Saturday, January 18, 2014

Special Frontier Forces and Operation Blue Star

Maj Gen RS Dayal inspecting an Army vehicle after the Operation
Operation Blue Star is again in the news.
Some  documents recently declassified in UK would suggest a participation from MI-6, the British secret service in the preparations of the operation to flush out the Sikh insurgents from the Akal Takht.
Prime Minister David Cameron told the Parliament that there was no evidence so far to suggest that elite British special forces played a role in the 1984 Operation Blue Star: "I don't want to prejudge the outcome, but I would note that so far it has not found any evidence to contradict the insistence by senior Indian army commanders responsible at the time that the responsibility for this was carried out solely by the Indian army."
Late B. Raman, who was then responsible for the 'khalistani terrorism' in the Indian external intelligence agency, wrote in his Kaoboys of the R&W: "I was given to understand that at the request of [RN] Kao [R&W Chief], two officers of the British Security Service (MI-5) visited the Golden Temple as tourists and gave a similar advice to Indira Gandhi—- be patient and avoid action or use the police."
In 2004, I wrote an article on another aspect of the Blue Star Operation. I had given the article for publication, but later withdrew it when I was informed by a senior Tibetan official that it was not fully factually correct.
Though the Special Frontier Forces (SFF) did participate to the OP Blue Star, it is not Tibetan jawans, but Nepalis who were present during the assault.
The Establishment 22, as the SSF is known, had recruited Nepalis in the Force and for reasons that one can understand, the Tibetans were not sent to Amritsar. It remains true that the Force participated to the Operation; the troops even did some rehearsal at the SSF's Headquarters in Chakrata (Uttarakhand).
I reproduce this article with the factual mistake.
Another of my articles on the SFF, The Phantoms of Chittagong is posted on

Here is my never published article (June 2004):

