Legendry Hero of Manipur in Peace and War: Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing, Padma Shri, MC, MBE

    1844

    By RS Jassal
    On need not associate Manipur with insurgency and connected problems always. There are many brighter sides too which far outweigh these. As a Manipuri it was really heartening for me to know that when it comes to gallantry acts for national cause, our contribution can equal that of any other state of India. We have produced great heroes who have done the Armed forces of our nation, really proud. The first among such heroes who comes to my mind and who in fact attained legendary status in the annals of Manipur history is Major Bob Khathing.

    Born at Ukhrul on Feb 8th, 1912, into a well-educated Tangkhul family, he received his primary education at Ukhrul. He joined Kangpokpi Mission ME School for class VI. Mind you he had to walk from home all the way to Imphal and then to Kangpokpi (73 miles). He was the only one who got through the class VI examination is also another wonder. His devotion to loving parents was revealed at that young age, when the scholarship amount, which he had received from Rev Pettigrew for passing class VI exam, was handed over intact to his mother. He passed matric from Johnstone High School, Imphal which then used to be affiliated to Sylhet University and did his graduation from Calcutta University (Bishop Cotton College, Guwahati) and became the first graduate among the hill peoples in Manipur, to do so.

    He was very good at sports and in extracurricular activities. In May 1941, he got King’s commission in the Army.

    After passing out from the Officer’s Training School, he was Commissioned into 19th Hyderabad Regt and posted to the Regimental Training Centre at Agra, where he served under then Major Thimmaya (who later became Chief of Army Staff). Soon thereafter, he was asked to report to GR Force, Jorhat. By that time the Japanese had just overrun  Burma and the Allied Troops were withdrawing to Tactical defensive positions into Manipur. He was then instructed to recruit volunteers from the hill peoples bordering Burma, to reinforce the ‘V’ force, as informers & guides. He was promoted as a local Captain, reported to the officer in charge of Manipur Sector of ‘V’ Force Maj E Murray of 4 Assam Rifles. Thus some selected personnel of the Assam Rifles also formed part of the ‘V’ force i.e. Victory Force.

    Capt Khathing put his heart and mind to the job at hand. He went to Ukhrul, met some Tangkhul headmen & elders & explained his mission. He then recruited about 5000 men for the ‘V’ force from Bungpa area, where refugees were pouring in from Burma into Tangkhul areas. Thereafter, he established another base HQ in Southern Manipur at Chakpikarong and covered the whole Kabaw valley, ultimately shifting his HQ to Sunle in Kabaw valley itself, to be able to control all villages in South East Manipur including the Kabaw valley. When Japanese forces overran Shangshak & Ukhrul areas, he was called to Tangkhul area to guide the British Army to counter the Japanese. He, alongwith his ‘V’ Force personnel effectively mobilized the Tangkhul leaders who wonderfully united and organized intelligence set up, passing information of Japanese movements to the Allied forces. Thanks to their efforts, the Japanese Force could be quickly driven away from Tangkhul soil. Even after victory, bulks of volunteers were converted to VVF-a force which worked wonderfully well even after Independence of India. His vision in V force, created a success story, which he used to organise, VG’s in Mon – Tuensang-Kiphire area of NHTA, in  his latter career as Political Officer. Real voluntary services to reckon with, these were the persons who had strands of nationalism of India’s pride and honour running through their veins, & their yeomen service will always be exhort ion call to the new generations to come.

    In the course of only three years in the battlefield i.e. May 1942 to May 1945, Major Khathing was awarded the most coveted awards like MBE (Member of the order of the British Empire), Commander-in-Chief Gallantry Certificate, twice, Mentioned-in-Dispatches, and M.C (Military-  Cross) which speak volumes about military acumen ingrained in him as a sturdy Tangkhul Naga. (Refer remarks Nari Rustomji in his book ‘Enchanted Frontiers’).

    On disbandment of ‘V’ force in June 1945, he was posted to 3rd Bn, the Assam Regt. At this time, the Maharaja of Manipur was setting up a Democratic Constitution on Manipur. On being persistently requested, by his closest associate and friend from the soil, MKPB Singh (also of the Assam Regt), who became CM, Major Khathing resigned his commission, and joined the Interim Government of Manipur State as the Minister in charge of Hills Administration in Oct 1947.

