Special Frontier Force: India's Tibetan fighters who could be the elephant in the Himalayan room

The Special Frontier Force briefly rattled the PLA in 2020 and opened up India’s political options of checking a dragooning dragon. Is there a strategic plan that includes the Tibetan issue — an elephant in the room that China ghosted all these years?

Probal DasGupta February 04, 2022 15:06:52 IST
Special Frontier Force: India's Tibetan fighters who could be the elephant in the Himalayan room

File image of Indian guards at the Bumla pass along the China border. AFP

During the fiery summer of 2020, Indian troops outsmarted the Chinese PLA to secure tactical heights along the southern bank of Pangong Tso lake in eastern Ladakh, which triggered two outcomes. One, it revealed to the nation the presence and ability of Tibetan commandos in India’s special forces; and two, it left the adversary chastened.

The Chinese were beaten by Tibetans who owe their fidelity to the Dalai Lama — ousted and maligned for decades. For India that had been traditionally conservative on asymmetric warfare against China, a question arose: Where had the Special Frontier Force (SFF) — raised in the aftermath of the 1962 India-China war — been all these years? Did India miss a trick? The genesis of Tibetan resistance and our subsequent experiences with them helps us unravel a few uncomfortable truths.

How it started

In December 1961, employees at the airport building in Peterson Fields, a nondescript airport near Colorado Springs in the US, were perplexed by an unusual sight — a bunch of Tibetans on the tarmac. Unknown to the watchers, these Tibetans had reached Peterson Fields from Camp Hale in broad daylight instead of arriving later in a cover of evening darkness.

The sight of Tibetans at a faraway Colorado airfield during those years was bound to evoke curiosity. Within minutes, American soldiers swarmed into the building and warned them of dire consequences. The next day, the local papers splashed the story. Worried that the revelation could become a national headline, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara intervened and buried the story. In an era when state communism was a red rag to the West, presidents Eisenhower and John Kennedy were actively involved in training and deploying Tibetans as a key resource to foil Mao Zedong’s consolidation over Tibet.

When Mao invaded Tibet in 1950, Tibetans revolted and were faced with bombings and massacres by China. The killings pushed the resistance into forming an armed outfit called 'Chushi Gangdruk' (Four Rivers, Six Ranges) in 1957. All this while, the Indian government adopted a placatory policy on China, downgraded diplomatic presence in Tibet to avoid a conflict, which in effect allowed Mao to consolidate brazenly in Tibet.

CIA and the Tibetan Cause

The CIA, which was prominent in its operations in India, noticed the developments and stepped in. A covert operation involving a US-led Tibetan Task Force began in Tibet. In his book, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong, the Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup, mentions that the fighters didn’t lack passion but needed weapons and training. General KS Thimayya, India’s Army Chief, suggested the idea of raising a special force consisting of Tibetan refugees. However, his idea was ignored by defence minister Krishna Menon.

In 1959, after training in Colorado, USA, nine Tibetan guerrillas were parachuted into Tibet to operate alongside local resistance fighters and destroy Chinese chemical transports. The plan was leaked to the Chinese and the guerrillas were killed. Many such missions were foiled. The Chinese crushed the resistance but the 'Chushi Gangdruk' spirit survived. The resistance would take a new turn soon after.

Indo-US Team up on Tibet in 1960s: SFF is born

Three years later, in October 1962, Chinese forces attacked India. The resultant debacle forced prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to reach out to the US for weapons assistance. One aspect of their conversations was the use of guerrillas against Chinese interests in Tibet. JFK had understood that India needed to be co-opted into the plan. The US pushed for use of Indian airspace more extensively to unleash Tibetan fighters into Tibet.

Special Frontier Force Indias Tibetan fighters who could be the elephant in the Himalayan room

File image of Jawaharlal Nehru. News18 Hindi

By the time the war was over, the careers of India’s defence minister and the Army Chief had ended ignominiously, but a new idea had taken birth. Intelligence Bureau chief BN Mullick set up a training centre in India for Tibetan fighters. Gyalo Thondup helped recruit Tibetans from refugee camps across India and Brigadier (later Major General) Sujan Singh Uban, a retired world war veteran was made the first commander of SFF.

The mid-sixties saw Sino-Indian tensions rise high, culminating in two consecutive battles on the Sikkim-Tibetan border where India handed China two defeats. Though no Tibetan guerrilla was involved in these battles, a new Indian aggressiveness was palpable elsewhere along the border. India agreed to sustain guerrilla operations within Tibet from their base in Mustang in Nepal and the SFF recruited Gorkhas alongside Tibetans.

