“His Majesty’s Headhunters: The Siege of Kohima That Shaped World History” by Mmhonlümo Kikon


It is a battle that has been called “the Stalingrad of the East”, but a more accurate description might be“India’s forgotten battle of World War II”. The Battle of Kohima, which was fought between British/Imperial and Japanese troops during 4 April through 6 June of 1944, according to author Mmhonlümo Kikon, “shaped world history”. It marked the end of Japan’s effort to invade India and join forces with the Indian independence forces against the British Raj. Kohima, Kikon writes, “saved the British empire and the Allied forces from defeat and brought them out from the jaws of death into an uncertain glory carved into their history books.”

Kikon’s book, however, is less about the battle than it is about the natives of Kohima—the Nagas—inhabitants of a mountainous region in northeast India bordering Burma who in the 19th century fought against British colonial rule, yet who in the Second World War served British forces in Kohima as porters, laborers, stretcher-bearers, scouts, and intelligence agents against the Japanese invaders. The Nagas of the 19th and early 20th centuries were known as headhunters famous for decapitating their foes “with the right blow of the dao”.


Headhunting was a source of motivation for all aspects of life in a Naga village. It gave them vigour and to the warrior a  renewed energy, translating into the virility of crops and wealth; the warrior with the most heads found stardom and a place of privilege in the eyes of his villagers.


His Majesty’s Headhunters: The Siege of Kohima That Shaped World History, Mmhonlümo Kikon (Vintage India, November 2023)
His Majesty’s Headhunters: The Siege of Kohima That Shaped World History, Mmhonlümo Kikon (Vintage India, November 2023)

Kikon devotes the first half of His Majesty’s Headhunters to narrating the British expeditions to the Naga Hills region of the Indian state of Assam beginning in the 1830s, the role of the East India Company in efforts to control Nagas and other tribes in the area, the establishment of British military posts, brutal and savage raids against British forces by Nagas and other tribes followed by equally brutal British reprisals, assassinations of British military leaders, and the establishment of successive British political administrations in several villages, culminating at Kohima in 1878. Kikon notes that the British alternated policies of conciliation and aggression, relying more on the latter than the former. These were what Kikon calls the “bloody years”, consisting of tribal raids, destruction of whole villages in and around the Naga Hills, and “several battles stretching over several years”.

Instead of exploiting the British-Naga historical rivalry, the Japanese invaders of India treated the inhabitants with the same cruelty that marred Japan’s expansion throughout the war. So as Japanese troops under the command of Lt Gen Kotuku Sato advanced to Zhavame, Khuzama, Pfushumei, Kidma, Viswema and Kikruma in early April 1944, the Nagas helped the British dig trenches to defend Kohima, even though Indian independence leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose urged them to fight against the British. With invaluable assistance from the Nagas, British forces under Maj Gen. ML John Grover effectively cut-off the supplies of the Japanese army at Kohima, resulting in Gen. Sato’s decision to abandon the village. Throughout the battle, American warplanes supplied British and imperial troops with ammunition, food, and air cover.

Kikon, a former social worker from Nagaland and a prominent member of the Bharatiya Janata Party who served in the Nagaland Legislative Assembly from 2013 to 2023, concludes the book by paying tribute to the Naga display of “courage and fortitude in the face of a determined force” and the “Naga spirit” which helped “change world history”. With more than a touch of hyperbole, Kikon writes, “The Samurai surrendered to the Naga Dao”.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.