Remembering and forgetting a WWII Northeast battle
Imphal Kohima Battle

Pradip Phanjoubam

Though winners get to write and flaunt the annals of battles and losers generally retreat from it, both always have a fair share of “unclaimed experience”.

Sometimes, what remains unspoken can reveal more than what is actually said. Extreme senses of shame, guilt, betrayal, humiliation, etc., deemed destructive to self-image, form the core of these experiences, which not only get hidden from public view but often from the conscious mind of the subject himself, in what is referred to in Freudian terms as an ego defence mechanism.

This problematic nature of remembering and forgetting is understandably pronounced in how brutal battlefield experiences are remembered—or forgotten. Interestingly, though winners get to write and flaunt the annals of these events and losers generally retreat from it, both always have a fair share of what Cathy Caruth calls Unclaimed Experience in her book by the same title.

Caruth illustrates her contention with interesting instances from well-known fables, literary works and cinema. Her critique of Alain Resnais’ 1959 cinematic classic Hiroshima, mon Amour stands out in conveying the message that while forgetting trauma understandably is accompanied by an uplifting sense of liberation, it also comes with a dose of what is called ‘survivor guilt’—of having betrayed those who shared the suffering.

This idea of guilt and atonement associated with traumatic memory has been explored in several works of literature and cinema. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie deals with the repressed memory of a woman sexually abused as a child and a homicide she committed in the face of another abusive situation. Christopher Nolan’s multiple Oscar-winning sci-fi Inception similarly is about a man trying unsuccessfully to escape the guilt of his beloved wife’s suicide he feels responsible for. The challenge in all these cases is to reconcile the past with the present. This happens only when the protagonist can confront their past, however traumatic, acknowledge what happened, come to terms with it, and then leave it behind to move on.

Interestingly, this tug of war between forgetting and remembering is also prominently visible in how the Japanese and the British interpret the Imphal-Kohima theatre of World War II, a battlefront now recognised by military historians as the turning point of the Japanese WWII fortune.

Quite revealingly, from this standpoint, the two imperial powers give very different and rather counterintuitive ratings of this encounter.

Both victor and vanquished agree on the horrific scale of violence they went through, but are also deafeningly silent on the role of the INA, and this silence does seem loaded with meanings.

As Prof. Tohmatsu Haruo said during a book promotion function in New Delhi earlier this year, the Japanese had little interest in opening a front in India. Their primary objective was to cut off the route through which the Allied forces were funnelling supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang troops fighting the Japanese in China then.This explanation, however, is hardly convincing, considering the Japanese sent in three divisions of its 15th Army to this front and, in the end, suffered approximately 60,000 casualties, dead and wounded. They were also, for unexplained reasons, overconfident of victory and sent their soldiers only three weeks’ supplies and virtually no logistical backup. The campaign instead dragged on from March to July 1944. Was this confidence coming from the presence of the INA on their side? If so, is the very casual explanation of this invasion then the Freudian ego defence mechanism of ‘rationalisation’, meant to dodge the guilt of a disastrous decision?

The British saw it very differently. A poll conducted in 2013 by the National Army Museum, London, actually voted the Imphal-Kohima theatre as the most crucial in Britain’s war history ahead of Waterloo and Normandy. The initial rounds were polled online, and all throughout, the frontrunners were Waterloo and Normandy. In the final round, where experts voted, each shortlisted battlefield was defended by a military historian.

Robert Lyman defended the Imphal-Kohima case and argued that a defeat here could have meant a humiliating British exit from India. He also explained that the Indians “weren’t fighting for the British or the Raj but for a newly emerging and independent India and against the totalitarianism of Japan”. Is this the Freudian ‘sublimation’, admitting in a disguised way the fear of a possible modern avatar of the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) inspired by the INA and giving it instead the semblance of generosity on the part of the British?

Sarmila Bose, great-grandniece of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, in an essay ‘INA in Manipur’ in the book Shadow and Light: A Kaleidoscope of Manipur, writes that 8,000 soldiers of the Indian National Army entered Indian soil in March 1944 with the Japanese troops. The INA soldiers were spread out thin, attached to different units of the three divisions of the Japanese 15th Army, totalling 95,000 troops, setting out to fight and defeat 1,55,000 British and Allied troops ensconced in Imphal and Kohima.

She also writes in the same article that Gen. Renya Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese 15th Army, and Netaji shared a good chemistry. Gen. Mutaguchi likely shared the INA’s belief that there would be large-scale defection of Indian troops in the British Army to the INA. Reinforcing this belief would have been the fact that these were days of great disenchantment with the British colonial government in India. The Quit India Movement and the Bengal Famine characterised the mood of the time. Even in Manipur, the British policy of rice export from the state led to the uprising in 1939 by womenfolk known as ‘Nupi Lan’ (Women’s War).

Field Marshal William Slim, in his war diary and subsequently a book, Defeat into Victory, confirms that INA soldiers, whom he condescendingly referred to as JIFFs (Japan Inspired Freedom Fighters), were distributing pamphlets urging Indian soldiers in the British Army to defect. This, unfortunately, did not happen, and tragically for the INA, they mostly fought and lost to Indian soldiers. But the threshold was close, and things could have been very different if the Japanese and INA had prevailed on this front. If such a psychological breach did happen and Indian soldiers did begin defecting, this could have triggered a ripple effect, or maybe a tsunami, in the rest of India.

It is only imaginable what such an eventuality would have meant. Could a premonition of this be Caruth’s “unclaimed experience” of both the Japanese and the British?

(This arcticle was first published in the Imphal Review of Arts and Politics)

(The writer is the Editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics)