A clandestine Tibetan guerrilla unit in the Indian military
In the fiction-based-on-facts novel Dragon Fire, the BBC’s veteran Asia correspondent and author Humphery Hawksley (2001) relates a story of the Third World War, genesis of which lay in the attack on notorious Drapchi Prison in Tibet by the soldiers of India’s clandestine guerilla unit comprising of Tibetan refugees known as the Special Frontier Force (SFF). Although this is entirely fictitious, it brought to light the significance of Tibetan issue as one of the core issues of potential conflict in the South-east Asian region. SFF was established half a century back to play a significant part in such a military confrontation in the region. This paper traces events leading to the establishment of the SFF, and its role in some of the significant military campaigns India had launched since its independence in 1947.
Tibet, despite its complicated political status, has remained a buffer zone between the two giants of Asia – China and India for centuries. The British India was quick to recognize Tibet’s strategic importance and has made attempts to thwart Russians and Chinese influence in Tibet, especially since the beginning of the 20th Century. However, the Communist China’s takeover of Tibet in 1950 caused complete alteration of the geopolitical balance in the region. The new India was not in a position to protect the status quo. On contrary, the then Indian Prime-minister Nehru, in the wake of decolonization and third world solidarity, advocated a policy of appeasing China and even advocated Chinese cause in the UN. When Tibetan appeal against Chinese occupation came up for discussion is the UN General Assembly on November 23, 1950, the Indian delegates opposed the inclusion of the question on the agenda (Dalvi, 1969). The Chinese tactfully assured Indians that they were not a threat to them. In his statement to the Foreign Secretary of India on May 16, 1959, the Chinese Ambassador wrote: “putting down of the rebellion and the carrying out of democratic reforms in Tibet will not in the least endanger India. You can wait and see…you will ultimately see whether relations between Tibet region of China and India are friendly or hostile by watching for three, five, ten, twenty, a hundred …years” (MEA, 1990, p.76). Nehru’s appeasement towards China was reflected in the popular catchphrase of the time -‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ – Indians and Chinese are brothers.
What India didn’t realize was the fact that absorption of Tibet into the PRC opens up many ambiguous territorial and border issues, which they now have to settle with a new assertive China. In the meantime, situation deteriorated in Tibet, leading to the Lhasa Uprising in March 1959 and the consequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India. This has caused considerable strain on the Sino-Indian relationship. By early 1962, border negotiations between the two countries broke down. In October 1962, China attacked India from two fronts, and Nehru’s decade long effort at building an amicable relationship with the PRC abruptly collapsed. China took 4000 Indian prisoners of war whereas India couldn’t even take a single Chinese prisoner and according to R. Singh it was “probably the only war in history in which such a phenomenon occurred.” (Singh, 1998, p.13). India faced humiliating defeat and hence its subsequent policies on Tibet underwent big changes. Besides, there was an enormous Indian public sympathy with Tibetans. The Chinese attack has exposed the vulnerability of the Indian defense network across the Himalayan border.
Formation of the SFF
India’s desperate effort to arm its northern border came primarily in the form of setting up an elite guerrilla force composed mainly of Tibetan refugees. Tibetan unit was formally raised on November 14, 1962 under the command of the Research and Analysis Wing, with the full endorsement from the CIA (Knaus, 2001). This new clandestine commando group came to be known as Establishment-22 after its first Inspector General Major Sujan Singh Uban who had commanded the 22-Mountian Regiment during the World War II (Conboy, 1992). The Establishment-22 made its home base at Chakrata, 100 kilometers from the city of Dehra Dun.
The main goal of Establishment-22 was to conduct covert operations behind the Chinese lines in the event of another Indo-China war. They would infiltrate as guerillas in Tibet for infecting Chinese lines and communication; intercept communication; damage airfields and radar installations; compel Chinese to deploy disproportionate force at rear security; create insurgency and rebellion in Tibet; immobilize Chinese war effort, meanwhile Indian army would engage the Chinese at the border. As such the Establishment-22 was trained as high-altitude paratroops-commandos versed in the arts of ambush, demolition, survival and sabotage. However, in practice, this ultimate objective which prompted many Tibetans to join this force, remained distant and secondary to the protection of India’s border.
The Establishment-22 was set up as an outcome of confluence of various political agendas. For the Indians, the unit was seen as a formidable defense apparatus against the ever-present Chinese threat on the Himalayan border, especially in the wake of 1962 attack. Not only that the Tibetans are used to cold Himalayan weather, they also possessed psychological willingness to fight against the Chinese at all cost. The American interests were served by the firsthand intelligence gathered by the force as well as it was consonant with their global strategies to contain Communism. For Tibetan refugees, any kind of military assistance to fight the Chinese was a welcome move at that time.
With the initial recruitment of about 5000 men, Tibetan commandos were given six months basic training identical to the Indian Army’s with additional instruction in guerrilla tactics and rock climbing. In 1963, the Establishment-22 began its airborne training at Agra and later shifted to airbase at Sarasawa. All the commandos were parachute qualified after five jumps with three refresher jumps every year. It is said that the Tibetans especially excelled as parachutists. When the first airborne exercise was started in the summer of 1963, Major Uban recalled that even cooks and drivers implored for their opportunity to jump (Conboy & Marrison, 2002). In a similar vein, Indian Air Force officer and parachute instructor of the unit M. K. Anand recounted that “there was even a pregnant lady, the wife of the Tibetan ranking member, serving as rigger, who kept her pregnancy a secret to keep jumping” (as cited in Kohli & Conboy, 2002, p.16). The unit achieved distinction of conducting jumps at altitude up to 15,400 feet and its para-jumping exercise at Rambirpur in Ladakh is regarded as one of the world’s highest altitude para-jumping. The unit’s weapons were all provided by US and avoided over-sophistication and expensive gadgets. In 1966, size of the Establishment-22 was doubled and with this the unit was given a new name – Special Frontier Force. By the late-1960s, the SFF was organized into six battalions for administrative purposes. Each battalion, consisting of six companies (each with 123 men), was commanded by a Tibetan who had a rank equivalent to a lieutenant colonel in the Army. Two companies of Tibetan women were also created as female medics and communication specialists (Knaus, 1999).
In the due course of time, the tension between India and China abated to some extent, reducing the possibility of an actual war between the two. However, the unit did conduct limited cross-border reconnaissance operations, as well as provided logistic support to a highly classified joint American-Indian operation to place nuclear-powered sensors on Himalayan peak to monitor the Chinese nuclear and missile tests (Kohli & Conboy, 2002). In 1971, while the CIA-backed Tibetan guerrillas based at Mustang, Nepal were facing an uncertain future following American rapprochement with China, their counterparts in the SFF were finally given a chance to prove its worth and mettle in a sanctioned action – as a spearhead of India’s attack in the Bangladeshi war. The SFF’s shadowy existence and unique racial make up provided perfect cover for this covert attack. It was an irony that the SFF’s first sanctioned action came against a regime that had aided the Tibetan resistance by permitting the use of its land and airbases for the exfiltration and infiltration of CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas since early 1950s. Special Secretary Mr. R. N. Rao started the involvement of SFF on October 15, 1971 and its command was directly in the hand of Chief of Army Staff. On October 21, troop’s movement started from Sarasawa consisting of 3000 SFF commandos. They were assigned four principal tasks: 1) to destroy Mizo bases, 2) to capture Chittagong, 3) to capture Do Hazari, and 4) to deny Arkan road to the retreating Pakistan army (Uban, 1985).
‘Enemy’ comprised of roughly 8000 men. The SFF troops were divided into three columns and crossed into East Pakistani territory on November 10/11. The unit had a mobile surgical squad and Indian Air Force provided 15 AN-12 sorties. Labeled as Mukti Bahini, Phantoms of Chittagong or the Fifth Army for its shadowy existence and ferocious exploits, the SFF went on to capture Chittagong, Pakistan’s main forward position. All the missions assigned to it were successfully completed. When the ceasefire was declared on December 17, the SFF had lost 56 men and nearly 190 wounded. For their pivotal role in the war, 580 SFF troops were awarded cash prizes by the Indian government. However, these recognitions were given secretly and none of the SFF Jawans received medals of high honor. Naturally there were different reactions. Although feeling of gratitude towards India was strong, some of the SFF members were outraged at this lack of recognition. A legend has it that during a secretly held recognition ceremony, one SFF soldier expressed his anger by overthrowing pakri (turban) of his Indian officer. However, SFF’s successful exploit in the Operation Eagle has secured for itself a niche in the India’s defense establishment as amongst the country’s best troops.
Operation Bluestar and others
In 1977 the force was given a new mission, to spearhead counter-terrorism operation, as the Tibetans were not directly related to India’s communal politics. Soon it received a new name as Indira Gandhi’s ‘own force’. In 1984, the SFF’s elite Special Group became the primary counter-terrorist force in India and was involved in the controversial assault on the Golden Temple during the Operation Bluestar. Although shrouded in secrecy, it is being conjectured that a replica of Golden Temple was created at Chakrata long before the actual attack for the purpose of mock exercise (Jaijee, 2009). According to Indian government sources, SFF was used in the operation to flush out ‘militants’ encamped in the Temple. On June 6, 1984, the operation began and the SFF commandos were ordered to isolate Akal Takht and secure its western flank. Due to lack of intelligence, SFF suffered heavy casualties and the army had to call tanks to complete the operation (Arpi, 2004).
The SFF also took part in the Operation Meghdoot (Siachen Glacier battle 1985-86) and since then one of its units is constantly guarding the Siachen Glacier, which is regarded as one of the world’s most inhospitable battle zone. In 1999, SFF jawans were sent to confront Pakistani force during the Operation Vijay (Kargil War) and it is rumored that the force is involved in the retaking of Tiger Hills, one of the key battle zone during the war. However, the details of SFF’s involvements in these operations are not available for public scrutiny at the moment.
SFF’s existence now is precarious, and it is a victim of the past. The original mission, which prompted many Tibetans to join the force, is no longer relevant. Their leader, the Dalai Lama, had never championed a military operation to free Tibet. For India, SFF may be still necessary for defending its northern border from Pakistan and China. However, despite their heroic exploits in the military operations thus far and their continued commitments to safeguarding Indian borders for last fifty years, SFF jawans continue to face discrimination in terms of low pay, no reliable retirement pension and other benefits. These unsung jawans remained extraordinarily resilient and have not shown their weariness in fighting other people’s war. Perhaps this resilience is a product of a discourse generated by the Tibetan government-in-exile urging Tibetan refugees to remain ever grateful to India. SFF has quietly celebrated its golden jubilee anniversary in 2012 and its existence is an open secret now. Perhaps the least India could do now is to grant them equal status and recognition like any other military units.
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