Unearthing the hidden world of India’s dreaded secret Special Frontier Force

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Unearthing the hidden world of India's secret Special Frontier Forces

— Consider reading the article Unearthing the hidden world of India’s dreaded secret Special Frontier Force on OpIndia website —

Every powerful nation in the world has its secret force and India is no exception to it. But, for India, it was a necessity rather than its display of might.

The ‘idea’ behind India’s elite secret force

After 5000 Indians soldiers were martyred in the Indo-Sino war of 1962, the country felt the need for a highly trained secret force that could challenge the ‘superior’ Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on difficult mountainous terrain. On the insistence of the then Intelligence Bureau chief Bhola Nath Mullik and World War 2 veteran Biju Patnaik, Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru commissioned the Special Frontier Forces (SFF) on his birthday on November 14, 1962.

Nehru had written two letters to the United States during the war, seeking intervention against the Chinese high-handedness. While the US suggested a ceasefire, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had other plans in mind. US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and CIA chief John McCone flew to India’s National Capital and in partnership with the Intelligence Bureau, set up the training programme.

CIA provided arms and ammunition during initial training

The newly commissioned secret force was to train Tibetan guerrilla fighters, also called Khampa warrior, who were accustomed to the tough Himalayan terrain. They were recruited with the help of Chushi Gangdruk leaders while the CIA provided initial logistical support such as arms and ammunition.

As such, in early 1963, the first batch of 12000 Tibetans was trained in Chakrata near Dehradun in Uttarakhand under the command of former army veteran and guerrilla warfare expert Sujan Singh Uban. Since Uban was a part of the 22 Mountain Regiment during the Second World War, the Special Frontier Force in India is also known as Establishment 22. The Secret Frontier Force was initially governed by the Intelligence Bureau but was later placed under the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

The loyalty of Special Frontier Force to Dalai Lama

Interestingly, the Tibetan guerrilla fighters who are recruited to the Special Frontier Force are believed to be loyal to Dalai Lama and are committed to the idea of a ‘free’ Tibetan kingdom. As such, the fighting spirit against the Chinese forces is emboldened, given that Tibet has fallen prey to the Chinese occupation.

They express their desire and belief in free Tibet whenever they sing their special ‘Vikasi song’ that goes as (translated), “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.” Even today, Tibetan children in schools who do not make a ‘certain grade’ are expected to join the SFF.

The toughness of the Special Frontier Force commandos

Recounting the toughness of the Special Frontier Force commandos, Captain Manmohan Singh Kohli said, “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.”

Ex-Gurkha regiment captain Dinesh Tiwari, who had trained the commandos during a 44-week course between 1969-1975, stated, “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.”

Reportedly, the SFF commandos are trained in guerilla warfare, mountain warfare, mountaineering, paratrooping, intelligence gathering, and conducting tough operations.

The lid of ‘secrecy’

Due to the secrecy surrounding the force, the SFF commandos do not receive public recognition. Their tale of valour and hardship is hidden from the public eye. While the number of commandos was 20,000 in the 1970s, it shrunk to less than 10,000 over a period of time. The secrecy around India’s strongest elite personnel implies that we do not know their exact count presently.

The Operations undertaken by the Special Frontier Forces are classified so much so that the Indian army might be unaware of it. The covert force report directly to the Prime Minister of India through the Directorate-General of Security in the cabinet secretariat. Due to the mystery surrounding the elite force, it is also hailed as ‘Vikas’ by several people and the commandos are known as ‘Vikasi’.

India’s secret force ensured success in several military operations

The Sino-Indian war ended on November 21, 1962, just seven days after the secret force was originally commissioned. But, the fear of another episode of Chinese aggression ensured that the force of elite commandos was made stronger with time.

The Special Frontier Force had outlived its purpose and had since ensured the success of Operation Bluestar (the defeat of Khalistani forces and the seize of Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984), Operation Meghdoot (India’s successful capture of Siachen Glacier from Pakistan in 1984), and Operation Vijay (the victory against Pakistani forces in the Kargil war of 1999) and checking insurgency in Kashmir.

While the Special Frontier Force lost 56 men during Operation Eagle in Chittagong in 1971, they successfully foiled the intrusion of Pakistani forces into the territory of Myanmar. This strategic victory helped in turning the fortunes in India’s favour during the Bangladesh Liberation war.

Countering Chinese Intrusion in Indian territory

The Indian Army announced on Monday that on the intervening night between the 29th and 30th of August, the Chinese PLA “carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo.” National Security Analyst Nitin Gokhale had informed that the Indian Army had noticed suspicious PLA movements in response to which they moved to occupy “unheld features along LAC to dominate” the South Bank of Pangong Tso. He said that Indian troops had not breached the LAC.

As per reports, the operation was made possible by the covert Special Frontier Force that has been serving this country since 1962 with no penchant for recognition of any kind.

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