We had two options to approach Imphal from Guwahati. One was to go via Silchar and the other was to go via Guwahati and Kohima in Nagaland. The driver was reluctant to take the route via Silchar as, he said, it had the disturbed area of Tamenglong on the way. It is the westernmost district of Manipur with Assam on its western flank. True, that area of Manipur had been disturbed for quite some time with rebel activities and they did not quite like outsiders. We naturally chose to take the other option and travel via Guwahati.
So we headed towards Guwahati from where we took the highway on the northern bank of Brahmaputra to travel to Kohima in Nagaland. It was only around 400 kilometres but was likely to take more time because of bad roads. Nonetheless, it was interesting as we got to see some wildlife including rhinos of Kazi Ranga feeding close to the highway. The road passes through some thick jungles before one reaches Kohima.
Kohima is today the capital of Nagaland but it is historically very important. It was here that a very important battle of the World War II was fought. It was a very bitter battle with hand to hand fights on the heights of the Kohima Ridge where the Kohima Collector’s bungalow was located. While the Japanese made a determined push the British threw into the battles all that they had, eventually succeeding to force the Japanese to retreat. Both the sides saw Kohima as very important as a foothold here would have provided the Japanese access to the railhead of Dimapur about 40 miles away and the British decided to deny that to the Japanese at any cost. The cost was very heavy as the Collector’s tennis court acquired the likeness of a meteorite-hit site with burnt out vegetation and human bodies.
One does not know how Kohima looked like in 1944 when Japanese had occupied large parts of the town but when I visited it more than a quarter century ago it was a beautiful hill town, green and sparsely populated. Staying at an elevation where the circuit house was located when I looked out it appeared attractive with its undulations and lovely conical-top houses. I believe it has now developed beyond imagination. What is more important perhaps is that shedding their insularity the Naga people are now making forays out into the country. We saw a Naga troupe giving beautiful dance performances in the Museum of Man in Bhopal.
I suppose the only place worth visiting in Kohima at that time was the War Cemetery. Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Cemetery is dedicated to the soldiers of the 2nd British Division of the Allied Forces who died at Kohima. According to the Graves Commission, about 1429 soldiers are buried here and it also has a memorial for about 900 Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died in the battles and were cremated according to their religious rights. It is a beautifully maintained place that exudes its sombre ambience.
The Cemetery is located exactly at the place where the battle was fought i.e at the tennis courts of the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow between two ridges. The place offers a panoramic view of Kohima town. Two memorial crosses – one at the upper end and the other at the lower end are important. The one at the upper end commemorates the Indian soldiers who laid down their life. It carries the epitaph: “Here… lie men who fought in the battle of Kohima in which they and their comrades finally halted the invasion of India by the forces of Japan in 1944”. The lower end memorial, dedicated to soldiers of the British 2nd Division also carries an epitaph that is more evocative which says :
“When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today”
Next day we travelled on the historic Kohima- Imphal road. Here at several places placards have been put up indicating the battles that took place there as the British Army pursued the retreating Japanese Imperial Army. It was very interesting. The road was good up to Mao, the last town of Nagaland at its border with Manipur. As soon as we crossed into Manipur, more specifically its Senapati District, we came up against nightmarish conditions. Un-tarred and probably never attended to, presumably, since the Allied Forces left the area about forty five years ago, and to say that it was bouncy would be an understatement. It was bone-rattling, stomach churning and what have you. I have never had such a drive anywhere in the country, including in Ladakh. It took more than four hours of grueling drive for us to reach the level grounds of Imphal. I am sure if the road conditions were somewhat like this when Japanese retreated perhaps more soldiers would have died of exhaustion than by being hit by bullets.
Imphal proved to be a pretty small town but was torn by rebellion. Militants were very active and life was not quite secure. I remember when I visited the Imphal head post office I was given normal salutes by armed CRPF men outside the building. Inside the office the salute shook me a bit as it was loud and had kind of bullet-like report. On regaining my composure I realized it was only a salute. But then I noticed CRPF jawans had taken positions elsewhere in the office – positions that they had probably considered to be vantage ones. From their preparedness it seemed as if an attack by the rebels was imminent. Nothing, however, had happened even after I returned to Shillong but, I presume, they had anticipated genuine threat. Apparently they preferred to remain on high alert as the rebels always targetted the Central Government offices/installations.
Having finished whatever work I had to attend to we moved on to Moirang which is around 50 kilometres away in the south. The road was reasonable and it passed through the Bishnupur district. Moirang is important for us Indians as this was the place where the Indian National Army (INA) organized by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose defeated the British army and hoisted the National Flag. It was here that the first Provisional Government of India was formed and established.
It was described as a small sleepy town when the INA forces came barging in after crossing the treacherous rivers, hills and jungles of Burma. But the battle-weary troops valiantly fought and routed the British detachment to claim the place as liberated. The building that housed the INA headquarters could do well with a repair job, However the spot where the National Flag was hoisted on 14th April 1944 has a museum which transports one to the days of Second World War and the audacious fight put up by the well-organised band of gutsy but ill-equipped fighters raised by Netaji. There is also a statue of Netaji donated by the Government of West Bengal mounted on a pedestal nearby. It was, I am afraid, pretty disappointing; as it seems to have made Netaji somewhat of a midget. That is my impression and it should not be taken amiss.
Nearby is the Ramsar Site of Loktak Lake which is claimed to be the largest fresh water lake in the North-East. It is a valuable economic resource as it helps in generation of electricity, irrigation and fishing. It has what are known as “phumdis”, a collection of a mass of vegetation soil and organic matter which are so tightly married together that an antelope like Sangai, though endangered, can thrive on them. We too walked on them, of course, not with much ease. The largest “phumdi” is of 40 sq.kms and is the only floating national park in the world. It is known as Kelbu Lamjao National Park.
We also proceeded to Churachandpur, the headquarters of the eponymously named district. The visit to it is another story which will be mounted separately.