India’s Special Frontier Force: Made In 1962, Marketed In 2020

EXPLAINER: India’s ‘secret weapon’ against China, the Special Frontier Force that recruits Tibetans. 

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Question: Why did PM Modi deploy the Special Frontier Force against China earlier this year?
Answer: For the same reason PM Nehru formed this ‘secret’ force in 1962.

Believe it or not, Modi has a lot in common with Nehru than anyone in the BJP or the Congress would like to acknowledge. Take the case of the SFF, for example.

The Special Frontier Force was formed in November 1962 as part of Nehru's attempt to exploit China's anxiety towards Tibet. Encouraged by Biju Patnaik, a WW2 veteran, and Bhola Nath Mullik, the then chief of Intelligence Bureau, Nehru gave a green light to recruitment of Tibetan refugees. Mullik had the support of leaders of the Tibetan resistance movement.

Biju Patnaik
Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Secrecy: CATCH 22 Situation Of ‘ESTABLISHMENT 22’

The SFF was informally known as Establishment 22, after the Twenty- second Mountain Regiment commanded in World War II by the SFF's Indian commander, Major General Sujan Singh Uban. Barring some high-ranking officials, the SFF was primarily made up of Tibet nationalists who aspired to fight China for Tibet's autonomy.

Major General Sujan Singh Uban with the Dalai Lama
Photo: Courtesy Odisha Government
Contrary to the popular belief that Nehru was blind towards China’s intent towards India, historical documents show how the creation of the SFF was a crucial an element in India’s still-emerging China ‘policy’.

Scholar Raju GC Thomas makes a note of the parliamentary proceedings in the 1950s in his book Indian Security Policy: “The only serious foreign policy debates that occurred in Parliament were over the signing of the Sino-Indian treaty on Tibet and the Pakistani decision to enter the western SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation) de­fense pacts.”


India's support to Tibet in the UN on the issue of autonomy also began 1963 onward. Delhi was supported by none other than Washington in this endeavour that had its own axe to grind against China. As scholar Carole McGranahan notes in her book Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War, “U.S. policy on Tibet was crafted in response to Cold War politics, to specific and internally disputed relations with Taiwan (the Republic of China) and China (the PRC), and to earlier British imperial policies on Tibet.”

US President Nixon meets with China’s Communist Party Leader, Mao Ze-Dong, on 21 February, 1972.
(Photograph: US National Archives and Records Administration)

After the debacle of 1962, India needed the US heft to counter China as the Soviets would not have gone that extra mile against their ideologically aligned neighbour. The CIA was roped in for training the SFF recruits, though no written agreements existed. This suited the Americans well, as their own agenda in Tibet got bolstered through this involvement.

Is it possible, then, that India wanted China to know that Tibetan nationalism could and would be weaponised against the PLA, should push come to shove again?

And that the SFF was not all that secret that it is made out to be? Claude Arpi, author and expert on Tibetan issues, does not rule out the possibility.


India’s Mutually Beneficial Relationship with Tibetan Nationalists

After the large-scale uprisings in Kham and Amdo regions of Tibet—against the destruction of many monasteries and murder of monks by the Chinese authorities— hundreds of refugees fled to central Tibet. Many came to India and this stream of distress migration culminated in the arrival of the Dalai Lama in India in 1959.

The 14th Dalai Lama 
(Photo: File/Altered by Erum Gour/The Quint)

It is to be remembered that relations between India and China suffered a huge blow around this time over border between Tibet and India, the McMahon Line. Nehru's acknowledgement of the McMahon Line as a legitimate boundary implied that India recognised Tibet as an independent state before 1950. Sam Van Schaik notes in his book Tibet that the India-China War of 1962 “was in this sense a war over Tibet”.

It is, therefore, easy to assume that Tibetans refugees, particularly those from Kham, considered joining the SFF to their benefit. It also helped, of course, that the Indian government did not object to the Dalai Lama's promulgation of a new constitution for Tibet.

Tibetan Khampas as SFF soldiers
Photo Courtesy: Odisha government archives

In 1965, another momentous event occurred to boost the morale of Tibetan refugees in India. New Delhi got a brand-new Tibetan office and cultural centre. At the inauguration, India's Home Minister M C Chagla made it clear that India was willing to withdraw its support to China over the Tibet issue. Chagla said that Tibet's “culture has been driven out,” and “the conditions under which we recognised China's suzerainty no longer exist”.


