This is the story of Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, who joined the Assam Rifles in 1949. Many individuals have made significant contributions to the building of Modern India, but while some have achieved due recognition, the contributions of many have remained largely unknown. The sterling contribution made by Major Khathing of Assam Rifles to the India story is one such tale which lies largely forgotten, despite the impact of his contribution to India’s security and territorial integrity.
Born on 28 February1912, Khathing was commissioned into the 19th Hyderabad Regiment (later 7th Kumaon Regiment) in May 1941. A year later he was transferred to the Assam Regiment. A British officer, finding the pronunciation of his name, ‘Relengnao’ as being a bit too difficult for his tongue, decided to call him Bob, and that was the name Khathing came to be known by. During World War II, he served in the famous V Force and for his gallantry was awarded the Military Cross (MC). He also received the Award of Member of the British Empire (MBE).
When India became independent, Bob resigned his commission and was inducted into the interim government of Manipur State in October 1947 as the Minister in charge of Hills Administration. Consequent to merger of Manipur into India in May 1950, Major Khathing joined 2 Assam Rifles as an Assistant Commandant at Sadiya, as an interim arrangement. Later, he was inducted as an administrator for areas under NE Frontiers Administration, then under Ministry of External Affairs.
This was the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS) and Bob Khathing was inducted as an Assistant Political Officer (APO) in November 1950 in Tirap Division and was posted to Pasighat. The aim was to extend the administrative reach of the government to the remotest part of the country, so as to secure India’s land frontier. This entailed days together of foot slogging, to open new administrative posts in the interiors of NEFA.
At that time, the atmosphere in Tibet was tense, with the Red Chinese invasion looming large. So, Tibetans, who did not like the taste of regimented life under communism, fled their country. These fugitives, who later became refugees, poured into all routes of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). Pasighat was one such refugee concentration centre. Bob did refugee rehabilitation work for the fleeing Tibetans. In January 1951, he was shifted to Kameng. Major Geoffrey Allens was the Political Officer. The Headquarters of Kameng Agency was located at Charduar at the foot hills in Assam and Bob was posted as A.P.O. of Sela Sub-Agency.
The Governor of Assam of that time was Shri Jairamdas Daulatram. Before shifting Bob from Tirap to Kameng, the Governor summoned him to Shillong for an interview. The Governor told Bob that his job as A.P.O., Sela, was to occupy Tawang and extend Indian administration up to that place. He was to establish an advance administrative headquarters at Tawang and stay put there. The good soldier said okay to the Governor and left Shillong for Charduar to plan his Tawang expedition” wrote Col Bhubon Singh.
The move to Tawang
Khathing’s arduous journey started from Charduar, Assam with Captain Hem Bahadur Limbu and a team of soldiers from 5 Assam Rifles on 17 January 1951. This was the first expedition to negotiate extremely inhospitable terrain in sub-zero temperatures, and Bob Khathing with his team of Assam Rifles soldiers reached Tawang on 6 February 1951. The frontier region was sparsely populated and the road network was practically non-existent.
To establish Indian presence upto the extent of the McMahon Line, which was demarcated as the border between India and Tibet in 1914, under the terms of the Simla Treaty, required covering the area by foot over very difficult terrain. This, Maj Khathing and his troop of 5 Assam rifles, successfully accomplished. He then met and interacted with a number of ‘gaonbudhas’ (village headmen) and quickly and effectively established authority over Tawang and the Indian tricolour was hoisted on 9 February 1951. Indian administrative presence was thus established in this remote part of the country.
Khathing’s arduous journey started from Charduar, Assam with Captain Hem Bahadur Limbu and a team of soldiers from 5 Assam Rifles on 17 January 1951.
It is believed that Prime Minister Nehru was not kept informed of this move of Major Khathing. In a note to his Foreign Secretary of March 18, a mere six weeks after Bob Khathing had successfully accomplished his mission, the Prime Minister expressed his displeasure at not being consulted, though apparently, consultations had taken place with the Governor of Assam. “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,” Nehru wrote.
It transpires that the orders were given by Sardar Patel, the Home Minister, and the Governor was told to undertake this operation, without taking Nehru into confidence, as he did not want a repeat of the Kashmir situation.
Between 1954 to 57 Bob Khathing looked after Tuensang and when the Naga Insurgency began to flare up he was made the Deputy Commissioner of Mokokchung. In 1957 he was instrumental in hosting the Naga People’s Conference at Kohima, leading to the Agreement with the Government of India and the creation of the State of Nagaland. On Republic Day, 1957, Khathing was awarded the Padma Shri.
In 1962, from his assignment as Developmental Commissioner of Sikkim, he was sent to Tezpur as Chief Civil Liaison Officer for HQ 4 Corps. there he organised a second line of defence, modeled on the line of V-Force and the Village Guard. Thus was born the Special Security Bureau.
In 1971 he was deputed as Ambassador to Burma. In 1997 and further, he was appointed Advisor to the Governor of Manipur. On 12 January 1990, while dining with his best friend Maharaj Kumar Priyobarta Singh, another former Assam Regiment Officer, at his cottage Valley View, Mantripokhri, Imphal, he had a fatal heart attack. His funeral was attended by a large gathering of family, friends, tribal and political leaders, senior Army officers and also Colonel Bhat and Yambem Laba.
During this entire period, Bob Khathing worked closely with the Assam Rifles, and the Force came to be considered as part of the administrative machinery and not merely as a security force. This close tripartite inter-dependence of the tribal population, civil administration and Assam Rifles earned the Force a phrase from Verrier Elwin as follows: “Friends of the Hill people” and “pioneer of every advance into the interiors”.
This adroit, assiduous, determined war hero, clean humanitarian administrator and dedicated teacher, all rolled into one passed away on 14 January 1990 at Imphal. But his legacy lives on, and it is due to his determination, administrative acumen and leadership that India could extend its administration to the very extreme end of its border with Tibet as defined by the McMahon Line. The role played by Assam rifles in this saga is also praiseworthy beyond compare.
(with inputs from Lt Col Anil Bhat, VSM and Imphal based journalist Yambem Laba)