A Walk Through Battle of Imphal

Hoihnu Hauzel 19 Mar 2014

For somebody brought up in the heat and dust of North Indian plains, a voluntary shift to the Northeastern part of the country can be quite daunting. But not so for Hemant Singh Katoch, a Delhi boy, who shifted to Manipur’s capital Imphal two years ago. What prompted him was the discovery of the Battle of Imphal-Kohima and its astounding impact on the course of World War II. He found, much to his surprise, that the fighting that took place in Imphal and Kohima was the turning point in the Burma Campaign of World War II. As a result the British were able to stop the Japanese invasion of India and turn them back from Burma in 1945. This year, 2014, marks the 70th anniversary of this momentous event, and realising this, he felt the need to promote a part of history that few remember today, and which has been acknowledged by the British as Britain’s Greatest Battle. Leading a tour outfit based in Imphal, Katoch now takes his countrymen and foreign tourists around the battlegrounds and cemeteries connected with this famous battle. NE Travel and Life catches up with Katoch, an alumnus of Mayo College, Ajmer, and walks down the annals of history with him.

Tell us about yourself.

My father is from Himachal Pradesh and my mother is from Rajasthan, but my family is now based in Delhi. I did my schooling from Mayo College in Ajmer, and my college years were spent in Canada – first at McGill University in Montreal for an undergraduate degree and then the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for a postgraduate degree. I worked for seven years at a foundation in Geneva,did stints with the United Nations in East Timor and later was with the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But I always yearned to return home.

What prompted you to move to Imphal and promote the Battle of Imphal?

I had first visited Imphal for a friend’s wedding in February 2009 and I was fascinated by the place. As I started doing research on Manipur, I stumbled upon its World War II history. The more I read about the Battle of Imphal, which happened in 1944, the more I realised its importance in history, and sadly also realised that nothing much had been done until then to raise awareness about it. It struck me that the battle’s 70th anniversary was approaching and something could be planned around it. Luckily, all this coincided with my desire to return to India and not work in any of the metros.

How did you go about giving shape to your ‘vague’ dream?

The initial phase of my work in Imphal involved researching the Battle of Imphal. I read up whatever military memoirs and accounts I could find and travelled around Manipur trying to relate what I could see with what I was reading. This led to the production of the first comprehensive map on the Battle of Imphal.It shows battlefields, the areas where the battle was fought, where Victoria Crosses were won, and so on. I have also created a website dedicated to the battle, and, perhaps for the first time, it shows what many of the old battlefields look like today.

Since April 2013, I have been mainly focused on conceptualising, designing and conducting tours around Manipur centred on the Battle of Imphal. The first one started at the end of April 2013, which took in sights around Imphal. Subsequent tours covered different parts of Manipur (the Tiddim Road, Shangshak in Ukhrul district, the Moreh Road, treks etc.) and themes (Victoria Crosses, the INA).

I think this work is novel because if I am not mistaken, until now no one in India had approached what is called ‘battlefield tourism’ in a regular and professional manner. One had heard of ‘remembrance tours’ being organised but they essentially comprised visits to World War II cemeteries in Imphal and Kohima. They left out the many mountains, villages and airfields that are crucial to properly understand the dramatic events of 1944. This is something that the Battle of Imphal Tours has sought to address.

What have been the challenges?

To be honest, I have been pretty fortunate as two of my Manipuri friends from Mayo were already in Imphal. Thanks to them, I was able to overcome easily what are perhaps two of the biggest challenges that any non-native faces: adjustment and gaining trust of the local residents.

Other than that, I guess the main challenge was to actually put in motion and give a more concrete shape to what had been until then, only a vague idea of promoting the Battle of Imphal. For someone who had always been a salaried employee, it was quite an interesting experience to test one’s motivation day after day in following through with this idea.

But what really was the trigger? When did you feel that you should move to Manipur?

As mentioned earlier, my main intentionwas to return to India. Given my professional background and interests, I knew that a private sector job in a major metro (if I could find one, of course!) was not going to be for me, at least in the immediate term. My second, rather more nagging ‘inspiration’, if that’s the right word, was to do something in Manipur. And that something eventually took the form of the Battle of Imphal Tour. Once these two related points lodged themselves firmly in my head when I was in Geneva and just refused to budge, my move to Imphal in mid-2012 and work on the Battle of ImphalTour thereafter was logical.

How do you think the Battle of Imphal tour will make a difference to Manipur as well as to you?

My aim is to do my bit to see Manipur emerge as India’s pre-eminent destination for World War II or remembrance tourism. I think the gripping narrative provided by the Battle of Imphal in particular, and the three-year-long battle in general, places Manipur in a unique position. Added to these are the varied War-related heritage and assets (memorials, museums, battlefields, airfields, trenches, bunkers and so on) which act as added attraction.

For me personally, I guess it will give me some satisfaction for having contributed towards the growth of Manipur, a place that has gone through troubled times over the last three decades. More selfishly, my work in Imphal has also allowed me to test myself in following through with ideas that I want to pursue. It’s one thing to want to do something, it’s quite another to wake up every morning without anyone sitting on your head and actually doing it.

Five years from now, where do you see yourself?

In the immediate future, I would like to extend the tours to include Kohima. While my main focus to-date has been on the Battle of Imphal and Manipur, the Battle of Kohima is an equally significant event. It certainly helps that Kohimais so incredibly beautiful and interesting, and ideally, a visitor should do Imphal/Kohima together. It is no coincidence that the combined battle of Imphal/Kohima was named Britain’s Greatest Battle by the UK’s National Army Museum in April 2013. Five years from now, even if I may not still be based in Manipur, you will hopefully see me regularly taking people to the fascinating battlefields of Imphal and Kohima.

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