Dr Tuisem Ngakang & Dr Pamreihor Khashimwo
Be he brave or be he knave
Be nowhere in our thoughts
And if courageously he done
Or if he succumbed un-glorified
We care never to be taught
… No matter what we speak and say
Even less of our deeds today
(Extract from a Poem Of A Soldier’s Passing by Peter Reynosa)
History is sometimes deliberately selective, some remain unrecorded, some heroes unglorified, some sacrifices are not documented and publicised. Such is the story of Major Bob Ralengnao Khathing, a war hero, civil servant, teacher and diplomat. The first person of tribal origin to serve as an Ambassador for India and played a weighty role in the annexation of Arunachal Pradesh to the Union of India. The British Army awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his service during World War II. He played an important role in rescuing the 50 Para-Brigade at Shangshak, which was surrounded by Japanese forces from March 21 to 26, 1944. For that gallant action, he was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE). In 1957, he was awarded Padma Shree, the fourth highest civilian award by the Government of India for his exemplary sacrifice and valour.
The story of Bob Ralengnao Khathing remains forgotten and covert for so many years from public view, discourse, and expunge from memories. It is reported that Dalai Lama can substantiate his story with plenteous exactness and long-winded knowledge of Khathing involvement in Tawang voyage. There is no well-documented story, scholarly accounts, and an official statement from central government and state government to praise, sing, and glorify his act of valour and sacrifice to the nation, except few strewn reports, writings, and concealed records. Here, we reinvent, purloined, and rationalized newspaper reports, blogs, articles, etc. and with verbalised perspective from the community, he belongs to.
Ralengnao Khathing, Tangkhul tribe was born on February 1912 in Ukhrul, Manipur. He studied at Kangpokpi Mission ME School, Johnstone Higher Secondary School, Imphal, and joined Cotton College, Guwahati and become a first tribal graduate from Manipur. After graduation, he started school in Barasingha, Darrang district, Assam and taught before he was convinced by SJ Duncan, British sub-divisional magistrate, Ukhrul to return to Ukhrul High School as a Headmaster. In 1939, when World War II advanced worldwide, 27 years old Ralengnao Khathing enrolled in the British army and was sent to the Officer’s Training in Dehradun. In 1941, he got King’s Commission and commissioned into the 19th Hyderabad Regiment (latter 7th Kumaon Regiment) and was shifted to the Assam Regiment in Shillong and became a captain in 1942, shortly worked with USAAF contingent at Jorhat for the ‘Hump Lift’ as a logistic Liaison Officer.
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 intelligence set up, passing information of Japanese movements to the Allied Forces. As reported, he shaved his head like ‘Mohawk style,’ typical Tangkhul tribesmen tradition and shed his army tunic during the operation and purportedly slew about 200 Japanese soldiers during his command in 1942-1944. Ralengnao played jamboree with the Japanese, hit and run kind of war.
After World War II, Major Bob Ralengnao Khathing resigned from the army and went back to Manipur in 1947 and joined the then interim government as Minister in charge of Hills Administration on the assiduous request of his close associate, the then Maharaja of Manipur, Kumar Priyabrata Singh. In 1948, he was elected to the first Manipur Legislative Assembly, representing Saikul Sardar Hills constituency and become Minister for Hills Administration & Manipur Riffles till the interim government was dissolved in October 1949 when Manipur joined the Union of India.
In 1950, again he joined 2nd Assam Rifles on the request of the then Governor of Assam, Sir Akbar Hydari, where he served for some time as Assistant Commandant in Sadiya. He was actively involved in the rescue and rehabilitation work during the Assam Tibet earthquake occurred on August 15, where the fatalities were recorded for a total of approximately 4800 deaths. Ralengano was appointed as an Assistant Political Officer in the Kameng Frontier Division of the NEFA. In 1950, the then Governor of Assam, Jairamdas Daulatram asked Bob Khathing to raised an armed expeditionary force to annex the kingdom of the Dzongpen of Tawang (presence Arunachal Pradesh) and established Indian administrative control.
