In 1942 and 1943, Indian and British troops performed poorly, unused to jungle conditions and Japanese tactics. The war was to become bogged down in the frontier and hill lands between India and Burma. It is worth considering these regions for a time because it was the stubborn resistance of their inhabitants and the aid they gave the Allied armies that were to be crucial in blocking the further advance of the Japanese. In fact although In the Naga hills, the Lushai levies provided a valuable buffer for British India but the Nagas were on the front line of the retreat of the British army and the refugees in 1942. Two years later they were once again at the heart of the war. The scene of these terrible events was one of the most beautiful and picturesque places in the world. A British anthropologist, Ursula Graham Bower, recalled her first visit to Nagaland a few years earlier. She had passed up and beyond Imphal with its thirteen European residents, ruined palace and tennis club, later to be the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in south Asian history.
By the late summer, as the monsoon reached its height, the British began to go back on the offensive and to raise armed levies of local people as they had done in the Chin hills to the southeast. This was easier said than done. Some of the Zemi Nagas among whom Bower was now working were pro-British, especially some of the older men who had fought in the First World War or had served in the Assam Rifles. A few were actively hostile, remembering earlier British punitive raids when white men had burned their villages and slaughtered their cattle. The majority wavered. As her Naga interpreter put it: `They say this isn't our war, and we ought to leave it alone. We aren't Japs, we aren't British, we are Zemi.' (Ursula Graham Bower, Naga path, London, 1950, p. 167.)
Anyway, what would happen to his wife and children if he helped the British and then the Japs came? Bower was much less sentimental about loyalty and the benevolence of the Rai than McCall down in Lushai. She well understood that recruitment into the levies was a matter of complicated local politics. She attended a meeting at which fierce debates had broken out amongst the Nagas. People stood up and threw insults at each other. Some asked why they should fight for the British when they had never fought for the local Hindu ruling dynasties or the Naga local bosses. Others said that they owed the British something for stopping raiding and giving the hills a few roads and salt markets: `Don't we owe them something for that?' (Ibid., p. 187) Bower perceptively noted that when a trickle of recruits came in it was from the helot classes, bound as field workers to the Naga aristocracy, or very poor people attracted by the low pay the British levies offered. Inter-tribal and inter-village rivalry determined how people would jump in this crisis, not vague ideas like loyalty and patriotism. Bower, as one of the few British people who understood anything about the hills, laboured hard to expand the size of the levies. She helped distribute weapons and replace the dangerous, ageing muskets which some families had hidden when the British disarmed the population after earlier revolts. Yet she was constantly on the defensive, patronized or ignored by male officers who simply would not believe that a woman could organize men for war. As one of the more sympathetic observed, she was always wrong twice: `Once for being wrong, and once for being a woman. (Ibid., p. 195.)
By the following autumn, however, Bower had helped to put into place the rudiments of a defence force which would be of great service in the battles of 1944 and '45. The legend of the `Queen of the Nagas' was born, though as she always herself admitted, the prime actors were the Nagas and not Britons acting out the romances of Rider Haggard. She was, as she later wrote, built up as a propaganda tool.
A third zone of tribal resistance and Allied guerrilla activity lay a further zoo miles even further to the east in the hills of northern Burma beyond the upper Chindwin. This tract was important because it remained the only tenuous land connection between India and China, once the Japanese occupied Myitkyina. Here lived the Kachin peoples. On the east, their high, remote forested lands bordered on the Chinese province of Yunnan. This was a kind of no-man's land of shifting populations interspersed for part of the year with waving fields of red opium poppy, the fabled Golden Triangle. Following the collapse of the defence, the Chinese armies had retreated northeast into Yunnan, living off the land - or `plundering as they went', as the British put it. Chinese soldiers established themselves semi-permanently near the southern Shan state of Kengtung and also further north in the Shan country north of the Shweli river. Until the early 1950s Chinese `deserters' or settlers, depending on the point of view, were to carry on a kind of tug-of-war for territory along this northeast border, first with the Japanese, then with the British and finally with the government of independent Burma. Throughout the war an Allied strong-point called Fort Herz held out in the far north of the triangle.
Another Anthropologist, Edmund Leach after seven weeks of walking he struggled into Kunming and was flown off to Calcutta, weak with dysentery. Soon, Leach was again lurking in the hills around Fort Herz with a radio set Leach's adventures were, he wrote, `a strange mixture of the absurd and the horrible', but he had learned to appreciate the great variety of the types of Kachin society and language and this became the basis of his later academic writings. (Edmund Leach, Current Anthropology, 2-7, 4 ,1986, pp. 376-8.)