Twenty years ago, India went through one of the most traumatic experiences of her modern history. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister had to order the Indian army to assault the Akal Takht occupied by armed Sikh militants in the Golden Temple Complex at Amritsar.
Several aspects of Operation Blue Star, as well as the sequence of events which brought the country and more particularly the state of Punjab, to this sad end have been described in detail by eminent writers.
However, one aspect has never been mentioned. It remains one of the most secret features of this painful event: the participation of Tibetan commandos known as ‘Special Frontier Forces’ (SFF) in the military operations at the Golden Temple complex.
Before going into the background of this intervention, it is necessary to point out the preposterousness of the situation. Armed militants had not only taken over the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, but had also fortified many places near the main temple to such an extent that a siege could be sustained for several weeks.
In the West, Operation Blue Star has often been misunderstood and depicted as an attack on the Sikh faith. This is wrong. A few months after the operation, while visiting Paris, I stood in front of the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral and visualized the weird situation. What would the French government have done if militants had barricaded the doors and windows of this masterpiece of architecture, most sacred for tens of millions of French Christians?
France (or England if a similar episode had occurred in Westminster) would undoubtedly have taken the same decision as Indira Gandhi to recover the holy shrine by force. For such a purpose the best troops are its disposal would have been used. In reading the story which follows, this basic tenet should be kept in mind.
The question is, why were Tibetans troops used during Operation Blue Star? Though it raises many other questions, the answer is simple: because the SFF were the best commandos available at that time, at least in Indira Gandhi’s mind.
The story of these men started many years earlier. In 1950, Tibet was invaded by the Chinese People Liberation Army. During the following years, Beijing began what they called the process of ‘liberation’ of the Roof of the World. The eastern part of the Tibetan plateau, particularly the province of Kham adjoining China, suffered most from the forced ‘liberation’. But the local Khampas had the reputation of being the best and the most fearless soldiers in Asia since centuries. Alexandra David-Neel, the famous French explorer wrote in detail (often with admiration) about the gentleman-brigands of Kham.
In the mid-fifties, the Khampas organized themselves to fight the Chinese occupiers. Under the name of Chushi Gangdruk (Four Rivers, Six Ranges) or National Volunteer Defense Army, the horsemen of Kham inflicted heavy casualties on the better equipped Liberation Army. In March 1959, a few hundred of them secretly accompanied the Dalai Lama to safety in India.
Once the Tibetan leader was given asylum by Delhi, the Tibetan soldiers were in a dilemma: should they stop their activities against the Communist troops and follow their religious leader to exile or continue the struggle for the liberation of their motherland?
The decision was taken for them when in late 1959 several hundreds of them were secretly offered a very special training. According to John Avedon, an American journalist who investigated the Tibetan secret war, selected Tibetan youth were first assembled in Darjeeling. Avedon explains that a senior official of the Chushi Gangdruk: “instructed the men either to leave or to sign the paper, which, as a recruitment form for the National Volunteer Defense Army, bound them to obey to the death any order given by a superior.”
Forty five years later, it still remains difficult to follow their journey as they were all under oath to not disclose their new activities (in fact, it is only years later that they would learn themselves their own itinerary).
From Darjeeling, they were smuggled through the East Pakistan border (now Bangladesh) with the connivance of Pakistani authorities. After a long journey in a sealed wagon and a car ride through East Pakistan, they were taken to an airport. Finally they boarded a small aircraft where for the first time they were addressed by white men who offered them a very strange blackish beverage. They would soon learn the name of this strange drink, Coca-cola. After a stop over in Okinawa (they believed they were in Taiwan), their journey continued. In the plane they received their first briefing and were given strange sounding names such as Doug, Bob, Willy, Jack, Rocky, Martin or Lee. Their suspicions were confirmed: the United States of America had finally decided to help the Tibetan cause and provide the necessary training to help them free their country. After Okinawa, they landed in a second island (Hawaii) and then a city (San Francisco). The next day they reached Camp Hale, a place located 100 km from Denver in Colorado which was used during World War II for high-altitude combat training. There, they received full commando training by the CIA.
When the 1962 war with China broke out, India felt uncomfortable about the Tibetans being trained by the CIA. Delhi was particularly disturbed by the fact that it was organized with Pakistan knowledge. One week before Beijing declared a ceasefire, Delhi decided to act. On November 13, a clandestine Tibetan commando group was raised. The Special Frontier Forces were code-named as ‘Establishment 22’ simply because their first Inspector General had been the commander of 22 Mountain Regiment during World War II. Today, they still call themselves the ‘22s’ (twotwos).
The Force was put under the direct supervision of the IB (and later the RAW). The first task of this entirely Tibetan force was to guard the Himalayan borders and eventually cross into Tibet to gather intelligence on the Chinese forces. Delhi had learned the hard way that China was not a ‘bhai’ and there was no short cut to reliable intelligence input on the Chinese in Tibet.
B.N. Mulik, Nehru’s IB Chief was the main organizer of the new regiment and Maj Gen SS Uban of the Indian Army, its first Commander. Though aware of its existence, the Tibetan administration in exile dissociated itself from the venture. Violence was not acceptable to solve the Tibetan issue. But the commandos, trained by the CIA at Camp Yale, were the ideal human resource for the Indian purpose. As for the young Tibetans, they could finally dream of fighting ‘officially’ along with the Indian troops against the Communist forces and thus endeavour to regain one day their freedom.
During the first years the Tibetans fulfilled their assigned mission. But one day in 1971, they received a message (conveyed through their Indian Commander) from the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi: “We can not compel you to fight a war for us, but the fact is that Gen. Niazi [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.” For the first time, the Tibetans agreed to get involved in a war which was not theirs. Perhaps they saw this as the ideal preparation for their ultimate goal
I have written earlier about the SSF involvement in the Bangladesh operations [link to the Phantoms of Chittagong]. After their outstanding participation in the liberation of Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi became enamoured with the SFF. It was soon nicknamed as “Indira Fauj”.
But their role and actions have continued to be shrouded in mystery. Whether they served on the Siachen glacier or in counter-terrorism operations, the Tibetan troops never spoke. It is rumoured that in 1977 an AN12 aircraft was on constant alert at a SFF paratrooper base with instructions to fly the Prime Minister to Mauritius if her life was threatened. Whether it is true or not, very few can say!
By the early 80’s, the SFF's Special Group had become the primary counter-terrorist force in India. It was therefore logical that Indira Gandhi was tempted to use the “22’s” for flushing the militants out of the Golden Temple Complex.
Unfortunately, the military intelligence had very little clue to the extent of the fortifications in and around the Akal Takht.
Once Operation Blue Star was decided, the SFF were flown from their base in UP and assigned the impossible task to isolate Akal Takht and secure its western flank by 1 am on June 6 while 1 Para-Commandos were to manage a foothold in the Akal Takht itself.
The Bharat Rakshak website recounts that the SFF and 1 Para-Commandos were immediately bogged down by the heavy fire from the Akal Takht: the Tibetans “started with 50 men, had already 17 casualties (three dead). With midnight approaching, casualties mounting and the objectives far from being achieved, the situation was desperate.”
What was in these young Tibetan’s minds at that precise moment? Were they still dreaming of a free Tibet or visualising the holy Tsuglakhang Temple in Lhasa vandalised by a so-called Liberation Army?
At 2 am as the situation had not improved, the Army had no other alternative but to call for the tanks. It was done after the clearance was obtained from Delhi. The rest is history.
During the following days, the ‘22’s’ continued to participate in the mopping up operations and it is said that one SFF officer, serving as President Zail Singh’s bodyguard when he visited the complex, was wounded in the arm by a sniper. The militant was immediately killed by other commandos.
When Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own bodyguards, Rajiv remembered his mother’s army and for a couple of months, the SFF provided the security to the new Prime Minister. A year later, a National Security Guard Act was created by an act of Parliament. The NSG would thereafter replace the Tibetan commandos. Their training and uniform were however modelled on the SFF.
Such a strange destiny: ‘Establishment 22’, created to defend the Indian border (and for the Tibetans to liberate their country) was ultimately engaged in some of the most traumatic assignments in the history modern India. Not only did this have nothing to do with Tibet, but these men were unable to fulfil their own ultimate life mission: Tibet’s freedom. As consolation, they perhaps believed that they were repaying their debt to India who had given refuge to their leader. This way, they have probably created a good karma for themselves and for the future of their country! Who knows!

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