Monday, January 3, 2011

The Phantoms of Chittagong

A few years ago, I wrote an article for on The Phantoms of Chittagong.
Very little is still known of the Tibetan participation during the 1971 operations. One of the Tibetan leaders, Ratu Ngawang has written his Memoirs, unfortunately it is in Tibetan language.
According to Lt. Gen. JFR Jacob, who was posted as Chief of Staff, Eastern Command during the War and was therefore responsible for the military operations, the Tibetan contribution to the over-all victory was minimal.
The fact remains that the Tibetans participated to a War which was not theirs and many of them lost their lives.

Phantom Warriors of 1971
Unsung Tibetan Guerrillas
By Manas Paul
First published in
13 Dec, 2010
Forty years ago in 1971 on a cool and scary November 14 night in Chittagong a Pakistani sniper of Special Service Group perched silently on his hidden location near his camp felt he saw a ‘phantom’. The days were then uncertain and nights were too risky. So, the Pakistani soldier did not take any chance and opened fire. And the shadowy creatures just melted away in the darkness. One among them was, however, dying. He was shot at fatally. The Pakistani soldier did not know that he had just killed one of the toughest and CIA trained Tibetan guerrilla leaders — Dhondup Gyatotsang. As Gyatotsang — a Dapon or Brigadier in Tibetan language — died his comrades, all armed simply with a Bulgarian AK 47 and their Tibetan knives, made radio contact with a turbaned Sikh some kilometres away and across the border. The Sikh barked at them the order: carry on with the task you are assigned to. As the order came the Tibetan guerrillas once again spread in the darkness and coiled up behind the Pakistani barracks and posts. They remained as shadows as long as they wanted and when the right time came they just struck with lightning speed raiding the Pak positions. One after another Pakistani posts fell as the Tibetans, who by this gained the title ‘Phantoms of Chittagong’, swept the hills and valleys of the hilly district of East Pakistan and restrained the Pakistani military movement to only small pockets. Weeks before the real war actually broke out on December 3rd, the Tibetan guerrillas turned Chittagong into a virtually a free zone with pre-emptive strikes for Indian army movement. On December 16, 1971 when the Pakistani army surrendered, the Tibetan commandos were only 40 km from the Chittagong Port. By this time they had successfully accomplished the task that their chief, General Sujan Singh Uban had assigned to them: The Operation Mountain Eagle. They had, however, lost 49 of their comrades and had 190 injured.   
‘Operation Mountain Eagle’ launched in East Pakistan during 1971 Indo-Pak War was, perhaps, till date the most closely guarded and top most secret operation of Indian authorities in the eastern flank of the war areas. Officially the operation could not be recognized as the Tibetan guerrilla force — known as Special Frontier Force (SFF) or Establishment 22 or simply called ‘two-two’ — does not officially exists. The name it got from the fact that their first commander (at the rank of Inspector General) Maj. Gen. Sujan Singh Uban had once commanded 22 Mountain brigade. Since their inception in November 1962, the Establishment 22’s direct engagement in Indo-Pak war is also significant for the mere fact that it was not their ‘war’ at all. They were fighting for the cause of their host country and for liberation of another country — not for Tibet. Their sacrifice was never officially or publicly recognized — neither by India nor by Bangladesh till today.
The Dalai Lama visited Chakrata in 1972

