By Yambem Laba
TAWANG was lately in the news because of the unfortunate demise of Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Dorjee Khandu, who hailed from the area, in an unfortunate helicopter crash. But last year Tawang made headlines for a totally different reason: China`™s reassertion of its claim over the area prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare time and again that Arunachal Pradesh was an integral part of India. The Chinese claim is nothing new. In 1962, they attacked India and occupied the entire area, almost reaching the foothills near Tezpur. The abrupt Indian withdrawal then prompted Jawaharalal Nehru`™s infamous statement that `my heart goes out to the people of Assam`, meaning that the Indian Army was withdrawing to defend the Indian mainland, leaving Assam and the entire North-east to the Chinese.
Why that country withdrew thereafter is for contemporary historians to ponder, but the fact remains that as late as 1951 the entire area up to Dirang Dzong was under Tibetan administration, long after the Indian tricolour had been hoisted at the Red Fort on 15 August 1947. Dzong in Tibetan means a fort, where sat the magistrates or dzongpens to administer the area. That is why the Chinese had once stated that Tawang would have been their territory had it not been for Manipuri adventurer Major Bob Khathing who, in 1951, occupied the area for India. The truth is that while the McMahon Line was laid as early as 1914 between British India and Tibet, with the Chinese refusing to participate in the deliberations, it had never been demarcated `” meaning the border lines were never laid out on the ground. That was when Khathing became a legend in his own lifetime.
Born Ranenglao Khathing on 28 February 1912 in Manipur`™s Ukhrul district, he was a Tangkhul Naga. He studied initially at Sir Johnstone High School in Imphal, completed his matriculation from Shillong and later joined Cotton College in Guwahati. Though he failed to clear his BA examinations in 1936, he was determined not to return home until he had his degree. So he went to Harasingha in Assam`™s Darrang district, founded a middle elementary school and planted a tree that stands to this day. He cleared his examinations in 1937, the same year SJ Duncan, the British subdivisional officer of Ukhrul, asked him to come back and teach. By 1939, Khathing was serving as headmaster of Ukhrul High School, and when World War II broke out over Europe and soon found reflections across Asia, he bade the blackboard farewell and enrolled at the Officer`™s Training School.
Commissioned into the 9/11 Hyderabad Regiment, he had General Thimaya as his company commander and there was another person who was later to became Chief of Army Staff `” General TN Raina.
By 1942, Khathing was transferred to the newly raised Assam Regiment in Shillong and became a captain. It was in the officer`™s mess at Jorhat that he acquired the name Bob. Apparently the Americans found it difficult to pronounce `Ranenglao` and instead called him Robert, then truncated that to Bob. It was also at this time that the Allied Forces fighting the Japanese decided to raise V-Force, a guerrilla outfit like Wingate`™s famed Chindits but comprising hill people of the region, led by an Allied officer. These people, because of the topography and their ability to live off the land, sometimes operated 150 miles from the nearest supply base and inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese behind their own lines, acting as a screen for the 14th Army of the Allied forces.
Khathing was sent to command a V-Force group in the Ukhrul area, his happy hunting ground. He shed his army tunic, shaved his head like a typical Tangkhul tribesman, with a thick mane running down the middle of his scalp. Mohawk style. On his back he carried a basket with dried meat and salt, rations for two weeks, and concealed his gun in his Tangkhul shawl. It is believed that he himself killed some 120 Japanese soldiers. He was awarded the Military Cross and made a Member of the British Empire.
With the war won, he was, on request by the late Maharaj Kumar Priyabrata Singh, returned to Manipur in 1947 and joined the then interim government as minister in charge of the hill areas. In 1949, when Manipur merged with India following the now controversial merger agreement, the interim government was dissolved and Khathing, by his own admission, found himself `without a job for six months`.
That was when Sir Akbar Hydari, then Assam governor, asked him to join the Assam Rifles as a stopgap measure. He served with the 2nd Assam Rifles in Sadiya and by 1951 he was inducted into the Indian Frontier Administrative Service as an assistant political officer. Summoned by then Assam governor Jairamdas Daulatram, he was asked, `Do you know Tawang?` He was then given a `secret` file to study and told to `go and bring Tawang under Indian administration`. This task could not be implemented by the British for 50-odd years.
On 17 January 1951, Khathing, accompanied by Captain Hem Bahadur Limbu of 5th Assam Rifles and 200 troops and Captain Modiero of the Army Medical Corps left Lokra for the foothills, bound for Tawang. They were later joined by a 600-strong team of porters. On 19 January, they reached Sisiri and were joined by Major TC Allen, the last British political officer of the North East Frontier Agency. Five days later the party reached Dirang Dzong, the last Tibetan administrative headquarters, and were met by Katuk Lama, assistant Tibetan agent, and the Goanburras of Dirang. On 26 January, Major Khathing hoisted the Indian flag and a barakhana followed. The party stayed in Dirang for four days, during which time they received airdrops. On 1 February, they moved out and halted at Chakpurpu on their way to Sangje Dzong. On the third day, they made a five-mile climb to cross Sela Pass and pressed on to what was entered in Khathing`™s diary as the `Tea Place` where water could be collected from the frozen surface to make tea. By 7.30 pm, the party closed in on Nurunang.
On 4 February, they reached Jang village where two locals were sent out to collect information and gauge the people`™s feelings towards their coming. The next day, the headmen and elders of Rho,Changda and the surrounding villages of Jang called on Khathing, who lost no time in explaining the purpose of his visit and told them in no uncertain terms that they were no longer to take orders from the Tsona Dzongpens. That day, he, Captain Limbu, Subedar Bir Bahadur and Jamadar Udaibir Gurung climbed about half a mile on the Sela Tract to choose the site for the checkpost and construct a barracks.
On 6 February they camped at Gyankar and Tibetan representatives of the Tsona Dzongpens came to meet them. It was also Tibetan New Year or Lhosar, the first day of the Year of the Iron Horse. In the evening it snowed heavily and the villagers took this as a very good omen. Tawang was reached on 7 February and two days were spent scouting the area for a permanent site where both civil and military lines could be laid out with sufficient area for a playground.
A place was chosen north-east of Tawang Monastery and a meeting with Tibetan officials was scheduled for 9 February, but they had shown a reluctance to accept Indian authority overnight. Khathing told me in 1985 `” when I`™d accompanied him on his last trip to Tawang `“ that, left with no option, he told Captain Limbu to order his troops to fix bayonets and stage a flag march around Tawang to show he meant business. By the evening it had the desired effect and the Tibetan officials and elders of the monastery came to meet him. They were then given notice that the Tsona Dzongpens or any representatives of the Tibetan government could no longer exercise any power over the people living south of the Bumla range.
On 11 February, Khathing visited the monastery, called on the abbot and presented him and the other monks gifts that comprised gramophone players, cloth and tiffin-carriers. The next day all the chhgergans (officials) of the 11 tsos or Tibetan administrative units were called up and a general order was issued directing them not to take any more order from the Dzongpens or Drekhong or pay tribute to them any longer. That afternoon, Tibetan officials and the Nyertsang called for time and permission to exercise their authority till they heard from the Tibetan government in Lhasa. Khathing put his foot down and told them the `area is ours according to the Treaty of 1914` and there was no question of a reply from their government in Lhasa and, hence, no extension could be given. Thus did Tawang effectively become a part of India from that day on.