The stubborn resistance of the tribal levies on the hills of the northeast gave British India a breathing space. No one realized it at the time, but this was one of the turning points of the war. Far distant in the Pacific Ocean on 4 June, Admiral Yamamoto stood horrified and groaning with apprehension on his quarter-deck as he learned that the Japanese navy had lost three aircraft carriers in a great battle near Midway island. But even if the long-term outcome of the war had already announced itself, the medium term was still fraught with danger. In Delhi the authorities were deeply pessimistic about India's chances of survival should a full-scale Japanese attack develop again in the autumn. India did not have enough troops to prevent invasion and penetration at all points along the east coast and Ceylon, if, as seemed likely, the British had permanently lost naval supremacy. Strategists argued that India Command should attempt to put in place an impregnable defence at two points. Calcutta was to guard the critical coal and iron resources and the munitions industries of Bengal and Bihar. Colombo, which, after the loss of Hong Kong, Singapore and Rangoon, remained the only first-class naval base in the East, should also be defended. In addition, most experts wanted to put together a mobile defence force. This would strike back at a Japanese invasion on the coast around Madras. It was also essential, they thought, to build up the Indian air force as rapidly as possible. Claude Auchinleck, now commander in the Western Desert, pondered on the fate of the Indian empire which had been the scene of his whole career. He was convinced that, should the choice between holding India and holding the Middle East present -pelf in earnest, India must be saved first: `India is vital to our existence -we could still hold India without the Middle East, but we cannot hold the Middle East without India.' (John Connell, Auchinleck: a biography of Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck ,London, 1959, P 491.)
But there was another Asia, the Asia of the minority groups. Some of these were inhabitants of upland and wooded areas, including the Malayan Orang Ash (original people) and the Kachins, Nagas and Lushai of Burma and India. Others were plains dwellers, such as the Karens of Burma, who wore different dress from their Burmese neighbours and prized a separate history. From the period of the Burmese kings and the Mughal rulers onward, peoples such as these had developed varied relationships with the majority population. Sometimes they fought for them, sometimes they sent looting parties against them. Much of the time they traded with them. The coming of British rule had put wholly new pressures on the tribals and minorities. The Raj demanded peace and an end to local warfare. Vigorous punitive expeditions had been sent into the hills. In the aftermath of the First World War, for example, a British force had invaded the Naga hills, punishing dissident tribes by burning villages and crops. The memory of this savage local conflict was to colour attitudes even in the 1940s.
With the coming of more direct British rule, the hill-dwellers found themselves in a novel economic environment. Forest officers were assigned to create woodland reserves and stop their customary practice of slash-and-burn agriculture. Indian, Chinese and Gurkha settlers and merchants penetrated the hills and forest lands, exploiting the local people's ignorance of commerce but also giving some of them, especially the chiefs and others with local power, the chance to make money. Missionaries also found the hills to be a paradise for conversion since they were not faced with an established priesthood, doctors of law or an intelligentsia who would argue back against them, as was the case in the plains. By 1940 up to 30 per cent of the Naga, Karen, Shan, Chin and Kachin population of the hills of north Burma and eastern India had formally become Christian. European missionaries were much thicker on the ground among these scattered populations than were British officials.
Despite their desire to tax, settle, trade with and convert these hill populations, the British also wished, paradoxically, to `preserve' them. That aim became more pressing in the 1920’s and '3os when Indian and Burmese nationalists from the plains began to make themselves known in the hills and forests, preaching a common alliance of all ethnic peoples against imperialism. The British had long been solicitous of the local chiefs: the hill rajas of Assam, the Naga chiefs, the Chin princes or sawbwas and the lords of the Kachin hills. They often gave them powers and privileges which they had never held in the looser organization of the old order.
In 1947 when the future of the Frontier Areas was under discussion a large volume of documentation reaching back into the nineteenth century was put together, see Burma Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry, Cmd. 713 8 (1947) and related papers, Clague Papers, Mss Eur Ez5z/z3,Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library.
