The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 9, 2009

Nagas in World War II

When the intrepid Japanese fighting machine stormed its way across Southeast Asia, shattering Malaya and Singapore and Burma, its soldiers were seized with two strands of conflicting ideology. One, that it behooved any great nation to be a colonial power. Two, that Japan was freeing the enslaved peoples of Asia from the dominion of Europe. Thus it was that they expected to be met with open arms by the native population. And they were surprised to find that many of these natives were neither grateful, nor cowed by their might.

The clash of cultures was most acute in the Northeast of India, where the Japanese rapidly advanced upon Nagaland. The British had been scrambling desperately to stem the rout of their forces in Burma, and attempting alliances with the nationalist Chinese in the border areas. At the same time, they tried hard to co-opt the warlike Nagas and Lushai to their side. This proved especially hard, because only two or three decades earlier, they had brutally suppressed rebellions against their rule by these same peoples. For the average Naga chief, the main question was: why should they fight for the British when they hadn't fought for the local Hindu ruling dynasties or even the local Naga bosses? They considered themselves neither Indian nor British, and had attachments mainly to their tribe.

The more perspicaceous among the Naga realised quickly that cooperating with the Japanese would merely mean replacing one taskmaster by another. Some tribes had raised levies to support the British in the First World War and retained some vestige of loyalty to the Raj. Others were bitter about the slaughter of their cohorts and cattle by white men in the uprising of the 1920s. Furthermore, what would happen to their wives and children were they to support the British and then the Japanese won? Still others felt that the British had brought order to the hills, and had established roads and salt markets, and hence were worthy of their support. The anthropologist Ursula Graham Bower who was present at the meetings of the chiefs (and indeed had spent some time among the Naga) noted clearly that colonial politics and patriotism were too vague concepts for the tribes; what would determine their participation in the war effort was inter-tribal and inter-village rivalries.

Meanwhile, the incessant stream of refugees out of Burma was causing untold strain on the local population. The Nagas died in their thousands, their immune systems unadapted to the virulent strains of dysentery brought by the refugees. In many cases, village chiefs refused the help of doctors and depended on medicine men, which exacerbated the epidemic. Still, many Nagas were helpful and cared for the civilian flood. They were also drafted into the levies by Bowers and other British military men, their decaying muskets replaced with newer weaponry. They were drilled firstly as scouts, then as a defence force that eventually became the formidable fighters that threw out the Japanese in 1944 and 1945. For Bower, it was an object lesson in sexism, constantly sidelined and belittled by the British war office. As one of them said, she was always wrong twice. 'Once for being wrong, and once for being a woman.' But eventually she was built up as a propaganda tool and achieved renown as the Queen of the Nagas, although, as she admitted, the true heroes were the Nagas, and not the British who seemed to be acting out the romances of H. Rider Haggard. 1

Although some scouts went over to the Japanese, most Naga and Chin and Lushai peoples provided stellar services in the war effort. They led British and Indian troops through the jungle, silently and quickly, to assail Japanese foxholes and camps. They gave misleading information to the Japanese regarding allied troop numbers. An army intelligence officer wrote in the summer of 1944:

The quantity and quality of operational information received from the local population has been a major factor in our success to date. A high percentage of our successful air strikes have been the direct result of local information. 2

For the Japanese, the encounter with the Nagas and other hill-tribes was shocking. First, they thought that the hills people were nothing better than unlettered savages, even more primitive than the aborigines they knew of both in Hokkaido and Taiwan. Secondly, they could not understand that anyone might oppose their plans for 'liberation' - anyone who was against their Asia for Asians policy, they thought, had been bribed or bullied into being so. Their contempt for the people they had ostensibly liberated resulted in spectacular oversights. For example, they allowed the tribals to wander in and out of their camps, and kept no tabs on their activities. General Slim, the British CO, told this tale:

