Here’s A Peek Into India’s Secretive Special Frontier Force Raised In 1962 To Counter The Chinese
Ever since it was raised, the SFF has never been used against the Chinese but has, however, covered itself in glory since then in many operations.
Now, the SFF which has developed formidable covert capabilities could see more action against the Chinese.
The daring operation that led to the occupation of the strategic heights south of Pangong Tso in Ladakh last weekend marked the first time in nearly six decades that India’s secretive Special Frontier Force (SFF) got to fulfil its original mandate.
Raised in 14 November 1962 — a week before the India-China border war ended — to counter the Chinese, this specialised regiment comprising Tibetans and Gorkhas has taken part in various other operations even against the Pakistani army. But last weekend was the first time it was deployed against the Chinese.
The idea of raising a special force manned by Tibetan refugees in India against the Chinese was originally mooted by General K S Thimayya when he was the army chief between May 1957 and May 1961.
The idea did not find favour with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon who was not well-disposed towards Thimayya.
But once the Indian Army started suffering humiliating setbacks in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh at the hands of the Chinese, Intelligence Bureau (IB) director Bhola Nath Mullick and then Odisha chief minister Biju Patnaik, a close friend of Nehru, prevailed upon the latter to agree to the idea mooted by Thimayya.
Tibetan resistance fighters, especially the Chushi Gangdruk guerillas who had been fighting Chinese forces after they invaded Tibet in 1950, were contacted for raising the SFF. Mullick also contacted and got help from the Dalai Lama’s elder brother Gyalo Thondup on this.
Hardy Khampas (inhabitants of the Kham province of Tibet) formed the initial recruits to the SFF.
It was on 14 November 1962 — Nehru’s 73rd birthday — that the SFF was raised. About 6,000 volunteers from the Tibetan refugee community in India formed the first lot of recruits and they were trained in covert operations by the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the IB.
Chakrata, about 90 kilometres north of Dehradun in Uttarakhand, was chosen as the headquarters of the force. Chakrata was already home to a large Tibetan refugee population and special training facilities were set up there.
The SFF was also known as ‘Establishment 22’ or simply ‘two-two’ since it was named as such by its first head — Major General Sujan Singh Uban — after the 22nd Mountain Regiment of the British Indian Army he had commanded during the Second World War.
The SFF is under the control of the cabinet secretariat, or the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), though the operational control rests with the Indian Army. SFF, which has six battalions, was the first special force (SF) of independent India though the Parachute Regiment raised during the Second World War was the precursor to the present-day para forces.
The Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external spy agency, also exercises control over the SFF through the PMO. The 6,000-odd commandos — almost all of them Tibetans and Gorkhas — of the SFF are elite paratroopers trained in mountain warfare.
The SFF is headed by an Inspector General of the rank of a Major General. The battalions are also commanded by Indian Army officers. Each battalion has six companies, also headed by Indian Army officers of the rank of Major. The insignia of the SFF is a distinctive Tibetan snow lion.
The SFF’s original mandate was to infiltrate enemy (Chinese) lines and carry out covert operations in Tibet. It was trained in parachute jumps, sabotage, counter-insurgency operations, infiltrating enemy lines, camouflage, tactical and special operations.
But ever since it was raised, the SFF has never been used against the Chinese or for operations against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Chinese-occupied Tibet (CoT). The SFF has, however, covered itself in glory since then in many operations.
The major successful operation under the SFF’s belt was ‘Operation Eagle’ when it was airlifted and parachuted into the Pakistan-occupied Chittagong Hill Tracts in present-day Bangladesh in 1971.
The SFF units blew up roads and bridges, eliminated Pakistani camps, engaged with and defeated Pakistani forces in close combat, destroyed Pakistani ammunition depots and other military infrastructure and hardware and prevented Pakistani forces from escaping to Burma.
The SFF lost 56 men and 190 of them were wounded in ‘Operation Eagle’. But since the SFF was a secret force, it was not awarded any gallantry medals that time. However, 580 SFF officers and men were awarded cash prizes by the government of India. The SFF’s dare-devilry and covert capabilities won the force the moniker of ‘Ghosts of Chittagong’.
In 1964, SFF personnel were part of a special operation comprising regular Indian Army and CIA operatives to plant electronic intelligence devices to monitor China’s testing of nuclear devices.
In the early 1970s, some units of the SFF carried out unsanctioned covert operations against the Chinese by crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into CoT. Beijing protested vociferously and in order to prevent a border flareup and deterioration in ties with China, SFF units were prohibited from being deployed within 10 km of the LAC.
The SFF also played a crucial role in Operation Meghdoot, which involved taking control of the Siachen Glacier in 1984. Since then, a unit of the SFF has been stationed permanently at Siachen.
It was only after Operation Meghdoot, when SFF units fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Indian Army units trained in specialised high-altitude warfare, that the worth of the SFF started being officially acknowledged.
SFF battalions also covered themselves with glory in the Kargil War in 1999 and proved their mettle as hardy warriors specialising in mountain warfare. They won the respect of regular army units who fought in Kargil. The Dalai Lama himself had blessed SFF personnel, who went to Kargil to fight off Pakistani soldiers.
In 1985, the SFF was granted rank parity with the Indian Army. In 1989, SFF troops were allowed to wear the standard Indian DPM (disruptive pattern material) camouflage uniforms.
In 2009, SFF was finally granted parity with the Indian Army on pay, allowances, pension, privileges and other service conditions.
The SFF has also taken part in some anti-insurgency operations, but the details of those are not publicised for various reasons.
Senior serving and retired army officers who have wielded operational command over the SFF or have seen them in operations have nothing but praise for them.
“The SFF is a fine fighting force at par with the best in the world. Being native to the mountains, SFF personnel are fantastic mountain fighters,” said a retired lieutenant general, who has served in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir.
“Few can match the SFF in daring and gallantry, and the SFF boys’ fighting capability in the high mountains where even breathing is a tough task is legendary,” said a retired Brigadier who once fought alongside the SFF in Kargil.
With India finally shedding its inhibition about acknowledging the existence and utility of the SFF, this force could see more action against the Chinese in future.
The SFF has developed formidable covert capabilities that can be effectively deployed against the PLA.
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