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.
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.