World War II and north-east India: A film on futility of fighting

By: | Published: July 17, 2016 6:03 AM

A documentary film on north-eastern India as an extended theatre of battle during World War II is a stark reminder of the futility of fighting

A World War II survivor in Viswema village in Nagaland.A World War II survivor in Viswema village in Nagaland.

ON MARCH 15, 1944, the Japanese army marched into Manipur, widening the theatre of violence during World War II. In the months that followed, Manipur, which was then a kingdom, and Nagaland, a British-administered region in undivided Assam, became battlegrounds for the Allied forces and Japan in an endgame that dragged India into the war.

For the people of Manipur and Nagaland, it was an unnecessary war in their backyard with which they had nothing to do. Their homes were bombed and burnt, their women, men and children brutally killed. Now, more than 70 years later, those who survived that war in the north-east are left only with memories that may soon fade away into history. But thanks to the documentary, Memories of a Forgotten War, that won’t happen now.

Past & present

“It’s important for the present generation to understand the suffering of the common people during World War II in north-east India,” says Utpal Borpujari, the director of the film.

Borpujari is a film-critic-turned-filmmaker  whose previous documentary, Song of the Blue Hills (2013), was on the music of the Naga tribal communities.

Shot in the north-east, Japan and England, the film travels in time through the memories of the survivors to unravel the violent past. After the Japanese army arrived in March 1944, several battles were fought with the Allied army of Indian soldiers and their British superiors. As many as one lakh Japanese soldiers fought in the north-east, led by a general, Kotuko Sato, who is a war hero in his hometown Yamagata today. Though the Allied forces didn’t recruit locally, many Nagas were roped in as porters to carry weights. And in Manipur, young men from the Kuki tribe were part of the British army.

The survivors of the war remember the many battles fought. “My father was killed in the bombing in Imphal,” says Khiamniungan Nimaicharan, who was 12 years old then. Locals in Manipur still remember the Battle of Red Hill fought for nine days in May 1944.

For the shooting, Borpujari and his crew climbed the hills leading to the site where the battle was fought. “We had to cut our way through the bushes,” says the filmmaker, adding, “While coming down, we couldn’t find the path we had cleared.”

Imphal today hosts two World War II memorials, one for soldiers from the Commonwealth countries, including Britain and India, and another for Japanese soldiers killed in the fight. Manipur also saw the Battle of Nunshigum in March 1944 soon after the arrival of the Japanese army. The Battle of Shangshak, close to Myanmar, also took place in March. “I am still revolted by the thought of picking human remains after the war was over in Shangshak,” recollects Maurice Bell, a British soldier, now 96 years old, who fought in Shangshak. A total of 480 Indian and 413 Japanese soldiers were killed in the battle.

For the future

However, the hardest of all battles in the north-east was the Battle of Kohima, which was fought in June. “This battle was the culmination of World War II in the north-east,” says Subimal Bhattacharjee, the producer of Memories of a Forgotten War. The Japanese, who lost the battle, were pushed to Burma (now Myanmar) and their army surrendered in Imphal on June 22, 1944. The film, touted as a “living memory of the Second World War in the north-east”, released in June to coincide with the 72nd anniversary of the end of hostilities in the north-eastern region.

The memories are not one-sided. Far away in Japan, the town of Kashiwazaki in Yamagata, too, has built a memorial for soldiers who died in Manipur. At the famous Renkoji temple in Tokyo, Indian worshippers are told about the presence of what the temple authorities believe are the ashes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army (INA) had marched into the north-east during World War II. “There is even a Manga comic on Netaji,” says Borpujari, who shot his film both at Kashiwazaki and the Renkoji temple in Japan.

An INA memorial also exists in Moirang, Manipur, where the army hoisted its flag in April 1944. In York, England, which is home to a war museum dedicated to the Battle of Kohima, the 70th anniversary of the battle was commemorated in July 2014.

In Yamagata, for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Imphal, British veterans of the battle sat next to their Japanese counterparts. “We are too old to fight,” Briton Roy Welland told Japanese veteran Isobe Kiichi.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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