Sentinels Of India’s Secret War Across Himalayas

Courtesy: Reuters/Monika Deupala

Lieutenant General Dalbir Singh Suhag of 4/5 Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force) will soon assume the command of 1.3 million strong force after the incumbent army chief General Bikram Singh retires on July 31, 2014. The new chief has in past commanded one of India’s most secretive special force unit, the Special Frontier Force (Establishment 22 ) as its Inspector General.

The Origin of Establishment 22: Khampas, Dalai Lama and his People

The birth of the Special Frontier Force (Establishment 22), also known as the “TwoTwo” took place after India faced a humiliating defeat from People Republic of China (PRC) in 1962 Sino-India War. Before 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. Post-independence, Nehru tried to use the philosophy of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai with PRC. It went a step ahead to recognize Tibet as an inseparable part of China with the signing of Panchasheel Agreement in Beijing on 29th April 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 t 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 spring up and will make the boundary issue worse from the bad. Soon after that, incursions from the 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 a significant policy step, the 14th Dalai Lama provided political asylum by India. He entered India via Tawang (after failed Lahasa Uprising in 10th March 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 the Sino-India War in 1962.

The Tibetans that took asylum in India along with H.H. 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 a 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. Uban was the commander of 22 Mountain Regiment during World War II. Intelligence Agencies from India and the U.S. (Intelligence Bureau and Central Investigation Agency) helped to raise the special force with training and weapons.

Special Frontier Force (SFF): Men, Missions and their two Homes

Initially, the special force raised under the operational Command of Intelligence Bureau, but later put under the supervision of Research and Analysis Wing R&AW (currently, under Director-General of Security (Cabinet Secretariat)) who is also an Ex officio (Secy. Research) and is headed by an Inspector General. The primary goal of Establishment-22 was to run covert operations behind the Chinese lines in the event of another Indo-China war. The missions include infiltration into Tibet to disrupt the enemy’s logistical and communication lines; critical infrastructure and compel Chinese to deploy disproportionate force to secure their rear end. The Establishment-22 are 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 and Gangdruk leaders at the mountain training facility at Chakrata (Uttrakhand) and followed by a six months training in rock climbing and guerilla warfare. The Tibetans who were trained by the CIA in Colorado helped smoothly run the training activities. In 1963, the Establishment-22 (SFF) began its airborne training at Agra which later shifted to the airbase at Sarasawa. All commandos were parachute qualified after five jumps with three refresher jumps every year. The unit achieved the distinction of conducting para-jumps at an altitude up to 15,400 feet. The para-jumping exercise at Rambirpur in Ladakh considered among the world’s best.

In 1966, the size of the Establishment-22 doubled, and with this, the unit rechristened — Special Frontier Force (SFF). By the late-1960s, the SFF structured into six battalions for administrative purposes. Each battalion (consisting of 900 men), composed 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 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 got trained in tactics of mountain, amphibious, air support and jungle warfare.

In 1982, the DG Security sent around 500 SFF operatives along with 500 Indian Army special forces men to Sarasawa and later Israel, for the counter-terrorism training course. On return, the men formed a highly classified new detachment called Special Group. The SFF Headquarters supported by an intelligence gathering and planning wing, a training wing, and a specialist signal troop. Later, Special Group became the parent unit of the National Security Guard (NSG). At Present the transport is provided by 117 Helicopter Unit of IAF named “Himalayan Dragons”, and ARC provides the air surveillance through Chakrata airbase 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. Their involvement in the battle began with a call from prime minister Indira Gandhi, who said “We cannot compel you to fight a war for us, but the fact is that Gen. Niazi 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 become involved in a war which was not theirs. Perhaps they saw this as an excellent opportunity to train 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 the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) around 3,000 SFF troops were mobilized from Sarasawa. They were assigned four tasks: to destroy Mizo bases, capture Chittagong, to capture Dottazari and to block the retreat of the Pakistani Army through Arkan Road (Myanmar). They fought under the disguise of Mukti Bahini and accomplished all missions. When the ceasefire declared on 17 December 1971, the SFF had lost 56 men, and nearly 190 were wounded. For their pivotal role in the war, around 580 SFF troops were awarded cash prize by the Indian government. However, the recognitions conferred secretly, and none of the SFF Jawans received medals of high honour. Indira Gandhi was very impressed by their valour and the special force renamed as “Indira Fauj”. Later the force was assigned to provide security cover to Rajiv Gandhi till SPG replaced it.

The SFF also took part n the Operation Meghdoot (Siachen Glacier battle 1985–86). Since then one of its units is always guarding the Siachen glacier. In 1999, SFF jawans were sent to confront Pakistani force during the Operation Vijay (Kargil War). Over the years, the young Tibetans who once joined to fight for their motherland, are leading else’s battle, not with greed but with a sense of gratitude. During Kargil War, a Tibetan jawan composed a song titled “Kargil la dhangpo yongdue, bomb ki phebso shoesong” (When I first came to Kargil, the bombs welcomed us). The nostalgic lines bear sentiments of a Tibetan soldier fighting for India, not Tibet. The SFF battalion still guards the Siachen glacier — oddly close to their homeland but facing the opposite direction.

Originally published at on May 15, 2014.



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