Revisiting India's forgotten battle of WWII Kohima-Imphal, the Stalingrad of the East

Ranjan Pal-Courtesy CNN
Contd from previous issue
Near the entrance of the cemetery is a memorial to the 2nd Division, which bears the poignant inscription: "When you go home tell them of us and say, 'for your tomorrow, we gave our today.'"
Over the next few weeks fighting raged on simultaneously in Kohima and Imphal. The battle, often referred to as the" Stalingrad of the East,"drew to its bloody end with British forces gradually overwhelming the starving Japanese troops.’
The Japanese commanders had underestimated the tenacity with which the enemy would defend their positions and also the overwhelming British air superiority which allowed them to continually replenish their forces with men and materials and to pound Japanese positions incessantly.
Broken in spirit and with no food and supplies, the remaining Japanese forces were chased out of Imphal and back down the Tiddim road into Burma, having tasted defeat for the first time in history.
The Japanese paid a huge price with their 85,000-strong 15th Army eventually counting 53,000 dead and missing, mostly due to starvation, disease and exhaustion. The British sustained 12,500 casualties at Imphal, while the fighting at Kohima cost them another 4,000 men.
And what of the Naga tribesmen on whose land this alien war for global domination was fought ?
This was warfare unlike anything they had experienced before, with the devastating bombing and shelling of their villages causing immense loss of life, homes and livelihoods.
Those who were captured by the Japanese suffered conscripted labor, beatings and summary executions.
After the war, in the words of Easterine Kire -- Naga author of "Mari," the first insider story of the Japanese invasion -- "the new normal that awaited the Nagas was to shape their lives in a whole new direction, not necessarily of their own choosing."
Visiting the Imphal battlefields
Unlike the hills of Kohima, it is possible to see the battlefields where the titanic Imphal struggle played out, 140 kilometers south.
This is where the main thrust of the Japanese attack came with the 15th and 33rd Divisions of the 15th Army taking on the 4th Corps of the British 14th Army.
The fighting was extremely brutal and intense, raging in the hills surrounding the Imphal plain. The remoteness of the area and the rugged terrain have kept them relatively pristine and private groups now lead tours taking in the main battlefields, airfields, cemeteries and war memorials.
Hemant Katoch, a pioneer in WWII tourism in Manipur says of these tours: "Only when you see these places for yourself do you finally comprehend the enormity of what had happened here during WWII."
The most recent addition to the WWII tourism circuit is the Imphal Peace Museum, which was inaugurated in June 2019, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Imphal.
Funded by two Japanese foundations, the museum is intended to be a symbol of peace and reconciliation and is located at the foot of Red Hill where the Japanese were finally routed.
To broaden its appeal, the museum focuses not just on the actual battle (depicted using a timeline, maps, artifacts and photographs) but also on the post-war transition in Manipur and present-day arts and cultural life.
For the many Japanese visitors who lost their ancestors in this epic battle and for whom there are no graves and cemeteries to visit, it offers a chance for closure, reminding us that in war there are no true victors, only losers.