Saturday, March 24, 2012

English debutante led Nagas against Japanese in WWII

Ursula Graham Bower

Mar 23, 2012 - SARJU KAUL: Former debutante, Ursula Graham Bower, from a upper-class British family, found fame across the world in the turbulent years of World War II as the “Naga queen” for leading some 200-odd Naga warriors to repel Japanese incursions in Northeast India.

Born on May 15, 1914, Ursula first visited Nagaland at the invitation of a friend and fell in love with the place so much that she went back to England and prepared to come and live on her own in the area.
Ursula, who could not go for higher studies, decided to return to Nagaland as an anthropologist. “She thought if she was going to do this, she might as well be a bit useful. She consulted some people and they said that the Naga people had not been properly documented at all. There were very few records and certainly no visual records. In a quite ground-breaking way, she invested in a cine camera and took proper movie footage much of which actually survives,” says Vicki Thomas, who has written Ursula’s biography, called The Naga Queen.

She lived in a village and documented Naga tribal life and her anthropological work is preserved in the museums in Oxford and Cambridge.

However, she found international fame for leading a Naga force to repel attacks by the Japanese. “A group of Naga headmen from different tribes had a meeting and they sent a small deputation to her and they said they realised there was a threat from the Japanese and that they would like her to lead them and give them guidance,” says Vicki. Later the British administration asked Ursula to do something to draw the Naga tribes together and train them and also coordinate them in the area where the Japanese threat was the greatest.

She was given charge of her own group of Nagas under the aegis of the V Force, a reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering organisation established by the British in undivided Northeast India, and it was called the Bower Force.

Before the end of the war and after the Japanese threat had been obliterated in her area, on the request of the British she ran a jungle warfare school and trained British military personnel, including those from Royal Air Force, how to survive in jungles.

Her real fame was during the World War II when there was even a comic book about her in the United States. “The most extraordinary and irritating thing,” Ursula wrote about the comic book to her mother, and added that some of the cartoons were quite absurd.

The Americans were the ones who described Ursula as the “White Queen” and the “Naga Queen,” says Vicki.

“The Naga people were not ones for titles at all — and they never referred to Ursula as any sort of ‘noble’ — it was a name coined by, I believe, the American press — and it stuck, although she never recognised it either. There were some daft articles published referring to her as the ‘white queen of the Nagas’ and suchlike. All hype!”

“The proposal of marriage from a Naga headhunter is fiction. It seems to be one of the fantasies promoted by the Americans about her, says Vicki. The proposal of marriage was unlikely from a tribal, she adds.

Ursula met British Indian Army officer Lt. Col. Frederick Nicholson Betts, who was better known as Tim, when he was serving in V Force in Burma during World War II. They got married in July 1945.

An ornithologist, he had heard of Ursula and thought she was the kind of woman he would like to marry. He contacted her and said he would like to go up the hills and hunt for butterflies and asked her permission to stay at her camp.

He and his aide arrived at the camp on foot and he was aware that there were only three possibilities of his future with her, reveals Vicki. “Either she is going to be a dragon and I won’t have her anyway, or she is going to be absolutely gorgeous and she won’t have me and the other one will be that she is a peach and she will accept,” he told his aide before meeting Ursula.

About three days into his stay, he put on his best uniform, went to Ursula’s hut and out of blue proposed to her. Despite the suddenness and many proposals of marriages she had rejected, Ursula found herself saying yes and they had two daughters and were together till he died in 1973.

After war, Ursula left India and never visited Nagaland again. She was awarded an MBE and the Lawrence Medal and did a lot to promote the Naga cause in the 1960s when they were fighting to maintain their independence.

Ursula wrote two books, The Naga Path, which was about her experiences in Nagaland, and Heavy Land, about the uncharted area near Tibet where she moved with her husband after marriage.

She enrolled in the University of London and did a post-graduate degree without ever having a graduation and wrote her thesis on crop rotation by the Naga tribes, but it was never published.

Ursula died on November 12, 1988, and her elder daughter, Catriona Child Kakroo, lives in New Delhi with her Kashmiri husband. Her younger daughter Alison is a professor of archaeology at the Sydney University.

“I am a writer but I didn’t feel comfortable or distant enough to write a book on my mother from the papers we had,” says Catriona.

“I think it was better that someone from outside came in, took a balanced look at her life rather than someone from within the family. I wanted a book to be written, I am also keen that a documentary or a film is made on my mom. I would like something to be made while my sister and I are still alive to provide a living link.”

Source:  The Asian Age

No comments:

Post a Comment