How Nehru Let the CIA Groom the SFF

Nehru's willingness to allow the CIA to carry out their secret activities in Dharamshala—to support Tibetan rebels—also played a significant role in grooming the SFF personnel against China. As per his trusted intelligence chief Mullik, Nehru was “preparing for the day when it would be possible for India to restore Tibet to a semi-independent if not independent status”.

Whether India had any such intent is a matter of debate, though there is no denying that this coming together of India, Tibet and the US benefitted everyone at that time, much to the chagrin of China.

Biju Patnaik played a vital role in getting the CIA to set up a discreet communication base in Charbatia in Odisha (then Orissa). The CIA, Indian intelligence officials, and Tibetan rebel leaders stayed in constant touch through this facility.


Significance of the SFF Operations

This collaboration also involved one of the first large scale covert operations of the SFF, the oft-quoted spying enterprise spearheaded by Captain Mohan Singh Kohli, in the Himalayas 1964 onwards. Under the garb of a mountaineering expedition led by Kohli, the SFF personnel set up a spying apparatus on Nanda Devi for the CIA to keep an eye on China's nuclear capabilities which the Americans heavily relied on till 1969.

The Cultural Revolution in Tibet coincided with China's confrontation with the Soviet Union in 1969. Soviet propaganda around Tibetan “self-determination” also encouraged Tibetan rebels and gave additional morale boosting to the SFF. The height of Chinese paranoia around a Soviet-backed Indian move to “liberate” Tibet came in 1971. It is in this context that the role of the SFF in the 1971 Indo-Pak war needs to be examined. Indira Gandhi is said to have asked specifically for the deployment of the SFF in East Pakistan.

Tibetan soldiers of the Special Frontier Force
Photo Courtesy: Odisha government archives

Strategic affairs expert and author Praveen Swami writes this about the SFF in 1971:

"In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Brigadier Uban sent in Indian soldiers or, to be more exact, CIA-trained, Indian-funded Tibetans using hastily-imported Bulgarian assault rifles and U.S.-manufactured carbines to obscure their links to India. Fighting under the direct command of RAW's legendary spymaster Rameshwar Kao, Brig. Uban's forces engaged in a series of low-grade border skirmishes...

...At the cost of just 56 dead and 190 wounded, the SFF succeeded in destroying several key bridges, and in ensuring that Pakistan's 97 Independent Brigade and crack 2 Commando Battalion remained bogged down in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Some 580 members of Brig. Uban's covert force were awarded cash, medals and prizes by the Government of India."


The SFF soldiers were, perhaps, rehearsing for Lhasa when they worked for Dacca's liberation. The force worked discreetly and very few commanders in the Eastern Command were kept in the loop about their involvement. Indira Gandhi deployed the SFF, once again, during the Operation Blue Star in Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar and many Indian Army officers, like Lt Gen Prakash Katoch of 1 Para SF, have vouched for the force's professionalism.

The SFF also played a key role during the Kargil conflict. It is rumoured that the capture of Tiger Hill was made possible because of the SFF deployment.

Despite their phenomenal contribution in India's strategic actions, the SFF personnel have rarely been publicly acknowledged.

Is Modi Following Nehru’s Playbook?

Why would a secret force’s involvement against a touchy adversary be highlighted in public? The answer is clear, to drive home a point. India can still exploit China’s Tibet vulnerability; Modi government seems to indicate. After a conspicuous silence about Tibet and the Dalai Lama, the BJP-led government wants to play the “Tibet card” in the face of China’s egregious border actions.

Nyima Tenzin had lost his life amid clashes on the India-China border in Ladakh, on 31 August.
(Photo Courtesy: Dawa Dolma)

The visuals of Nyima Tenzin’s funeral and Tibetans showering blessings on Indian soldiers are sure to send a message to Beijing. It needs to be remembered that Xi Jinping has recently (last week of August) held a high-level meeting involving the politburo members and top generals of the PLA to discuss China's Tibet policy for the next five years.

Xi Jinping
(Photo: The Conversation/Andre Coelho/EPA)

What this will achieve, however, remains in the realm of speculation. Neither India nor China are what they were in the 1960s. With every overture involving Tibet, there is a balancing act in Arunachal Pradesh as even the latest statements from Beijing suggest. As neither country can afford another 1962, hopefully, Modi’s SFF signalling would do the needful and not go beyond dropping a useful hint.

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Topics:  Tibet   Ladakh   Tibetan Community 

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