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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Not their own wars

December 24, 2007

As the Indian Army’s secretive Tibetan force celebrates its 45th
birthday this year, Tibetan warriors in the Special Frontier Force
commemorate more than four decades of fighting other people’s wars.

By : Tashi Dhundup


While at school at the Central School for Tibetans in Mussoorie, my
classmates and I used to sing a song that went, “Chocho mangmi la madro,
haapen bholo yoki rae”, which translates to “O brother don’t go to the
army, they will make you wear those loose half-pants”. Although we sang
this song in every grade, it was only years later that the true meaning
of those words finally dawned on me. Each year as the seniors graduated,
we would see trucks waiting at the school gate – Indian Army trucks, all
set to cart many of the graduating students off to the barracks for
training. At the time I was confused, and wondered why these new
graduates were not simply going home.

It was only much later that I came to understand the involvement of
Tibetans in the Indian Army. This is an issue that has still received
scant attention, much less acknowledgement of the achievements of the
Tibetan soldiers in the name of the Indian state. Indeed, to this day
India has never officially recognised this debt, though Tibetans, around
10,000 of them, continue to serve in the Indian Army.

India’s Tibetan troops have traditionally made up the vast majority of
the Special Frontier Force, widely known as the SFF, which has been
guarding Indian borders for 45 years. Following the Sino-Indian War of
1962, the SFF was created in Chakrata, around 100 km from Dehradun, a
town with a large Tibetan refugee population. While a second force, the
Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), was also created in the same year,
its mandate was border patrol, while the SFF focused on guerrilla
warfare. Later on, all of the Tibetans with the ITBP were sent to
Chakrata, and the ITBP remained Tibetan largely in name only.

Over the following decades, despite involvement in the 1971 War of
Liberation in Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi’s Operation Bluestar in Punjab,
the 1999 conflict in Kargil, as well as a continued presence on the
Siachen glacier, the full extent of the SFF’s role has remained shrouded
in mystery. Indeed, much of what there is to know about the SFF’s
actions over the past four and a half decades has remained with two
people: former Indian intelligence chief R N Kao and S S Uban, the SFF’s
first inspector-general, both of whom have remained notoriously
tight-lipped about the group.

China advanced into Tibet in 1950, and nine years later the 14th Dalai
Lama, then 24 years of age, fled south into exile. That same period saw
the formation of a group called Chu-She-Khang-Druk (Four Rivers and Six
Mountains, a name symbolising a unified Tibet), comprised mostly of
Khampa, from the southeastern plains of Tibet. This relatively small
group suddenly rose in violent revolt against Chinese subjugation and,
though outmatched in military strength, the Chu-She-Khang-Druk fighters
were able to inflict heavy damage on the People’s Liberation Army. With
the Dalai Lama’s escape to India and a mass exodus of Tibetans
following, the Khampa fighters felt that the best service they could
provide at the time was to protect the escape route. Eventually, they
too went into exile, with a base of the group eventually coming up in
Mustang, in north-central Nepal.

On the global level, this was taking place at the height of the Cold War
between the US and international communist forces, which subsequently
led the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, DC to decide to aid
these Tibetan guerrillas. Though the details have always been somewhat
hazy, the US continued to provide weapons and training until the early
1970s. But when Henry Kissinger, then Richard Nixon’s Secretary of
State, shook hands with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in 1971, the CIA
abruptly cut off its quiet support for the Tibetans (see accompanying
story, “On the altar of foreign relations”).

Something similar had earlier taken place in India. Following the 1954
Panchsheel Agreement, Jawaharlal Nehru largely sacrificed Tibet on the
altar of Indo-China friendship. At the time, Nehru was evidently
assuming, or hoping, that the idea of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ relations
would be firmly cemented. But this was not to be: instead, the dragon
roared and breathed fire, and Nehru was jolted from his slumber. The
India-China war of 1962 invoked a longstanding sense of paranoia in New
Delhi, and in its aftermath Nehru looked towards the old neighbour he
had forsaken to protect the Indian border from the new neighbour he had
blindly trusted. With a ready stock of CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas
now available in India, Nehru decided to form an army unit consisting
almost exclusively of Tibetans to guard its rugged northern frontier.

