Getting High With Renault Duster: The forgotten battle of Kohima
Getting an essence of history in the Renault Duster
The battle of Kohima was one of the fiercest battles of World War II, and we trace its location in a day with our Renault Duster. In the summer of 1944, the trees around Kohima had no leaves or branches, the stems were punctured with bullet holes and this peaceful hill station was more or less flattened akin to Dresden and Coventry, only that it wasn’t because of air raids, but the fierce combat of ground forces. It’s a chilling picture to imagine that this was India, far from the war in Europe or Asia, yet a tip on the extremities of World War II’s reach. Kohima is so far out from the capital or the eye of politicians, or from the narratives of the war, that the story of Kohima needs its due, as did the battle of Normandy and D-Day.
Getting high with the Renault Duster: To the north eastern tea estates
Standing in the heart of Kohima around the tombstones of soldiers who fought the Japanese till their last breath, it’s a spine-tingling sensation for me. Haruna, a Japanese PHD student is here taking notes on India’s take on the war; British tourists most of whom are related to soldiers who lost their lives on the slopes of Kohima are here to pay respect; several Indian army soldiers are here as well to acknowledge the sacrifice of their ancestors on this hill. Kohima’s war cemetery is one of the few cemeteries of WWII that is placed at the actual site of the battle. Kohima was a lightly guarded location as the British forces didn’t expect a major offensive here. Nagaland has about 78 per cent of its land covered in thick forests and it was even denser during the 1940s. Burma had already fallen to the Japanese forces and the British and Nagas knew that they were approaching Nagaland from Imphal. No one predicted an entire Japanese division bolstered by Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA units to run up the hills in such large numbers though.
Retracing the battlefield of Kohima with the Renault Duster
It wasn’t a war of the Nagas, yet they had no choice but to join the war, take sides with either the British or the Japanese forces. But this is a time when the Naga tribes had their own identity, not as Indians but Nagas, and there was no question of being loyal to an army that had colonised them. On the other side were INA soldiers promising to kick the British out, so the battle of Kohima is one of those wars where locals fought for both the armies. Most sided with the British-Indian army as the commanders were there to guard their land, while some helped the Japanese with rations and accommodation to sustain themselves as the war raged on for weeks.
Getting high with the Renault Duster: Driving to the highest peak in Tamil Nadu
This is probably why the battle of Kohima doesn’t have a dramatised war movie made on it or a legendary story etched in stone. There were no winners from the outcome, the Allied forces succeeded to hold off the Japanese offensive but support from the Indians was diminishing and that led to our independence eventually and the Axis finally had to retreat from Kohima leading a turnaround in their fortunes as WWII came towards an end. The Nagas were torn between supporting both sides and a reason why the Japanese soldiers didn’t destroy and plunder was that the Naga leader AZ Phizo was sympathetic to their cause. Soldiers died of starvation not during the war but during retreat on the long walk back. Even in the Japanese retreat, there were no winners. Yet historians have voted the battle of Kohima as the greatest battle in the history of Britain. History has a way of writing itself to suit its audience.
The rugged Renault Duster takes us through and through
If you aren’t yawning by now, then history interests you. But what’s that got to do with this story? Nagaland was only recently connected by air, with two flights landing every day in Dimapur. Kohima, the capital of Nagaland doesn’t even have a train station and although the two cities are just 74km away, it takes three hours of rally driving on dusty gravel roads to get there. I’d assume the roads are as bad as they used to be around the time the war was fought and the Duster feels just about right as a light transport vehicle to go through rough roads and river crossings. Crossing the stream to get to the stunning village of Khonoma, the drive feels like an accomplishment of sorts, retracing the routes the army supply vehicles took to get to troops or the strategic retreats the allied forces made till they got to the tennis court in Kohima where the final chapter of the siege of Kohima was seen. We are a million times more comfortable, the Duster riding over everything with ease and poise that has made it our preferred companion on so many adventures.
In this part of the world, only the tough survive. The soldiers lived on biscuits and jam for days on end, the locals had their crops burnt in the war yet they survived from the plants in the forests. There is no excuse now for the lack of infrastructure or the retarded speeds at which the highways are being built, but to have the Duster’s fleet-footedness handy on the rocky trails in the Naga heartland feels like the right tool to win this war of a drive as we retrace the actual war that punched our country and recoiled with equal force.
A capable SUV, the Renault Duster
Kohima must be celebrated by us all, given its due by the government and the armed forces and recognized for the toughness and resilience of everyone associated with that war. It’s bizarre because there were five clear sides fighting a two-team war, the Brits won and the Japs lost, but the Nagas, Indian forces in the British army and the INA endured, and they barely speak of such a significant chapter in history. The resilience is reflected in the Duster that takes a look at terribly ravaged roads and just gets on with it. Where other SUVs are hatchbacks wearing big-boy pants the Renault Duster is, at its very core, a proper SUV. It is capable. Every time we drive it we return with praise, with amazement at its abilities, and with plans to chart out adventures and push further into even more remote corners of our country — areas where there are no airports, no railways, no roads, just dusty tracks for the Duster to hammer over. After all, if there’s one thing our country doesn’t lack, it is untold stories.
Words by Anand Mohan