Sentinels Of India’s Secret War Across Himalayas

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In recent notification by Ministry of Defence, Lieutenant General Dalbir Singh Suhag of 4/5 (FF) Gurkha Rifles was named as the new Chief Of Army Staff. He will soon assume the command of 1.3 million strong force after the incumbent chief General Bikram Singh retires on July 31,2014. However, the most interesting fact about new COAS is that he had commanded one of India’s most secretive special commando SPECIAL FRONTIER FORCE  (ESTABLISHMENT 22 ) force as its inspector general.

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The birth of Special Frontier Force (Establishment 22) a.k.a TwoTwos took place after india faced a humiliating defeat from People Republic of China (PRC) in 1962 Sino-India War. Prior to India’s independence, Tibet was a buffer state maintained by Britishers to check the Chinese advancement into its west and to prevent trouble along the sparsely manned eastern border. After independence, Nehru tried to use the philosophy of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai with PRC  and went a step ahead to recognize Tibet as an inseparable part of China with the signing of Panchasheel Agreement in Beijing on April 29,1954. Even to the extent, Indian delegates opposed the inclusion of any question meant for discussion on the illegal occupation of Tibet by China in the UN General Assembly. All this was meant to develop a strong relationship with China. But unfortunately, the honest intent of Nehru met a dead with the signing of panchsheel agreement at Beijing . Probably, Nehru had forgotten that with the annexation of Tibet to China, border issues related to Tibet’s boundary will sprang up and will make the boundary issue worse from bad. Soon after that, incursions from Chinese side begun to take place.

The reports in Indian media on the construction of the western highway along North East of Ladakh pulled government off its Hindi Chini brotherhood dream and forced it to take urgent steps.  As part of that refuge given to the 14th Dalai Lama (religious head of Buddhists) by India. He was secretly escorted to Indian border into Tawang (after failed Lahasa Uprising in March 10,1959) by a rebel group Chu-She-Khang-Druk (Four Rivers and Six Mountains, a name symbolizing a unified Tibet. The rebel force was raised in the mid-fifties to fight against the illegal occupation of Tibet by Chinese and were comprised mainly of Khampas from the southeastern plains of Tibet. This incident further drew China’s ire and ultimately, lead to Sino-India War in 1962.

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The Tibetans that took asylum in India along with HH Dalai Lama, were in doubt whether to fight for their lost land or to stay back with their spiritual leader. But, the leaders of Chu-Shang-Khang-Druk group assembled few Tibetan youth and asked them to take training to lead the fight. The were Smuggled through East Pakistan in a sealed coach (with the connivance of Pakistani officials and were then taken in a car to the airport from where they were airlifted to the U.S. It was after the in-flight briefings given by Whitemen, did they discovered that US-led CIA was onto the war in support of them. They were taken to CAMP HALE based in  Colorado for High Altitude Combat Training, where they received Commando training under CIA. When the 1962 war with China broke out, India felt uncomfortable about the Tibetans being trained by the CIA. Delhi was particularly disturbed by the fact that it was organized with Pakistan’s knowledge. One week before Beijing declared a ceasefire, Delhi decided to act. On November 13,1962 a clandestine Tibetan commando group was raised and the retired Major General Sujan Singh Uban was appointed as its first inspector general. The Special Group was named ESTABLISHMENT 22 as Maj Gen SS Uban was the commander of 22 Mountain Regiment during World War II. Intelligence Agencies from India and US (IB & CIA) helped to raise the special force with training and weapons.

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Initially the Special force was raised under the operational command of Intelligence Bureau but was later put under the supervision of RAW (at present it’s under the supervision of Director General of Security (Cabinet Secretariat) who is an Ex officio (Secy. RAW i.e Secretary(R)) and is headed by an Inspector General. The main goal of Establishment-22 was to conduct covert operations to sneak into the Chinese lines in an event of another Indo-China war. They would infiltrate as guerillas into Tibet for disrupting Chinese lines of communication; damage their airfields and radar installations, compel Chinese to deploy disproportionate force to secure the rear end, create insurgency and rebellion in Tibet; immobilize Chinese war effort, while  Indian army would engage the Chinese at the border. As such the Establishment-22 was trained as high-altitude paratrooper-commandos well versed in the tactics of laying an ambush, demolition, survival, and sabotage.

The initial strength of 5000 men, mostly Khampas were recruited with the help of Chushi & Gangdruk leaders at its mountain training facility at Chakrata, Uttrakhand. this was followed by a six months training in rock climbing and guerilla warfare. Also, the Tibetans who were trained by the CIA in Colorado helped training run smoothly. In 1963, the Establishment-22 (SFF) began its airborne training at Agra and later shifted to the airbase at Sarasawa. All commandos were parachute qualified after five jumps with three refresher jumps every year. Such was the dedication as recounted by an Indian Air Force officer and parachute instructor of the unit M. K. Anand that “there was even a pregnant lady, the wife of a Tibetan ranking member, serving as a rigger, who kept her pregnancy a secret to keep jumping”. The unit achieved the distinction of conducting jumps at an altitude up to 15,400 feet. Its para-jumping exercise at Rambirpur in Ladakh is regarded as one of the world’s highest altitude for para-jumping. 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( 900 each), 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. In 1968 SFF, with the help of airlift facilities provided by ARC ( Aviation Research Centre) became fully Airborne Qualified and dedicated mountain and jungle warfare specialists. SFF men are trained in tactics of mountain, amphibious, air support and jungle warfare.

