When you go home
Tell them of us, and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our Today

One thing that never misses the eyes of a visitor to Kohima is the  heart-rendering words above written on the tableau erected at the war cemetery in memory of the soldiers of the Second Division British Army (comprising British and Indian soldiers) who laid their lives. The words are borrowed from the historic battle of Thermopylae. The Kohima war cemetery is the only one in the world that is located at the site where the war was fought.

Its significance could not remain obscure. In 2012, British historians voted Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, commander of the 14th Army, as the greatest general in the history of Britain. The next year, the battle of Kohima-Imphal was voted the greatest in British history, overtaking even the ones like that of Waterloo and Normandy. Moreover, with the passage of time and the Centre easing travel restrictions for foreigners to the North-east, many tourists are now coming to Nagaland.  

But what do the Nagas feel about the war? Several books have been written about the Burma campaign and the Battle of Kohima (April-June1944). But, there has hardly been any book recording the experiences of the Nagas who neither considered this battle as their war nor even as part of their history until recently. The remained neutral. 

In 1879, the Angamis fought the British, laid siege to their garrison at Kohima and it lasted till the battle of Khonoma in 1880. That memory is still in their minds. And they had no reason to fight for the Japanese who they were encountering for the first time. But Nagas helped both sides.

It is true that the majority of Nagas helped the British. On the eve of the arrival of the Japanese, the British Army withdrew from Kohima and also advised the then deputy commissioner, CR Pawsey, to leave. But Pawsey refused to abandon the Nagas and that earned him the undying loyalty of the Naga dobashis (interpreters) and other employees. Their loyalty for Pawsey was transferred to the Allied Forces and the Nagas started working as porters, stretcher-bearers, guides, scouts, spies, levies and even soldiers in the British India Army.

By the time the war was over, the British Army and the Nagas found they had become comrades-in-arms, having trusted one another throughout the war. For his work with the Nagas, Pawsey was rewarded with the knighthood. 

The Battle of Kohima devastated not only Naga homes and property but their values as well and their traditional community-based society changed forever. What was worse, the tentacles of this war continue to grip Naga society. While the continuing violence with the rise of Naga nationalism was a most visible one, the other was the flow of money in a big way.

Naga society operated barter economy and was suddenly plunged into war economy. After India attained Independence, the inflationary trend caused by this was sustained by Naga nationalism or insurgency, with the Government of India not being too mindful about how the money it pumped into the region for development purposes was used.  Kohima is still one of the costliest places in India. Because of the unsustainable nature of inflation, corruption continued and everybody paid merely lip service in fighting against this menace. So, was it all gloom and doom after the Battle of Kohima.

Scotsman Gordon Graham from the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders fought at the battle of Kohima as a captain. He won two gallantry awards, MC and Bar, one at Kohima and the other in Burma. He was promoted to Major and retired as a Colonel. He was a journalist before the war in India and later, after it was over, he returned to India as a journalist. But soon he ventured into the field of publications and actually be-came one of the most successful publishers in the world. He was also founder-editor of “Logos” the international publishers’ magazine. Gordon’s experiences are beautifully recounted in his book, The Trees are All Young on Garrison Hill, 2005 (www.kohimaeudcationaltrust.net).

Gordon had always felt that without the help of the Nagas, the British and Allied Forces could not have won the Battle of Kohima and would not have survived in the numbers they did. Gordon kept thinking about how to repay this debt of honour to the Nagas. In 2004, during the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Kohima, and the last reunion of the veterans of the British 2nd Division, Gordon urged his friends to commemorate the Battle of Kohima in a more permanent way by doing something good for  the Nagas.
 His friends supported the idea and soon the Kohima Educational Trust was set up as a charitable foundation to assist descendants of their Naga allies in the war. Soon after, the Kohima Educational Society came into being as the Ket’s Nagaland counterpart.

The Ket started with the veterans of the British 2nd Division donating from their pension. Slowly, it caught the eyes of the British public but they took a few years to fund projects. The first of these, naturally, was providing scholarship to Naga high school children. Slowly, others came forward to sponsor scholarships and also projects.

Ray Jackson was a pilot whose plane was shot down during the war. Two men from Phek village, found him in the forest, looked after him and brought him back to British lines. For that act of kindness  he  wanted to do something for the people of Phek. The elders suggested a basketball court. Thus was built the Ray Jackson basketball court at Phek. Similarly, like this, other projects become operational. But the scholarship rem-ained the flagship of the project.

The Kes also raises funds for the common kitty. About a year ago, a concert was held in Kohima to raise funds and several well-known Naga artistes came and performed free. Kes is possibly the only Naga body that honours veteran soldiers and sponsors projects along with Ket. Thus, more than 70 years after World War II, the British-Naga friendship, forged in the heat of the Battle of Kohima, continues to take root at the people-to people level even while the governments may have largely forgotten it.

Ket trustees and Kes officials work on a voluntary basis. In Gordon Graham’s words, “Memory is a great gift, which we all share and which too often we take for granted. Like dreams memories come unbidden. Unlike dreams, they are calls to action. In addition to their basic message about the continuity of life and their evocations of nostalgia or regret, they pose the question, ‘How can we use the past to benefit the future?’”

(Those interested,visit www.kohimaeducationaltrust.net or write to [email protected])

The writer is a Kohima-based veteran journalist and author of the Naga Imbroglio. He is also the president of the Kohima Educational Society.