Formation of top secret force, Two-Two
At the end of the 1962 Indo-China war the then Intelligence Bureau chief Bhola Nath Mullick took the initiative to form a special guerrilla force from the Tibetan youths who had been sheltered in India. Some documents indicate that former Chief Minister of Orissa Biju Patnaik had first come up with the idea while he was closely working with the CIA at the behest of Indian authorities in setting up of air surveillance ARC in Charbatia in his home state. Patnaik, a daredevil pilot with experience in several covert operations, according to Kenneth Conboy who authored an authoritative book on CIA operations relating to Tibet, wanted to raise a resistance force of Tibetans in Assam. However, the IB continued with the plan which ultimately materialized with the help of Chushi Gandruk, the main organization of the Khampa resistance and the CIA.
Following the green signal from the Cabinet secretariat the Special Frontier Force or Establishment 22 or was formed on November 14, 1962.
According to the plan the force would formed with Khampa fighters from Chushi Gandruk — and most of them would be brought from CIA run Mustang base in Nepal that housed as many as 2032 members. The force would be handled and trained by the IB at their Chakrata base near Dehra Dun. The CIA would provide all other supports for their training and related matters.
The CIA had first trained the Khampa fighters at Saipan in March 1957 and then Camp Hale in Colorado for guerrilla warfare so that they could be dropped inside Tibet for sabotage against the Chinese. The operation under the code name of ‘ST Circus’ was first headed by a US marine, Roger McCarthy. They trained in several batches about 259 Tibetan guerrillas. The CIA had also dropped some of them inside Tibet for sabotage and intelligence gathering.
“A formation agreement was signed in 1962. The parties to this formation agreement were the Indian Intelligence Service, the CIA and Chushi Gangdruk. General Gonpo Tashi Andrutsang and Jago Namgyal Dorjee, signed this three-party joint formation agreement on behalf of Chushi Gangdruk. Our organization took main responsibility for recruiting, and an initial strength of 12,000 men, mostly Khampas, were recruited at Chakrata, Dehra Dun, UP. Chushi Gangdruk sent two of the commanders to this new outfit to be political leaders in the initial stage”, said Dokham Chushi Gangdruk, the Tibetan organization fighting for the Tibetan cause.
Gyalo Thondup, elder brother of the Dalai Lama met the Khampas in Mustang. Conboy said, ‘Gyalo also sought four political leaders who could act as the force’s indigenous officer cadre….an initial contingent of Tibetans, led by Jamba Kalden, was dispatched to the hill town of Dehra Dun’.
Soon, the CIA, sent eight of its advisers on a six-month temporary duty assignment. The team was led by a veteran CIA operative in several covert and deadly campaigns Wayne Sanford who was recipient of two Purple Hearts. “He was acting undercover from US Embassy as special assistant to Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith”, wrote Conboy.

The USA provided all the weaponry to them mostly M-1, M-2 and M-3 automatic rifles. As the covert guerrilla force was raised, Major General Sujan Singh Uban was assigned the task to command them as their Inspector General. The SFF ultimately came to be known as ‘Establishment 22′ or simply ‘Two-two’. Interestingly, the guerrilla forces cap insignia was designed as if it was ‘12th Gorkha’ regiment-crossed khukri with ‘12′ on top. This was a deception tactics as at that time there were only 11 Gorkha regiments, seven regiments were with Indian army and four with the British after independence. It was so decided to confuse common people, in case of meeting the guerrillas, with Gorkhas as the facial features were same.
For next several years both Indian army, MARCOS, IB and CIA trained the guerrillas with special focus on para-trooping and sabotage as well as intelligence collection it was kept in mind that in case of another war with China they would be pressed into service. Some of the Camp Hale trained Tibetans were also included in the Establishment 22 and they held senior positions. They ultimately became one of best ever guerrilla forces in the world, efficient in land, air and water campaigns. While the ‘Establishment 22′ was commanded by Maj. Gen. Uban, the guerrillas had their own political representatives and Dapon — a position equivalent to ‘Brigadier’ — mostly held by first generation Camp Hale trained guerrillas.
The Dalai Lama was aware of the formation of the guerrilla force since the beginning but he and his Dharamshala officials always maintained a distance from them neither supporting nor opposing the Indian initiative. According to some, Jawaharlal Nehru once visited the guerrillas in Chakrata and was impressed by their training and discipline. The Dalai lama also visited them once but it was much later.
Until late 1960 the CIA officials had kept relations with the Establishment 22 on numerous levels, but since 1968 their connections with the Tibetan guerrillas both in Mustang and Chakrata started thinning. CIA link with Chakrata completely died out in 1970s. The USA under Richard Nixon tilted towards Pakistan and also developed secret negotiations with China as Indo-Pakistan war seemed imminent.

