Nobody knew about them. Nobody. Not even many generals of the Indian Army. Their voices were muted and their bodies were like swift-moving shadows. On November 14, 1971 as sullen winds moaned on the encroaching night, the silent shadows sprang to life moving with a lightning speed to surround, overwhelm, and destroy the Pakistani posts one by one. All along the hills and valleys of the Chittagong district they immobilized the Pakistani army and allowed a wide zone for Indian troops to march into East Bengal with little or no resistance.
They are the Tibetan Special Forces (TSF). They fought for a cause that was not their cause and for a war that was not their war. When the war ended, in addition to 190 wounded, they had lost 56 of their men including one of the toughest, CIA-trained Tibetan guerilla leaders Dhondup Gyatotsang. Yet their towering courage went unrewarded, and their heroic saga is forgotten and lost in the mists and sands of Time.
It all started when the 1962 war with China was winding down.The Government of India (GOI) headed by Nehru and Krishna Menon, the useful idiots as Mao-Tse-Tung correctly surmised, suddenly woke up to the fact that China was no longer “brotherly.” It cared nothing for the euphoria of a mythical bhai-bhai and ruthlessly knocked Nehru walking on clouds of fantasy to the ground with a sucker-punch “power flows from the barrel of a gun.” The shattering fall sent the sleuths of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) scrambling for alternatives and the chief Bholanath Mullick initiated the formation of a special guerilla force with willing exiles from Tibet. The CIA spearheaded the training initially and a legendary general of World War II (WWII), Major General Sujan Singh Uban, was assigned the post of commander. The TSF came to be known as Special Frontier Force (SFF) or “Establishment 22” or simply 22 because Major General Uban had commanded the 22 Mountain brigade during WWII. Thus, the SFF was born on November 14, 1962 and operated from its base in Chakrata, Uttarkhand.Stalwart Tibetans from the plains of Khampa became a lifeline in the inferno of war and fought India’s enemy with glorious action and ferocious courage.
The CIA had originally trained batches of khampa rebels as early as 1957 for internal sabotage in China, and continued its relations with Establishment 22 at various levels until 1968. The Geopolitical plates shifted with Nixon’s fatal attraction for China and Tibetan guerillas were abandoned for the glitter of Chinese business. Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) took over on 21 Sept, 1968, when it was created, and Establishment 22 became part of the RAW headed by the spymaster R.N. Kau. The Tibetans got more training from MARCOS, IB, the Indian army and the CIA with special emphasis on para-trooping, sabotage, and intelligence gathering to prepare them for any future war with China.
However, the Tibetan guerillas, a crack commando force rigged to take on China never got the opportunity to do so as the war with China never materialized. The Geopolitical climate changed abruptly when Nixon teamed up with China and the world sought the mantra of peace. However, another part of Asia was blazing with fury and resentment.On March 25, 1971 the Pakistani army launched “Operation Searchlight”, unleashing a maelstrom of rapes and massacres on their Bengali population. Media reports cite that in a span of 9 months, the Pakistani military murdered a million people exceeding the “kill rate” of Nazis by 33%. Ten million refugees poured into India and the atrocities multiplied to such an extent that Joan Baez captured the genocide in the “Song of Bangladesh” – “When the sun sinks in the West, Die a million people of the Bangladesh.”
Major General Uban urged New Delhi to send his battle trained Tibetan forces itching for a real operation.Indira Gandhi put the ball in SFF’s court with a message wired to the SFF through their commander: “We cannot compel you to fight a war for us, 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.” The letter convinced the senior commander of Establishment 22 guerillas to fight for the cause of Bangladesh and India.
In July 1971, according to war history records, the first batch of 110 Tibetan guerillas infiltrated into East Pakistan and destroyed tea gardens, riverboats and railway tracks. This undermined East Pakistan’s economy, tied down troops and destroyed communications between the nerve centers of E. Pakistan, Dhaka, Comilla and Chittagong. A series of low-grade border skirmishes followed. The SFF was armed with hastily imported Bulgarian assault rifles and U.S manufactured carbines to obscure their links with India. Even the cap insignia had a regiment-crossed khukri with “12” on top to disguise it as a 12th gurkha regiment. It was a perfect setup for deniability as no one would suspect that gurkhas were Tibetans due to the fact that they are racially alike.
