Manipur, Jan 5: There is a historical link between airfields(part of the war tourism map) in Manipur and the Second World War. If it weren’t for the several airfields built in northeast India by the British, the unprecedented Japanese offensive in 1944 would have altered our history.

Of the nine airfields in Manipur, the Imphal Main was the British bulwark against the Japanese siege of Manipur during the Battle of Imphal/Kohima. Now, it is a key part of Manipuri collective memory. Which is why when the Manipur state government took a series of steps recently to acquire the old airfield at Koirengei from the Ministry of Defence, it raised both hope and dread.

CM N Biren Singh wrote on the tweet, “As Manipur is now on War Tourism Map with numerous British & Japanese tourists flowing in to visit the war memorial sites, it is very important to develop these war memorial sites to give a better experience to the war tourists visiting the state.

The chief minister’s tweet is significant in many ways. While on one hand, there is an acknowledgement of the history of the site, on the other, there is a fear that the Manipur government may be eyeing the historic site just as real estate waiting to be developed into shopping malls and government quarters.

Today, Manipur and Nagaland are on the World War tourism map with hordes of war tourists visiting the Imphal War Cemetery and the Kohima War Cemetery.

Every year, Manipur attracts a lot of Japanese war tourists and the number is swelling even more with the Nippon Foundation of Japan helping set up the Imphal Peace Museum at the Red Hill in Imphal, where many Japanese soldiers fell.

Manipur is now on war tourism map
Battle of Imphal-Kohima

In people’s memory

In January 1942, Japanese troops advanced into British Burma and took control. And Imphal fell on the easiest route into India from there. Subsequently, the city became the target for Japanese bombing — they wanted to annihilate the British and Indian forces fleeing from Burma (now, Myanmar).

In the spring of 1944, the Japanese Imperial Army began their ‘march on Delhi’, crossing the mighty Chindwin river and trekking through the rugged Arakan mountain region in Manipur. Subsequently, the Imphal plain and the whole of the British IV Corps were besieged for three months, with the only way in or out for men and materials being the air route.

Fortunately for the British, before the Japanese incursion, they had built nine airfields to counter and defeat the enemy forces who occupied British Burma. The strong air support allowed the Allied forces to hold out while the Japanese line of communication faltered and ultimately failed to supply their war efforts, and led to their retreat from India.

WW-II survivor, 85-year-old Nimaicharan Khuraijam, who lost his father to Japanese bombing at Chingangbam Mandap in Imphal on 20 April 1943, the worst civilian casualty that claimed over 100 lives, was awestruck when he and his two friends saw the first landing of Allied fighter planes in Manipur at the Koirengei airfield.

Manipur on war tourism map
Tourists visiting the Imphal War Cemetery

Manipur on war tourism map

Despite being one of the most brutal campaigns in military history, which eventually ended the Japanese era of aggression, the battle of Imphal/Kohima has largely been a forgotten war. But since 2013, after the British Army’s central museum, the National Army Museum, voted it as Britain’s greatest battle (over the battles of D-Day and Waterloo), it is gradually coming into world focus.

Around the same time, war relic diggers, under the banner of the World War II Imphal Campaign Foundation became active in Manipur and started identifying battlefields, digging up trenches, excavating war artefacts, recovering human remains and crashed aircraft. The Foundation even succeeded in setting up a private World War II museum, attracting global attention.

According to British war historian Christopher David Johnson, who says the outcome of the whole Burma campaign would have been very different had it not been for the Koirengei airfield, said that the unique the airfield, with two runways perpendicular to each other, should be kept intact and utilised for war tourism with a fitting memorial to those gallant airmen and defenders of the garrison.

Meanwhile, sources say that the defence ministry is considering the state government’s proposal on the transfer of the historic airfield to Manipur in a positive manner.

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