Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh
All of us have heard of battle of Trafalgar and Trafalgar square has been constructed in memory of that that is the centrum of the central London, a very popular place just in front of Buckingham Palace premises. Just a little away from the Trafalgar square towards Big Ben, one would find Whitehall, the British Defence Ministry and in front of the white hall, there are three statues, statues of three Field Marshalls, Field Marshall Montgomery, Field Marshall Alan Brooke and Field Marshall William Slim. Field Marshall Montgomery, we know his prowess in desert warfare and known as the person who defeated the “desert fox” Rommel in the battle of El Alamein and we have learned much of him from the WW2 movies. I have not come across much of FM Alan Brooke other than that he was chief of staff in the headquarters. It doesn’t matter as the focus of my story is on Field Marshall William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, who was commander of the Burma Campaign.At the base of the statue, out of the names of places written Imphal is there. Imphal, Kohima, Arakaan, Chindwin are there. A little larger than life size and occupying important location along the most popular street, Trafalgar Square to Big Ben, if any tourist to London ever miss this street and the three statues, it would be greatest miss. Seeing this statue immediately reminded me of the nice cottage inside Kangla Fort Complex, the Slim’s Cottage, the cottage of this great soldier.
Imphal became a flower on lofty heights to Japanese, “Taka ne no hana”, such a beautiful flower, so near yet so far, just could not reach there. After over running allied forces and occupying Burma, Japanese wanted Imphal for strategic importance and psychological value. For the commander Lt Gen Mitaguchi, he wanted to win this war to change the course of uncertain war, for the army headquarters at Tokyo, it was a defensive attack to consolidate Burma. In 1942, when they defeated British and captured Burma, with that momentum and morale, they could have come up to Imphal, then the war history could have been different. The monsoon stopped them, still they should have not allowed British to regroup and should have continued the chase. But they stopped short of Chindwin, taking it to be Manipur boundary, had they crossed Chindwin in the 1942 and establish their base this side, it could have given them a lot of advantage in resupply and reinforcement. Anyway, all wars have a lot of “ifs and buts”. Here, the Japs used 90000 soldiers for the attack. In spite of the odds by then of the resupply and logistics, they had the false sense of superiority and went ahead and forgot that they had allowed the enemy to regroup, train and reorganise.
As I have limited knowledge of war and warfare, I am not going for war history, but my point is of the importance of William Joseph Slim (or Bill Slim to his colleagues) and importance of this battle. Lt General Slim was the man who wrote Defeat to Victory, he was in charge of allied 14th Army. The Battle here was so important, it could have allowed Japanese to enter India and consolidate its position, it could have cut offair supplies and change the course of war in China. Many compared it with the Battle of El Alamein which changed the course of war in North Africa and Battle of Stalingrad which changed the war in Europe. The problem in Japanese planning was they put a ridiculously impossible target of getting Imphal in three weeks’ time, and had provision of three weeks only. They came close to Imphal but fierce battles were there at Sangshak and Kohima which lasted for three months, the japs ran out of provisions whereas, the allied had resupply in the form of air droppings. The battle ultimately went in favour of Lt General Slim and Allied forces, Japanese lost 55,000 people, heaviest war casualty I think and Slim lost only 17,000, of course this was also a huge number by any account.
There are a number of landmarks named after this man in many countries for the role he played for turning defeat to victory in WW2. There are opinions that in pacific theatre, the Japanese were not doing well, but then, if the Japanese were successful in taking Imphal, it could turn the tide and boost the morale. In fact, Slim was not even full time Lt General even; he was in a way in charge Lt. Gen. and commander. But, the technique and ploy he used, resources he mobilised were remarkable. When the Japs defeated British, they used Burmans against British, this time; Slim used other fringe tribes against them to great effect. Later, he rose to the level of Field Marshall for his success here. In 1944, he was stationed here and gave final blow to the enemy. So, for us also it is an important historical monument now. I hope that I won’t be misunderstood as supporting the colonial legacy, it is not that. Such monuments and heritage which tells us the history and prepares us for the future belong to humanity, not to us alone. The World War II is by far most important historical event that we know and we were in the thick of that. It is a history and cannot be undone. I feel that even if we were not under British rule in those days, from strategic point, Allied forces and General Slim could have been very much here for the war.It also is certainly a tourist attraction. For that matter, some of the old pre independence buildings we have need to be preserved and if not utilisable as buildings, to turn in to mini museums for tourists and market them (Tourism need spice of history as “take home” for the tourists). In the name of development, we should not go on destroying old priceless structures and build new ones in their place. Suppose, if the Chhoto Saheb’s Bungalow (the present CM’s Bungalow) is dismantled and build new one in its place, personally I feel that it would be great loss to the Manipuris because it is testimony to many important events which changed the course of history and fate of Manipuris, so is the Borro Saheb’s Bungalow (the present Raj Bhavan), they serve as missing link of history that the future generations have a right to see and know. In England, an infamous person like J.C. Higgins has a museum in his name (It was he who was responsible for the Anglo Kuki war but officially put the blame on the Maharaja and totally changed history of Manipur). It is good, preserving any historical and archaeological material is good for mankind (British are good in preservation and documentation). So, we need to preserve any (missing) link available now like the one in the Municipality office. (I thought the one at Khoyathong near old ABC Godown to be of British period, but it turns out to be made in English architecture when the first Chief Engineer of Manipur Shri Angangyaima designed after getting training in England). We have vandalised the Kangchup IB and others, there were attempts to vandalise the War Cemetery, partly damaged also for the reasons best known to the concerned.
I am leaving out the ugly side of the inhuman approach of the Japanese war machine; some are here in Myanmar, something I heard in Andamans also. I also reserve my opinion whose win could have been better for Manipur, because this story is of the great war fought on Manipur soil and taking name of Imphal to London and other places, great war which has given Manipur a beautiful title, a flower on the lofty heights, “Taka ne no hana”. I also can say that this great war led to the discovery of our Siroy Lily by Kingdom Ward (His book “Plant Hunters” was just a plain narrative of his day to day works, just like a diary, but it has become a good book and documentation now).The Imphal Dimapur Road, by then was known as Dimapur Manipur Cart (DM or DMC) Road as more transit was from that side; became more popular road. After the war, Slim was appointed a viscount and later, he was appointed as the Governor General of Australia. There are many memorials, institutes and places named after him and definitely, the Slim’s Cottage at Kangla can be counted as one and popularise more.How it is upgraded is of course entirely on us.I am sure one day when we have “light and sound show” inside Kangla in the evenings as a part of Imphal Evening, the cottage and the story could form a good part of that. Evening life can still be organised successfully and Kangla can contribute to that, of course with some appropriate fee. The morning and evening walkers may be regulated.There are a few rare footages of the war also available which can spice up such shows.
It was a tough war indeed for both sides but least publicised and lesser known to the world. Now its importance is being understood more and even organisations and war veterans and their families are working on giving proper status it deserves. I learned that the Burma Campaign Library and Museum has got now excellent collections, I am sure the Slim’s Cottage also have found a deserving place there.
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