Ghosts of Kohima

A poll held in Britain reclaims a battle long forgotten in India

They fought them at the beaches, they fought them on the seas and oceans, but perhaps only once in British history did they fight them on the tennis courts. In a poll conducted by the National Army Museum, the Battle of Kohima has been voted Britain's greatest battle, a surprise win, considering that proverbial favourites like D-Day and Waterloo were in the running. British, Indian and African troops defeated the armies of imperial Japan in 1944, in a battle fought at such close quarters that the scene of action was whittled down to the tennis lawns of the district commissioner's bungalow at one point. Netaji loyalists may be affronted the advancing Japanese were accompanied by troops of the Indian National Army. But one might say that Kohima was where Japan's imperial army met its Waterloo.

The forgotten war fought in the hills of the Northeast resonated far beyond its immediate theatre of conflict. It broke the myth of Japanese invincibility. It also halted the Japanese advance into Asia, becoming the first of several major losses suffered by the imperial army. Kohima has been called the "Stalingrad of the East", as it mirrored Nazi reverses in Russia. Had the Allied forces lost the battle, Japan might have pressed forward into India.

Historian Robert Lyman calls Kohima "the last real battle of British Empire and the first battle of the new India". Yet in India, the role of its soldiers in World War II has receded into a collective amnesia. About 2.5 million Indians fought in the war but their stories are rarely told. Outliers in the great Indian narrative of the freedom movement, they remain unclaimed by history.

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