It was Sixth Chief of the illustrious Indian Army & a Great Son of India - General KS Thimayya, Padma Bhushan, DSO, who had recommended raising of a Specialized Commando Force comprising of Tibetan Refugees in India. Soon after TAR was illegally overrun by a tyrant, ethnocentric & expansionist Dragon, a paper was sent from COAS Secretariat to Prime Minister Nehru & Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. Both being disinclined to the former for his popular ram rod image & bold stand over China & also having resigned as a result of serious differences with Mr. Menon, no serious thought was given to this proposal.
It was here that RN Kao (Founder of RAW) & BN Malik (IB Chief) picked up the threads of this original thought. Later, Nehru on explicit advice of Nationalist Biju Patnaik - a Veteran, finally agreed to sanction the raising of the Special Frontier Force (SFF). The men & women would be Tibetan resistance fighters from Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) – Followers of the Dalai Lama. The primary task of SFF would be against PLA Ground Force as well as to conduct intelligence gathering and commando operations along the Chinese Theatre. Chushi Gandruk leaders were contacted for the recruitment of ‘Khampas’ into this new unit. An initial strength of 6000 men -mostly Khampas were recruited at its new Mountain Training Facility at Chakrata.
Chakrata, located at a distance of about 96 km from Dehradun in the Himalayan Region was home to a large Tibetan refugee population. The fledgling Force was imparted initial training by the IB Special Operations Unit. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) & CIA also helped in raising the Force in a big way.
It is pertinent to mention here that at the time of Indian independence, the Northern Himalayan Mountain Region of India remained the most isolated and strategically overlooked/neglected territory of the subcontinent. The British had little interest in these areas; as a result, India continues to suffer to date from their ‘divide & rule’ legacy.
During the 1950s, both CIA and IB had established a Base at Mustang in Nepal which trained Tibetans in guerilla warfare. It was these Mustang Fighters that had brought Dalai to India. In 1964, the SFF had begun its airborne training at Agra. In 1968 with the help of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), the SFF was provided airlift facilities and became fully airborne; it had by then also trained a dedicated mountain and jungle warfare unit.
The SFF - also known as 'Establishment 22' or just '22' is not part of the Indian Army but functions under its operational control with its own rank structure, charter, and training infrastructure. It falls under the authority of the Cabinet Secretariat headed by an Inspector General (IG) - selected from amongst the Major Generals of the Indian Army. He reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. The Battalions are commanded & officer by Para trained Officers - proficient in airborne operations. Every battalion has six companies-each commanded by a Major from the Indian Army. The Insignia of the SFF is a distinctive Tibetan Snow Lion.
On raising, SFF's weapons were initially provided by the US and consisted mainly of Small Arms. The US government pulled out the CIA from its training programme during the period of the Cold War, Sino-Soviet split, and Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China for improving bilateral relations. However, small cross-border reconnaissance missions as well as highly classified joint-operations with the CIA on Mount Nanda Devi in the Himalayas were undertaken by SFF Elements.
The SFF is formally organized into VIKAS Battalions. It was extremely successful in major combat operations during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 (Bangladesh). Around 3000 members strong SFF Task Force was deployed to conduct a pre-emptive strike in support of the Indian Army formations along the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and to train the local underground unit called Mujib Bahini. They also halted members of Pakistan's 97 Independent Brigade and 2 Commando Battalion at CHT. Starting late October and November 1971, elements of SFF were also sent to Mizoram.
Ever since SFF was raised, it was never used against the Chinese or for Operations against PLA in TAR. The SFF has today carved a niche for itself in a joint operation undertaken with the Indian Army capturing heights /ridges in the North & South of Pangong Tso Lake in Eastern Ladakh by establishing Indian outposts –almost face to face from the Chinese.
It is pertinent to go through the recent Official Statement of the Indian Army, Quote “ On the night of 29/30 August 2020, PLA Troops violated the previous consensus arrived at military & diplomatic engagements during the ongoing standoff in Eastern Ladakh & carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo. Indian Troops preempted this PLA Activity on the Southern Bank of Pagong Tso Lake undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on the ground”, Unquote.
It became clear that the PLA wanted to continue engaging the Indian Army in talks till the arrival of winters, thereby compelling the latter to accept the new/nibbled boundaries. By capturing these peaks as part of the overall plan, the Snow Lions have conveyed a clear message that if PLA troops are waiting for the winters to set in, then they are asking for trouble & they be prepared to face similar Indian Army actions in harsh winters - amply demonstrated by this operation.
On 1 September 2020, company leader N Tenzin of SFF sacrificed his life due to a landmine blast while undertaking a reconnaissance mission along the line of actual control (LAC). A befitting farewell was given to him at Choglamsar near Leh by thousands of people - where his last rites were solemnized. Tenzin is a Tibetan given name, meaning ‘THE HOLDER OF BUDHA DHARMA”-taken from Tenzin GYATSO - The Fourteenth Dalai Lama. It also means “UPHOLDER OF TEACHINGS”.
The SFF has come up today as a well trained & motivated Fighting Force. Being native to the high altitude regions of Ladakh, they are seasoned mountain soldiers - as agile as Snow Leopards. Rightly, therefore, ‘SNOW LION’ is the CREST of SFF. I am sanguine that SFF would be tasked from now onwards to undertake missions inside TAR both overtly & covertly. The use of ethnic Tibetan against the Chinese could now become part of a well-considered policy ensuring that Tibet would become a reminder to DRAGON in bilateral business with India.
I am sanguine that India has today shed her inhibitions regarding use of this excellent, highly motivated & hard hitting Force. In the future, hopefully, more successful operations would be carried out by this elite Group.
This is indeed a welcome Policy Shift.