Lost Indian History Comes Alive in New World War II Museum

The brutal war came to India’s northeastern states in 1944, filling the landscape with its remnants. One local history buff is now collecting and showcasing them at a museum.

On January 23, Arambam Angamba Singh, 48, is up early to vacuum his room and clean his collection of over 300 relics from a World War II battle fought 77 years ago in Manipur and Nagaland, the north eastern states of India.

On the first floor of his home in Manipur’s capital city Imphal,  most of the war collection —  Japanese rifles, helmets, a water canteen, spent grenades, cigarette cases, even an old Japanese bicycle —  came his way by chance, but they are, he says, found everywhere in his home state.

Arambam has the look of a bodybuilder but he treads cautiously on a construction site strewn with war munitions. If he puts a foot wrong, chances are that he could damage or crush the old ammunition.

A former civil engineer, he has worked in the past in supervisory roles at construction sites. Since 2013, when he turned into a full-time history buff and tour guide, he has climbed up and down difficult terrains in the hills, where the British army and the Japanese fought the devastating Battle of Imphal and Kohima in 1944. Over 50,000 Japanese died or went missing in the combat. The British army that included Manipuris suffered over 16,000 casualties. Pressing Arambam for exact numbers can, however, be a sore point.

“The battle wrecked local economies and lives. Bridges blasted, trees scorched, civilian massacres. But the number of Manipuris who died is still unclear. There is not much documentation about us,” he says.

Sanitised history

The amount of detritus the war has left behind in the nooks and crannies of the state, however, acts as a reminder of the macabre conflict. Arambam and his team have devoted their time to salvage as many war remnants as possible.

“I’d be at a site being dug for a house and a spent artillery shell would be hidden behind the rubble; a walk in the forest would yield a gun or a grenade lobbed by the British army at the Japanese and vice versa,” says the former civil engineer. His eyes light up for a brief moment at the memory of these chance encounters.

The series of accidental discoveries got him thinking about a new career. For the past eight years, he has been arranging tours of the war sites of the Battle of Imphal and Kohima. He is now planning to expand this into a new direction: he is launching the Azad Hind or INA [Indian Nationalist Army] tour.

Arambam feels millions of Indians have grown up reading a sanitised version of history, in which the Battles of Imphal and Kohima are barely touched upon.

“Subhash Chandra Bose, the INA (Indian National Army) leader and considered by many to be a political rival of Nehru, was in an alliance with Japan in World War 2, an Axis power which complicated the picture; British India was with the Allies,” he says.

January 23 was the 125th birth anniversary of Bose, who besides being an INA hero, was also the contemporary of Jawaharlal Nehru, the independent India’s first prime minister.

Arambam paid tribute and lavished praise on Facebook. His homage was in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government’s initiative to revive Bose’s standing in the Indian imagination. Bose’s birthday was marked this year as Parakram Divas or the Day of Valour.

The fallen ancestors 

Fifteen years ago, Arambam was a civil engineer, a job of which he had grown disillusioned. He would take his annual leave to explore the countryside, especially the hills on the outskirts of Imphal. His aim was to fill in the blanks of the war stories he had heard from his grandparents. He would ask the people in the hills, mainly the families of the survivors of the battles, to share their personal stories about the conflict.

After returning to work from one such annual leave, he found his desk piled with files and work. His mind suddenly drifted towards an old World War II Japanese gun, a gift he had received from a friend. At that moment, he decided to quit the job and become a full time collector of war relics.

“I decided to make a career out of it. I wasn’t taught about the Battle of Imphal and Kohima at school. There were many like me who didn’t know but it might seem important to them one day,” he says.

In 2013, the National Army Museum in Britain picked the battle of Imphal and Kohima over the more celebrated battles of D-Day and Waterloo as Britain’s greatest battle.

In his own private museum, Arambam placed a platter of fresh flowers and incense sticks before framed mugs of the departed leader hanging from the walls. Next to it are Bose’s black-and-white photos taken during his time in Japan. He was captured in action, encouraging Indian soldiers in the battle to press forward – in the crucial Battle of Imphal and Kohima, a team of the Indian National Army acted as the advance party and also participated in active combat alongwith the Japanese against the British army.