The Japanese commanders on the Manipur front employed a number of Naga orderlies as batmen in the early months of 1944. Naturally, they treated them as illiterate numbskulls. Two of the Nagas decided to steal an operational map which they saw lying around in a commander's tent. Only too well aware of the estimate the Japanese put on their brainpower, they covered their tracks by pretending that this had been an ordinary theft, and made off with clothing and small pieces of equipment as well as the map. Within a few hours, the map was on Slim's table at British headquarters. As the attack developed, Slim was astonished to find that the Japanese commanders had not modified their plan one iota, so sure were they that no mere Naga orderly could have understood the significance of a battle plan. 3

It is a sad fact that Indian history (at least as taught when I went to school there) has nothing at all to say about the Northeast. Perhaps the state boards of education of Manipur and Nagaland discuss the history of their peoples; the central board pretends that India comprises only the Gangetic plain, the Deccan, and the erstwhile Tamil domains (with occasional nods to Gujarat, Goa and Bengal). And yet the 'peripheral' peoples have often made great contributions to the story of our country, even throughout the British domination, and their stories remain untold. The irony, of course, is that we depend on British historians now to uncover these stories and reveal them in popular discourse.

  1. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire & The War With Japan, Penguin, 2004. p. 202-204.
  2. ibid, p. 386
  3. ibid, pp 386-387.
  4. Ursula and the Naked Nagas, Time, January 1, 1945.


Maddy said...

I agree - the last para made a lot of sense. History was eventually rewritten around the Aryans and Tamils. the rest were - ah - incidentally they were around. I think the NE was always a tricky area with the border issues, Chinese claims, the Netaji factor etc..

altered egos said...

thanks for passing by. Read your post on ur mudhumalai visit... i have been so wanting to see that place but again, as i had said... since i know i can go there any time i want, i haven't been there at all.

A Singaporean in London said...

Hey Feanor, thanks for the post. I've never heard about the Nagas before this.

I guess to the mostly homogeneous Japanese population, it would be pretty difficult to grasp the intricacies of the many tribes in the Indian subcontinent.


Fëanor said...

Maddy: I guess you are right about the trickiness of border areas, but surely if we claim them to be part of our land, then we should study them as much as the interior? Instead, we marginalise those areas so much that they don't even feel that they are part of India.

CK: Unlike other Indians who served in the colonial army throughout the world, the Nagas didn't travel out of the country, so it's not surprising you haven't heard of them. As for the Japanese, true, they are mostly homogeneous, but they had encountered the Ainu in Hokkaido, against whom they've discriminated for centuries; and they weren't exactly filled with brotherly affection for the Manchus or the Koreans during their occupation of those lands prior to WWII. No?

Maddy said...

I agree that we should study them. But Indians have this problem of staying away from controversy and to themselves most of the time. Maybe that is the reason.

Btw I just read about a study result which concluded that there is nothing like aryans & dravidians in India. Apparently the DNA study reveals that North & South Indians have the same DNA characteristics.. and the origins are as thought, with links to African genome classes.

Guru said...

Trust you to uncover this little known tracts of history! I immediately thought of Akheto & Himato. Lets see what they have to say about these writings!

Anonymous said...

Here Iam, out in the jungle looking for those JAPS,Jokes apart, its very interesting read though it doen`t really say much about the real and true NAGAS.Sad part is that we are normally introduce to our own people and history through foriegners.This one is yet another classic case.

illusionaire said...

Great post. Hope you dont mind me linking this post when I write a topic on this later.

There is a WW-II memorial at Kohima, the capital of Nagaland. The epitaph there reads:

"When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today."

But like you have mentioned, very few people in India know about this as it is not mentioned anywhere. The rest of India (not yet a Country back then) had no idea how close they came to being invaded and overran by the marauding Japanese force, who also had the notorious reputation of raping and pillaging wherever they conquered.

It was because of those brave British, Nagas and other tribes that saved India and turned the tide of war. You mentioned Lushai and Chin separately, but many people, including me, believe Lushai (later known as Mizo, that is me) and Chin both belong to the same tribe. Chins are those who are settling in Burma currently. Anyway, great article and thank you for writing this for us.

Fëanor said...

illusionaire: thanks for stopping by, and your comments. Indeed, I was aware that the Lushai/Chin are different names for the same people - I listed them separately because they performed their deeds in different spheres of the war. But feel free to link. If I uncover other stories of the Northeast, I'll be sure to post them as well!

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