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When headhunters turned intelligence gatherers

A new book, His Majesty's Headhunters, narrates the role that the Nagas played in the outcome of the Allied soldiers’ stand against Japan in one of the most decisive battles of World War II

Soldiers of the British Indian Army during the Siege of Kohima in 1944 (Wikimedia Commons/
Soldiers of the British Indian Army during the Siege of Kohima in 1944 (Wikimedia Commons/

The British had already expanded their tentacles over Myanmar and the South-East Asian region. Kohima was but a speck of dust compared to the Burma theatre. America and England had different agendas but faced a common threat in Japan. Britain had more to lose in this battle than America….

For a change, there were no attacks on the British colonial administration by the headhunters. Rather, there was active participation of the Nagas in the war, siding with the British forces in the unlikeliest of partnerships. Nagas were utilized effectively as porters, spies, stretcher-bearers and they even dug trenches for the British forces. This was singularly responsible not just for the victory but for the number of lives saved in the battle. Intelligence gathering is critical to winning wars.

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It is a cliché to say that but it is still the main basis on which planning is done and decisions taken before and even during war. Both strategic intelligence and tactical intelligence enable leaders or nations to fight and win wars. For this, the source of information on the ground is the most vital agency. The British forces discovered that the Nagas could not only be used as interpreters (Dobashis) but as active spies and map-readers in the battlefield. They were able to locate places shown on the map with as much accuracy and enthusiasm as they carried the rations and arms and ammunition of the British soldiers on the battlefield. Not caring for their lives, they were as much fighters as the British soldiers. The glorification of the 2nd Division who fought against all odds is justified only in so much as the contributions of the Naga volunteers are recognized as equal partners.

There are accounts of the service rendered by the Nagas during the battle which are condescendingly described by some British and American authors, perhaps not intentionally, but it does a great disservice to the sacrifices made by the Nagas. In terms of grading the multiple services rendered by the Nagas, the comment made by Fergal Keane in his book Road of Bonesis an example of the relevance given by the British forces: ‘The most important function of the Naga tribes was the intelligence gatherers. With the European V Force operatives dead, captured or in hiding, the RAF’s aerial photography of limited value in the Jungle terrain, the Nagas provided the only reliable flow of intelligence to the 2nd Division on Japanese Movements around Kohima.’…

When the Japanese finally settled their contingent in Kigwema and started their offensives from there, it was a case of the enemy within. The Japanese soldiers moved early and only rested for a few hours, sometimes attacking the British bastions for days on end. In between, the negotiations for rations turned from trade to downright extortion. Within a short span of time and unbeknownst to them, the relations with their host village soured….

From different villages, the British officers organized porters for their soldiers. In this Battle of Kohima between two Imperial giants of the day, (District Commissioner) Charles Pawsey’s presence and authority was like a breeze for the British. When the refugees from Myanmar were coming in droves and crossing Kohima onwards to Dimapur in 1942, Charles Pawsey had mobilized thousands of Naga volunteers to cater to the sickly, tired, and hungry refugees.

(The refugee influx) was a consequence of the Japanese takeover of Burma, and it was a clear sign of what was to come. Till date, there is a locality in Dimapur called the Burma Camp, which is a name carried over from the colonial period when the refugees from Burma camped there waiting for transportation through the Dimapur Railway station. The experience that Pawsey gained during this harrowing period was priceless. The logistics of handling thousands of people in distress and organizing food and stay for the refugees and managing people who they had colonized was not an easy task…. As many scholars have mentioned, the soldiers of 1944 were better trained, better armed and better supplied than 1942. The British and the Allied forces were not going to allow the Japanese to repeat the Burma experience. [In 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army had occupied most of Burma, till then under the control of the British, after ousting the Allied forces].

The transportation of the 2nd Division and the two Indian brigades was a challenge for the British and yet with the support on the ground from the Nagas and in the air from the RAF was crucial for the victory against Sato’s forces. The handling of the refugees from Burma gave Pawsey the trained manpower that he needed. If Sato had someone like Pawsey already warming up to the Nagas, he would have smashed through with his forces to Assam via Dimapur and fulfiled the Japanese dream of replacing the British in India. However, it was not to be.

Cover of His 'Majesty’s Headhunters: The Siege Of Kohima That Shaped World History' by Mmhonlümo Kikon, published by Penguin Random House India.
Cover of His 'Majesty’s Headhunters: The Siege Of Kohima That Shaped World History' by Mmhonlümo Kikon, published by Penguin Random House India.

The Japanese had two allies, one among them the Naga nationalist A.Z. Phizo who had worked with the 7,000 troops of the INA, led by the charismatic Subhas Chandra Bose. But they were not based in Kohima or the Naga Hills at the moment of the attack. Although A.Z. Phizo was an Angami Naga from the famed Khonoma village known by the British for the Anglo-Khonoma battles, he did not have enough people in place or he had not mobilised the people for this invasion and hence his efforts and support were insufficient to gather the Nagas in support of the Japanese forces.

The other was Subhas Chandra Bose who had assured them that the anti-colonial movement in India against the British would join the Japanese when they took over Assam and the north-eastern frontiers of the Indian sub-continent. The Japanese had met Phizo and his younger brother at Rangoon and assured them of ‘Independence of Nagaland’ in exchange for his support. This was before Phizo assumed the mantle of leadership of the Naga National Council (NNC) and much before his campaigns had real hold over the villages…. Ultimately, as has been attested to by the British themselves, it was down to the intelligence gathered on the ground and supplied by the Nagas that tilted the battle in favour of the British.

Despite the shortage of supplies and the ensuing starvation, dysentery, malaria and cholera, the Japanese had trudged on stubbornly. Only when Sato decided that the war was no longer tenable, and he had to take a conscience call for the sake of his remaining troops, did they retreat. The British troops chased the retreating forces till Maram and secured a decisive victory over the Japanese. Little did they think about the significance of this battle then. But it changed the course of world history.

The British themselves had not imagined that Kohima would be their Waterloo. And the headhunters, massacred in thousands to establish this city on a hill called Kohima, became their most important ally in the war. The Naga side of the story is one of unending misery and courage at the same time. While this is a biography of how Kohima came to symbolise a people’s history and identity from its inception till the present, it is also a story of how the hunted became the hunters’ best friend.

Excerpted with permission from His Majesty’s Headhunters: The Siege Of Kohima That Shaped World History by Mmhonlümo Kikon, published by Penguin Random House India, 256 pages, Rs. 599

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