Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A War which was not theirs

Dapon Ratuk Ngawang
Dapon Ratuk Ngawang, one of the greatest Tibetan freedom fighters, passed away on February 7. 
On this occasion I republish an interview conducted for on the Tibetan participation in the 1971 Operations.
The interview dates from January 2012.  

According to a press release by Ratuk Ngawang's family:

Ratuk Ngawang was born in Kham Lithang in 1926. He was one of the founding members of the Tibetan Resistance group Chushi Gangdruk and was a close confidant of Andruk Gonpo Tashi. In 1959, he also served as one of the body guards of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on his flight from Lhasa to India. In 1963 Ratu Ngawang was called on by Gyalo Thondup , brother of His Holiness, to serve and lead in the newly formed Tibetan regiment of the Indian Army, which we know as Establishment 22 or Special Frontier Force (SFF). He also served as a commander during the Bangladesh war in 1971. He was appointed to the rank of Dapon / Political Leader. He retired from SFF in 1977. After retirement from SFF he served as chairman of Chushi Gangdruk for many years.
Ratuk Ngawang la has written a four volume autobiography / memoir in Tibetan. Over the course of his life he has given numerous interviews to journalists and writers and has appeared on many documentary films on Tibet and its struggle for freedom.
Ratuk Ngawang la is survived by his wife Dechen Wangmo, daughters Sonam Yangzom, Tseten Dolma, Tsering Deckyi and son Tenzin Gawa.

Here is my interview

Dapon Ratuk Ngawang was one of the senior leaders of the Voluntary Freedom Fighter Force in Tibet, a Tibetan guerrilla outfit which fought against Chinese rule and played a key role in the Dalai Lama’s escape to India in March 1959.
After the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, Ratuk Ngawang commanded the Tibetan secret regiment, known as the Special Frontier Forces (SSF) or Establishment 22, based near Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh.
Now 84 old, Ratuk Ngawag lives in the Tibetan colony of Majnu Ka Tilla in Delhi. He recently published his memoirs (in Tibetan) in which he recounts his early life in Kham province of Eastern Tibet and the escape to India as well as the Tibetan participation to the 1971 Operations.
In an exclusive interview, he speaks to Claude Arpi about the role of the SSF during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
In 1971, Ratuk Ngawang was a ‘Dapon’, often translated by ‘Brigadier’, they were also known as ‘Political Leaders’.

CA: We are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Bangladesh Liberation War. One of the aspects which has never been publicized is the participation of the Tibetan troops in the Operations.
The Official History of the War mentions all the victorious battles but the Tibetan regiment is not mentioned. Today we have no document proving the Tibetan soldiers' participation.
We will be interested to hear from you more about the Tibetan Forces’ involvement in the war and about the role the Tibetan soldiers played before and during the Bangladesh Operations. We are also curious to find out about the directives (if any) from the Central Tibetan Administration (the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile) towards the Tibetan soldiers?

Ratuk Ngawang: I have covered all these issues in my Memoirs (published in Tibetan by Amnye Machen Insitute, Dharamsala). The Tibetan Regiment known as Special Frontier Forces (SFF) or Establishment 22 has never officially been under the Indian Army. It was established in 1962, after the Indo-China War. The main objective of the regiment was to fight the Chinese Army with the help of the Indian Army. At the time of the creation of the Force, we thought that the operations could be based at Lhuntse Dzong in Tibet (near the Indian border). The plan was to engage the Chinese Army in a military conflict within 5-6 months of the Force’s creation. But the Indo-China war came to an abrupt end (on November 22), and due to severe international pressure to maintain peace, no further military engagements occurred with China. Therefore, the services of Establishment 22 regiment were not used as planned.

CA: Tell us more about the Establishment 22?

Ratuk Ngawang: The Chinese took over the entire Tibet in 1959. In 1960, the Government of India established a Force known as the Indo-Tibetan Border Force. Tibetan Establishment 22 was established in November 1962. But if you want to know about the Tibetan regiment's involvement in Bangladesh War, I will tell you.

RN Kao (center)
CA: Who ordered the SFF to take part in the war?