    When regular elections were to take place, despite requests to contest from a Tangkhul constituency, Maj Khathing stood from Saikul Sadar Hills where there were Tangkhuls, Kukis, Gurkhas, Mayangs, as well and Saitu and Kangpokpi were the  part of Saikul. He was comfortably returned. This amply showed that Major Khathing was a hero not only as an Army officer, but also as a Politico-Administrator carrying mass appeal. He was not biased towards any community, possessed bubbling passion to   work for the people of entire Manipur as a true nationalist. This made MKPB Singh and Khathing lifelong friends, which reflected hill valley unity in this duo 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 since Govt. of India was planning to introduce a new set of administrators for areas under NE Frontiers Administration then under Ministry of External Affairs, as  areas of Mon Tuensang were also part of NEFA till Naga Hills were merged with Tuensang area as NHTA. The first batch was of star personalities like Nari Rustomji, L. Kampani, TC Hazarika, T Aliba Imiti, Bob Khathing, and RK Madhurjit. Bob was thus absorbed into NEFA services as an Asst Political Officer which entailed days together of foot slogging to open new adm posts in the interiors of NEFA. It amply demonstrated that he was still a staunch soldier at heart, on 15 August 1950. While leading a special Recce Patrol to Tibet-China border in Rima area, his team was at Minzong staging camp before Chingwinti Outpost of Assam Rifles, that a severe earthquake occurred. Their staging huts collapsed and their reserve rations, destroyed wireless sets damaged. All the Mishmi porters ran away to their villages, leaving only 20 personnel’s, i.e., 3 Officers and 17 Jawans of Assam Rifles including Kumaon Regt. With the meager strength and depleted resources and rations, Maj Ralengnao Khathing and his team, faced the calamity head-on. They organized road restoring groups, rendered relief to the Mishmi villagers and arranged for airdrop of rations for the Assam Rifles posts, as well as for the villagers.

    As Asst. Pol. officer he was stationed at Bomdila. Taiwang was closer to Bomdila adm base than Lhasa (Tibet). The local authorities approached him to include their area with Bomdila due to geographical proximity considering Bumla Pass. Assam Rifles escorts, RS 62 were used by him to reach .He sent wireless message for Shillong MEA to permit him to do, so.  Delhi not being sure about the authenticity of McMahon Line, asked him to wait to avoid international repercussions. Local leaders from Tawang were getting restless and were persisting him to open the outpost as part of India, he judging Delhi may not say yes fast, ordered AR operator to switch off the set on the plea of weather interference. He feigned as message not received. He hoisted the Indian national flag and Tawang with area home side of Bumla Pass were added into Indian Territories. He stayed there for 10-15 days after hoisting the flag and intimated his head office at Shillong. Everything went off well but his honor of Padmashri was delayed to be conferred till 1957

    In Dec 1957, Major Khathing was posted to Mokokchung, Naga Hills as the first Deputy Commissioner of Mokokchung District, on up gradation of SDO office. He attended National Defence College at New Delhi from July 1961 to April 1962. Passing out from the NDC, he was deputed to the Sikkim Govt as Development Commissioner of the State.

    In 1962, the Chinese troops occupied the border area of NEFA including Tawang, Bomdila, Sela. He at once sent an express telegram to the External Affairs Ministry, New Delhi, to pull him out from Sikkim and be sent back to NEFA to work with the people he loved most under those times of trial. He promptly received the order to report to HQ 4 Corps, Tezpur, which he did. He then worked round the clock to rehabilitate NEFA people and to restore civil administration. To have better co-ordination between Army and civil authorities, his post was re-designated as the Security Commissioner, NEFA and he served at Tezpur from Nov 1962 to Jan 1967 in the said post. From there he rose to the position of the Chief Secretary, Nagaland, the first Naga officer to occupy that privileged post.

