On November 14, the elite Special Frontier Force (SFF) will turn 58. For an organisation that has served India for close to six decades and played some pivotal roles in key moments of Indian history, from liberating Bangladesh to fighting in the Kargil war, the SFF has scrupulously stayed out of the headlines. Until recently.
The death of an SFF soldier on August 30, who was deployed along the recently tense Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates India and China, has now shed the spotlight on the SFF and its predominantly Tibetan soldiers. Company Leader Nyima Tenzin was killed in an accidental mine blast when he stepped over a vintage 1962 minefield during patrolling in Ladakh, according to Army sources.
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His untimely death, and the deployment of the SFF amid the recent tensions with China, has not only brought unexpected attention to the highly trained and elite force, but also emerged as a source of pride for India’s Tibetan community, as underlined by a video from September 4 that showed Tibetans in Shimla gathering, singing, and tying their traditional khatas (white scarves) to a departing convoy as they waved goodbye to SFF personnel headed for the Ladakh front.
The limelight is certainly unusual for an elite outfit trained to working in the shadows. And it’s in the shadows where the SFF has mostly operated since its creation in 1962. The SFF’s antecedents, in fact, even predate 1962. This is a story that goes back to the mid-1950s, when Tibetan resistance fighters began crossing over into India starting with the 1956 uprising. More fighters would follow, in the wake of the failed uprising three years later and the Dalai Lama’s exile to India. Most of the resistance fighters were from the Kham region of eastern Tibet, which was one of the major sites of rebellion against the Chinese. In Kalimpong, a number of fighters who were followers of Gompo Tashi, a Kham trader, were from an organisation called Chushi Gangdruk, or Four Rivers and Six Ranges. In his book, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong , the Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup, notes how the fighters didn’t lack passion but needed weapons and training. He facilitated a first group of six fighters to receive Morse code and radio communications training from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Unbeknownst to India, he writes, they were smuggled into East Pakistan and flown to the island of Saipan in the Pacific, where for four months they were trained in communication and guerilla warfare. In July 1957, they were air-dropped into Tibet and started supplying intelligence to Washington.
By 1958, Chushi Gangdruk boasted 23 units and they had completely driven the Chinese from Tibet’s south, but were in dire need of arms and ammunition. There were 25,000 fighters, but most poorly equipped. Mr. Thondup laments that at the most crucial moment, CIA support failed to deliver, only supplying some 700 outdated guns. “Militarily, the Tibetan resistance fighters never stood a chance,” he recalls. “I still believe that if the CIA had given us enough weapons, we would have had a chance. Mao was not the only one to cheat the Tibetans. The CIA did, too.”
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The 6,000 or so fighters who remained in India would be given a new opportunity in 1962, when then Intelligence Bureau chief B.N. Mullik put forward the idea of setting up a training centre for Tibetan fighters. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru turned to Major General Sujan Singh Uban, who had earlier commanded the 22 Mountain Regiment and was a Second World War veteran.
The first challenge was finding a base, recalls his son Inspector General (IG) Gurdip Singh Uban (retd), who was then a Second Lieutenant, aged 22, and decided to help out his father. “We hired a taxi from Delhi and drove to Chakrata [Uttarakhand] where my father knew was an old Gurkha training centre that was lying vacant,” he told The Hindu . “It had all the wherewithal — barracks, training grounds, and most importantly, it had training areas such as rock climbing and was at a height of 7,000 feet. And there the story began.”
The unit was raised on November 14, 1962 — on Nehru’s birthday. Exactly a week later, China would announce its “unilateral ceasefire”, so the unit would see no action in the war. In any case, they were hardly ready for action.
Mr. Uban said his father first called the outfit Establishment 22, named after his old Mountain Regiment that he was particularly fond of. The 'two-twos’, as they would be known, would be all paratroopers — an elite unit capable of high-altitude warfare, special operations, and fighting behind enemy lines. They would report to the Cabinet Secretariat, and were not part of the Army. A women’s wing was also created. He recalled the passion of the first cohort. “What really struck me was both the anger and shame, of what happened to Tibet and the Dalai Lama, who was a god for them,” he said. “And also their incredible athleticism. I think Tibetans are blessed with genetics, which is why the PLA was always afraid they couldn’t compete with them.”
In 1967, Establishment 22 was expanded and renamed the Special Frontier Force. Mr. Uban revealed the story behind the name. “Special, because they were Special Forces [Commandos]. We used the word ‘frontier’ because my family belonged to the Hazara district of the then North West Frontier Province of undivided India,” he recalled, and not because of any intent to limit where they would be deployed.
They would finally see action in the 1971 war. They were deployed in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and fought with extraordinary valour. More than 50 would lay down their lives, a sacrifice that was, given the secrecy of the outfit, never given its due recognition.
Mr. Uban would follow in his father’s footsteps, also serving as Inspector General of the SFF and leading them in battle, this time in Kargil in 1999 at heights of 14,000 feet in sub-zero temperatures, for which he would receive a letter of commendation from then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “Having been in battle with the SFF,” he said, “there is one thing I learnt — they are fearless and never, ever hesitate.” Their recent deployment along the LAC has, in a break from the past, brought the SFF into the public attention. “Earlier, the thinking was when you have a secret weapon like this, you don’t flout it,” he said. “This time, it’s a great distinction. Earlier they were used in a covert manner, but now, it’s against China. So we are sending a clear message, even to the people in Tibet.”
Jayadeva Ranade, former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, said the SFF has been a force “blooded in battle”, but one that has always operated in the shadows. “The Chinese were not even aware of the SFF for 30-40 years,” he said. “I think this time, the leak was done deliberately to send the signal to Tibetans inside Tibet, that your brethren are fighting for you.”
“The PLA has been trying hard to recruit Tibetans in the Army and in militia outfits,” added Tibetologist Claude Arpi. “The message will reach Tibet that the SFF have already taken that step.”
Mr. Arpi said the new attention on the SFF holds implications both inside Tibet and for the Tibetan community in India. “Perhaps if Nyima Tenzin’s death had not been reported, we would not have known so much,” he added. “What is interesting for me is how people in the diaspora and refugee community are showing their patriotism, as you saw in the videos from Shimla.”
The SFF is now in its third generation, but its story is only beginning. Mr. Arpi said their new position in the limelight might provide the opportunity for the SFF’s warriors to get long overdue recognition from the government. Ultimately, he said, they should be integrated with the Army.
They are, as always, eager to serve, as one of their favoured battle songs notes: “The Chinese snatched Tibet from us, and kicked us out from our home; Even then, India kept us like their own... 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.”