Ratuk Ngawang: A senior Indian Army officer, Maj. Gen. Sujan Singh Uban [The SSF became known as ‘Establishment 22’ or simply ‘Two-twos’ because General Uban earlier served as Commander of the 22 Mountain Brigade]. At that time, he was the Commander of the Tibetan Force. A special Army meeting was held in New Delhi; later we heard that General S.S. Uban had volunteered to lead the Establishment 22 regiment in the Bangladesh war. It was S.S. Uban Singh and my colleague Dapon Jampa Kalden who voluntarily decided to take part in the War.
Later they told me about their plans. First, I refused to join them, because to voluntarily go to war was for me ‘illegal’. I told them that only if we got an order from the Government of India or from the Central Tibetan Administration, could we join the Operations. Moreover, I told them that the Establishment 22 had not been created to fight ‘for India’; rather it was established with the sole aim to fight the Chinese. In fact, it is the reason why we get less salary as compared to Indian soldiers (we are not part of the regular Indian Army). When the regiment was established, there was a mutual agreement that we will fight the Chinese (this did not happen).
However, I told General Uban and Dapon Jampa Kalden that if we were to get a formal order from the Indian government, then we could join the Operations.
Gyalo Thondup at Chakrata

CA: Did Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother gave the directives to the Tibetan soldiers to join the Bangladesh War or was it someone else?

Ratuk Ngawang: The directive came from the Department of Security of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala.
The Department had called us for a meeting. They told us that there was no alternative but to go to war ‘for India’. Moreover, they told us that the Indian government was in a very critical situation at that time and our participation in the war could help saving a lot of Indian lives.

CA: Did you have any contact with Mr. R.N. Kao who was responsible for External Intelligence in the Cabinet Secretariat?

Ratuk Ngawang: Yes. Mr. Kao was a high level officer of the Indian government and Indira Gandhi's close associate. But our commander was General S.S. Uban. He had visited New Delhi and also informed the Central Tibetan Administration about his plans to lead the SFF in the Bangladesh War. After he came back to our base (in Uttar Pradesh), he sent Jampa Kalden and me to meet the officials of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala.
We told the Administration about our initial reluctance to join the war. But since the Central Tibetan Administration had already decided about sending the Establishment 22 to the war, we would go for it.

CA: Was R.N. Kao involved in the war?

Ratuk Ngawang: As I told you before, Mr Kao was a high level official of the Indian government and not a military man. So he was not directly involved in the Operations. But he instructed us and advised us to prepare ourselves and fight well. (It was important for) Establishment 22, a small unit of Tibetan soldiers.

CA: Was Mr. Kao giving orders to General Uban?

Ratuk Ngawang: General Uban was a military officer. Mr. Kao was a high ranking official of the Indian government, therefore he had greater authority.
When we captured Chittagong, Mr. Kao came to visit Establishment 22 and gave awards and speeches in praise of the Tibetan unit's heroic battles. Mr. Kao was a very patriotic person.
After the decision to participate in the Operations was taken, Dapon Dhondup Gyatotsang [who lost his life during the 1971 Operations], Dapon Pekar Thinley and myself divided the regiment into three units. We decided that each one of us would lead one unit in the war.
Due to his age and despite his military experience, Dapon Jampa Kalden couldn't take part in the war. He remained the administrative link between the Indian government and Establishment 22.
Mr. Gyalo Thondup was the chief strategist of Dehra Dun’s SFF, but he was not involved in the decision to send the Tibetan soldiers to the Bangladesh War.
When the Tibetan refugees first came to India, the Indian government had categorically urged the Tibetans not to participate in any political activities. Much before the Bangladesh War, Mr. Gyalo Thondup and Andrug Gonpo Tashi (the Founder of the Tibetan Volunteer Force in Tibet) had already resigned from their military posts.

CA: How many Mukti Bahinis were trained at Uttar Pradesh by General Uban?

Ratuk Ngawang: After Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been imprisoned in West Pakistan, more than 1000 of his supporters escaped to India. Many of them were stationed near by the SSF camp. We trained them in military combat. They were known as the Mukti Bahinis. Some of them were related to Mujibur Rahman. They later acted as our guides and contact persons during the war though they did not actually fight with us.
Though it us who fought the real war and suffered the casualties, all the credit has later been given to the Mukti Bahinis [because the Tibetan Force was involved under the guise of the Mukti Bahinis].

CA: Were the 1000 Mukti Bahinis also under the command of General Uban?

Ratuk Ngawang: Yes. That's right. General Uban provided the training to the Mukti Bahinis.

CA:  When did you and the other two Dapons (Tibetan Commanders) reach Bangladesh?

Ratuk Ngawang: It was in November 1971. I was 39 years old at that time.

CA: Did you go to Bangladesh before the beginning of the War or during the War?

Ratuk Ngawang: We went before the Bangladesh war started. Though we were meant to fight the Chinese in a guerrilla warfare, during the Bangladesh war, our main enemy was the Mizo insurgents. Just as the Tibetans were trained by the Indian army, the Mizo soldiers were trained by Pakistan.

