Elephant in the room: Indian Army in Burma

Chennai, Nov 4:

The China-India-Burma Theatre was ablaze with heavy firing during the Second World War. Indian soldiers died in thousands over a two-week period at Imphal. The combat zone was reduced to a Maharaja’s tennis court as the Battle of Kohima ended and came knocking on Indian doors.

India’s intrusion in a global war was unprecedented.

Despite having had a significant impact on the East, why was the Burmese zone rarely acknowledged in India?

“It is interesting to note how India’s place in the world is attributed to the summer of 1991 and the new liberalization policy. The assumption is that this ‘Asian Power’ is a consequence of the last 25 years or so. I believe that the Second World War was the catalytic moment of India’s emergence in the world stage”, said Dr. Srinath Raghavan, author of India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia and a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. He addressed a packed audience at the Madras Institute of Development Studies on Tuesday.

The Burmese campaign was India’s bloodiest pre-Independence battle. Lord Mountbatten in 1939 had stationed several troops in North and East Africa, Singapore, Malaysia and Burma (now Myanmar). The Naval fleet had just begun operations and over 231 airbases were being constructed across India to prepare for war in the span of 3 years from 1942-1945.  The ill-prepared ‘Brown’ contingent under the British Army marched to the eastern quarters of Asia to fight a de-mechanized war, a stark characteristic contrast from the other parts of the world.



Frank D. Merrill (far left) watches troops cross into Burma on the Ledo Road. PC: NatGeo

“The thick jungles prevented the use of heavy machinery. This war was mostly a land campaign and was a logistical nightmare. The aim was to think like the Japanese. They moved light and rode on mule and elephant backs. The use of animal transportation was widely different from the heavy army tanks that were used in the other parts of the globe”, said Dr. Srinath.

He also stated in his address that the British and the Indians underestimated the formidable Japanese opposition. Prisoners of war were sent to fight the oriental force in Singapore and suffered a crushing defeat. The Indian National Army (INA) led by Subash Chandra Bose found firm footing in Myanmar and Singapore and fought for the axis powers as a revolt against British occupation of India.

“It is strange how pockets of a ‘disciplined’ force such as the Indian navy in Bombay revolted against the British Raj and joined opposing powers to fight with the Japs in Burma. Several of these instances have been reported in the form of letters by soldiers. It is very engaging to see that they were all drawn towards the Burmese battleground. The INA also had a great role to play in this setup. That area is quite ignored in our history textbooks”, said Prof V Suryanarayan, an academic and a former diplomat at the Malaysian High Commission.

The Second World War however ravaged Burma. It was drained economically as the rich oil wells were set on fire by both the Japanese and Indian forces before they fled to Kohima and Imphal. It led to the inception of a murky communal war between hill tribes and the Burmans over the dire need for basic amenities. Several Burmans continue to cross the Indian border for a sustainable future.

“Burma is a new democracy. Army continues to play a role in its everyday affairs. Several Burmese people jump the border for livelihood. The situation continues to be complex there” commented Prof Suryanarayan.


An elephant loading war supplies onto a plane in 1945. PC: Pax on both houses



10 thoughts on “Elephant in the room: Indian Army in Burma

    • Jumped over from GP’s reblog to read the rest of this fascinating account of a part of WWII that was totally new to me. I’m grateful for those of you who spend time back-filling formal education’s many inadequacies. Thank you BOTH.
      (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
      ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
      “It takes a village to transform a world!”

      Liked by 1 person

  1.   The father of one of my buddies growing up, was one of Claire Chennault’s flying tigers.  
      He was quite stern and we were intimidated by the man as kids.  He seemed to be the kind of guy who felt that children should be seen, and not heard. 
      He’s long gone now, and it’s a shame. I would very much like to have heard the things he could have said.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Did not realize the importance of India during WWII. Was surprised at the extensive use of elephants to carry and load. These little oddities always capture my attention. Thanks for the information.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “It is strange how pockets of a ‘disciplined’ force such as the Indian navy in Bombay revolted against the British Raj and joined opposing powers to fight with the Japs in Burma.” Even less known is the embarrassing fact that Indian forces comprised of students at German universities, Indian POW’s taken from Rommel’s war in North Africa, and volunteer officers directly from India were fighting as late as 1944 for the enemy in hope of gaining independence.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That is some fascinating piece of history, these snippets of history deserve to be remembered completely, I think they are amazing, the history of the past will always be remembered by our living older generation, unfortunately with our new generation, and the changing political face of our world today, our future generation will be recalling a completely different scenario, our records will be archived into the libraries of research.
    Great post.


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