War embers that continue to simmer

In considering the Chinese invitation to the anniversary celebrations of V-J Day, India will have to disentangle the historical and contemporary dimensions. While there is good reason to participate, New Delhi needs to ensure that the event does not stoke Asian nationalisms

Updated - June 04, 2016 12:27 pm IST

Published - August 17, 2015 12:57 am IST

"The tightening strategic ties between India and Japan are obviously spurred by common concerns about China’s muscle-flexing in Asia." Photo shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a signing ceremony at the state guest house in Tokyo on September 1, 2014.

"The tightening strategic ties between India and Japan are obviously spurred by common concerns about China’s muscle-flexing in Asia." Photo shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a signing ceremony at the state guest house in Tokyo on September 1, 2014.

Wars are invariably associated with dates. Yet the global conflict that we call the Second World War is surprisingly difficult to date, especially in Asia. There are several options for its beginning: the Japanese invasion of Manchuria on September 18, 1931; the onset of the full-scale Sino-Japanese war on July 7, 1937; the British declaration of war against Germany on September 3, 1939; the Japanese attacks on various Asian countries starting December 7-8, 1941, depending on your time zone. The end of the war in Asia can similarly be dated to August 14-15, when the Japanese Emperor announced the surrender; or the formal surrender ceremony on September 2, 1945. The Chinese, for their part, have always observed September 3 as “Victory in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression”.

In some ways, the Second World War in Asia has yet to end. The controversies over the war are now overlaid on current geopolitical competition — and they are mutually aggravating. In a time of tension with Japan, it is not surprising that China has decided to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan (V-J) Day with a massive military parade on September 3. It is equally unsurprising that Japan has accused China of politicising the event. More interesting is Beijing’s decision to invite contingents from other countries, including India, to join the parade.

A case for Indian participation From New Delhi’s standpoint, the invitation presents a delicate choice. Given the >participation of an Indian military contingent as well as the President of India in the celebrations in Moscow earlier this year, it would seem churlish to skip the Chinese parade. At the same time, India is mindful of Japanese concerns on this issue. Over the past year, New Delhi has sought to work closely with Tokyo on matters relating to security — not just bilaterally but also with other countries such as the United States and Australia. The tightening strategic ties between India and Japan are obviously spurred by common concerns about China’s muscle-flexing in Asia.

Then again, the historical case for Indian participation in the Chinese parade is rather strong. During the Second World War, China and India were military allies against Japan. The foundations of this forgotten alliance were laid in the early 1930s, when Indian nationalists strongly supported China during the Japanese aggression in Manchuria and also denounced the League of Nations for averting its eyes. Political support for China grew stronger from 1937 onwards. It is worth recalling that when the war broke out in Europe in September 1939, Jawaharlal Nehru was in China, where he not only met the Chinese leadership but also experienced Japanese bombing raids. In early 1942, Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek visited India to persuade the British as well as the nationalist leadership to work together in the war against Japan. Although Chiang’s political efforts failed, the Indian and Chinese armies were soon fighting together in Burma. They were also together in the humiliating retreat from Burma.

Over the next two years, some 60,000 Chinese soldiers trained in Ramgarh (Bihar) under American supervision. The U.S. Army Air Force undertook a massive effort from Indian airbases to fly over the Himalayas to supply Chiang’s forces in China. Hundreds of thousands of Indian labourers were mobilised to construct and supply these aerodromes as well as to work on the famous “Ledo Road” connecting Assam and Kunming. Chinese divisions, in turn, were part of the Allied forces — consisting largely of Indian units — that returned to Burma in mid-1944.

