In a time of strife in Manipur, recalling how Kuki community played an essential part with Netaji Subhas Bose in WW II

It was heart-wrenching to read a /">recent Indian Express interview with a 65-year-old Kargil War veteran “whose wife was stripped and paraded by a mob during the May 4 violence in Manipur”. How have we reached this dismal state of barbarity and intolerance? Anonymous videos are flooding social media branding Kuki-Zomis as illegal migrants who are only indulging in drug trafficking.

In 2010, while researching material for writing the biography of A C N Nambiar, who was the closest confidante of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, I found that thousands of Kuki-Zomis had taken part during the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s 1944 “Imphal Offensive”, braving pressure from the British to recruit them into heightened war efforts like porters and road repairers. This was not mentioned in colonial or mainstream history books.

In 1942, Singapore and Rangoon fell to the Japanese army and the panicky Britain drafted America to join the War on the Eastern front. A China-Burma-India theatre (CBI) was formed under General Joe Stilwell of the US Army after Chiang Kai-shek’s visit to India in February 1942. By December 1942 massive training of 32,000 Chinese and 17,000 US soldiers had started in Ramgarh, in the present Chhattisgarh state, which was the CBI theatre training ground.

The January 1943 Roosevelt-Churchill Casablanca Summit decided on a concerted British and Chinese offensive in 1943 to retake Burma and reopen the supply line to China. This was “Operation Anakim”. This huge force had to be transported by air and land to meet the rapidly advancing Japanese army and the Indian National Army (INA) of Subhas Chandra Bose who were helping the Japanese in intelligence and specific combat duties.

Initial setbacks greeted the Allied forces. After the 21 March 1943 British air strike on Rangoon airfield, the Japanese conducted massive raids on the inadequately protected Magwe airfield and destroyed many of the Allied aircraft on the ground. To prevent further losses, the RAF moved its planes west to Akyab on the coast. However, Akyab was also bombed, and the Japanese forced “the Allied air forces completely out of Burma”.

Freedom Sale

As a result, British and American military leaders drafted every border ethnic community in India and Burma into the war in what was called the “X-Y” plan under which American-trained Chinese soldiers (X Force) would invade Northern Burma from India through Pangsau Pass and clear out the Japanese from the Ledo Road, while the Y Force would smash them from the East along the Burma Road. The British would use V Force and Navy.

How this plan eventually worked was recorded by Donovan Webster in his The Burma Road highlighting serious American differences with Churchill as they had different objectives. For Americans, the objective was restoring supply lines to Chiang Kai-shek in China, possibly through a land route (Stilwell Road or Ledo Road) or the dangerous “Hump” route by flying over the Himalayas. For the British, Northern Burma was not a primary concern. They were more interested in retaking Rangoon.

Another beautiful book on this subject is by Hemant Singh Katoch, formerly of the International Committee of Red Cross, The Battle Fields of Imphal (2016) with a foreword by Hugo Slim, grandson of Field Marshall Slim, the hero of the British 14th Army. This has highlighted the strategic vision of Netaji Bose in undertaking this campaign which was one of the greatest battles in the Second World War. This book also reveals that “a good number of peoples from among the different ethnic groups supported the INA-Japanese forces”. It gives details of Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis who helped INA-Japanese forces. It mentions that “hundreds of Kukis are said to have deserted the V Force”. The book gives a list of Kukis’ “Japan gal la” (Songs of the Japanese War), still preserved by Kukis.

Not so well known are some other stories found only in our Northeast archives. I would quote Professor Jangkhomang Guite who wrote in the Indian Historical Review (2010) that at least 6,000 Kukis had helped INA-Japanese forces because they resented the British army’s demand for 11,000 of them to work as labourers for road repairs and other war efforts. He said that “the coming of INA-Japanese forces was considered to be a godsend saviour by the Kukis to free them from the colonial yoke”.

In 2015, he wrote another research paper for the Journal of North-East India Studies that the Imperial British Records, still followed in India, had claimed that the entire Indian Northeast Belt was strongly against INA. He also complained that some of these records in Manipur Archives were destroyed. He however found that “the huge corpus of INA Records collected by the National Archives of India, New Delhi from different parts of Southeast Asian countries” had clearly indicated that the local people had partly or wholly supported the INA. “This is especially so with the Kukis of the region” as they had not forgotten the British atrocities against them during the 1917-19 “Kuki Rising”.

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He said that the Government of India had recognised their contribution by honouring 148 Kukis by giving them INA pensions. He also stated that in 1986 the “Freedom Fighter Cell/Department of Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee (I)” had published the living testimony of 148 freedom fighters along with their photographs of Manipur State. Of these 78 were Kukis. However, internecine quarrels since 1992 on political grounds between Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis have ruined the atmosphere through competitive claims of patriotism by “othering” the other groups.

In 1977, Professor Hiren Mukerjee, five-time Member of Parliament surprised his Communist colleagues by describing Netaji’s efforts in his slim volume Bow of Burning Gold: “To weld disparate material into a unity, to be one with his army and yet, in some ways, like a star apart, to be thus an idol to those nearest to him in searing days of struggle, is a human feat that only a few can achieve in history”. We should not dishonour those segments like Kukis who were in Netaji’s stream in his great freedom struggle.

The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views are personal