Inside the Secret Tibetan Force That Is Helping India Take On China

Apart from being expert paratroopers, members of the Special Frontier Force are trained in mountain warfare and guerilla combat.
October 2, 2020, 3:20am
India, SFF, soldier, Tiber, Leh, China
Indian soldiers pay their respects to Special Frontier Force soldier Nyima Tenzin in Leh on September 7, 2020. Photo by Mohd Arhaan Archer/Getty Images.

Lhakpa Tshering, 65, a former duty leader of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), India’s covert security unit, felt helpless watching a video he had received over WhatsApp in the first week of September. It showed the wreath laying ceremony of SFF fighter, Nyima Tenzin, in Leh.

Nyima died during an operation against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. Another SFF fighter, Tenzin Loden, was injured in the same operation. “I wish I was deployed at the China border,” Tshering told VICE News.

More than 50 percent of the SFF’s 10,000 soldiers are Tibetan refugees. The administrative control of the secretive unit lies with the Cabinet Secretariat, but it is under the Indian Army for operational purposes.

“I will write to the Inspector General of the SFF asking him to have a mechanism through which retired personnel like myself can also be given weapons and fight in situations like this,” said Tshering, sitting in a spacious room in his house in a Tibetan neighbourhood in India’s capital, New Delhi.

Tension on the India-China border has been unusually higher since May this year. Experts believe that while none of the two countries would gain from a war, the current conflict could blow up.

In August, the SFF helped the Indian troops gain advantage over the PLA which was attempting to infringe into Indian territory.

Last month, foreign ministers of both the countries met in Moscow to defuse the volatile situation at the border.

Tibetans have died earlier too, fighting for India. Nyima’s death was, however, a rare occasion when India overtly acknowledged the efforts of Tibetans, part of the SFF, willing to take on China. Ram Madhav, general secretary of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attended Nyima’s funeral in Leh.

In a tweet, which was deleted later, Ram Madhav said he hoped the soldier’s death would lead to peace along the “Indo-Tibetan border.”

“The Indians are sending a very strong message, which they probably have not sent for decades,” Robbie Barnett, former head of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, told Bloomberg. “The involvement of exiled Tibetans and the use of exiled Tibetan icons, images and flags, is hugely significant for China’s interpretation.”

India’s Intelligence Bureau raised the SFF or Establishment 22 (two two), a Tibetan military force, soon after India’s war with China in 1962. The unit was partly funded by the US. The first batch of fighters was trained by the US Special Forces in mountain warfare, guerilla combat and paratrooping.

“Everything changed when the war broke out in 1962. Faced with military collapse, India planned to use Tibetans to attack the strained Chinese supply lines,” columnist Ananth Karthikeyan wrote in an article in DNA newspaper in 2017.
“They were aware of existing US-trained Tibetan forces in US bases in Asia. Gyalo Thondup [brother of the current Dalai Lama] was contacted for assistance: India’s newfound interest was welcomed by the Tibetans and thus India entered the secret war,” Karthikeyan noted.

“The force was trained to operate from bases along the Kashmir frontier where they crossed the border into Tibet planting electronic listening devices,” A Tom Grunfeld, history professor at State University of New York, wrote in a paper.

Establishment 22 was deployed by India for some operations in Tibet and later against Pakistani forces in the Bangladesh war.

Nawang Lodoe, 54, retired as a Dopan (equivalent of Captain in the Indian Army) from the SFF in 2007. Lodoe told VICE News that when the SFF was raised, the immediate purpose was to attack China. “That did not happen. Then Bangladesh [India-Pakistan war in 1971 which led to the creation of Bangladesh] happened and it became a permanent force,” said Lodoe.

“During 1971, the SFF was not very capable. Signals were not very good. The force was only 10 years old and also had language barriers.”

Tshering joined the SFF two years after the 1971 war. He was 14-year-old then, and had migrated to India from Tibet as a child.

“I remember that 90 of us were taken to Chakrata for training,” said Tshering, referring to the training centre in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. “Our morale was down because we were not sure how conducive the atmosphere at the training centre would be,” said Tshering.

In 1950, China imposed its long-held claim to Tibet, a remote area, 13,000 feet above sea level, and subsequently made it part of the Chinese territory.

The area has been a flashpoint between India and China since 1959 when Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, after a failed uprising. The Dalai Lama, with his supporters, has since set up a government-in-exile in Dharamshala. India recognised Tibet as part of China in 2003.

Kunsung Youtney, 54, former sepoy with the SFF said tensions escalated between India and Pakistan in 1987. Youtney was 18 when his leave was cancelled and he was asked to resume duty as “war with Pakistan was inevitable.”
“I spent four months in Turtuk (the northernmost district of Ladakh) waiting for sanction from New Delhi,” he said.

Experts closely tracking development on the India-China border say that in addition to commend the SFF’s efforts, India should also consider supporting the Tibetan cause. “Despite recent developments, India’s policy towards Tibet vis-à-vis China remains ambiguous as the government still has not framed a viable and structured policy on dealing with Tibet’s political status nor has it effectively engaged with the Central Tibetan administration (Tibetan government-in-exile) on the issue,” Tenzin Lhadon, research fellow at the Tibetan Policy Institute, Dharamshala, told VICE News.