The expedition of 200 soldiers under Bob Khathing command started from Lokra on January 1951, they managed to reach the first frontier post of Tibet Dzong at Bomdila area along McMahon line. Bob and his expeditionary force reached Tawang on February 1951 and erected Indian flag for the first time, six years after India’s independence. Following many negotiations and meetings with the local people, Bob Khathing signed the treaty of accession to the Union of India with Nyertsang on behalf of the Republic of India, under the powers vested on him by the Governor of Assam and paid a ‘Nazrana’ of Rupees 1000 to Nyertsang, as a token of appreciation. And he becomes the first Indian to do so and achieved what the British Government had failed to do since 1914 when the McMohan Line was first drawn.
Bob Khathing appointed Major TC Allen, the British political and intelligence officer to administer the Kingdom till the Republic of India could dispatch representatives. Allen called the Kingdom of the Dzongpen of Tawang, as the ‘North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). After the successful accession ceremony without firing a shot, Bob returned to Assam leaving the expeditionary force in charge to Allen. Later the Governor, Jairamdas Daulatram and Bob Khathing flew to Delhi to meet Nehru, the Prime Minister of India. It is reported that Nehru was not happy with Jairamdas and Bob Khathing, as Khathing made the Tawang expedition without the nod of the Union External Affairs Ministry, which controlled NEFA and without a reference to Nehru. Subsequently, the successful expedition and accession of NEFA to Union of India under the courageous leadership of Bob Khathing experienced from the period of oblivion and brush his contributions under carpet for so many years.
However, Bob Ralengnao Khathing has not faded away. In 1953, Khathing becomes one of the two officers of Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS) and posted at Tuensang Frontier Division as a Political Officer and played a key role in the creation of the Village Volunteer Force. In 1957, he was sent as the first Deputy Commissioner of Mokokchung District. Following in 1961 Khathing became one the first Indian citizen to study at the National Defence College and on the completion of the course in 1962, he was sent to Sikkim as the Development Commissioner. As Sino-Indian War broke out, he was sent as the Security Commissioner of NEFA, and also Chief Civil Liaison Officer with the Army IV Corps, Tezpur. It is said that he played an active role in the creation of Shastra Seema Bal (SSB), following the 1962 war.
After the Sino-Indian War, he became the Chief Secretary of Nagaland in 1967. Notably, Nagaland Armed Police and Naga Regiment were created during his tenure as the Chief Secretary. He played a crucial role in bringing peace and prosperity to Nagaland. Significantly, on the verge of his career in 1972, Bob Khathing became the first Indian tribal ambassador and posted as the India Ambassador to Burma (now Myanmar). It is said that he helped to bring the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ down on the Military Junta in Myanmar. Also, he successfully tackled the 800 km long Indo-Myanmar border issue discreetly, fairly and amicably with Burma. Khathing retired from active service in 1975. He declined the post of gubernatorial, however, served as the advisor to the Governor of Manipur in an honorary capacity, and Chairman, Tribal Law Commission and Administrative Reforms Commission and Chairman of the Administrative Commission, Nagaland. He also served as a member of the committee to finalise the 16 points agreement representing India that led to the Shillong Accord of 1975 and formation of the state of Nagaland. He passed away at his home, Imphal on 12 January 1990 having done his duty well as faithful soldiers, civil servant and diplomat and made a splendorous contribution to Indian nation building.
It is said that he administrative skills, strategic thinking and courageous move are still talked about in the Tawang-Bomdila-Tenga areas of Arunachal Pradesh. A place in Bomdila is also named ‘Khathing Point to his memories.’ His name is mentioned in almost all serious records on the history of Tawang. Though Tawang and Bomdila still remember and acknowledge Khathing’s contribution, sadly central government and his own state Manipur have forgotten him. Even in his native Ukhrul, Khathing is barely remembered with veneration.
Bob Ralengna oKhathing, who played an important role in the history of India, faded among the vast multitude of India, faceless and without acknowledgement and identity. Delhi has forgotten the tribal gentleman and hero who brought Indian Territory. None recognised and remember Bob for almost 30 years, the only consolation gesture received today is the Football Tournament in memory of unsung hero organised by 27th Assam Rifles (Somsai) and Ukhrul District Sports Association (UDSA). This is a respectable move and beautiful tribute, yet Bob deserved much more than what we are doing today. The story and contributions of Major Ralengnao Khathing unequivocally demand recognition and become relevance in history of modern India.
(Dr Tuisem Ngakang works as Assistant Professor, University of Delhi while Dr Pamreihor Khashimwo is Research Associate, Centre for Air Power Studies)