Now the British moved more resolutely to establish protected areas, excluded areas and frontier jurisdictions which, they hoped, would preserve what they saw as the political innocence and conservatism of these peoples against nationalist 'agitators'. Sometimes they gave these ethnic groups and their leaders special political representation on councils and committees which they convened in the hope of holding the demand for freedom at bay. As the international situation worsened, the British began to establish militia levies amongst all the tribal and minority peoples. The need for some basic defence and intelligence system outweighed the danger of arming these independent-minded hill men. Karen, Kachin and Shan levies were organized by Frontier Service officers. The middle and northern sections of the Burma-Thailand border gave most cause for concern. Here in the eastern part of the Karenni states amongst the teak forests, old Mauser rifles and other weapons left over from the last big local rebellion in 1931 were brought out of cupboards in the rural police stations. Each levy was issued with `one pair khaki shorts, one khaki shirt with badge marked K.L. [Karen Levies], one pair rubber soled shoes and one locally made bamboo hat'. `Karen and Kachin Levies', Burma Governor's Papers, M/3/izz,, OIOC.)
Amongst the Kachin of the northwest hills of Burma modern political radicalism had made little headway. The Kachins seemed to regard the Burmese as a `traditional enemy' and, in general, saw the British as protectors against the incoming Burmese settlers and traders. (`The Kachins', note by J. L. Leyden, 8 January 1943, Clague Papers, Mss Eur E 252/44, ff. 29-36, OIOC.)
They, too, had a substantial Christian population by the 193os. In one version, the word Kachin was a Burmese corruption of the Chinese `yei jein' or `jungle man'. They actually called themselves Jinghpaw and were organized into clans which moved slowly in a pattern of shifting cultivation through the hills. Hunters adept at using poisoned arrows against their prey, the Kachin were also noted for their rice-wine drinking bouts and elaborate rituals to keep the dangerous spirits of the forest at bay. They gave their allegiance to powerful chieftains, but also reserved the right to revolt against them and bring them to heel. This tension between despotism and egalitarianism amongst the Kachins struck many observers, including the London School of Economics anthropologist Edmund Leach, who was carrying out research amongst them when the European war broke out in 1939. News of the war puzzled the Kachin according to J. L. Leyden, an officer who had worked among them for many years. They wondered why the Germans in 1918 had `not been disarmed and enslaved in the manner in which Kachin custom demands that Kachins deal with their enemies'. (Ibid., f. 34, OIOC.) Under their chiefs, Kachins flocked into the new territorial levies.
The British governor of Burma as the Japanese approached was Sir Reginald 'Reggie' Dorman-Smith. He was to remain a key figure in the politics of the country through to 1949. As a career politician turned colonial governor, Dorman-Smith was a relatively unusual figure in the later British Empire where civil servants usually headed colonial administrations. An old boy of Harrow School, he was an Irishman with family lands on both sides of the border and he remained a citizen of Eire. He once startled British Cabinet colleagues who were casually discussing the internment of Irish citizens at the beginning of the war by revealing his citizenship. (Dorman-Smith, Memoirs, Mss Eur E2-i5/3z, a/b, f. 207, OIOC.)
His nationality did give him an interestingly ambivalent view of empire and nationalism. He claimed to sympathize with nationalist aspirations though his political conservatism meant that it was only pukka, old-style Burmese and Indian politicians that he could really tolerate. He was armed with a mordant wit and considerable literary talent, though it is clear that many of his colleagues regarded him as `a bit of a phoney'. Dorman-Smith had been a member of the pre-war Conservative administration as minister of agriculture. As the war began in earnest, he fell out with Churchill and his powerful scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell. Ejected from the Cabinet to make room for Socialists and Liberals as the wartime coalition was formed, he joined the army and found himself made a civil-military liaison officer in the Home Defence Executive.
Dorman-Smith hesitated: Burma was so far from anywhere where there was likely to be trouble that it might seem like ratting, running out on the nation during the Blitz. He also hesitated because `my knowledge of Burma was precisely nil. I knew approximately where it is on the map, that its capital was Rangoon and that the Irrawaddy flowed through it, but my knowledge did not extend beyond this. This was despite fancying himself as an `Empire man' in parliamentary speeches. Then again, Dorman-Smith thought, Irishmen should always take up challenges of this sort even though they seldom led anywhere.