Operation Mountain Eagle
Dapon Dhondup Gyatotsang (left) and Dapon Ratu Ngawang (right). 

Since the RAW headed by R. N. Kau was created on 21 September, 1968 the responsibility of the Establishment 22 also went to the agency. But their chief Maj. Gen. Uban had been worried at the way the trained commandos — as many as 64 companies, divided into eight battalions having six companies each and including other support units — were gathering moss in their Chakrata camps. They were not used against China or Pakistan for any real armed combat and the IG was worried that inaction and absence of field operations might reduce the morale and capabilities.
It was at that time the East Pakistan went up in flames with Pakistan army resorting to large scale massacres and rape on March 25, 1971 as ‘Operation Searchlight’. Two days later Major Zia Ur Rehman — a Bengali military officer with the Pakistan army announced ‘independence’ in Chittagong radio and attacked the Pakistani army cantonment. Within a day, many more military officers followed and millions of refugees poured into India to flee the Pakistani Army’s massacres and rapes. India was playing the card well and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was successful in garnering massive international support, barring USA and China of course, for the brutalized East Pakistani Bengali population. By this time Mukti Bahini was formed from the refugee youths sheltered in Indian states for launching guerrilla wars and intelligence collections inside East Pakistan against the Pakistani forces. The idea was to create a pre-emptive strike force before the Indian regular army moved in after the rainy season was over.

Incidentally, Maj. Gen. Uban was entrusted with the overall task for training of the Bengali forces like Mukti Bahini and Mujib Bahini.
Maj. Gen. Uban did not miss the chance and moved New Delhi to send his Tibetan forces to East Pakistan who, according to him were already better trained and itching for an operation. After initial hesitation Indira Gandhi agreed to use the Tibetans, but sent the ball to the court of the Tibetans.
Writes Tashi Dhundup, in article titled ‘Not their own Wars‘, “Indira Gandhi 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.”
Following the letter the senior commanders of the Establishment 22 guerrillas discussed and agreed to help the Bengalis of East Pakistan to achieve their new nation Bangladesh.
The Operation Mountain Eagle was launched in a second cool November night, apparently avoiding the Eastern Command directly by the RAW.
It was sometime in third week of October 1971 that one of the most top secret armed campaigns against the Pakistan army in East Pakistan, the Operation Mountain Eagle, was quietly launched. More than 3000 Tibetan commandos from Establishment 22 were dropped at an obscure and extreme border village Demagiri in Mizoram. The Indian secret services used AN 12 plane from the ARC to bring the guerrillas by night sorties. Demagiri which was located across the river Karnafulli and Chittagong Hill Tracts in East Pakistan was by that time was crowded with refugees. The Tibetan stayed incognito with the refugees for sometimes and then began small hit-and-run raids into East Pakistan. They would cross the river and, strike a Pakistani force and return to Dimagiri. In the second week of November, 1971, the Tibetan guerrillas led by Dapon Dhondup Gyatotsang crossed the river using nine canoes and went inside East Pakistan to launch a decisive guerrilla campaign. Since the Establishment 22 or SFF did not officially exist, Indian authorities could deny any complicity in any eventuality. The fighters were armed with them Bulgarian AK 47s instead of Russian ones. On the very first night they ran over a Pakistani post. Within hours next morning they captured one more post and they kept on sweeping and then stopped — for sometime — when their Dapon was shot dead. But again, they swung into action.

