Most likely, the name of Padma Shri Major Bob Khathing, a decorated soldier, a civil servant, a diplomat and a minister – all rolled into one- means nothing to those living this side of the mighty Brahmaputra River. For that matter not many Indians are familiar with the warrior class AHOM. Our history books have been unfair to the North East, in general, and to the fighting spirit of its people, in particular. In fact, in the history of Independent India, many from its frontier regions – Ladakh and the Northeast – have significantly contributed to defending our borders and towards the process of nation -building but have been relegated to the margins in our political narrative since independence.
It comes as no surprise that many are unaware of the battle of Imphal and Kohima during World War II; the Japanese army – who had earlier driven the allied forces out of Burma – were first held and then pushed back by the British/ Indian soldiers.
It is, therefore, heartening that a biography ‘A LEGENDARY
Nationalist- Bob Khathing,’ has been penned by Col. Tej K. Tikoo – in the hope that the memory of this great son of India remains alive and his contribution towards the unity of Manipur and India is not forgotten.
In the words of the author: “His (Bob Khathing) timely expedition to Tawang in 1951 prevented China from grabbing NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) after the latter had over-run Tibet, and suppressed the uprising there with iron hand.”
Born into the Thangkul Naga tribe on February 29, 1912 at Ukhrul in Manipur, Ralengnao Khathing attended a local missionary school until Class-V and later joined the Government High School in Shillong. After passing out of school, he went to the Bishop Cotton College, Guwahati, where he became the first tribal from Manipur to graduate.
The British found it difficult to pronounce Ralengnao and started calling him Robert that got shortened to Bob- a name that stuck to him. Col. Tikoo has the requisite credentials to write what is certainly an inspiring biography of a great soldier. He was commissioned into First Battalion of the Naga regiment in 1971. It is only befitting that the author should dedicate the book to the valiant soldiers of the Naga Regiment. Academically inclined, he earned his PhD in defence studies from Madras University in 2012. He is also associated with various socio-cultural organisations.
At the height of World War II, Bob Khathing joined the army in February 1942 and was commissioned to the 19th Hyderabad Regiment (later 1 Kumaon and now 3 Para). He was deployed to ‘V’ force Operation as the local captain to be stationed behind enemy lines in the Burma front. His forces succeeded in stopping further advances of the Japanese formations into India. Col. Tikoo provides vivid details of the operations and how Bob put all his training, familiarity with the terrain and its ability to operate stealthily into practice.
There is an interesting story how Bob got selected for the army. When the Presiding officer said that he was slightly short of the required height, Bob shot back, “I have recently walked from Ukhrul to Imphal, a distance of
38 miles, and at the end of the march, played a football match against 4 Assam Rifles.”
That was enough to take care of his height! He became the first Manipuri to get a King’s Commission in 1941.
As a young captain in, he assisted the United States Army Air Forces efforts against Japanese forces at Jorhat as a logistics Liaison Officer, helping them fly military transport aircrafts from India.
The author excels when narrating nuggets of interesting facts: “during these operations, Bob transformed himself completely into a Tangkhul tribal that he actually was. His army tunic was replaced by Tangkhul shawl under which he concealed his weapon and his back-pack was by a bamboo basket in which he carried dried meat, salt and other rations for the prolonged period of operations.”
Major Bob was conferred the Member of the British Empire and Military Cross in recognition of his services rendered.
After the war, he joined the interim government of Manipur as minister in charge of the hill administration in 1947. Later, on request from Akbar Hydari, the first Governor of Assam, Bob joined the Assam Rifles, where he served as an Assistant Commandant. It is this job that will fetch glory to Bob and make him an iconic figure in independent India. When a massive earthquake causing nearly 4800 casualties devastated Assam in August 1950, Bob took charge of mounting massive rescue and rehabilitation measures.
The knowledge that the author has of the region lends authenticity to the biography. He is able to bring out raw, unknown but highly relevant facts and weave them into an inspiring story. He can’t hide his admiration for Bob when he writes: “one can only imagine what the situation must have been in 1950, when Bob led the diplomatic mission to the ‘unknown.’ It was not merely its logistics which were formidable, it was the very nature of the tasks involved, that presented huge challenges: high altitudes, narrow bridle paths, fast flowing ice-cold streams, rough terrain, extreme cold of winter months and above all the reluctance of the entrenched vested interests in Tawang to cooperate with him, initially, out of fear of the Chinese.”
Bob secured Tawang with the help of 200 troops of 5 Assam Rifles and 600 local potters and unfurled the national flag on February 14, 1951- with national anthem played first time.
Bob didn’t stop there: on seeing the miserable conditions of the people under the Chinese appointed Dzongpens, he used his military, political and diplomatic skills to force Tsona Dzongpen, the local representative of Lhasa to surrender and sign the treaty proclaiming India’s sovereignty over Tawang. In 1957 the government of India awarded him the Padma Shri for his services to nation.
Written in a lucid style, everything is in focus and in close up. We get to know that Bob was a shy, soft-spoken and a good listener and a man of action who preferred to live a life of adventure than comfort. One only wishes the author had included few pictures of Bob to further enrich the book.
Published by Lancer Publishers, the text is easy on the eye. Overall an evocative biography, the author deserves congratulations in taking pains to let the rest of the nation know – there existed this extraordinary Indian who brought glory to both Manipur, the North East and to India.
(The author is a noted management & media professional.)