Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing, a Naga tribal from Manipur, used his distinguished military background and exemplary diplomatic skills to win over the locals and establish Delhi’s control over the region
The country recently saw some promising developments in the North-East. The Union Government signed a historic peace accord with Nagaland’s insurgent group — the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). And though the details have not been made public, it is certainly a first step towards the restoration of peace in the region.
Then the Government decided to celebrate the birth centenary of Rani Gaidinliu, the legendary freedom fighter from Nagaland. Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a commemorative coin of hundred rupees on Rani-maa to mark the beginning of the celebrations. However, there is a true hero of independent India who has not been sufficiently honoured by the nation: It is Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing.
Born on February 8, 1912, at Ukhrul in Manipur, Bob belonged to the Tangkhul Naga tribe. Till Class V, he went to Pettigrew Mission School in Ukhrul; being extremely intelligent, the boy received a handsome State scholarship of three rupees per month. later, he joined the Government High School in Shillong, then the capital of unified Assam State and eventually studied in the Bishop Cotton College in Guwahati. He was the first tribal from Manipur to graduate.
During the World War II, as he decided to join the British Army under an Emergency Commission, he faced a serious problem. The British rules were strict: Recruits had to be five feet four inches, with the exception of the Gurkhas who could be recruited at five feet two inches. Bob, like many in the North-East, was too short, five feet three inches only. But with a clever hairstyle and the help of an understanding officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps, he made it. He was the first Manipuri to get a King’s Commission.
After his basic training in Agra, under Major KS Thimayya (later Army Chief), Bob opted to serve in a special intelligence-cum-sabotage unit, called the ‘V Force’ formed by the British in May 1942, to operate from Manipur.
For his devotion to duty and his brilliant organising skills, he was soon awarded Member of the British Empire in December 1943. later, Bob fought the Japanese so well that in August 1944, he received the military cross. What a start in the life of the young Manipuri Naga!
After World War II, acceding to a request from the Maharaja of Manipur, he took leave from the Army to join the Government of Manipur as the Minister for Hills Administration. Here too,he excelled.
When the Manipur Assembly was dissolved in 1949, he was asked by Akbar Hydari, the first Governor of Assam, to join the Assam Rifles where he served for some time as Assistant Commandant. His next assignment will forever remain in the history of India. As Assistant Political Officer in the Kameng Frontier Division of the North-East Frontier Agency, he brought Tawang under Indian administration.
In January 1951, in consultation with the Himatsinghji Border Defence Committee, then Assam Governor Jairamdas Daulatram ordered the young Naga officer to march to Tawang and take over the administration. On January 17, 1951, Bob, accompanied by Captain Hem Bahadur limbu, 200 troops of 5 Assam Rifles and 600 porters, left the foothills for his historic mission. During the following weeks, the young Manipuri showed his toughness, but also diplomatic skills.
A few days after his arrival, he selected a high-ground near the Tawang Monastery for meeting the Dzongpens, the Commissioners from Tsona in Tibet and the village elders (gaon burahs). Bob walked to the place, while 100 riflemen encircled the ground. The APO instructed his second in-command to ‘fix bayonet’: “One hundred click sounds of bayonets coming in unison seemed to say, we are even ready for blood,” wrote his biographer. Then Bob spoke to the people about the Indian nation.
It is not often mentioned, but the local Monpas were delighted by the arrival of the Khathing expedition. The Tibetan ‘administration’ only forcefully collected (in particular corvee) taxes, which the local people often could not afford to pay. Only a person with an Army background with his knowledge of the local tribes, his ‘human’ skills, could succeed in this tricky operation — and this, without a drop of blood.
Neeru Nanda, an IAS officer who was posted in Tawang in the 1980s, recalled what old villagers still remembered: After watching Khathing and his men for about a month, the village leaders came in a deputation with folded hands and grave faces. “Well sahib”, they said, “we have been watching your work and we like it but there is something that makes us very suspicious.” Khathing was quite startled: “What is itIJ” he asked. Had he done something wrongIJ “Sahib”, they said, “you do not take anything from us by way of tax, neither do you seem to be proposing to take any. This is causing grave concern to all of us.” The young officer then relaxed. “Is that allIJ” he asked them cheerfully. He then gave them a long lecture about India and its Government which would never exploit its people. It is the way Khathing conquered the hearts.
On March 18, six weeks after Bob had reached in Tawang, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a note to the Foreign Secretary: “I hear constantly about the activities of the North and North-East Border Defence Committee. These activities have resulted in action being taken on the Tibetan border and in Nepal. At no stage have these matters been brought up before me for consultation, although apparently consultations have taken place with the Governor of Assam and other people far away. …I am greatly concerned about this matter because, as I have already mentioned to you, the manner of our going to Tawang and taking possession of it and thus creating some international complications has not been a happy one. I am yet not quite clear how all this was done without any reference to me.”
Well, it was probably better for India. It was a dying Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who had got the ball rolling and decided upon the operation sometime in December 1950; he had ordered Jairamdas Daulatram to go ahead with his faithful APO. The experience of Kashmir was not to be repeated.
In 1953, Bob officially joined the newly constituted Indian Frontier Administrative Service; he was first posted Political Officer of the North-East Frontier Agency’s Tuensang Frontier Division; he then occupied several important posts in the North-East and Sikkim. During the 1962 war, he served as NEFA’s Security Commissioner.
Eventually, he was the first person from a tribal background to become Ambassador of India; he was posted in Burma in the early 1970s. Though Bob was awarded the Padma Shri in 1957, he is a fit case for the Padma Vibhushan, but having retired in his native State, Delhi has forgotten the ‘tribal’ who got back Indian territory. A rare case in India! Is it too late to posthumously offer him a well-merited recognitionIJ
(The accompanying visual is of Khathing talking to the Tibetan Commissioners and village elders in Tawang on April 23, 1951).