Sunday, December 25, 2016

In Search of a Lost War - Imphal Diaries Day One

While a lot has been written about World War 2 in Europe and the Far East, not much is known about the great battles fought in the North Eastern states of India in the summer of 1944. A renewed interest among Indian writers has led to recent works like Hemant Singh Katoch's ' Battlefields of Imphal' and Raghu Karnad's 'The Farthest Field' that have explored how the war impacted people in India. With a plan to write a story set in the North East of India during World War 2, a trip to Manipur was very much on the cards for me. So with a plan to visit Imphal and Moirang i set out one early morning taking the Indigo flight from Kolkata to Imphal. The plan was to cover the Imphal War Cemetery, India Peace Memorial and the INA Museum at Moirang. I wanted to visit Kohima as well, the scene of a bloody battle between the British Indian Army and the Japanese along with the INA, but could not make it as i had no time to apply for the inner line permit needed for going to Nagaland. Thankfully the ILP is no more needed for Manipur and i was able to plan the trip at very short notice. landing on a Saturday morning, i checked into the Classic Hotel and booked a car from my afternoon trip to Imphal War Cemetery. There were two War Cemetery's - one for the British Army and another for British Indian Army both located in Imphal. The British it appears followed the principle of divide and rule even in death as there are two different cemetery's for the British Army and British Indian Army. While the armies fought shoulder to shoulder and the British Indian Army was the largest volunteer force in World War 2, yet they found no place in the same cemetery. The War Cemetery's are well maintained as they receive grants from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The British Army Cemetery had an unidentified Hindu soldier buried along with the British officers and men. The lovely poignant setting made the afternoon a memorable one as i paused briefly before each of the stone plaques in front of the graves to ponder on how these young men met their end so far away from home. (images of British Army Cemetery in Imphal)



Walking down the pathways between the horizontal rows of graves i found a white marble plaque with the immortal words 'Their Name Liveth for Ever More'. It made me ponder, that while the British and Australian governments commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Imphal in 2014, not  much was heard of and written in India. Why are we so indifferent to our own martyrs and history?


The memorials made me ponder on the futility of war and yet so many years later we still have so many wars being fought in the world around us. A nun from a local convent was out with a group of school kids and i requested her to take my photograph a memory of my trip to place that held a special place in my heart.

Came across a touching message from loving parents who had lost their only son 'Nothing but memories as we linger on thinking of you'. War creates divide, yet the human race seems to be hell bent on self-destruction. After spending the better part of an hour i slowly retracted my steps to my vehicle to head to the British Indian Army Cemetery a mile away. Driven through decrepit narrow lane that finally ended in the impressive British Indian Army Cemetery of Imphal where over 800 soldiers are buried. While the Hindu and Sikh soldiers were cremated as per their religious orders, the Muslim soldiers were buried here.



 A lot of the soldiers and officers buried here are from the Corps of the Royal Engineers and the Indian Regiment of Artillery. It is strange that our history has so little space for these young men who died in the prime of their lives. They are truly a 'Forgotten Army' so as to say.


Spending close to an hour at the Indian Army cemetery and spending a few minutes to speak to the caretaker there i realized barring a few locals and few foreigners who visit in search of lost relatives who fought the great war many decades back, there is very little interest among domestic tourists in India. History needs to be rewritten in India to create awareness about the battles fought in North East which had a huge impact on India history. My final stop for the day was the Kangla Fort also in Imphal where the British Fourteenth Army led by General Slim had their headquarters. Manipur was an independent state till 1891 when the British finally took it over. Kangla Fort was the seat of power for Manipuri (Meetei) rulers before the British captured it in the last decade of the nineteenth century.


Images of Kangla Fort (photo credits - author)
Spending close to two hours traversing the Kangla Fort on foot i finally ended the day with my field notes. It was a challenge finding General Slim's cottage which i finally did after some traversing the area close to the moats.
This was the end of my first day in Imphal. The next day had an exciting agenda to visit the India Peace Memorial near the Red Hill outside Imphal, Moirang where INA raised the Indian tricolour for the first time on April 14th, 1944 and Loktak Lake. More about day 2 in my next blog. Happy reading.

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