, soldier

Montha Kamei Abunglaona was a member of the Rongmei Naga tribe from Manipur. Though he did not finish school, he could read and write both English and Bengali. This ensured him a job as a teacher in a school in Nungnang, earning Re 1-Rs 2. A little later, he found a job in the royal service of Manipur’s Maharaj Churachand as a sibai in the state police, where his salary was around Rs 5.1. He moved to Keishamthong Rongmei village in Imphal.

Early in 1917, Maharaj Churachand signed an agreement with Manipur’s British Political Agent Lieutenant Colonel HWG Cole to recruit 2,000 men to join the war effort in Europe, as the Allies struggled to push back the Germans. Apou was among those recruited.

The sea voyage to France took six months. Along the way, sickness claimed the lives of several of Apou’s compatriots. Once they got to their destination, he was assigned a variety of manual tasks. Over the course of his service, he also visited Russia, Italy and Germany. He marvelled at the impressive buildings, roads and bridges he saw in Europe. As for the people, he said they were very tall – and pale. Apou returned to Manipur via Singapore and then Mandalay, Myanmar.

Among his souvenirs was a photograph of himself with a European woman, but my father later tore it up because he could not stand the idea of this stranger as a step-mother.

Living through wars

Apou’s experiences during the war gave him the ability to see the world with clearer eyes. He worked hard to make life better for his two wives and their children.

He continued to serve as a sibai and, after a few years, was promoted to a higher rank. Later, he was asked to work as a muhorir, supervising road construction and land measurement. He was transferred around the kingdom – to Tamenglong, Nungba, Jiribam and Bishenpur. After some time, the maharaj asked him to resume his work as a teacher as he felt that many Rongmei in the hills needed education. Apou moved back to Nungnang and then again to Tamenglong.

Gurkhas advance with Lee tanks to clear the Japanese from the Imphal-Kohima road during World War II. (Credit: British Information Service, Wikimedia Commons)

While in Tamenglong, another great conflict reached his doorstep. The Japanese invaded North East India during their World War II campaign. Apou lost all his medals and proof of his participation in World War I – a great irony, considering that the 1914-1918 conflict had been described as the “war to end all wars”. Apou died shortly after World War II in Imphal, aged around 52.

Six decades later, as I began my PhD on the significance of the Labour Corps to Naga consciousness and nationalism, I visited the Manipur State Archives to search for his name. I drew a blank. The building that held the records of the Labour Corps had been destroyed during World War II. I found nothing about him in the National Archives of India in Delhi, State Archives of West Bengal, Assam State Archives, Manipur State Archives and Nagaland State Archives. But despite the absence of any material traces of his journeys, he continues to animate mine.