Major Khathing arrives in Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh. (Source: Claude Arpi)
In the fabled history of Independent India, many citizens from its frontier regions—Ladakh and the Northeast—have significantly contributed to the process of nation-building.
Some have received due recognition while many others remain shrouded in anonymity. One such soldier, diplomat and civil servant, is Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing. Even by the remarkable standards set by some of Independent India’s most illuminating figures, Major Khathing stands tall, but very few know about his contributions.
Born into the Thangkul Naga tribe on February 8, 1912, at Ukhrul in Manipur, Khathing attended a local missionary school until Class V. An exceptionally bright student; he received a state scholarship to join the Government High School in Shillong (then the capital of a united Assam).
After passing out of school, Khathing went to the Bishop Cotton College in Guwahati, where he became the first tribal from Manipur to graduate. In a remarkable career marked by many glass-ceiling shattering moments, this was the first.
Following graduation, he started a school in Barasingha in the Darrang district of Assam, before a local British civil servant convinced him to take over the Headmaster’s position back home at the Ukhrul High School.
In 1939, however, World War II began, and Khathing decided to enrol in the British Army. However, he encountered a serious problem.
“The British rules were strict: Recruits had to be five feet four inches tall, except 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,” writes French historian Claude Arpi, who has long documented India’s presence in its frontier regions.
Following a stint of basic training in Agra under Major KS Thimayya, who later went on to become the Army chief of Independent India in 1957, Khathing was commissioned into the 19th Hyderabad Regiment (later 7th Kumaon Regiment) but soon shifted to the Assam Regiment in Shillong in 1942.
As a captain, he assisted the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) efforts against Japanese forces at Jorhat as a logistics Liaison Officer, helping them fly military transport aircrafts from India to China to resupply the Chinese war effort and the units of the USAAF based in China.
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“When Japanese choked the Burma Road, the British army formed a guerrilla outfit called ‘Victor Force’ and used hill tribals as guides and informers to the British Army to counter Japanese army. Khathing was sent to command as a local Captain of the ‘V Force’ Operation in Manipur sector to operate behind enemy lines in the Burma front.
He effectively mobilised the Tangkhul youth and leaders who brilliantly united and organised an intelligence set-up, passing information of Japanese movements to the Allied Forces. As reported, he shaved his head in a ‘Mohawk style,’ in typical Tangkhul tribesmen tradition, shed his army tunic, and purportedly slew about 200 Japanese soldiers during his command in 1942-1944,” write Dr Tuisem Ngakang, Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi and Dr Pamreihor Khashimwo, a Research Associate with Centre for Air Power Studies, in a tribute published in The Sangai Express.For his contribution to the British War effort, he was awarded the prestigious Member of the British Empire (MBE) in December 1943 and received the Military Cross in August 1944. After the war, Khathing quit the army and had a brief stint as Minister of Hills Administration for the Government of Manipur.
To the uninitiated, many princely states had taken steps towards Independence after the war. After years of British rule, Manipur began establishing a democratic form of government with the Maharaja of Manipur as its head in 1947. Unfortunately, with the threat of Burmese occupation looming large, the Maharaja felt accession to India was a better choice. After the dissolution of the Manipur Assembly, the state became a part of the Indian Union in 1949.
With the dissolution of the Manipur Assembly, Akbar Hydari, the first Governor of Assam, requested Khathing to join the Assam Rifles, where he served as an Assistant Commandant. On August 15, 1950, when the region was devastated by the Assam-Tibet earthquake, causing nearly 4800 casualties, Khathing was involved in coordinating and carrying out rescue and rehabilitation efforts.However, it was his next job that would forever etch Khathing’s name in Independent India’s history. Deputed to the Khameng Frontier Division of the then North East Frontier Agency in modern-day Arunachal Pradesh as Assistant Political Officer (APO), Khathing’s diplomatic nous, charisma and steely determination would play a critical role in bringing Tawang into the Indian Union without firing a single bullet. Complete story at....https://www.thebetterindia.com/141250/manipuri-soldier-statesman-diplomat-tawang-major-khathing/