After decades of state-sponsored indifference common people and historians have suddenly become interested now in the battle of Kohima and Imphal in the context of India’s freedom and the end of the British rule. The change of guard at the centre alone is not responsible for this change; there is rethinking on this issue in the west too. A contest organized by the National Army Museum In April 2013 in London voted this battle to be ‘Britain’s greatest battle’ over infinitely more celebrated battles like D-Day and Waterloo. Making the case for Kohima in a debate at the museum, historian Robert Lyman asserted that “Great things were at stake in a war with the toughest enemy any British army has had to fight” and ranked it with Midway, El Alamein and Stalingrad as the main turning point battles of WW II. This is an interesting assessment in the face of every effort made by Nehru and his party to obliterate the contribution of the INA and Subhas Chandra Bose and re-write history.
In fact, the involvement of the Naga patriots who wanted to be free from British bondage in this freedom offensive was assiduously downplayed by both the British and the Congress government to propagate a lie that India was freed by the non-violent means and that the local tribes of Nagaland opposed the INA. Now when the Congress is bent over its back with excess baggage Nehru was so much concerned about, the INA’s lost cause is making a new meaning and there is a new interest in Bose.
During and after the war, the British officers like Archibald Wavell, Louis Mountbatten and W. J. Slim smugly created a myth that Gorkha soldiers and the Nagas were totally with them during the offensive when their secret reports and correspondences often told otherwise. They sought to make people forget that it had taken Britain four decades and no less than forty-eight skirmishes to bring the Naga hills under its control and that in 1879 the first deputy commissioner of the newly created district, G. H. Damant, was killed with his entire escort party of thirty-five soldiers in broad daylight in Khonoma village soon after assuming office.
Bose knew history well and laid great store by the freedom-loving spirit of the Nagas and the Manipuris. He had a detailed discussion about how to take care of Naga problems and aspirations after independence with the nationalist leader A. Z. Phizo when the latter met him in Burma during the war; and Radha Binode Koijam, who became chief minister of Manipur a couple of decades after independence, was in his personal staff. Soon after assuming leadership, Bose sent INA volunteers trained in the spy schools at Kanbe, Thingangyun (Burma), and Sandycroft (Malaya) by land routes and by parachutes to organize support bases among the tribes in Nagaland and Manipur. Activities of these volunteers created panic in the British administration as the classified British records now reveal. The paratroopers and land-based spies of the Thingangyun and Kanbe institutes infiltrated northeastern India in a large number in late 1943 and early 1944 and prepared the ground for the INA’s combined offensive.
A frontier intelligence outfit named ‘Nishi Kikan’ comprising Chins, Kumis and Kukis etc. was particularly outstanding and helped them much. Among the most influenced Naga villages were Sangnyu, Nyasia, Nyakuyu, Sankhao, Sahpao, Hwekum, villages to the east of Mokokchung, Melauri, Ruzazho, Chesezu, Chazuba, Chakabama, etc. as available from British records. The ang (chief of Konyak Naga tribe) of Sangnyu was particularly acting against the British and propagating in favour of Indian liberation. The British administration often used harsh methods including strafing and execution to subdue the patriotic Nagas. However, British deputy commissioner Charles Pawsey and his men were successful in keeping the majority of the Nagas with them by using various methods; and they came handy in tracking down the enemy.
Bose made it a point to make personal contact and friendship with the local leaders whenever he visited the fronts, which was quite often. In one such foray, he camped for a few days at Ruzazho village of now Phek district of Nagaland in the middle of April 1944, as Er. Vekho Swuro, a government engineer by profession, has claimed in his book Discovery of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose – Delhi Chalo Last Camp in Nagaland. His claim is quite plausible because Bose had declared in a broadcast over Nankin Radio in China on 24 November 1943 that he would leave for his headquarters in Shonan (Singapore) that day and would go from there to Burma and then to the Indo-Burmese border, as his position as commander-in-chief of the Indian National Army compelled him to be at the scene of battle.