CA: When and how did you go?

Ratuk Ngawang: We went from the base of Establishment 22 in Uttar Pradesh to Dum Dum airport (Kolkata) by plane. From Dum Dum we went to Demagiri in Mizoram by motor vehicles. It took us 3 days. After reaching the Bangladesh border (the Chittagong Hill Tracks), we had a meeting and went straight into the battle. We left for the war on November 12 and fought for 28 days after which we came out victorious. Many soldiers from the Pakistani side were killed and many surrendered.

CA: What was General Uban's military objective in the war?

Ratuk Ngawang: We were thoroughly trained in commando warfare to fight the Chinese; we were requested to use these skills to fight in the Bangladesh War. The Indian authorities had assured us that the Indian Army will fight with the Tibetans for the cause of Tibet. Their reasoning was that the Tibetan soldiers alone could not defeat the Chinese Army. That's why we decided to join the Bangladesh War. It was in the hope that the Indian Army will help us militarily one day to fight the Chinese.

CA: Before going to the war, did General Uban gave you any instructions to capture specific places or specific Pakistani military bases?

Ratuk Ngawang: We had a map of the area (Chittagong Hills). Each of the three units (battalions) with a little more than 1000 soldiers each included the Tibetan soldiers and some Mukti Bahinis partisans.
Since General Uban was the Commander of the Tibetan Special Frontier Forces, he gave us instructions in Hindi (we had Tibetan translators). He told us where to go and later through walkie-talkies we could inform him where we had reached and he would then tell us what we had to do.
The three Tibetan battalions had three Tibetan Dapons and three Indian Colonels. The three Dapons and the three Colonels always discussed the strategies, but the decisions we were taken by General Uban after we had informed him.

CA: Other than Demagiri, in which other places did the Tibetan soldiers fight?

Ratuk Ngawang: Demagiri was the main military base. About 100 Tibetan soldiers and 100 Mukti Bahinis were posted to guard the base. Apart from senior military officials stationed at Demagiri, the base also had a hospital, where those who got injured in the battle could be treated. Most of the doctors were majors and captains of the (Indian Armed Medical Corps). The preparation for this had been done much before the beginning of the war.
The severely injured soldiers were taken by helicopters to other hospitals but since the war was going on in the jungle of the Chittagong Hills, it was difficult for the helicopters to land; that's why many of the injured had to be sent by boats through the river.

CA: When the Indian Army came to Demagiri at the beginning of the actual war, were the Indian soldiers able to help the Tibetan soldiers?

Ratuk Ngawang: No. The Indian soldiers were not able to help us. Similarly, the Tibetan soldiers were also not able to help the Indian soldiers since both have been trained in different types of military warfare. The Tibetan commandos were trained in guerrilla warfare whereas the Indian soldiers were trained in urban warfare.
CA: Were your military objectives been fulfilled?

Ratuk Ngawang: Within 10 days, we captured almost all the enemy bases except for two. Most of the enemy bases had only 50 soldiers or so and when we attacked them, they were hugely outnumbered and surrendered within an hour of fighting.
On December 16, when news of the Indian army's conquest of Dhaka became known, most of the remaining smaller units surrendered.

CA: After the victory of the Bangladesh war, did you go to Chittagong for the official victory parade?

Ratuk Ngawang: General Uban did organize a trip for us to go to Chittagong for the official victory ceremony. But we couldn't go as the Tibetan soldiers had been scattered in many different places. Therefore, General Uban and Mr RN Kao went to Chittagong to attend the official ceremony and discuss the perks and rewards for the Tibetan soldier's contribution in the war. Meanwhile, we stayed back and celebrated the victory at our bases.
It is said that Maj Gen S. S. Uban’s plan was to use the Tibetan Force to capture Chittagong, but the SFF did not have the artillery and the airlift support to conduct such a type of mission.
However, they conducted smaller missions in the Chittagong Hill Tracks including the operation at the Kalurghat radio station, attacks on bridges and on the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli River, 65 km upstream from Chittagong in the Rangamati District.
They managed to stop the Pakistani 97 Independent Brigade and the 2nd Commando Battalion for retreating into Burma by cutting off their rear defenses.
Establishment 22 lost 56 men and 190 were wounded in the 1971 Operations. The Indian government gave cash awards to 580 soldiers for their valourous conduct, but no bravery awards as the Tibetan soldiers were only ‘The Phantoms of Chittagong’, fighting a War which was not theirs under the guise of the Mukti Bahinis,.
I am indebted to Jamphel Shunu and Tenzin Lekshay for the translation (Claude Arpi)

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