[Reader-list] Tibetan faujis in Bluestar
ttsetan at yahoo.com
Sat Jun 26 10:21:06 IST 2004
The Rediff Special/Claude Arpi
June 24, 2004
The Rediff Special
Tibetan faujis in Bluestar
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 Bluestar, as
well as the sequence of events that brought the
country and, more particularly, the state of Punjab to this sad end have been described in detail by eminent
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 the 'Special Frontier Forces' 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 Bluestar 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 visualised 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 that follows, this basic tenet should be kept in mind.
The question is: Why were Tibetans troops used during Operation Bluestar? 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 that adjoins 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 (and often with admiration)
about the gentleman-brigands of Kham.
In the mid-50s, the Khampas organised themselves to
fight the Chinese occupiers. Under the name of 'Chushi Gangdruk' (Four Rivers, Six Ranges) or 'National Volunteer Defence 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 Defence 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 that was used during
World War II for high-altitude combat training. There, they received full commando training by the Central Intelligence Agency.
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 organised 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 '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' (two-twos).
The force was put under the direct supervision of the Intelligence Bureau, and later, the Research and
Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency.
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' (brother) and there was no short
cut to reliable intelligence input on the Chinese in
B N Mullick, Nehru's IB chief, was the main organiser of the new regiment and Major General S S 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 Indira Gandhi: "We cannot compel you to fight a war for us, but the fact is that General [A A K] Niazi [Pakistani 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 that was not theirs: perhaps they
saw this as the ideal preparation for their ultimate
I have written earlier about the SSF involvement in
the Bangladesh operations, 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
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 1980s, 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 '22s' 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 Bluestar was decided, the SFF were flown
from their base in Uttar Pradesh and assigned the
impossible task to isolate Akal Takht and secure its
western flank by 1 am on June 6 while the 1
Para-Commandos were to manage a foothold in the Akal
The Bharat Rakshak web site 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
What was in these young Tibetans' 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 '22s' 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 Gandhi remembered his mother's army
and for a couple of months, the SFF provided security
to the new prime minister. A year later, the National
Security Guard was created by an act of Parliament,
and which replaced the Tibetan commandos. But the
training and uniform of the NSG were modelled on the
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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