Major Bob Khathing: A soldier, civil servant and diplomat

This is the story of an unsung hero, Maj Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur. He was the first person of tribal origin to serve as an ambassador for India and played a vital role in integrating Tawang with the union of India.

Maj Khathing was born on 8 February, 1912, in Ukhrul in Manipur and was the first tribal from Manipur to graduate. During World War-II he became the first Manipuri to get the King’s Commission. He was commissioned into the 19th Hyderabad Regiment (later the 7th Kumaon Regiment) and later served under the then Major Thimmayya (later chief of army staff and commander-in-chief, Indian Army) at the Regimental Training Centre, Agra.

Maj Khating was soon posted for ‘V-Force’ ops at Jorhat as the local captain, Manipur sector, to operate behind enemy lines on the Burma front. He effectively mobilized the Tangkhul youth and leaders as volunteer aides. With 5000 youths, he moved his HQ to Sunle in Kabaw Valley in southeast Manipur, which was under threat from Japanese forces. He organized an intelligence setup, passing information of Japanese movements. He purportedly slew about 200 Japanese soldiers during his command in 1942-1944. He also faced a bullet when Japanese overran Shanshak and Ukhrul.

Maj Khathing operated in the battlefield at the frontline and in just three years (1942-1945), he was awarded the prestigious Member of the British Empire in December, 1943, and received the Military Cross in August 1944 for valour, bravery and initiative. He was only 32 years old when he got the Military Cross in 1947. He resigned from the army on insistence of his tribe and to work for their welfare.

Maj Khathing joined the interim government of Manipur as a minister in 1947. As the Maharaja of Manipur signed an instrument of accession, he resigned as a minister.

Akbar Hydari, the first governor of Assam, requested Maj Khathing to join the Assam Rifles, where he served as an assistant commandant in the 2nd battalion of the force. On 15 August, 1950, when the region was devastated by the Assam-Tibet earthquake, causing nearly 4,800 casualties, he was involved in coordinating and carrying out rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

After China occupied Tibet in 1951, the Indian government wanted to establish administrative outposts in key places with the backing of the Assam Rifles to ensure Indian administration in the remote corners of India.

Maj Khathing, who had joined the Indian Frontier Administrative Services (IFAS) in October 1950, was deputed to the Kameng frontier division of the then North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in modern-day Arunachal Pradesh as assistant political officer (APO), Sela, by the governor of Assam.

He was tasked to integrate Tawang and secure Indian administrative control up to the McMahon Line. On 17 January, 1951, he marched towards Tawang from Lokhra with three platoons of the 5th Assam Rifles.

They moved cross-country. A few days after his arrival, he met 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. While soldiers were ready to battle in the event of an impasse in talks, APO Khathing used his diplomatic skills to win over the locals.

On 11 February, 1951, Bob made a courtesy call on the abbot of the Tawang monastery and presented the monks with gifts, clothing and food. He requested for their assistance to influence the locals to accept the accession to the union of India. He assured of no taxes and respectful treatment to women. The rural monks found Bob a better choice than the autocratic dzongpens. Finally, he raised the tricolor in Tawang on 14 February, four years after independence, thus integrating Tawang into the union of India and building up Indian administrative control of the town and territory of Bumla on the McMahon Line without firing a single bullet.

A spot in Bomdila called ‘Khathing Point’ is named after this valiant soldier. For more than a year, Bob continued as APO, Sela. Then he took over as political officer of Kameng division in April 1952 and shifted his headquarters from Charduar (in Assam) to Bomdila.

During the peak of Naga insurgency in Naga Hills district of Assam and the Tuensang division of NEFA, Maj Khathing was the sole in-charge of the Tuensang division. To quell the uprising, the Indian Army moved in and Kohima became the centre of military operations.

On Maj Bob’s persistent requests, Tuensang division was removed from the NEFA and was directly administered by the Centre to assist in military operations. He further streamlined the civil and military operations by amalgamating Tuensang division with the Naga Hills.

Later, when the Naga Hills ultimately became a full-fledged state of India on 1 December, 1963, Tuensang became a part of Nagaland. It can be said quite rightly that Tuensang was a gift of Bob Khathing to Nagaland. He also contributed in the establishment of the Village Volunteer Force. After four years at the post, he was promoted as the first deputy commissioner of Mokokchung district.

The 1962, he was posted as the development commissioner of Sikkim but the tenure was short-lived. It was followed by stints across various administrative positions in the Northeast as a member of the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (a civil service unit operating in the Northeast tribal frontier regions, soon merged with the IAS).

The Indo-China War broke out in 1961-62. Bob was appointed the security commissioner of the NEFA and chief civil liaison officer with the army’s 4 Corps stationed at Tezpur. He contributed immensely in the formation of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a paramilitary force established following the 1962 war. Khathing became the chief secretary of Nagaland in 1967 and the Nagaland Armed Police and the Naga Regiment were established during his tenure.

He also extended his services to the IB for citing 12 advanced landing grounds for aiding the forward policy.

Maj Bob Khathing became the first Indian tribal to become an ambassador when he was selected as the Indian ambassador to Burma in 1972. He worked in Burma for three years and retired from service in 1975. He then served as the advisor to the governor of Manipur on an honorary basis as chairman of the Tribal Law Commission and the Administrative Reforms Commission, as well as the chairman of the Administrative Commission of Nagaland and chairman of the Administrative Commission, Nagaland. He served as a member of the committee to finalize the 16-point agreement that led to the 1975 Shillong Accord and the formation of the state of Nagaland.

He helped in bringing down the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ on the military junta in Myanmar. He successfully tackled the 800-km-long Indo-Myanmar border issue discreetly, fairly and amicably with Burma.

For his varied services to the nation, he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1957. This adroit, assiduous, determined war hero, clean humanitarian, administrator and dedicated teacher all rolled into one passed away on 12 January, 1990. His work has created a long-lasting impression and this country will always be in debt to this son of the soil who remains a source of motivation for the generations to follow, and his legacy lives on. (Defence PRO)