In 1982 DG Security, RAW dispatched 500 SFF operatives along with 500 Indian Army Special Forces to Sarasawa for Counter Terrorist training and from there they were sent to Israel for a specialized training course. On return, the men formed a highly classified new detachment called Special Group.

SFF special Headquarters was supported by an intelligence gathering and planning wing, a training wing, and a specialist signal troop. Later, Special Group became parent unit of NSG. At Present the transport is provided by 117 Helicopter Unit of IAF named “Himalayan Dragons” and air Surveillance is provided by ARC through Chakrata air base near SFF headquarters.

The secretive force has also played a decisive role in Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971 under a mission codenamed as Operation Eagle. Prior to their involvement in the war they received Message from (conveyed through their Indian Commander) from Prime minister Indira Gandhi: “We cannot compel you to fight a war for us, but the fact is that Gen. Niazi [Army Commander in East Pakistan] is treating the people of East Pakistan very badly. India has to do something about it. In a way, it is similar to the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans in Tibet, we are facing a similar situation. It would be appreciated if you could help us fight the war for liberating the people of Bangladesh.” For the first time, the Tibetans agreed to get involved in a war which was not theirs. Perhaps they saw this as the ideal preparation for their ultimate goal. Though its Strange but the fact is they were now fighting else’s War beyond their mandate. On 21 October 1971 under the Command of then COAS 3,000 SFF troops were mobilized from Sarasawa and were assigned four tasks: to Destroy Mizo Bases, Capture Chittagong, to Capture Dottazari and to block the retreat of Pakistani Army through Arkan Road (Myanmar). They fought under the disguise of MUKTI BAHINI. All the missions assigned to it were successfully completed. When the ceasefire was declared on 17 December 1971, the SFF had lost 56 men and nearly 190 were 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. Indira Gandhi was so impressed by their valor that it was renamed as “INDIRA FAUJ”. Later the force was given the task to provide security cover to Rajiv Gandhi till it was replaced by SPG.

The SFF also took part in the OPERATION MEGHDOOT (Siachen Glacier battle 1985-86) and since then one of its unit 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).

Over the years these unknown men who were initially joined to fight for their motherland Tibet , are now leading someone’s else’s battle, not with greed but with the gratitude to India’s benevolence shown to them and which is now their “ARYABHUMI”(a term used by his holiness Dalai Lama).

Following the 1999 conflict in Kargil, a Tibetan jawan wrote a song that began, “Kargil la dhangpo yongdue, bomb ki phebso shoesong” (When I first came to Kargil, the bombs welcomed us). Inherent in those words are not just fearful sentiments as expressed by any young soldier, but also the fact that Kargil was India’s conflict, not Tibet. Likewise, one SFF battalion today continues to serve on the Siachen glacier – oddly close to their homeland, but facing the opposite direction.

Below is a Song “We Are Vikasi” Penned by a Tibetan trooper who fought India’s Kargil war in 1999 alongside Indian Troops.

Hum hai Vikasi, tibbat Wasi,
Desh ki shaan badhaenge,

Jab jab humko milega mouka,
Jaan pe khel dikhaenge,

Hum hai vikasi,
Chin ne humse chhin k tibbat
Ghar se hame nikala hai
Phirbi bharat ne humko,
Apno ki tara sambhala hai,
Ekna Ek din chin ko bhi hum
Nako channe chabbayenge,
Jab jab hum ko milega mouka,
Jaan pe khel dekhaenge,

Sichan glacier main humko
Moka mila dubara hai,

Hamare vir jawano ko
Nahin koyi bhi gum,
Kargil hoya Bangladesh
Himmat kabhi na hare hum,

Jab jab hum ko milega moka
Jaan pe khel dekhaenge,

Jahan hamara mahel potala,
Norbu lingka pyara hai,
Pujya dalai lama singhasan,
Tabse hi nyara hai,

Yad karo unn viron ko
Jisne diya balidan hai,
Aao milkar gayen hum,

Jai hamara Tibbat Jai
Jai hamara Tibbat Jai
Jai Hamara Tibbat Jai !!

English Version :-

We are the Vikasi, dwellers of Tibet
We will strengthen the pride of the country

Whenever opportunities arise
we will play with our lives.

We are the Vikasi
The Chinese snatched Tibet from us
and kicked us out from our home
Even then, India
kept us like their own
One day, surely one day
we will teach the Chinese a lesson,
Whenever opportunities arise,
we will play with our lives,

In the Siachen glacier,
we got our second chance
Our young martyrs
have no sadness whatsoever
Whether it is Kargil or Bangladesh
we will not lose our strength
Whenever opportunities arise
we will play with our lives,

Where there is our Potala Palace,
and lovely Norbu Lingka,
The throne of the Dalai Lama
was dear even then
Remember those martyrs of ours,
who sacrificed with their lives
Let’s sing together
Hail to our Tibet!
Hail to our Tibet!
Hail to our Tibet!

(Warfare is all about Deception & He who Knows when to fight & when one Shouldn’t will be Victorious- SunTzu)

7 thoughts on “Sentinels Of India’s Secret War Across Himalayas

  1. excellent article debasis….keel it up

    Like

  2. well written I appreciate (Y)

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  3. Kudos is due to young Author for the well researched and beautifully written. Some facts of 1971 War which I participated in are not known much. Scanty info about Blue Star and Siyachen was known in Intelligence circle.

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    1. Thanks Sir , you words will encourage me further to read & write 🙂

      Like

  4. And I thought Mukti Bahini involved Bagladeshi’s!

    Like

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