Dorman-Smith arrived to take up his brief and dramatic period of office in May 1941. The usual round of official receptions and parties at Rangoon went ahead despite Japan's moves in Indo-China. Though he later wrote of it as `a great cosmopolitan city' the new governor really found his capital stiff, socially unpleasant and provincial. (Maurice Collis, Last and first in Burma (London, 1956), p. 41. This is a politer version of Dorman-Smith's memoir in OIOC. )
His wife disliked their `enormous monstrosity' of a government house, nicknamed St Pancras Station, preferring the `toy town' prettiness of the government's summer retreat at Maymyo near Mandalay.( Lady Dorman-Smith to Miss Mary McAndrew, 18 May 1941, Dorman Smith Papers, Mss Eur Ez15/46, OIOC.) The couple had good reason for their disappointment. Despite the myth of the cheerful, friendly Burman and the old stories of happy inter-racial marriage and sex, race relations were poor and had become poorer during the Depression when a widespread peasant rebellion in the rice-growing areas had been harshly suppressed by the British. It was almost as if the Burmanization of the civil service underway in the I93os had made European non-officials even more determined to play the race card.
Rangoon prided itself on its difference, but it had a lot in common with the other colonial port cities of the region. As a resident told a journalist: `they are all much the same - Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Shanghai - a garish show on top and a pretty stinking world underneath. But you can't blame Burma for this. Rangoon isn't Burma really. It's much more an Indian city, with a bit of China thrown in, run by Scots and Irishmen."' In Rangoon, the Burmese were not allowed into the main metropolitan haunts, the Pegu, Gymkhana and Yacht clubs, though few of them would probably have wished to join. Only the Gold and Turf clubs had Asian members. The main Asian club was the Orient Club; this still had a few European members but no new ones were admitted in retaliation for the colour bar operated by the Europeans. (A. C. Potter to R. E. Potter, 7 September 1941, A. C. Potter Papers, Mss Eur C414/6, OIOC.)
This aloofness affected the whole society. G. H. Luce, the most important British scholar of classical Burma and a profes¬sor in Rangoon University, had a Burmese wife who was herself an academic. In consequence he was ostracized by a large part of the 8,000-strong white population of the city. (Donnison Memoirs, F. S. V. Donnison Papers, Mss Eur B357, f. 307, 0I0C.) Even out in the districts, relations were no closer. Many of those Europeans born and brought up in Burma had golden memories of the country and its inhabitants. People working among the minorities or in agricultural, forest and technical departments felt that they were doing a worthwhile job. But it is striking how many of the letters and memoirs of civil servants in Burma and India during this period give a sense of disillusionment and regret at odds with the romantic picture of the young Briton dispensing justice and good order to `the natives. (John Clague, Memoir, Mss Eur Dz5z/72, PP. 3-4, OIOC.)
At Maymyo, according to Frank Donnison, the financial secretary to government, the British sought `at all costs to forget they were in Burma'." They attended Debussy concerts in spacious parks and had picnics at the incongruously named Hampshire Falls. John Clague, another civil servant, reminisced: `strange it is to look back and feel that we Europeans lived in a world where very often the people hardly counted in our human or intimate thoughts. No Burman belonged to the Moulmein Gymkhana. No Burman came to dinner and breakfast.' Clague's days were spent in hot and smelly courtrooms `listening to lies being interpreted', overwhelmed by a `sense of injustice and illegality'.
British society in Burma was not a wholly aloof or hedonistic one, of course. The expatriates engaged in a certain amount of 'dogoodism', for this was the era of moral rearmament. In the capital, the ladies of the Vigilance Society made occasional raids into the native quarters to `save' women from brothels. Other women were expected to join sewing parties. They could `work for the Blind Deaf School or sell flags for causes that neither they nor the Burmese had any interest in'. Yet this high moral tone stood in sharp contrast to the pervasive mean spiritedness. The European war and the advance of the Japanese did little to change attitudes. True, there were a few air-raid drills and collections for the Lord Mayor of London's Relief Fund. Mostly it was still bridge and whist, though there was a new game of `military whist' which was said by the Rangoon Times to be ideal for entertaining a large party. This half-hearted mobilization was scarcely designed to catch the Burmese imagination and even moderate Burmese nationalism was ambivalent about the unfolding struggle in Asia. Burmese women organized the Rangoon civil evacuation scheme. Official voices and ministers made less-than-stirring calls to aid the Allies. Local festivals began to include stilted anti-Nazi sketches. (Maurice Maybury, The heaven-born in Burma , 1985, I, p. 82.)
The Japanese penetration of Thailand to the south was watched with anticipation as well as concern among Burmese. As Burma's leading literary figure Daw Mya Sein said, Burmese had much in common with Thais. The Shans in Burma were Siamese, according to national mythology, and those of the south were probably the best-adjusted minority in Burmese society. Burma's version of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, was an import from Thailand. (Rangoon Times, 15 August 1941.)