Around the third week of October, 1971, a top secret armed campaign “Operation Mountain Eagle” was quietly launched. Their mission included four main tasks.Blow up Kaptai dam, damage the Pakistani military positions, kill as many as Pakistani soldiers (widely known as the “Khan sena”) as possible, destroy bridges and military infrastructures, and severely restrict Pakistani military movement.The goal was to severely degrade the Pakistani army and paralyze any resistance to the advancing Indian army.
3000 Tibetan commandos from Establishment 22 were dropped in Demagiri in Mizoram, an obscure border village.Night sorties of guerillas were done using ARC (Advanced Research Center) planes rather than military planes, as RAW wanted to avoid the Eastern command of the Indian army. In Demagiri, the Tibetans stayed incognito and merged with the teeming refugees. After some time they began hit-and-run raids across the border in East Pakistan.They would cross the river, strike a Pakistani post and return to Demagiri.In the second week of November 1971, the SFF crossed the river using nine canoes. They divided into three columns and prepared to launch a guerilla campaign inside East Pakistan. A Pakistani brigade (97th) and a battalion of its elite SSG (Special Services group) had dug in under cover of the thick jungle and leech infested marshes.Undaunted the Tibetans swung into action. Using their Bulgarian rifles and their native knives, they unleashed a blitzkrieg-like-sweep-and-destroy on Pakistani posts, capturing several Pakistani posts within hours, halting temporarily when their general or Dapon Dhondup Gyatotsang was shot, and then swinging back into action.
There is little doubt, corroborated by military specialists, that the Tibetan guerillas were wildly successful.In their campaign against the Pakistani 97th Independent Brigade and their 2nd commando battalion of SSG in Chittagong, they not only restrained their movements but also cut off their routes of escape to Burma. The SFF with their bold and striking hits were so swift that they seemed like merciless ghosts on the prowl. They came down like phantoms, killed the Pakistani soldiers, destroyed their posts and vanished. They never let up and continued the kill and vanish movements till the “phantom guerillas” virtually cleaned up all of Chittagong before the war was declared officially on Dec. 3, 1971, leaving the Indian army to advance with no resistance. Also Mukti Bahini which had a third of the SFF members captured many towns and garrisons in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in about a month’s time. General Uban and SFF were keen to capture the port of Chittagong and had the capability to do so as the Pakistanis were in no position to stop the momentum of their fast and furious action. However, they decided against it as they would need heavy artillery to retain it and defend it.
The Chittagong port was finally captured by the Indian military, but the guerillas were asked to be silent and stay 40 km away. On 16, December, 1971 with the surrender of the Pakistani army in Dhaka, the warrior phantoms of 22 came out to celebrate the victory of India over Pakistan. For the first time they were seen rejoicing on the road to Chittagong. Soldiers of the Indian army as well as the common people were stunned to see the euphoric Tibetans appear seemingly from nowhere. However, when General Uban heard of it, he ordered them back into the shadows, their minutes of rejoicing forever banned from the public eye.
For their key role in capturing Chittagong in 1971, the Indian government gave cash prizes to 580 members for their bravery and involvement. However, due to the secrecy of the operation, none were publicly awarded. None of the SFF jawans received any medals of high honor. They continue to face discrimination in terms of low pay, no reliable pension, and other benefits. In spite of this, the guerillas of Establishment 22 continued to fight many battles for India. They were involved in the Indian operations in Operation Blue Star, Siachen, Kargil and several anti-terrorist operations in many parts of the country. For some time after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, they were in charge of Gandhi family’s security. A unit of SFF is guarding the inhospitable and freezing terrain of Siachen.Rumor has it that they were involved in capturing the most difficult peak called Tiger Hill during the Kargil war.
But sadly, through all this time they have remained unsung heroes who fought India’s wars and remained in its shadows.Forlorn and exiled from their beloved homeland, they perform invaluable services to their host country. Considering the VIP treatment that India provides for refugees from Bangladesh, the least that can be done for the honorable Tibetans is to give them status and recognition like other military units.It is the nation’s best opportunity to retain a friendly, world class commando force eager to battle the dragon instead of morphing them into a resentful and vicious group just because we are afraid to say “Thank you.”
A poetic Tibetan warrior says it all in a poignant verse translated from Hindi.
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!