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The Curious Case of Establishment 22

November 18, 2009

Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times
November 17, 2009

It’s not easy to find Ratu Ngawang’s house among
the maze of narrow lanes in Majnu ka Tilla, the
bustling Tibetan settlement by the Yamuna in
north Delhi. As we get closer, some people offer
us directions. After all, the 83-year-old Ngawang
is known within the community as one of the
handful of bodyguards who accompanied the Dalai
Lama when he fled to India in 1959.

What they probably don’t know is that he was also
an elite commando trained and armed by the US’s
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And that for a
decade and a half he was first a soldier and then
leader of a top-secret Indian regiment that was
raised exactly 47 years ago yesterday (Friday,
November 13). Ngawang was a founding member of
what, in grand government euphemism, is known as Establishment 22.

The story of this still-secret regiment, however,
reads like a set of Catch 22 situations.

Though it was raised to fight the Chinese army in
Tibet, it has fought in several theatres of war
except that one. It’s so classified a set-up that
even the army may not know what it’s up to — it
reports directly to the prime minister via the
directorate general of security in the cabinet
secretariat; so the gallantry of its soldiers
cannot be publicly recognised. It’s supposed to
be a group of volunteers; but all school-passing
Tibetan children not making a certain grade are still expected to join it.

Jawaharlal Nehru took the decision to raise the
force on his birthday in 1962. It was also the
day the war with China resumed on the eastern
front after a brief lull. On the advice of
Intelligence Bureau founder-director Bhola Nath
Mullick and World War II veteran Biju Patnaik,
Nehru ordered the raising of a Tibetan guerrilla
force that could engage the Chinese in the
uber-tough terrains of the Himalayas.

Sitting in his house on the Yamuna, Ngawang says
that it was early 1963 when the first batch of
about 12,000 Tibetans was brought to Chakrata,
100 km from Dehradun. Former armyman Sujan Singh
Uban was the first inspector-general tasked with
turning these rugged highlanders into fierce
fighters — with substantial help from the CIA.
The group took its intriguing name after the 22
Mountain Regiment that Uban had fought for during WWII.

Since then, the regiment -- also called the
Special Frontier Force (SFF) -- has participated
with exemplary skill in Operation Eagle (securing
Chittagong hills during the Bangladesh War of
1971, where 49 soldiers of the regiment died),
Operation Bluestar (clearing Amritsar’s Golden
Temple in 1984), Operation Meghdoot (securing the
Siachen glacier in 1984) and Operation Vijay (war
with Pakistan at Kargil in 1999).

Some reports later claimed that SFF’s mandate had
been changed to include anti-terrorist
operations. But Vikram Sood, director of the
Research & Analysis Wing during 2001-03, and B.
Raman, additional secretary in the security wing
of the cabinet secretariat during 1988-94, deny
any change from the original mandate.

The total number of soldiers, though, has changed
-- swelling to about 20,000 around 1970 and then
whittling down to below 10,000. It’s difficult to
know the exact count at present because of the tight lid of secrecy.

The lid was, however, blown in 1978. Indian
newspapers reported that an electronic
intelligence machine passed on by the CIA and
mounted atop Nanda Devi in 1965 to track Chinese
missile tests had gone missing. The bigger worry
was over the plutonium generator that powered the
machine. As Prime Minister Morarji Desai assured
a worried Parliament on nuclear safety, the
mention of SFF, that had mostly manned the operation, slipped out.

Captain Manmohan Singh Kohli, 78, adviser to the
Indo-Tibetan Border Police (then called the
Frontier Rifles) who led the operation, says,
“The SFF men were real tough… Once, when we were
building a helipad a large rock had to be
removed. It needed seven men to lift — even six
wouldn’t do. Then, one of the SFF guys said, ‘Put
it on my back.’ And he alone carried it about 15 feet and threw it."

Commandant Dinesh Tewari, 68, a former Gurkha
regiment captain who put thousands of SFF
soldiers through a gruelling 44-week commando
course during 1969-75, says, “They can survive in
any condition... On some winter mornings I would
watch some of them taking chilly water into their
mouth, warming it, and then spitting it out to wash their face."

But for all their hardship and valour, SFF men
and women have got little official recognition.

Ngawang, who retired as a Dapon (equivalent of a
brigadier), the top rank among SFF’s Tibetans, in
1976, says, "We were promised medals after
Bangladesh, but never got them — only some cash,
that too a few thousands.” On retirement he got
Rs 19,000. He and his wife Dechen, who trained
for SFF’s women’s wing, have sold sweaters and
run restaurants to make ends meet.

Some other ex-members, too, run shops in
Dharamshala or Delhi. Many more others bide their
last years at an old-age home in Dehradun.

Only recently have a few SFF soldiers been given
gallantry awards for Siachen and Kargil.
Payscales, too, have been made to match those in
the army. A serving soldier reports that a few
months ago, for the first time, the government promised them pensions.

But a soldier wants recognition, too. Captain
Kohli, who was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva
medal, says, "I was conferred the AVSM by the
Navy, because it was a covert operation... I am
sure the SFF men get recognition and awards
within their own system.” Just that nobody is saying how.

(Published in Hindustan Times on November 14, 2009)
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