Special Frontier Force
The Special Frontier Force, a covert paramilitary unit, draws its volunteer recruits from a 150,000-strong ethnic Tibetan diaspora. Officered by the Indian Army, by 2020 it had six battalions with nearly 5,000 troopers, down from around 10,000 personnel, in the 1990s. It was formed with the help of the CIA and the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), India's foreign intelligence gathering espionage service. Their main objective is the disruption of logistics and other tasks, including disruption of the enemy behind its lines.
The little-known paramilitary unit consisting of mainly Tibetan refugees is believed to have played a big role in the recent Pangong Tso clash between India and China. As tensions on the Himalayan border along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China reached another flashpoint last weekend, an Indian special operations squad is reported to have been involved in a counter offensive against Chinese efforts to alter the status quo near the Pangong Tso lake in the region of Ladakh.
While there is no official confirmation from the Indian government, according to multiple official sources, the Special Frontier Forces (SFF) is believed to have played a major role in what the Indian Army called an operation to “thwart Chinese intentions” on the night of 29 August 2020. Days later, it was revealed that one SFF commando was killed and another was injured in a landmine blast that occurred near Pangong Tso, around the same time the clash occurred.
For decades, New Delhi has stayed silent about the existence of the SFF, which forms part of the Directorate General of Security (DGS) and under the Cabinet Secretariat. The DGS is now part of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). While officially not part of the Indian Army, it functions under its operational control with its own rank structure and training infrastructure. Units that comprise the SFF are known as the Vikas battalions.
Tibet has always been at the heart of Sino-Indian tensions. For India, the People's Liberation Army’s (PLA) annexation of the mountain territory in 1951 was a loss of its historic buffer zone. For China, India’s harbouring of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government following the 1959 Tibetan uprising was intolerable. Until the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, Chinese intelligence remained convinced that India was attempting to fuel unrest across the Tibetan plateau.
Following India’s defeat in the 1962 border war against China, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a decision to aid insurgency movements within Tibet and to arm India’s sizable Tibetan refugee community, which numbered close to 80,000.
In the midst of the Cold War, the US was also wary of China’s rising influence in the Asian theatre. In November 1962, BN Mullick, then director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) along with the CIA agreed to cooperate on multiple secret paramilitary programs. The first of these was a guerilla force made up of Tibetan recruits capable of operating at high-altitude terrain along the border in the event of future Chinese hostility.
Chushi Gangdruk, the Tibetan guerrilla movement that had been fighting the Chinese in Tibet since 1956, was active at the time and many of the organisation’s leaders were contacted for the SFF recruitment drive. In a short period with recruits drawn from the pool of Tibetan refugees in India, the SFF had around 6,000 – 7,000 in its ranks. For Tibetans, the SFF was an opportunity to maintain a legitimate military unit against China in its ongoing struggle for independence.
The plan hatched by the CIA and the Indian Army was to train recruits for six months in mountain warfare, sabotage and demolition, and then move them into Tibet to fight the Chinese. It was this prospect that lured many Tibetans into joining the SFF. The SFF base was in the hilly town of Chakrata, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, which was home to a large Tibetan refugee population.
Early on, the CIA provided light weapons like M-1 and M-2 submachine guns, and instructed the group in guerrilla warfare tactics. Doctrinally, the SFF was inspired by the US Army Special Forces, with the Green Berets’ inclination for special warfare and operations deep behind enemy lines. By late 1963, Mullick organised the Tibetans into various battalions, and ranks were introduced. But the ranks were uniquely non-military, and Tibetan commanders were instead given the title of “Political Leader”.
The SFF were under the command of General Sujan Singh Uban, who commanded the 22nd Mountain Division in Europe during World War II – the reason why the SFF is also known as “Establishment 22”. By 1964, the SFF was deployed for the first time on India’s border with Tibet. However, the opportunity to fight China never came.
In 1971 an opportunity did arise, but bullets were to be fired against Pakistan, not China. After Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League swept elections in East Pakistan in December 1970, West Pakistan feared civil war and its army began to crack down heavily, killing tens of thousands of Bengalis as millions of refugees poured into India. The SFF then began training Bengali fighters; Pakistan was an ally of the US and there would be no assistance from Washington. US arms were now replaced with Bulgarian AK-47s. China firmly backed Pakistan. International opinion was sympathetic to East Pakistan.
Before India officially declared war, under the cover of Indian-sponsored militias – the Mukti Bahini – the SFF would eventually deploy their guerrilla training skills in the marshy and rugged terrain of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in late October, 1971. Three Tibetan columns, comprising 3,000 soldiers, were each commanded by a Tibetan Political Leader and an Indian Colonel, for a covert mission called Operation Eagle against the Pakistan army.
By the time India declared war against Pakistan on December 3, 1971, the 3,000 Tibetan regiment had already caused enough damage to Pakistan’s military stronghold in Chittagong, which was an important naval port base for Pakistani reinforcements. Their exploits earned them the title “Phantoms of Chittagong”.
After Pakistan surrendered thirteen days later to India and Bangladesh won independence, the Tibetans were largely forgotten. They lost 56 men and nearly 190 were injured. The Indian officers of the SFF received gallantry awards, but none from the SFF were honoured with medals – instead they were given cash since it was supposed to be an unofficial mission.
Shrouded in secrecy, openly acknowledging the SFF would amount to admission that India was effectively employing foreign mercenaries in its army. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was believed to have credited the SFF in private correspondences with soldiers. A memorial in Chakrata was built to the victims of 1971 and other operations till date.
Apart from the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, the SFF was also reported to have been used in combating communal riots in the mid-1970s, as well as in the counter-insurgency Operation Blue Star in the Golden Temple in 1984, and the Kargil War of 1999. The SFF also includes women recruits and officers. More recently due to recruitment lags it isn’t 100 percent Tibetan, as Nepali Gurkhas and hill tribesmen have swollen their ranks over the years.
Rumored to be 10,000 strong, the current state of the SFF is difficult to ascertain given how extraordinarily sensitive their operational mandate is in the event of any Sino-Indian confrontation. There remains debate over whether this force has preserved its elite status and its original mandate. For Tibetans, the SFF has been a source of employment but the relative secrecy over the battalion has robbed them of recognition for their service and how instrumental they have been in reconnaissance missions for the Indian Army over the decades.
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