The task to Establishment 22 was clear: blow up Kaptai dam, damage the Pakistani military positions and kill as many Pak soldiers — at that time nicknamed ‘Khan Sena’– as possible, destroy the bridges, military infrastructures, and restrain the Pakistani military movement. Divided in three columns their hit and run modus operandi and the task specified were to create a situation that when the Indian army would move, they could march through the Chittagong hills and plains without much resistance from the Pakistanis.
According to specialists on the subject the Establishment 22 guerrillas were extremely successful in their campaign. At that time the Pakistani 97th Independent Brigade and their 2nd commando battalion of SSG were positioned strategically in Chittagong. The guerrillas successfully restrained them in their respective positions and also cut off all the routes that the Pakistani soldiers thought of opening towards Burma. In fact the Pakistani soldiers were seeing ghosts in all the shadows and they were fighting against merciless ghosts who were always on the prowl, would swoop down from nowhere and mercilessly eliminate them and destroy the posts and would immediately vanish for their next target. Within one month of their operations, the Tibetan guerrillas virtually cleaned up the Chittagong area and when the Indian army moved in they did not face much resistance at all.
“About one-third of its full strength was developed adjacent to the Chittagong Hill Tracts as Mukti Bahini. They captured many towns and garrisons in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in continuous fighting of about one month”, according to Dokham Chushi Gangdruk.
In fact Maj. Gen. Uban and his guerrillas were keen to capture the Chittagong Port. They were very close and Pakistan army were not at all in a position to stop them. But Indian military and other authorities were not ready to assign them with the task as, though it would have been easier for the guerrillas to capture the Port, to keep it under their control they would have needed heavy artillery weapons — which they did not have with them.
Tibetan troops of SFF after victory in Chittagong where they conducted clandestine operations during 1971 war. They are equipped with Bulgarian variants of AK-47 and M-1 Garand rifles supplied by the USA. (© Elite Forces of India and Pakistan)
According to a document, when the Chittagong Port was captured by Indian military, the guerrillas were then asked to sit quiet about 40 kms away. However, on December 16 when the Pakistan army surrendered at Dhaka, the Phantoms of Establishment 22, for the first time in their history, came out in the open on the Chittagong road, rejoicing the victory of India over Pakistan. The common people were stunned by their sudden appearance — happy and rejoicing — virtually from nowhere, Even many Indian soldiers, who were also not aware of their presence in the vicinity were taken by surprise. But soon Maj. Gen. Uban was informed about the public appearance of the Tibetans on the Chittagong streets and he ordered them back to the shadows. They were never seen again. Their happy moment in public was only for some hours.
Though the Tibetan guerrillas were arguably the main force that played the key role in Chittagong in the 1971 war, — sacrificing 49 (according to Tibetans’ estimate 56) including one of their top leader and 190 injured, they could not be officially recognized.
“The Indian government gave awards to 580 members of the force for their active involvement and bravery in the battles. The contribution made by Establishment 22 in liberating East Pakistan was great and the price paid by the force was also high”, said Dokham Chusi Gandruk, the New York based organization.
It then added: “(The fight and sacrifice) would have been of great value had it been used against communist China, the intended enemy….The SFF never had a chance of being used in operations against its intended enemy, Red China, but it was used against East Pakistan with the consent of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1971″.
It is, however, a different story that the Establishment 22 was later used in many Indian operations including in Operation Blue Star, Siachen, Kargil. They are also being used as a main anti-terrorist force in many parts of the country. According to a report, in between Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the formation of SPG, it was these Establishment 22 commandos who were in charge of the protection of the Gandhi family. But in all the cases down the decades they remained unsung heroes — the ‘unknown’ warriors from a different country who fought and sacrificed for others.
First published in, 13 Dec, 2010
* * *
Sources: Tibetan sources and blogs, Kenneth Conboy and Jim Morrison, Claude Arpi.
* * *
Post Script: Phantom Warriors of 1971: Unsung Tibetan Guerrillas is virtually an untold story of a top secret mission. A very handful of people including some foreign journalists who were in touch with Tibetans are aware of the operations. Many of the military generals including Gen. JFR Jacob or Maj. Gen. SS Uban who commanded the force did not dwell extensively on them but obliquely referred. So it is virtually revisiting a mission that was intended to be kept top secret.

1 comment:

MANAS PAL said...

Dear Mr Arpi
Thanks for publishing my article on the SFF in your blog. It is indeed a matter of great satisfaction and honor for me that an expert on Tibet and China affairs like you recognized my article. It was also published in The Times of India, Kolkata Edition.
I had taken help from your article for this particular write up.
Incidentally both of us have the same publisher- Lancer which had also publsihedmy book, 'The Eyewitness- Tales from Tripura's ethnic conflict'
Regards and Best wishes.
Manas Paul