In the mid-sixties, as China stoked a fiery insurgency in India’s North East, the CIA partnered with India’s SFF to sneak operatives across the border into China, to record conversations and gather intelligence.

The operation proved fruitless but made SFF more agile and audacious about operating across the border. China had newly turned into nuclear power and SFF troops formed part of an Indian Army-led mountaineering expedition to plant a nuclear monitoring device atop Nanda Devi to track Chinese nuclear testing plans in Xinjiang. Tibetan guerrillas infiltrated with impunity into Tibet those years – tapping phone wires, extracting intelligence, ferrying spy satellites.


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Ironically, India’s half-decade of frenetic covert intelligence activity against China was followed by a reversal to a half-century of familiar inertia on Tibet. By 1970, America’s romance with Tibetan independence ended with the arrival of President Nixon and his China bonhomie project. The American decision depleted India’s willingness towards using Tibetan forces against China anymore. Bereft of American support, India’s strategy on Tibetan fighters and the SFF lacked clarity or boldness. A generation of impassioned Tibetan fighters was thus lost.

India loses its way

The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 provided the SFF with a stage, albeit a different one: 3,000 troops infiltrated into East Pakistan from the border town of Demagiri in Mizoram and conducted successful raids against Pakistani troops in the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) region. Fighting in unfamiliar terrain, they shut down the escape route of Pakistan Army's Chittagong-based 97th (I) Infantry Brigade.

The SFF had proved its combat worthiness but that animated further the larger political question about using Tibetan fighters inside China. China hadn’t interfered in India’s war with Pakistan in 1971. India’s strategy towards China thereafter returned to a more cautious note with self-imposed ‘red lines’ drawn to accommodate its northern neighbour. The SFF wasn’t included in India’s plans on China anymore. Years later, the use of SFF in August 2020, was bound to evoke surprise and alarm among the Chinese, whose concern ran along three possible streams – strategic, psychological and political.

Why China hates the mention of Tibet

On the tactical front, it was a signal for China that a bunch of determined, acclimatised troops who were accustomed to the terrain and combat environment could derail the PLA, whose troops are rotated, by turns, at peace locations and the LAC. It must be added though that the current generation of SFF troops are quite different from the fighters of the 1950s. Major Manish Naik, who commanded SFF troops feels that the current lot are third-generation Tibetans in India who do not have memories of loss and suffering at the hands of the Chinese and hence might lack the spontaneous drive of an earlier generation. However, there is enough memory on the Chinese side about the PLA’s past history of being outmanoeuvred in local skirmishes. Any setback in a hyperactive digital world today can serve as a psychological blow to the domestic public morale which Xi Jinping has carefully built up.

Special Frontier Force Indias Tibetan fighters who could be the elephant in the Himalayan room

File image of Chinese president Xi Jinping. AP

Jayadeva Ranade, a China expert at the Vivekananda Foundation, feels that SFF military action in 2020 ‘heightened nervousness amongst senior Chinese leaders’ and writes that the Chinese leadership has now increased its attention to Tibet Autonomous Region. Herein lies the bigger but linked political dimension that craves increased Indian participation.

The funeral of SFF soldier Nyima Tenzin, a Tibetan, who died during the 2020 operation was attended by Indian political leaders. In late 2021, when a group of six parliamentarians from Congress, BJP and BJD attended a meeting under a ‘Forum on Tibet’ at a Delhi hotel, the Chinese embassy flared up in response. Zhou Yongsheng, Political Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Delhi wrote angrily that the Tibetan Government-in-Exile was an illegal organisation.

Tibet is the key to China’s territorial claims in the Himalayan region. China expert Brahma Chellaney believes that America’s Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA), which became law recently, recognises the importance of choice amongst Tibetans about picking the Dalai Lama’s successor. Interestingly, visits of Xi Jinping and other party officials to Tibet last year avoided any mention of the Panchen Lama, the Chinese anointed successor to the Dalai Lama so as to not stir a debate.

An ambitious and authoritarian Chinese government under Xi Jinping is circumspect about the breach of the more international red line — Taiwan while it brazenly violates the ‘one country two systems policy’ in Hong Kong. As Taiwan increasingly appears prickly, China wouldn’t want the Tibet discussion — another sore, but less troublesome point — to be revived from cold storage. The Chinese are wary that it might be used as a negotiating tactic by India. If we flip it, the central question is: The SFF briefly rattled the PLA in 2020 and opened up India’s political options of checking a dragooning dragon. Is there a strategic plan that includes the Tibetan issue — an elephant in the room that China ghosted all these years?

The writer, author of Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China, writes on military history and international affairs. Views expressed are personal.

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