Since the fall of the Burmese kingdom in 1886, the Thai king had been regarded as `defender of the Buddhist faith' in Burma. Many asked themselves quietly whether a Japanese-led Buddhist and Asian national solidarity was possible and whether this was Burma's future. Unaware that Aung San and other young radicals were already building a secret national army over the Thai frontier, most Burmese watched and waited, untroubled by the small flurries of activity among Europeans.
One very distinctive group among the whites in the city was the Americans, who were to provide one of the few heroic stories in the defence of Burma some months later. They had been there from before the European war, helping to co-ordinate US government aid to the embattled Chinese nationalist government at Chungking, goo miles to the northeast. Once the war started this turned into an American lendlease operation. Some Americans were already fighting. Men of the American Volunteer Group, the famous `Flying Tigers', were also based at Rangoon's airport under the command of Claire Chennault. They flew missions to protect the Burma Road against the depredations of Japanese fighters. Though it had American government support, the AVG was a voluntary organization, its pilots hard-living and hard-drinking. They got a large bonus from Chiang Kai Shek for every Japanese plane they shot down. One grouse they had when stationed in Burma was that they did not get bonuses while there. They were reputed to hold the best parties in town and to have a talent for sniffing out the most available girls. The parties regularly got out of hand. The airmen `thought little of using one of their smaller servants as a volley ball'. (Ma Than E, `Burma's ties with China', Statesman Newspaper,Calcutta, 8 March 1942.)
But among the circumstances that contributed to the survival of British India was that of the hill people of the Burma-India who as we saw were themselves providing tough resistance to Japanese patrols and 'providing material assistance to the Allied war effort'. All the British efforts at gerrymandering and political balancing in India's hill regions were blown apart in 1942 when the hills and the forest became the main arena of warfare throughout the whole region. Previously soldiers had sometimes penetrated into the hill people's fastnesses. Now whole armies tramped across and fought on their lands, requisitioning or forcing labour to carry food and munitions, seizing their animals and burning their forests. To the hill men these new conditions required epochal decisions. How far should they support their old masters against the new invaders? The chiefs and many of their followers were relatively satisfied with the old order. However much they had resented or even resisted the initial imposition of the Raj, they came to find that the British presence was not too intrusive and even gave them some advantages. In many cases they had come to dislike the assumption of the plains politicians that they would easily merge into the new Burmese or Indian nations, forfeiting their political privileges and long-cultivated special identities.
The rapid expansion of the Christian confession had also given them a point of contact with their white masters which few other Asians had. In the hills, some long-serving officials and missionaries had created networks of friendship and patronage which their indigenous friends and clients felt shame in violating. Most of all, however, the hill people on both the Burmese and Indian sides were deeply hostile to the intrusion into their territory of new and often violent predators, be they Japanese or local Chinese nationalist warlords. To this extent the British were able in the hills to draw on a reserve of qualified good will relatively rarely encountered in other parts of their Asian empire. Still, unpalatable dilemmas faced the local leaders and their British mentors when making the decision to resist the Japanese and summon up this spirit of ethnic patriotism in support of the empire. Was it ethical to encourage resistance and expose whole populations to Japanese reprisals, when the British were themselves evacuating as quickly as possible, sometimes in near panic? How, in fact, could an authoritarian and paternalistic system of rule foster the sort of popular guerrilla war which had broken out in Greece, Yugoslavia or even parts of China during the Axis invasions?
This sharp dilemma faced A. G. McCall, the local administrator, and the people of the Lushai hills, set high above Arakan, during 1942. (A. G. McCall, Superintendent, Lushai hills to J. P. Mills, secretary to government, 7 July 1942, McCall Papers, Mss Eur E361/34, Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library.)
The British had paid little attention to the Lushai until the mid 1930s, when officials established a village welfare scheme with the aim of `bringing together chiefs and non-chiefs, Christians and non-Christians'. (Manifesto, 6 May 1942, Mss Eur E361/35, OIOC.)
