KHANYARA, India, 14 September 2020
In a significant win for India since the Indo-China war of 1962, Tibetan soldiers of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) conquered Black Top hill at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh on India’s northern border. Black Top Hill is a military position held by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China for decades. It was the first time that Tibetans came face-to-face with PLA soldiers since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, in which the PLA soldiers overwhelmed the Tibetan fighters by their superior weapons and the sheer large number of men. Their leader the Dalai Lama, and tens of thousands of Tibetan, sought refuge in India after the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
The SFF forces repelled the Chinese soldiers at the end of August, sending away some 30 Chinese soldiers injured in the operation, while sustaining the death of a senior officer and the injury of a soldier the night before the attack operation was launched. A blast from a land mine, believed to be left from the 1962 war, caused the damage for the two.
Nyima Tenzin, 51-year old Company Leader (equivalent to Junior Commission Officer in the Indian Army) was the senior officer who died in the blast while on patrol duty. Tenzin Loden, 24, was identified as the injured soldier. They both come from the Tibetan refugee settlement of Choglamsar near Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Tenzin had 33 years of service in the SFF, and left behind his wife and three children. His body was cremated on the morning of 7th September in Leh. Loden is being treated at the Army Hospital in Ladakh.
For months, tension has been building at the border, as the PLA soldiers attempted to intrude into Indian territory. India and China share 4,056 km (2,520 miles) of border. A major clash was reported on the night of 15 June in Galwan Valley, some 200 km north of Panggong Lake, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed. The two sides took to hand-to-hand combat, as weapons are not allowed in this part of the border area in an attempt to avoid fatalities or escalation of tensions. It is reported that Chinese soldiers used crude ‘nail-studded rods’ as weapons to kill the Indian soldiers.
Since their victory in the Indo-China war of 1962, China has been in the delusion that it can defeat India any time, not knowing that India has come out with a new avatar in every field, and has built a strong and sturdy military, ready to face any eventuality. But as a civilised country, India adheres to a ‘No first use’ policy in defence.
China galvanising its expansionist policy to fulfil its ambitions to be the hegemon of the East, led to border disputes with all its neighbours, be those in land or marine jurisdictions. It lays expansive maritime claims across most of the South China Sea, creating discord with all countries that share the sea. Incessant attempts to intrude into Indian territories have been well known, but their expansionist tendencies got a jolt when the SFF soldiers counterattacked and pushed back the PLA soldiers.
The SFF regiment was set up a few months after the Indo-China war of 1962 by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the premier intelligence agency of the United States. It was to be a guerilla-style combat force considering the physical strength of Tibetans and their genetic ability to sustain in high altitude.
The CIA knew what these men, most of them from the Kham region known for their fierce fighting agility, could do. They ran a covert operation to train Tibetan guerillas in the US and parachuted them back into their homeland to raid and gather intelligence on China. A base was set up in Mustang in Nepal, and soon in one of the most successful raids, these men sabotaged a Chinese military convoy, seizing a cache of classified documents. The SFF operation went on for almost two decades, from 1956 to 1974, but the programme came to an end after President Nixon established a good working relationship with China in 1972.
The SFF is headed by a Dapon, who works under a Commanding Officer of the Indian Army, and gets honorary Captain rank when he retires. Over the years, SFF soldiers have participated in and won a few crucial wars fought by India, starting with the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 against Pakistan, where they earned the nickname “Phantoms of Chittagong”, as they swept the hills, crushing one Pakistani post after another in the Chittagong hill tracts.
Another major achievement of the SFF was the retaking of Tiger Hill from Pakistani forces during the Kargil War in 1999. Other important contributions include their deployment in the border areas. The highest battleground, perennially covered by snow, the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram range at an altitude of 5,753 metres, has SFF soldiers manning the borders year round in temperatures of -50 degrees Celsius. They have never been officially credited for their role and achievements in the wars, and defending the borders in the most hostile conditions.
The guerillas who fought against the Chinese invasion of Tibet, later recruited into SFF, and brought victory to India in the Bangladesh war against Pakistan, are now aging and passing away. The younger generation has taken the baton with the same vehemence and enthusiasm, and remain fully committed to serve India and to take on China whenever they are called.
All along, until the August attacks, the Government of India (GoI), the Indian army, and the media have kept silent regarding the Special Frontier Force, even as they were winning wars, countering enemy attacks, being martyred by enemy bullets or killed in avalanches. Extensive media coverage was seen for the first time only after the incident with Nyima Tenzin and the conquering of Black Top Hill.
On the night of 30 August, China was taken aback by the Tibetan attack and the capture of Black Top Hill, which is a military vantage point near Panggong Lake in Ladakh. It boosted the morale of the Indian army after the previous loss of 20 of its soldiers, and gave the Indian media a chance to report a story that made every Indian heart swell with pride.
China’s state-run Global Times in an editorial wrote that Chinese analysts doubt if SFF is an “elite” unit, and that it was only used by Indian army as cannon fodder in the border clash. Beijing should ask the PLA soldiers who came injured after losing Black Top Hill on that fateful night, whether the SFF soldiers were ‘elite’ or not.
The editorial also showed how poor is Chinese intelligence-gathering, when it quoted an analyst saying there are only 1,000 SFF soldiers. And more than cannon fodder, they are ready to take on the PLA soldiers in any combat and guerrilla missions. India deploys them only in the forward posts rather than at the LAC for fear of this elite unit launching attacks against the Chinese for obvious reasons.
The Indian Army said that PLA soldiers violated the consensus and carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo on the night of 29/30 August. As a result, Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the southern bank of Panggong Lake, taking measures to thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change the facts on the ground.
China accused India of violating the consensus and trespassing the LAC, saying that the “pre-empted moves” by the Indian army proved that the Indian military were illegally crossing the border in an act of provocation, and the responsibility and consequences would all lie on the Indian side if China takes tough countermeasures.
Meetings of Indian and Chinese military commanders took place on the Indian side of the border at Chushul military post close to LAC in Ladakh to discuss de-escalation. As in the past, the dialogues may not lead to any permanent resolution to the border issue, but what has come to light is that the SFF regiment is no more a secret to the world. It would be advisable that the GoI not consider the SFF as a covert force any more, but start giving them due credit, nurture them, and give them incentives equal to those of the Indian troops, as their achievements and responsibilities are second to none.
As well, it may be preferable that the GoI reflect on the dwindling number of Tibetans in India. The total number of Tibetans in India in September 2019 was 73,404, compared to 95,000 ten years earlier. Many of the youth are leaving for greener pastures. A small and weak Tibetan community in India is what China prefers. Without reviewing the situation and making necessary changes, the Government of India will make China’s wish a reality, and will prove the Chinese experts right about SFF having just 1,000 Tibetan soldiers. For India to continue to have a sizable number of loyal and reliable Tibetans it needs to make some moves quickly, before it’s too late.
About the author
Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, India, and edits the Tibet Sun website.