This Writer’s Battlefield Tours Take You Inside The Lost Battles Of Imphal & Kohima
Some battles leave no trace. The battle of Imphal Kohima, which is regarded by historians today as a great turning point in the Burma Campaign of WWII, is a case in point. Its colossal events were lost and untraceable, on the verge of extinction even, until researcher, author and now country representative for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Myanmar, Hemant Singh Katoch’s timely intervention. His laborious research breathed new life into “Britain’s greatest battle,” first through his website (www.battleofimphal.com) launched in December 2012; expanding to battlefield tours, which were established in 2013; and finally in the form of comprehensive books (The Battlefields of Imphal: The Second World War and North East India, and Imphal 1944: The Japanese Invasion of India).
Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the WWII themed battlefield tours — that initially covered the 1944 Imphal battle; Kohima in neighbouring Nagaland, which was “witness to a simultaneous battle”; Ledo/ Stilwell Road in Assam; and Arunachal Pradesh, “part of one big clash between the Japanese and British forces” — have now crossed the frontier into Burma/Myanmar, which was an “organic and natural progression of sorts,” says Katoch, 38, in an email interview. “There was no way that the tours could not cover Myanmar eventually. To truly understand the Burma Campaign, you need to look at what happened on both sides of the India-Burma/ Myanmar frontier. It is part of one long story from around the end of 1941 through to 1945. With the expansion into our neighbouring country in 2018, I am happy to say that we are now telling most of that story and the Second World War tourism circuit of Northeast India and Burma/ Myanmar is now complete.” Katoch’s colleague, Yaiphaba Kangjam, plays a central role in keeping the tours going by serving as the principal battlefield guide, both for Imphal-Kohima and Myanmar.
Back in the day, it was at Imphal-Kohima that the Japanese invasion of India and march through Asia was halted. The British-led Allies successfully drove them out of Burma in 1945, turning it into one of Japan’s greatest military defeats, in which they lost about 30,000 men. Katoch, who painstakingly traced its history “actually stumbled upon the Imphal battle. I first became interested in Manipur as a place. This beautiful but troubled state in the Northeast has to be one of the most fascinating parts of India. Once I started visiting Imphal, I decided that I wanted to move and live there for a while. As I read more about the place, I came across references to the Imphal battle and realised it was no small event. It was a very significant battle of the Second World War. I guess, from there on, the answer to what I would do in Manipur became clear — at least to me — which was that I would work to promote the Imphal battle and especially its then upcoming 70th anniversary in 2014.”
Before his preoccupation with WWII, Katoch attended Mayo College, finished his undergrad at McGill University in Quebec, and “had ten years of international experience, including at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, the UN World Food Programme in TimorLeste and the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” So, naturally, when he decided to quit his lucrative job, his family didn’t quite know what to make of it. “No one moves to Manipur to work on the Second World War. But, I guess, as time went by, and things started to take shape, they were at least able to see what I was trying to do.” So, with a staggering resolve, he pieced together different aspects of the war.
In India, battlefield tours were formerly confined to tours of war cemeteries with actual battlefields missing in entirety, but Katoch’s version weaves “together a fuller narrative of the battles” by including the main battlefields around Imphal and Kohima.” These tours are conducted by military history buffs or ex-military persons who know the battles inside out. “Besides the narrative, quite a bit of the work is done by the sites themselves. Especially around Manipur and Nagaland, the landscapes are so beautiful and dramatic that they draw the visitors in without much effort on our part.” Good maps are an essential part of the tours, as are old black-and-white photos. “What people really enjoy is what we call ‘then and-now’ sites,” he says. “These are places where you can hold up an old photo dating back to the war and match it exactly with what you see today. This really brings to life the history of the place. And, finally, if you show the remains of bunkers and trenches, then the experience is complete.”