Village crafts and hill products found a market in the outside world and a trickle of Lushais began to serve in the Assam Rifles and other imperial units. McCall believed he had a mission to create a kind of Lushai nationalism in the hills by bringing the chiefs and people together in darbars or consultative councils. Local nationalism would inculcate a code of morality and hygiene and prevent wasteful forms of customary slash-and-burn agriculture in the hills. This `guided democracy' of the Mongolian people of the hills would create a new British Empire and hold at bay the Indian and Burmese agitators from the plains. McCall probably overestimated the British role. The real moving force in the hills was the Christian Lushai of the Young Lushai Association at Aijal, the headquarters town. In their congregational meetings the young men had replaced the raunchy old tribal ballads with uplifting moral ditties in order to face the modern world: Oh! YLA go on, ever on. Give of your best in doing good. Strive now for all generations to come. (A. G. McCall, Lushai chrysalis , London, 1949, P. 298.)
Now this little world faced great danger. As the Japanese pushed up towards the fringes of Burma, taking Akyab and threatening Chittagong, their patrols came within a hundred miles of Aijal. Officials and Anglo-Indian newspapers talked of mobilizing the people and denounced the old stick-in-the-muds or so-called koi hais who opposed such schemes. The Calcutta Statesman pointed to the terrible example of Malaya. The new governor of Assam, it argued, should `kindle the patriotism of the province and silence the jeremiads of the boys of the old brigade. The jungle, instead of being a death trap for our own soldiers can be made to come alive with hostility to the creeping ants', the Japanese. (StatesmanNewspaper,Calcutta, 10 March 1942.)
McCall decided to try to draw on Lushai local patriotism and loyalty to the crown and create a territorial fighting force. His model seems to have been the citizen armies of Finland which had offered stiff resistance to the Nazis. The British home guard, `Dad's Army', may not have been too far from his mind either. He called the scheme the Total Defence Force and it was composed of two sorts of pasaltha or rifleman amounting to more than 3,000 men. Large numbers who already held licensed weapons from muskets through to locally made hunting rifles were paid Rss per month to mount a watch-and-ward operation from their own lands. (General notice, May 1942-, McCall Papers, Mss E361/36, OIOC. )
The British army supplied another smaller group of men with more advanced weapons and paid them Rsio per month to act as a mobile force which was ready to move to any area where trouble was expected. The officials and Lushai headmen drew up plans for the hiding of food and slaughter of animals as a prelude to a sustained guerrilla war in case of an invasion.
The territorial troops were given basic military training. In the event of an air attack they were `not to look at any plane. Not to stand up. But immediately to run to a nullah [ditch] and to fall down at full length, open mouth, and rest head in hand, resting on elbows. Everyone remembered the terrible execution in Burma when guileless people stood up and waved at the Japanese planes. Many of the Lushai chiefs signed up eagerly to this display of loyalty. They proclaimed that they would fight against the evil enemy who `had murdered the people of China for five years'. They would create a defence on the `same basis of total defence as the peoples of the [sic] England, Scotland and Wales'. Enthusiasm for the war effort was helped along, too, by counting the oracles in a more traditional fashion: Two snails are procured from the river sides, and one is called Britain, the other the enemy. The snails were placed in a battlefield, a hollowed-out bamboo trough. Even in villages where the larger snail was called `German', the British snail always won in the end.
The Lushai Hills Total Defence Force was never put to the test to the same extent as the Shan, Chin, Kachin and Naga resistance in the Indian and Burmese hills to the north and east. But it certainly raised morale and gave people the impression that the Raj remained resilient and virile. The diaries of Bruce Lorrain-Foxall, a missionary further to the south in the Lushai hills, give a sense of the foreboding and fear which reigned throughout I942. (Diary of A. Bruce Lorrain-Foxall, z8 August 1942, Mss Eur F185/9z, 0I0C.)
Lushai people reported planes flying over and bombing down towards upper Burma. Lungleh, centre of the South Lushai mission, was itself bombed. Fleeing sepoys and others passed on rumours of mass death and evacuation. In August 1942 one of the men went south, where he `saw 50 Japs and said that as soon as September sets in 1000 Japs are coming up to nearby Paletwa'. It was important to have some sense that the authorities in Aijal knew what they were doing. In Lushai, McCall's wife Jean stayed on beside him at her post during the crisis of May, `sharing the risk of mutilation and death accepted voluntarily by the families in the hills', while other ma-baps across British Asia had decamped in their motor cars. McCall believed that his reward was that the people stood resolutely beside him.