The Chu-She-Gang-Druk fighters welcomed the idea: through the new
formation, they hoped that a Tibetan army could be formally maintained,
and could be of ready use in the future. A tripartite agreement between
India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), the US’s CIA and the
Chu-She-Gang-Druk subsequently brought into existence the Special
Frontier Force. Initial recruiting gathered together around 12,000 men,
commanded by two Chu-She-Gang-Druk leaders, who were oddly referred to
as the “political leaders”. Initial training was provided by the CIA and
India’s Intelligence Bureau. Within two years, a period of covert
expeditions along India’s northern borders had begun. Yet opportunities
never did materialise for the unit to be used against its intended
‘enemy’, and indeed, in 1973 the SFF’s orders were altered following
alleged incursions into Tibet: the group was now longer allowed to
deploy within 10 km of the Tibetan border. However, it was successfully
deployed during the course of several other operations.

It would be appreciated…
16 December 1971 was the day the Bangladesh War of Liberation ended, and
the date has come to connote freedom for the people of Bangladesh. Few
in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, however, remember – or have ever known
of – the role played by the SFF in ensuring the Indian Army’s victory on
that day. In the lead-up to the SFF’s deployment, Indira Gandhi wired a
message to the Tibetan fighters, conveyed through their Indian
commander: “We cannot compel you to fight a war for us,” Gandhi wrote,
“but the fact is that General A A K Niazi [the Pakistan Army commander
in East Pakistan] 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.”

In a dynamic that would be repeated several additional times, Tibetans
subsequently began to fight a war that was not their own, and on the
request of a woman whose father had played a significant part in
betraying the Tibetan cause. Three thousand SFF Tibetan commandos were
deployed, fighting under the cover of the Mukti Bahini (Bangladesh
Liberation Army) along the Chittagong Hill Tracts. They infiltrated with
orders to destroy bridges, dams and communication lines, thereby
smoothening the way for the advance of the Indian Army. During the
conflict, the SFF lost 56 men, while another 190 were wounded. After a
little less than nine months, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The new
country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, personally called the SFF
leaders to thank them for their part in that creation. But this had been
a classified mission – one that, officially, still does not exist. As
such, none of the SFF fighters have ever been decorated, nor have their
contributions ever been officially recognised.

So began decades of fighting other people’s wars, much as the Nepali
Gorkhas serve in the Indian armed forces. As alluded to by Indira
Gandhi’s 1971 letter, the SFF was seen as a particularly effective
force, and their service was used in 1984 Operation Bluestar to storm
the Golden Temple to flush out Sikh militants. Years later, keeping in
mind his mother’s attachment to the SFF, Rajiv Gandhi called upon the
Tibetan fighters to manage his security during part of his tenure as
prime minister. Following the 1999 conflict in Kargil, a Tibetan jawan
wrote a song that began, “Kargil la dhangpo yongdue, bomb ki phebso
shoesong” (When I first came to Kargil, the bombs welcomed us). Inherent
in those words are not just fearful sentiments as expressed by any young
soldier, but also the fact that Kargil was India’s conflict, not
Tibet’s. Likewise, one SFF battalion today continues to serve on the
Siachen glacier – oddly close to their homeland, but facing the opposite

Indeed, unofficial thanks notwithstanding, throughout these past decades
it has fallen to the Tibetans themselves to sing the songs of the unsung
heroes. One such song in Hindi, composed by a Tibetan trooper, is titled
“We are Vikasi”, referring to the term used for a regiment within the
SFF. Its words allude not only to a push to keep the cause of Tibetan
independence alive, but also to the formation of a new identity within
the past half-century: the Tibetan-Indian, temporarily or otherwise.

We are the Vikasi, dwellers of Tibet
We will strengthen the pride of the country

Whenever opportunities arise
we will play with our lives.

We are the Vikasi
The Chinese snatched Tibet from us
and kicked us out from our home
Even then, India
kept us like their own
One day, surely one day
we will teach the Chinese a lesson
Whenever opportunities arise
we will play with our lives

In the Siachen glacier
we got our second chance
Our young martyrs
have no sadness whatsoever
Whether it is Kargil or Bangladesh
we will not lose our strength
Whenever opportunities arise
we will play with our lives

Where there is our Potala Palace
and lovely Norbu Lingka
The throne of the Dalai Lama
was dear even then
Remember those martyrs of ours
who sacrificed with their lives
Let’s sing together

Hail to our Tibet!
Hail to our Tibet!
Hail to our Tibet!
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