It is forgotten that the toughest land battle of the Second World War was fought on Indian soil

Meghnad Desai
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose inspecting and INA regiment. Agency Photo

On June 6, 1944, the longest day, Allied troops landed in Normandy and started the final march to victory in Europe. Last week, the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings was celebrated by leaders of the US, UK, France and many European countries. Veterans of the landing came dressed in their uniform with their children and grandchildren and were paid tribute for their efforts in winning back freedom.

But there was another battle at the same time in another part of the world. The European campaign was only to liberate Europe. It was a World War after all. When was Asia liberated? It is forgotten that the toughest land battle of the Second World War was fought on Indian soil. Japan suffered its biggest defeat on land in Kohima in the North East corner of India. This battle and its heroes have been forgotten.

The battle lasted 80 days, from April 4 to June 22, 1944. It was one of the crucial battles of the Second World War. On the one side was the Indian Army led by General (later Field Marshal and Viscount) Slim. On the other side were the Japanese 31st Division led by Lieutenant General Mutaguchi Renya. He had three infantry pisions. But the poignant thing from the Indian angle was that there were 1,00,000 INA soldiers fighting on the Japanese side against their fellow Indians fighting in the Indian Army. Of course, the INA were once part of the Indian Army when they were in Singapore. When Singapore fell they had to surrender. How they were recruited by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose is of course well known.

It could be that Indian authorities after independence were ambivalent about Indians fighting each other under foreign leadership. But on each side they fought bravely. The troops of the 33rd Division(known as the Punjabis) on the British Indian side had been declared unfit to fight due to malnutrition as they had marched through Arakan. It was thought they would not be ready till September but they fought bravely and succeeded in achieving all their objectives.

Of course, the issue of Japanese invasion of India has never been fully discussed. Netaji had hoped that the Japanese would support his aim of reaching Delhi and setting up a government for free India. He had already laid the foundations when he was in Berlin. The Germans at that time had no confidence that Indians could rule themselves. But racism was also part of the Japanese psyche towards other Asians. They wanted to emulate the Western imperialists and not follow a distinctive Asian (peaceable) path. Rabindranath Tagore had many debates with his Japanese friends about this.

It is a great unanswered question of history whether the Japanese would have left India peacefully after helping Netaji reach Delhi. Today, the Japanese have a reputation as a highly cultured, peace loving people. But during the war, they were brutal to the Koreans and Chinese. Netaji may have had to launch another struggle to throw the Japanese out having removed the British.

We will never know. But Kohima ensured Allied victory. There is no harm in India celebrating the battle along with the Japanese and the British to remember the brave people who fought for the cause they believed in.

This article first appeared in the June 16, 2019 print edition under the title A Forgotten Battle’