Yet the failings and problems of the Total Defence Force also provided a sharp example of the difficulties in which an autocratic and paternalist power found itself when trying to organize a democratic resistance movement. British military support from Eastern Command was minimal in the hills because there was no road and transport by animal or manpower was deadly slow. As McCall found to his irritation, there was a constant tension between the desire of the military authorities to press-gang people into portering and labouring jobs and their wish to have an effective civil defence force. Squabbles arose between McCall and the military. He really wanted local supreme power, perhaps a little like the great servants of the East India Company who had become virtual kings in their districts a century earlier. He had the problem of weaving a path between the Assam authorities, the exiled Burmese government and the split military commands in the plains. These continued to bedevil British military efforts until late 1943.
Local politics also played its part. Relations between the Lushai and the inhabitants of the Chin hills, where the Japanese presence was a reality, were strained. (Later correspondence on the pasalthas and civil defence schemes in the hills can be found in McCall Papers, Mss Eur E361/37, 38 and 50, OIOC.)
Some chiefs here had decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Within Lushai itself there were a few people such as schoolmasters and those who were regular visitors to the plains who saw eye to eye with the Congress. They did not see why local people should stick their necks out and risk Japanese reprisals in the event of an invasion when British power itself was still in the process of ebbing away. By September 1942 McCall had lost control of defence in the Lushai hills. The military would not properly co-operate with him and had decided to move towards a system of bigger and more costly levies of local men like the ones they were operating in the Chin hills and Manipur. But the effort was not entirely stillborn. Nearly 5 per cent of all men in the hills served in the armed forces during the war and many of the others participated in the various territorial defence schemes. The Lushai met the demands for labour, porterage and support put on them during the guerrilla wars in the nearby Chin hills. McCall himself believed that the Japanese did not strike through Lushai in the 1944 campaign precisely because they knew of the great readiness of the local population. In a subtle way, indeed, the Lushai began to act as citizens. One of their leaders, Buchawna, wrote that voluntary enrolment and payment for service contrasted sharply with the old 'slave-servant' mentality which the nationalists so much disliked."' Ironically, the mobilization of hill peoples across the region and the spread of the idea of people's rights were by no means an unmitigated blessing for the bureaucratic and military regimes which were to emerge in independent South and Southeast Asia.
For many months from 1944 to 1946 Allied South East Asia Command ruled a large part of the whole area from the borders of Bengal and Assam to Singapore and on to the seas north of Australia. Its writ even temporarily penetrated into south China, Indo-China and Indonesia. This was the first time in history that the region was forged into a political unit. to operate as the classic `night watchman'. People thought private enterprise was the way to get things done. Now, from left to right, from Malayan communist to Indian businessman, everyone believed that planning and state intervention was the way of the future.
The uniforms, the marching, the drilling and the flag-waving of wartime had indelibly imprinted themselves on the minds of the region's youth. Where in the past Indians, Burmese, Malayans and Nanyang Chinese had at best been led by lawyers tiptoeing around British constitutional provisions designed to render them powerless, now all these nations had martial leaders who embodied a historic form of militant patriotism. The problem was whose nation and whose state was it to be. Everywhere up and down the crescent the war had mobilized ethnic minorities, indeed it had even created them where they had existed earlier only as categories for anthropologists. Nagas, Kachins, Karens, Lushai, Shans and the Orang Ash of the Malay peninsula had acquired arms and leadership along with a sense of brotherhood, sisterhood and identity. Myriad units of the forgotten armies reforged themselves into the armies of militant small nationalisms.
The Nagas and other hill peoples played a key role in the fighting. As the Japanese pushed towards Manipur, the hill people found themselves right in the front line. The Naga levies and the exiguous British forces sent to aid them - V Force - had set into something of a routine since 1944.. They drilled, exercised and listened. But the fighting on this front was over two hundred miles distant in 1943 and the first months of 1944 as the Chindits of the second Wingate expedition and Shan and Kachin levies carried on hazardous operations behind enemy lines. The main enemies at this time were cholera and smallpox, which stubbornly revived during the 1943 monsoon. But at least V Force now had food, clothing and ammunition. A particular hit amongst the Nagas, who had a keen sense of colour, were red blankets. These were specially coloured for use in the region and were used as gifts and payment throughout the hills. Amongst the Nagas, a leader was only first among equals and his honour and respect depended on his courage and his generosity in distributing prized items such as these.
