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Special Frontier Force: Why is a covert group now under the spotlight?

It is commonly believed the SFF was raised by India in coordination with US intelligence agencies. The original task as envisaged was clandestine operations behind the lines in Tibet.

Written by Man Aman Singh Chhina , Krishn Kaushik | Chandigarh, New Delhi |
Updated: September 13, 2020 11:49:22 am
Special Frontier Force, what is Special Frontier Force, Vikas Battalion, what is Vikas Battalion, India China news, India China border news, Indian Express Army trucks move towards Ladakh via the Leh-Manali Highway, in Manali, Monday, August 31, 2020. (PTI Photo)

On Monday, the funeral of Nyima Tenzin, a soldier of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), was held in Leh, with BJP leader Ram Madhav among those present. While there have been reports about SFF being involved in the August 29-31 operation to occupy previously unoccupied heights in Chushul sector in eastern Ladakh, the Army has so far maintained an official silence, and sources have said Tenzin was on a patrol when he stepped on a landmine dating back to the 1962 war, and was killed. Another SFF soldier was injured.

However, Yeshi Tenzin, father of the injured soldier Tenzin Londen, has told The Indian Express that his son along with his unit was involved in an operation to occupy a hill, Black Top, near the south bank of Pangong Tso. This is the first time that the SSF, a secretive force, has been so much in the public eye.

What is the Special Frontier Force (SFF)?

The SFF was raised by the Intelligence Bureau in the immediate aftermath of the 1962 China-India war. The covert outfit recruited Tibetan exiles (now it has a mixture of Tibetans and Gorkhas) and was initially named Establishment 22 (Major Gen Sujan Singh Uban, an Artillery officer who raised the group, named it after the 22 Mountain Regiment he commanded). Subsequently renamed SSF, it now falls under the purview of the Cabinet Secretariat. On the ground, it is headed by an Inspector General who is an Army officer of the rank of Major General. The units comprising the SFF are known as Vikas battalions. Former Army Chief Gen Dalbir Singh held that office at one point.

It is commonly believed that the SFF was raised by India in coordination with US intelligence agencies. However, former CIA officer John Kennet Knaus, who worked extensively in Tibet, wrote in Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival that while the SFF had “Washington’s full endorsement”, it was B N Mullik, chief of India’s Intelligence Bureau, who created the SFF “on his own”. But A Tom Grunfeld, history professor at the State University of New York, wrote in a paper in 2000 that the Indian government had created a “Tibetan military force called the Special Frontier Force with US support” and “eventually 12,000 Tibetans were trained by US Special Forces (Green Berets) and partly funded by the US to operate from bases along the Kashmir frontier where they crossed the border into Tibet planting electronic listening devices”.

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The original task as envisaged was clandestine operations behind the lines in Tibet.

So did US have any say in SFF’s role?

Knaus wrote in his book that in November 1971, India ordered “approximately 3,000 men of the Special Frontier Force into action in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to aid the East Pakistani insurgents fighting for the independence of what was to become Bangladesh”. He wrote that India could commission the SFF troops because it was “was purely their creature” and “the US had no voice in the command of the SFF or how its troops were used… The Tibetan leadership at Dharamsala also had a passive role”.

Are SFF units part of the Army?

Strictly speaking, the SFF units are not part of the Army but function under its operational control. SSF units have their own rank structures, of equivalent status with Army ranks. However, they are special forces personnel highly trained for a variety of tasks.

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Special Frontier Force, what is Special Frontier Force, Vikas Battalion, India China border news, India China border row, Indian Express  At the funeral of Nyima Tenzin in Leh.

How are they trained?

The SSF training centre is in Chakrata, 100 km outside Dehradun. Recruits are imparted special forces training by the Army. The training takes place under the auspices of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). As the force was envisaged as one that would work behind enemy lines, all SFF soldiers are trained parachutists. Initially, the para training takes place at Sarsawa near Saharanpur, where the Aviation Research Centre, R&AW’s covert air wing, has a base. More advanced training takes place at Stakna in Ladakh to simulate high-altitude paradrops. Women soldiers too form part of SFF units, and are given the same training as men. It was envisaged that women working alongside men would be able to provide better camouflage.

What was the SFF’s role in 1971 war?

In 1971, the SFF operated in the Chittagong hill tracts to neutralise Pakistan Army positions and help the Indian Army advance. This was Operation Eagle. They were airdropped behind enemy lines to destroy lines of communication. They played a vital role in preventing the escape of Pakistan Army personnel from Bangladesh into Burma. By one estimate, over 3,000 SFF personnel were used in the eastern theatre of the 1971 war. A large number of them received bravery awards.

Also in Explained | In India-China standoff in Ladakh, why Chushul is critical

Special Frontier Force, what is Special Frontier Force, Vikas Battalion, India China border news, India China border row, Indian Express  BJP leader Ram Madhav at cremation of Nyima Tenzin of Special Frontier Force. (Twitter)

What other major operations have SFF units taken part in?

There are several overt and covert operations in which SFF units have taken part over the years, including Operation Blue Star in Golden Temple Amritsar, the Kargil conflict, and counter-insurgency operations. Details of many operations, however, are classified.

This is why the spotlight on the SFF in the recent Ladakh operation is unprecedented. Some would even say it is part of deliberate signalling by India to China. While several SFF soldiers have been killed in earlier operations, Ram Madhav’s presence at Nyima Tenzin’s funeral on Monday marks the first time a politician has attended such an event.

Has China reacted to India’s use of the SFF in Ladakh?

Not officially. But The Global Times, a reflection of China’s positions on important issues, has lashed out at India for “playing with fire on the Tibet question”. In an article on September 3 on the use of the SFF, it said: “These exiled Tibetans only act as cannon fodder in India’s attempt to nibble into China’s interests on the border issue… Does India dare to openly recognize ‘Tibet secessionism’ and deny that Tibet is an inalienable part of China? If New Delhi is bold enough to openly oppose this fact, it is clearly aware of the consequences and shooting itself in the foot.”

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