Major Bob Khathing: Unsung Hero Who Brought Tawang Under India

Stories of heroes are always a pleasure reading. Indian military is rich with the stories of countless ‘Super Heroes’ that we have all at least heard once. But there are many which lie in covers, not known to many, filled with courage, bravery, and heroism waiting to erupt. In this article, we introduce a lesser-known warrior from the hills of Manipur.

Born on February 8, 1912, at Ukhrul in Manipur, Bob belonged to the Tangkhul Naga tribe. He was very studious and was dedicated to his parents. He joined Kangpokpi Mission ME School for 6th standard and he walked from home all the way to Imphal and then to Kangpokpi (73 miles). He was very intelligent and was the only one in his community to pass 6th standard. He received a scholarship of 2 Rupees per month. Trust me it was generous at that time.

He passed matriculation 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 from the community to do so.

World War 2 erupted. Young men and women wanted to join the army and serve their country. Bob too enrolled in the army but faced a serious problem. The British didn’t want to compromise on physical test. They believed that a weak soldier is only as good as a dead one. Bob, being from the North-East was a bit short, just 5ft 3″ when it had to be 5ft 4″ to qualify. With a clever haircut and some insider help, he could join the Royal Army Medical Corps and became the first Manipuri to get King’s Commission.

After passing out from the Officer’s Training School, he was Commissioned into 19th Hyderabad Regt. and posted at Regimental Training Centre, Agra. He served under then Major Thimmayya, who went on to become the General of Indian Army.

In April 1942, Japan had advanced to Burma and was soon planning to invade the British Empire’s most priced territory-India. General Archibald Wavell knew that a conventional offense wouldn’t survive the Japs. So he ordered the creation of a guerrilla organization to counter the advancing Japs from Burma and thus formed the legendary ‘V-Force’ or ‘Victory-Force’. Their primary motive was to provide recon, intel from behind enemy lines and to ambush and sabotage enemy advancements.

Bob was asked to report to GR Force, Jorhat and assist the ‘V-Force’. The ‘V-Force’ lacked the essential know-how to traverse the dense forests of the region. Bob, with his tribal background, was to recruit volunteers to aid the ‘V-Force’ as guides and informers. He was promoted to a local Captain, reported to the officer in charge of Manipur Sector of ‘V- Force’ Maj.E.Murray, 4 Assam Rifles.

He took his duty to his heart and personally went met with the elders Tangkhul in Ukhrul, his home village. He explained the importance of the mission and made it clear that it was an emergency. His personal tally was 5000men. He was a strategist and he moved his HQ to Sunle in Kabaw valley, giving him the advantage of covering the villages in South East Manipur which was under maximum threat from Japanese forces. However, he took a hit when Japs overran Shanshak and Ukhrul. Bob was called to the region and he quickly mobilized the local Tangkhul leaders and set up communication network that worked so perfect that British Forces drove the Japs out of Manipur.

Major Bob Kathing worked on the battlefield for just 3 years (1942-1945). For his valiant effort and dedication, he was awarded the Member of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire (MBE) in ‘43, a Military Cross (MC) for his work against the Japanese ’44. He was just 32 years old when he received the Military Cross.

Soon after the war, he was posted to 3rd Battalion Assam Regt. The Maharaja of Manipur was setting up a Democratic constitution in Manipur and was keen on the service of Bob Kathang. On his request Maj. Kathing resigned from his posting and joined the Interim Government of Manipur as a minister in charge of Hills Administration in 1947.

When Manipur was merged into India as the 16th state, for which he played an important role, he was asked by Akbar Hydari, first Governor of Assam to join the Assam Rifles as Assistant Commandant. During his tenure, he did something, credited as the biggest achievement of his and the Indian government.

Indian government roped in Maj. Kathing as an administrator for NEFA under Ministry of External Affairs. He was absorbed into NEFA as an Asst. Political Officer to set up new administration posts towards the core of NEFA.

In January 1951, under the orders of Assam Governor Jairamdas Daulatram and in consultation with Himatsinghji Border Defence Committee, he and his team marched to Tawang and merge it with India. On January 17, 1951, Bob, accompanied by Captain Hem Bahadur Limbu, 200 troops of 5 Assam Rifles and 600 porters, left for a historic mission that will be penned down in history with golden letters.

Upon his arrival, he set up a camp near the Tawang monastery for meeting the Dzongpens the Commissioners from Tsona in Tibet and the village elders (gaon burahs). Bob asked second-in-command to ‘fix bayonet’: “One hundred click sounds of bayonets coming in unison seemed to say, we are even ready for blood,” wrote his biographer. The locals were actually happy to see Kathing. They acknowledged him as ‘Sahib’ and were very respectful to him and he was too very courteous towards the locals.

After watching Khathing and his men for about a month, the village leaders came in a deputation with folded hands and grave faces. “Well sahib”, they said, “we have been watching your work and we like it but there is something that makes us very suspicious.” Khathing was quite startled: “What is it?” he asked. Had he done something wrong? “Sahib”, they said, “you do not take anything from us by way of tax, neither do you seem to be proposing to take any. This is causing grave concern to all of us.” The young officer then relaxed. “Is that all?” he asked them cheerfully. He then gave them a long lecture about India and its Government which would never exploit its people.

On March 18, six weeks after Bob had reached in Tawang, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a note to the Foreign Secretary: “I hear constantly about the activities of the North and North-East Border Defence Committee. These activities have resulted in action being taken on the Tibetan border and in Nepal. At no stage have these matters been brought up before me for consultation, although apparently, consultations have taken place with the Governor of Assam and other people far away. …I am greatly concerned about this matter because, as I have already mentioned to you, the manner of our going to Tawang and taking possession of it and thus creating some international complications has not been a happy one. I am yet not quite clear how all this was done without any reference to me.”

He reported his efforts to his head office at Shillong only after hoisting the Tri-color in Tawang. He was pretty sure that working in accordance with standard procedures of the Indian Government would mean a loss of valuable time. He got to know from Governor Jairamdas Gaulatram that Sardar Vallabhai Patel wanted the mission to happen and experience Kashmir to not happen again.

In 1962, the Chinese troops occupied the border area of NEFA including Tawang, his soldier instincts kicked in and he sent out a telegram to MEA to re-post him to NEFA to work with the dearest of his. He was then reposted and helped rehabilitate the locals and aided to restore civil administration.

Nearing his retirement from NEFA he received a letter from MEA that he was being considered to the post of Ambassador of India to Burma. He took the role whole-heartedly again proving that service comes before self. He was appointed as the Ambassador of India to Burma in Rangoon in 1972. The governments of Nagaland and Manipur are gracious for the various roles he took and the marvellous efforts he did while in service. He has also extended his services to IB for citing twelve ALG ( Advanced Landing Grounds) for aiding forward policy.

Maj. Bob Kathing lived his life like a soldier, always ready for duty and not caring for his desires but gave full dedication to his duty. He is a hero figure in the North East and wherever he worked, he was seen as a role model and not like another typical aristocratic officer. He was often seen drinking tea with his Assam Riflemen and was so down to earth, that he was seen as a father figure to many. The nation conferred him Padma Shri in 1957 but that too is not enough for his efforts.

The nation conferred him Padma Shri in 1957 but that too is not enough for his efforts. He will be remembered forever by the people he served and that is his biggest award.

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