Suddenly, the calm was broken. Ursula Graham Bower recalled two sergeants coming up to her on 28 March 1944 with chilling news. `Fifty Japs crossed the Imphal Road about a week ago and they ought to be here by now. We wondered if you had heard anything of them."' The defensive belt had suddenly been rolled up and she and the local Naga chiefs were facing the advancing Japanese army with 15o native scouts, one service rifle, one single-barrelled shotgun and seventy muzzle loaders. There was a nagging fear that they would all be boxed in as the Japanese tide flowed round them on both sides. The code `one elephant' was devised to signal that ten Japanese were approaching. A near panic set in when someone arrived in the locality with forty real elephants. On this occasion, the only 'Jap' sighted was an unfortunate squirrel which was shot out of a tree by an over-eager scout. But the danger was real enough. Several Naga scouts in the Imphal area went over to the Japanese and led the Japanese to British arms dumps. Bower noted that they were from communities that had taken part in a rebellion during the First World War. There was always the fear that the whole scout force would break and flee as the attack proceeded. After all, these men were scouts and not a fighting force. Meanwhile, refugees once more tramped through the hills. Among them were Bengali and Madrasi pioneers evacuated from Imphal. Then came newly recruited and ill-disciplined Indian support staff, artisans, drivers and mechanics, who all stumbled by with Naga porters and children, sometimes accompanied by escaped Japanese prisoners. Morale hung on a knife-edge until a platoon of Gurkhas came up to support Bower's detachment. They maintained calm until Kohima was relieved.
The sense of chaos and panic among the defence units of the hill people hid a more important fact. This was the extent to which Naga, Chin and other personnel contributed to the defence of Imphal and Kohima and to the shattering victory that British and Indian forces subsequently won against the Japanese. Army intelligence wrote in the summer: `The quantity and quality of operational information received from the local inhabitants 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.(Note on civil and military intelligence on the Arakan front, 27 June 1944, and in private secretary to viceroy's letter to secretary of state, 2.7 June 1944, L/PandO/4/z4, OIOC.)
The loyal Nagas gave the Japanese false information about British troop numbers. They guided British and Indian troops through the jungle and pointed out Japanese entrenchments and foxholes to them. Finally, the great Japanese strength as jungle fighters was being turned against them. Ironically, the Japanese high command was in part betrayed by its own racial ideology, as the British had been two years earlier. The Japanese found it difficult to see the Nagas and allied tribes as anything more than illiterate primitives, more backward even than the aboriginal groups that they encountered in Hokkaido island or Taiwan. Nor could they believe that any Asiatic could reject the idea of `Asia for the Asians' unless they had been bribed or bullied into doing so. No native people could possibly support the British of their own volition. Nagas and Chins were therefore allowed to wander around the Japanese camps even at the critical time when the Imperial Army was moving against Manipur.
Slim told Ursula Graham Bower a revealing story about Naga support. 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 these 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. Slim told Bower that this intelligence was of very great importance in the defence of Imphal and Kohima. Indeed, the debt of the British to the tribal people of the hills was incalculable. Smith Dun, the four-foot tall Karen officer, remembered how dependent he had been on intelligence supplied by the local people during the fighting in the Chin Hills in 1943 and '44. By chance one of the unit's batmen was the son of a member of the local Chin levies. Dun's force was able to move around behind Japanese lines using the information supplied by family members. But vendettas were also in the air. Smith Dun believed that the batman was eventually betrayed by a rival Chin family. (Smith Dun, Memoirs of the four-foot colonel: General Dun Smith, first commander-in-chief o f the independent Burmese armed forces, Ithaca, 1980, p. 41.)
In Simla during June and July, Dorman-Smith among many other officials was aware of the critical situation in Manipur. Their optimism waxed and waned day by day as they read intelligence appraisals and spoke to soldiers returning briefly from the front. They listened to the English-language propaganda broadcasts from Japanese and INA sources with a mixture of amusement and anxiety, unable to evaluate what they heard. (Dorman-Smith to John Walton, 24 July 1944, Walton Papers, Mss Eur D545/T3, OIOC.)
The mood across India remained apprehensive. Yet there was still no panic as there had been in response to every rumour during 1942. Censorship was tight and the Information Bureau of the government was by now so skilled in packaging news of the campaign that, as an intelligence official recorded, `even the civilians in Delhi failed to realise its importance'. He remembered looking out over a quiet and peaceful Janpath, Delhi's triumphal thoroughfare, during these weeks and later recorded that it was impossible to conceive of the vast Arakan battle, still less the looming fact of the independence of India and Pakistan. British India seemed to have survived once again as it had survived every challenge since the Maratha invasions of the eighteenth century.