Far from the gaze of the world or the rest of the country, World War II in the Naga Hills was an intense event in the form of the Battle of Kohima in 1944. This battle has been voted as the ‘greatest’ the British army has ever participated in. Fought in one of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, it took a huge toll in terms of men and resources wherein more than 150,000 people died on the Indo-Burma frontier as a direct consequence of the war. This includes the death of 80,000 refugees and 13,000 British during the retreat to India in 1942 from Burma, 45,000 Japanese and 16,700 British and Indian troops during the Battle of Imphal and Kohima, and an unaccounted number of Indian National Army (INA) members and the Nagas.
The communities of North East India, especially in frontier areas, were drawn into the war where it participated on both sides of the camps as porters, interpreters, guides, soldiers, etc., and many of them died in the line of duty. For instance, more than 200 porters serving the British died in the Pangsau Pass during the British retreat to Assam from northern Burma in 1942, which included 63 Garo, 59 Khasi, 52 Pnar, 13 Abor, 13 tea garden labourers and two government porters. Many were awarded for their service too – like Wellington Massar, a Khasi of 1st Assam Regiment who was awarded Indian Distinguished Service Medal for his act of bravery in the Battle of Jessami and Kohima. Those who served the British were recognised to some extent, but those who served the INA-Japanese were abandoned and forgotten, given the fact that their lot lay with the defeated camp.
Bose and his INA allied with the Japanese in their dream of liberating India from the British rule. A.Z Phizo, the later leader of the Naga nationalist movement was reported to have guided them through the Naga Hills. On 7 March 1944, Tokyo Radio said that the attack on India had begun by the Japanese army under the code name U-Go Operation commanded by Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi with three Divisions – 15th, 31st and 33rd – of 15,000 troops each. Marching across the Naga Hills was the 31st Division under the command of Lt Gen. Kotuku Sato along with contingents of INA advancing with them on its historic march, “On to Delhi”. The INA was given independent charge by the Japanese generals to proceed on to Kohima with instruction “to advance rapidly and cross the Brahmaputra into the heart of Bengal” after the fall of Imphal.
Bose himself was reported to have camped at Ruzazho village, some 75 km from Kohima, where an eye witness named Poswuyi Swuro (age 96 as in 2017) was said to have served as the interpreter or dobashi for Bose. On 25 April 2017, this village had been commemorated by the then Governor of Nagaland, P.B Acharya as the first INA-administered village in the Naga Hills. Many villages en route to Kohima from Myanmar have similar stories about Bose. These include Chesezu, Thenyizu and Kikruma. In Kigwema village, about 10 km from Kohima, Bose was reported to have stayed during the Battle of Kohima, wherein Viketu Kiso (age 94 as of 2017) said that he served as interpreter for Bose. Along the route, where the INA-Japanese passed through, similar stories lie embedded in the oral history of the local people.
The climax of suffering for the INA was reached when they were at Kohima. Rations and medicines were completely exhausted and a lack of discipline set in, which antagonised the native populace. The INA suffered the same fate as the Japanese at Kohima and there were heavy casualties on the retreat where troops complained bitterly of being used as porters by the Japanese. Referring to this withdrawal, Shah Nawaz Khan wrote: “This retreat from Kohima was perhaps one of the most difficult retreats that any army in the world had to face. Torrential rains had washed away all tracts, man made fresh tracks soon became almost knee deep, men eating horses, death for four days, dead bodies of Japanese and Indian soldiers lying on either side of the road due to exhaustion, starvation, disease, etc”.
In the course of the war, the Nagas gave a mixed reaction where it participated on both sides of the camps. The Nagas living in proximity with the administrative centre of the British government had greater involvement with the British and those farther from the administrative seat, who felt lesser influence of the British, were drawn more towards or had developed stronger intimacy and relationship with the INA-Japanese.
Bose knew very well how he would be the target if the British got wind of his presence, and thus might have kept his presence as covert as possible in his marches while in the Hills. The Congress activities had not touched the Naga Hills. Hence, simple villagers unaware of Bose might not have been much excited to amplify his presence in the vicinity during or soon after the war. After the War, Pawsey, the then DC of the Naga Hills too never had the leisure and time to be enquiring about things, being heavily preoccupied with post-war rehabilitations and the fledgling Naga nationalism that soon came to dominate the scene. Also, taking the obsessive patriotic zeal of Bose and his constant insistence to let the INA be at the very tip of Japanese advance into the Indian plain, it may not have been possible for Bose to laze at the safe haven of Maymyo or Rangoon or Manipur fringes alone for 64 days of the Battle of Kohima, when his troops were at the forefront fighting a fierce battle, especially when there were no more obstruction along the 150-mile stretch across the Naga Hills after the British outposts were overrun at Sanshak, Kharasom and Jessami. But very little has been written about the whole event and the Allied 14th army that fought in this war is considered as the forgotten army. Of the British 2nd Division who fought in the Battle of Kohima, the commanding officer, Lt Gen. Grover said: “We were insignificant in the sweep of history.” The exact organisation of the INA and its precise troops’ strength is not known since its records were destroyed by the withdrawing Azad Hind government before Rangoon was recaptured by the Commonwealth forces in 1945.
A vast treasure trove of Japanese reminiscences remains locked out of view of international scholars because they have not been translated into English, coupled with the reluctance of Japanese themselves to recount the event until recently. For this reason, most sources of information fed to us have been Anglo-American, written by the victors in their own light. In the midst of whom the battle took place, places are awash with stories that still lie embedded in the oral history of the people, which may act as a vital link to connect the missing dots. The presence of Bose in the Naga Hills has been simmering in local narrative for a long time where some writers mentioned his presence in their works in the early 1990s, though nothing elaborate. Further research still simmers and with the central government, declassifying the Bose file, and hopefully more Japanese accounts coming to public domain, it may add succour to the whole narration and hypothesis. An event that changed the course of history cannot be just consigned to the travesty of time, but it definitely needs to find its due place within the broader space of modern Indian history.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor at Phek Government College, Nagaland. He did his PhD in History from NEHU)