For the past eight years, Singh and his team of volunteers, which includes tourism students and businessmen, have been taking small groups of tourists, mainly relatives of soldiers — British and Japanese —  around the sites of the battle. Every month, Japanese tourists visit the combat sites in Manipur to pay homage to their fallen ancestors who gallantly fought Britain and her allies.

“Thanatourism is a concept travel motivated by a specific desire for an encounter with death,” says Lina Moirangthem, 27, a researcher who is associated with the WW2 Campaign Foundation in Imphal. Sometimes, Arambam also has to deal with requests to find a missing relative. Finding a family relation 77 years after a war basically means mapping an area and placing a plaque but it’s a job Arambam takes seriously. “This has to do with someone’s sentiment, you can’t play with that,” he says.

He works with the family’s documents, the maps or letters they provide of that time or the address from where the soldier sent his last letter home, matching it with the maps available in his area, does a recce – he is planning one soon — talks to old-timers, looks up old birth and death records and either plants a plaque on his own or accompanies the family there to do that.

Integration with India

Indians, too, are getting interested in this lost history. His most recent tour was in early March with a group from Kolkata just before India went into a national lockdown. “People think WW2 and they think Europe. In 1944, a World War 2 battle was fought right here,” says Sukti Sarkar, a retired bank official from Kolkata in eastern India who went on one of the tours. “Arambam knew exactly who fought who, who was up on which hill, who came down, who didn’t.” The Sarkar family visited Tengnoupal, one of the five major war sites of the battle in Manipur, the other four being Nungsigum, Kanglatongbi, Shanshak and Bishenpur.

Manipur was the stage of a major theatre of war; Manipuris gave lives in the Battle of Imphal. Shouldn’t someone have taken notice? That hurts Arambam somewhere deep; this is a history he wants to piece together for the next generation.

“Unlike us who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, young people today are asking questions. There was no mention of this battle in the history text books…the Azad Hind Fauj which joined the Japanese alliance against the British finds mentioned but very briefly. Manipuris took part on both sides but mainly in the British army. The world once converged here and we were the people in the middle,” says Arambam speaking via video call.

This suppression of history rankles with Manipuris of all generations. So they did the next best thing – passed them on as stories or oral histories from one generation to the next. “My grandfather, Lalmani Singh, was trained by the British in Kolkata as part of an air-raid protection team,” says Arambam. “He told me about how he learnt to construct camouflage shelters for aircrafts…War you see was always with us. We are a martial race, we have fought with the Burmese, Nagas, and the British. Manipur was an independent kingdom till its merger with India in 1949”.

Integration with India is still a prickly subject with many Manipuris. “I mean we don’t think about it. And honestly, we are a little tired of everything being seen from either a for or against perspective. The battle tours are a people’s initiative,” says Arambam. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is still operational. It was imposed in 1980 when the state was a hotbed of militancy. The Act allows the army to use force to maintain law and order, enter and search any premise and arrest without warrant.

The Battle of Imphal, which Manipuris call the ‘Japanese war’, thus is a neutral territory to build a new history of reconciliation – with Manipuris of all political affiliations and with mainland India.

Arambam says with a laugh that he grew up knowing all about the great Mughal emperor, Akbar, and the Cholas and the Pandyas, the great kingdoms in the south of India and “next to nothing” about his own backyard. “We always had to look at the big picture and look away from our own history,” he says.

Arambam is excited by the Indian government’s new initiative to revive Bose’s legacy. It coincides with a new Indian National Army or Azad Hind tour he has recently added to his itinerary.

Arambam has cast his eyes on an old museum in Moirang, which is 45 kilometres away from Imphal, where the flag of Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) was first unfurled on Indian soil. He wants to expand the map of his military tour and include Moirang.

“Bose is much larger than we think he is. And Manipuris fought from his side as well,” he says.

Since Bose’s contribution to India’s nation building has been neglected for so long, he says the people of Manipur can see the reflection of their own story of alienation from the rest of India, just like Bose’s historical contribution has been sidelined.

 All Arabam needs to do now, he says, is focus on building a “solid tour itinerary”.

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