In Burma, the Indian Army was instrumental in inflicting the most serious land defeat suffered by Japan in the war. Few recall today that Indian units were also part of the Allied occupation of Japan after the war. An Indian brigade, comprising three infantry battalions that had performed well against the Japanese forces, was sent to Japan in March 1946. Commanded successively by two future chiefs of the Indian Army — K.S. Thimayya and S.M. Shrinagesh — the brigade was involved in a host of reconstruction activities, including supervision of the first post-war elections under the new Japanese constitution in 1946-47. In short, India has sound historical reasons to mark the 70th anniversary of V-J Day alongside China.

Conflict over memory and history The problem, of course, is the continuing conflict over memory and history of the war. The Chinese and the South Koreans feel that Japan has never really come to terms with its past aggression nor genuinely atoned for its brutal war-time record. To be sure, Japanese leaders have apologised on several occasions, but these are seen as evasive and insincere. Given the make-up of post-war Japanese governments, this is understandable.

For the past seven decades, Japan has been ruled all but exclusively by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — an entity that is actually the carrier of pre-war conservative genes in Japanese politics. Among the leading ornaments of the LDP was Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi: an accused but not indicted “Class A” war criminal, who also happens to be the maternal grandfather of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The party was also led by Yasuhiro Nakasone, who, in 1985, began the practice of visiting the Yasukuni shrine, where several leading war criminals are “enshrined”. Such visits became rather more frequent during the tenure of another LDP Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who also shares the dubious distinction with Nakasone of visiting on August 15. Shinzo Abe refrained from going to Yasukuni in his first term, but has since visited in December 2013. By contrast, the clearest statement of apology was issued by Tomiichi Murayama — from the Japan Socialist Party who led a coalition with the LDP — in 1995.

Impact of Japan’s conduct It is interesting to note, however, that disputes over Japan’s war-time conduct were not prominent in the early post-war period. When Japan’s ties with South Korea were normalised in 1965, Seoul accepted a reparations agreement, albeit on American prodding. When ties with China began to be normalised from 1972, Beijing dropped the question of reparations altogether. Why then has Japan’s war-time conduct become such a charged issue in more recent decades?

On the one hand, the LDP has sought more vigorously to blur Japan’s record of aggression and brutality during the war. Paradoxically, this is because the Japanese people — especially those born after the war — have deeply internalised notions of pacifism and opposition to the nationalism and patriotism that are seen as drivers of past aggression. Visits to Yasukuni as well as the drive to rewrite history textbooks are attempts at revising popular consciousness and kindling patriotism. By doing so, the LDP has also sought to cement its hold on the families of war veterans, who remain a key source of electoral strength for the party. This inwardly driven agenda naturally impacts on how other countries perceive Tokyo’s apologies and denials.

On the other hand, with the demise of Marxism as a state ideology in China, consciousness of the war has gathered greater public salience. The version of nationalism purveyed by the Chinese Communist Party is a cocktail of several ingredients, including the memory of the Japanese jackboot. Further, as China and Japan are locked in dispute over islands in the East China Sea — another hold-over from the war period — the history and memory of those years have acquired additional layers of complexity.

In his carefully prepared statement on the 70th anniversary, Mr. Abe >sought to address multiple audiences . He used words such as “aggression”, “colonial domination” and “deep remorse”, but couched them as observations on previous apologies that he was reaffirming. He also spoke of the devastation visited by Japan on other Asian countries, but only after talking of Japan’s own war-time suffering. He was surely right in insisting that while the Japanese people should never forget the war, future generations should not be “predestined to apologize”. Yet, his affirmation of the need for remembrance would have carried more conviction, if he had addressed Japanese agency in kick-starting the war rather than presenting it as a victim of world historical forces. Both Beijing and Seoul were quick to criticise the speech as inadequate. The history wars look set to continue.

So, in considering the Chinese invitation, New Delhi will have to disentangle the historical and contemporary dimensions of this anniversary. While there is good reason to participate, we also need to ensure that the event does not provide further fuel to Asian nationalisms. Unless history ceases to be used either to rouse popular passions or cudgel erstwhile adversaries into contrition, the Second World War in Asia will never really end.

(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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