The case for a Second World War museum in Imphal

Hemant Singh Katoch & Arambam Angamba Singh

Manipur has a rich Second World War history. In mid-1942, the War suddenly reached Manipur’s borders with the Japanese takeover of Burma (now Myanmar). More than a hundred thousand refugees fleeing Burma passed through Imphal en route to Assam and Bengal. A massive refugee camp was set up in what subsequently became the Koirengei airfield. The defeated British Burma Army also trooped out via Imphal. In the months that followed, Imphal became an important forward supply base for the British Army and thousands of soldiers arrived in Manipur. Infrastructure was developed like never before: among other things, roads were built and upgraded and six airfields came up in the Valley.

Imphal served as the base for the famous 1st Chindit operation in February 1943 and its airfields were used to transport troops deep into Burma for the 2nd Chindit operation in March 1944. Then came the Battle of Imphal from March to July 1944, when Manipur was transformed into a giant Second World War battlefield between the invading Japanese Army, together with INA units, and the British-led Allies. Fighting raged across the state for over four months which, interestingly, also pitted Indians from the British Army against their former comrades who were now in the INA on the side of the Japanese. Imphal was under siege and cut off by land for over two months and kept supplied by air.

Together with the fighting in and around neighbouring Kohima, the combined Battle of Imphal-Kohima is today recognized as one of the four main turning point battles of the Second World War. Those at Stalingrad, El Alamein and the Pacific are the other three. The Japanese suffered one of their single greatest military defeats at Imphal-Kohima and this paved the way for the British-led takeover of Burma in 1945 (the Burma Campaign). Noted author Thant Myint U notes in his book, ‘Where China Meets India’: “…for a brief moment Manipur was at the centre of the global stage, the ‘Stalingrad of Asia’”.

The Second World War also brought people from many parts of the country and the world to Manipur. There were the Indians who made up the British Army, as well as those in the INA. The British, Americans and Canadians were here, as were the Japanese and even soldiers from East Africa. And then, of course, were the people of Manipur themselves who got caught up in some of the bitterest fighting the world has ever seen. The period of the War was a momentous one in Manipur’s history and had a deep impact on the state, its people, and its politics.

All of the above makes for a truly fascinating narrative and experience, and the utmost should be done to present it to a local, national and international audience. A key future date in this regard will be the year 2014. As the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Imphal, 2014 will be the perfect opportunity for Manipur to showcase its varied Second World War past and heritage. And the centrepiece of this effort should be the establishment of the ‘Imphal Second World War Museum’. It is important to underline here that it is ‘Imphal’, rather than ‘Manipur’, that resonates with a national and – especially – international audience, as any memoir or account of the Second World War will confirm.

Given the significance of what happened here during the Second World War, whether from a state, national or international point of view, the establishment of a Second World War museum in Imphal is long overdue. Again, the author Thant Myint U put it best when he wrote that besides the Imphal War Cemetery, he found “…no other monument to the war in Imphal, no other sign…” Like him, any visitor to the state capital today is hard pressed to find that one venue that presents an overall view of the Battle of Imphal and of what Manipur experienced during the Second World War. Sure, there is the INA Museum in Moirang, but that focuses mainly on the INA part of the story. This is in stark contrast to, for example, Kohima, where a stunning Second World War museum on the Battle of Kohima has come up in the Kisama Heritage Village (home of the Hornbill Festival). The museum, developed over the years to its current high standard, was visited by Britain’s Prince Andrew in May this year as part of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

Coming back to Manipur,setting up a Second World War museum in Imphal and doing a good job of it willrequire a significant amount of time and money. The money in particular will have to come from Delhi, but with recent news of the sanctioning of a Second World War museum in Arunachal Pradesh, there is reason to believe that it can be found – provided there is a demand for it from Manipur’s side. This process can be initiated at the earliest.

In the meantime, and especially in view of the upcoming 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Imphal in 2014, an interim solution can be found by immediately identifying and making available a designated space that can start to serve as a museum. One option that immediately springs to mind is Slim Cottage in the KanglaFort complex in Imphal. Named after General Slim (later Field Marshall), who spent some time there towards the end of 1944, Slim Cottage has all that such a museum requires – even if on a short-term basis until a more permanent venue is found. It has a central location, symbolic value, and instant international recognition. Its focus would be on giving an overall view of Manipur’s experience of the Second World War and on presenting the perspective of all sides: the people of Manipur, the Allies, the Japanese and the Indian soldiers serving in the British Army and the INA.

It is important to state here that the ‘Imphal Second World War Museum’ is not intended to replace or duplicate the INA Museum in Moirang. On the contrary, while the former will take a much more holistic approach to Manipur’s experience of the War (which will include a mention of the INA), it is the Moirang Museum that could continue to concentrate on the INA.

Once an interim venue is identified,a few simple measures can be taken to make the ‘Imphal Second World War Museum’as operational as possible in time for the 70th Anniversary in 2014. This includes:

(i) Procuring photos on Manipur during the War from sources such as the Imperial War Museum in London and other independent sources;

(ii) Transferring some of the relevant relics of war on display in Moirang;

(iii) Mobilising the people of Manipur to contribute any additional items or artefacts relating to the War; and (iv) Collecting video testimony of the few remaining survivors from that era to display in the museum (some of which has already been done over the years by independent documentary makers in Manipur).

To conclude, one can arguably claim that Manipur is the part ofIndia that was most affected by the Second World War. It is high time it starts to showcase this fascinating part of its history and heritage not just to the rest of the country and the world, but to its own people. With an eye on the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Imphal in 2014, the establishment of a Second World War museum in Imphal will be a key step in this regard.

The writers are working on an INTACH project aimed at promoting the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Imphal in the year 2014. They recently organised a Battle of Imphal stall/exhibition at the 2012 Sangai Festival and produced a brochure that highlights the Battle. They can be reached at [email protected]