After the INA crossed the Indian border in Manipur after capturing Tiddim on 18 March 1944, Bose issued a proclamation on 21 March ‘from an undisclosed quarter on the Front’. Again, on 21 June 1944 a Bengali broadcast from Berlin Radio quoted a press statement of Bose stating that he was at that time in India with his army. On the same day Radio Rangoon carried an interview of a Japanese war correspondent who met Bose in the Indian Territory. The radio broadcast (21 May 1944) said: “The Japanese correspondent says that Netaji moves freely amongst the men of the Indian National Army and lives the life of a common soldier, free from ostentation or luxury, and that so much of his time is devoted to supervising the organization of the camps that he often does not get even three hours sleep in the night.”
Shah Nawaz Khan, commander of the Subhas Brigade in Imphal sector, has also mentioned in his memoir The INA and Its Netaji that Bose inspected the front again in May and June 1944 and returned to Rangoon on 2 July 1944. During this period the INA was engaged in battles in Nagaland and Manipur which extended to the contiguous back-up regions of Burma. As the theatre of war then was Nagaland and Manipur, it would not be far-fetched to conjecture that Bose was moving in this area. From all reports and indications, he always liked to be close to the actual battle arena to study things close at hand. About a month after the start of the offensive – on 8 April 1944 – he shifted his headquarters to Maymyo which was close to both Manipur and Nagaland. Earlier on 9 February, about a month before the Kohima-Imphal offensive, he had visited the Arakan front and issued a special order of the day when an INA battalion had captured Buthidang after a spectacular fight.
When the present author was researching about the INA in 1993, he was told by an old Naga gentleman of Chakabama village that he had attended Bose as a boy when he had stayed two nights in the nearby guest house soon after Kohima was besieged. The time of his visit coincides with what Er. Vekho Swuro has mentioned in his book. These villages fell in the line of advance of the Japanese and INA troops from Jessami to Kohima; and the British administration lost its hold on the area till June 1944.
Bose’s own desire was that the INA should be allotted one particular sector of the front where he would lead the men on the battlefield. His own choice was the Arakan region close to East Bengal where he had a strong support base to start a partisan war. His idea was that while the Japanese 56th Division would keep a portion of the enemy troops engaged (as it actually did during the Imphal offensive), thirty thousand INA soldiers would advance into Chittagong district. The consequent partisan war would force the enemy to evacuate, first of all, the army personnel to safety, thus releasing their hold on Imphal. The drama of the fall of Singapore would then be re-enacted at Imphal with the Japanese forces besieging it and the abandoned Indian troops of the British army walking over to the INA as a result of patriotic propaganda. The Japanese military leadership rejected this plan on the ground that in the Arakan coastal areas the INA would be faced with simultaneous aerial and naval bombardment. The surmise of the Japanese military leaders was proved wrong by the later events when the Japanese 56th Division actually held the British forces encircled for a few months in the Arakan and a detachment of Shah Nawaz Khan’s regiment marched into Indian territory and kept its hold on Mowdak till September 1944 without facing the hazards of an attack from the sea side.
Most people in India have so long been led to believe that the INA offensive was no more than a propaganda bid and useful only as a bargaining chip against the British after its dismal failure. Bose was also projected to have been comfortably ensconced in Tokyo and Rangoon parleying with Japanese high-ups so much so that no one could seriously believe that he ever visited Nagaland or Manipur during the war. Researchers, preferably local scholars who know people and areas well, should do well to bring the facts to light. In the mean time, the effort of Vekho Swuro to draw attention to the matter must be lauded.
Dr. Tapan Chattopadhyay, Ph.D. and D.Litt. in history, is the author of The INA’s Secret Service in Southeast Asia – Its Background, Infrastructure, Resources and Activities During World War II (Readers Service, Kolkata, 2011, third reprint, January, 2014). He was joint director, SIB, Kohima, in 1993-1995.