    Khathing was due to retire on superannuation by the end of Feb 1972, when he got a message from the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi that he was being considered to be the Ambassador of India to Burma. He agreed and joined at Rangoon as the Ambassador of India in 1972. After his retirement, Mr. Khathing also served the Govt. of Manipur in an honorary capacity, as the chairman of the Tribal Law Commission; and again as the chairman of Administrative Reforms Commission. He also served the Nagaland Govt. as the Chairman of the Re-Organisation of the Administrative Centers, etc. He was also appointed Advisor to the Govt. of Manipur in 1980, when Manipur was placed under Presidential Rule for a brief period.

    He was pioneer proponent with other IFAS officers to site twelve ALG (Air Landing Grounds) like Mohanbari. Lekhabali, Daporijo, Ziro, and so on.  In forward policy all AR posts were pushed to function as close as possible to IB with Tibet & Myanmar and air maintenance of posts were resorted to.  Air maintenance continued as late as 1980s -1982 to outposts which could not be connected by surface means Porter system to carry official’s luggage & supplies of critical items was introduced. It pleased the locals to get hard cash in lieu of man services so provided to the Assam Rifles & civi-adm which made Assam Rifles  considered as part of Administration’s machinery & not as defence force in academicals sense. This and much more close tripartite inter dependence of tribal’s, civil adm & AR Force earned the Force a phrase from Verrier Elwin as follows: “Friends of the Hill people” and ‘pioneer of every advance into the interiors’ Major Bob Khating could afford aristocratic life style, however, he chose to be a soldier while being with the troops and in his day to day life he continued to remain and live like a commoner. That gave him the capability to adapt and understand the ground situations far better than any other administrative officer of his times.

    Some high points & psychic ethos about his personality known to me as I served long periods in Nagaland & Arunachal and my personal interaction with  him,  I quote from my memory:

    • He was very fond of the Assam Rifles troops & specially the Pipe Band. On any party which he attended, used to call for a bottle of XXX Rum & present to the Band Master without fail.

    • At Tezpur, once he was admitted in MH for treatment & rest for some time. His subordinates & colleagues calling on him used to ask ‘anything required sir!’ he whispered once to his close friend, my rum is coming to finish so just replenish in next visit.  He reminded him ‘sir, Doctor has asked you to avoid.’ He smilingly said ‘I did not tell you to tell the doctor’. Then he pointed to the cupboard and small bottle with enamel mug hidden which put the visitor to cheers

    • Tea with AR Jawans he used to always use  enamel mug.

    • Stubborn UG cadres when using village precincts to ambush AR/ ARMY/CIVIL dignitaries, he issued Govt. of Nagaland order “whenever such incidents take place, the village authorities will be penalized to open a post for SF’s minimum for one month & maximum for six months depending on the gravity of ambush/ damage caused on state/ central forces. It worked well and incidents came down considerably.

    • He was the Govt. rep  to finalize 16 Point Agreement & this signatory and Nagaland was created as 16th  State of India.

    This adroit, assiduous, determined war hero, clean humanitarian administrator and dedicated teacher, all rolled into one and most importantly, a father figure to all Manipuri’s, hills & valley alike bid adieu to this world on 14 Jan 1990 at Imphal. His death moments also convey a great message  of friendship with MKPB Singh. It is learnt that Bob was to go to Maharaj Kumar’s house to meet him. He felt uncomfortable and could not proceed. Maharaj Kumar did not know about his intent and decided to go to Mantripukhri to meet Bob. Bob developed further complicacy and while talking to PB Singh, he collapsed into his arms and breathed his last, both friends again together at the last moment. Let’s pay tribute to this hero of India who hails from our own land and who continues to be a real source of inspiration to the many youngsters who aspire to join the Indian Defence Forces. Would the Govt of Manipur think of dedicating some road or erecting a statue to commemorate his precious service, to the state & Indian Nation?. Jai Hind my Bob ! my Manipur.

    Author learns from Assam Rifles Authorities that yearly Football tournament in memory of Late Bob will be commenced soon. A real fit  tribute. Long live Bob ! And Assam Rifles from 28 Feb, 2012

    1 COMMENT

    1. An inspiring story from far off Manipur. I think, it needs to be told to All India Audience. I came across it surfing for Bob Khathing, after reading remembrance inserted in Times of India, as I found his honors listed there interesting, prompting me to  look more for this distinguished son of India.

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