Unified command held key to SFF success in Ladakh

The Special Frontier Force (SFF), earlier known as Establishment 22 (two-two in army parlance) comprising battle hardened Tibetan exiles and Gorkhas, has for the last several days been heaped with richly deserved encomiums in the national media for its exploits in eastern Ladakh on August 29-30 in the continuing war of nerves with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This, after their derring-do helped the Bhartiya army regain control of the strategic heights around the southern bank of Pangong Tso and Rechen La in the Chushul sub-sector. Neither ridge along the LAC was in Bhartiya possession since 1962. The recovery of Rechen La induces nostalgia. It is barely 2-3 kms from the scene of the famous battle at Rezang La in which Major Shaitan Singh of 13 Kumaon’s Charlie company was felled along with 114 of his 120 men.

A key reason behind the SFF’s success is the back-up provided by the army under whose command they were unleashed on the enemy. It would be foolhardy to think they could have accomplished the feat on their own. Be that as it may. Many wonder why was the SFF, popularly known as the  Vikas battalion, denied the recognition it deserved all these decades after its formation in November 1962? Humiliation at the hands of the Chinese barely a month earlier compelled the blundering J Nehru to give in to pressure from his Intelligence chief, B N Mullick, and World War II veteran Biju Patnaik. Both wanted the battalion in place at the earliest.

The idea of raising a specialized commando force comprising Tibetan fighters, however, was first suggested by General K S Thimmaya. Predictably enough, it was ignored by J Nehru whose peace mongering bordered on cowardice. Thimayya’s proposal was based on sound reason. No other people or community other than Tibetans nursed a visceral disdain for the Chinese. Which is why the SFF’s first recruits were drawn from the Kham region in Tibet under Chinese occupation. The Khams were also the original bodyguards of the Dalai Lama.

The choice of Chakrata (100 kms off Dehradun) on the foothills of the Himalyas as the SFF’s base was also premised on its large refugee population of Tibetans. Here a battalion of 12,000 men was trained in guerrilla warfare under the guidance of Research And Analysis Wing (R&AW) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The American secret service was involved in training the Tibetans since 1950. Rebels tutored at the Mustang base in Nepal helped the Dalai Lama crossover to Bharat in 1959. In fact, had the Kashag, Tibet’s ruling council, not ignored the CIA’s repeated offer to help before the Chinese invasion of Lhasa in 1950, the Tibetan army could have put up a better resistance. The autobiography of the Dalai Lama’s brother, Thubten Jigme Nobu, Tibet Is My Country, published in 1986 blames the Kashag for cold shouldering the CIA and neglecting Tibet’s security.

Even otherwise Tibetans (and Gurkhas) have been an integral part of Bharat’s military interests ever since the 13th Dalai Lama raised an ethnic force to drive out the Chinese after his return from exile in 1913. Tibetans proved to be effective spies. Their repute as intelligence agents became part of local lore during the Great Game played out between Britain and Russia. The fin de siècle setting of Nobel winning Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, revolved around the rivalry. Among its central characters is a Tibetan lama seeking to free himself from the wheel of life.

J Nehru, contrapuntally, had ingrained in the Bhartiya military not to do or say anything which had the slightest potential of hurting the Chinese regardless of their treachery. Hence, the secrecy behind SFF operations, and the raison d’etre behind its placement under the IB which was later transferred to the R&AW. The crack force is headed by an inspector-general (IG) equivalent in rank to a major-general in the army. He functions under the authority of Directorate General on Security in the cabinet secretariat, and reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

The desire to avoid ruffling Beijing’s feathers was the dominant reason behind the veil of secrecy surrounding the activities and achievements of the SFF. Not many are acquainted with the exploits of the force in selective and sensitive military operations like Operation Eagle in the Chittagong Hills during the 1971 Bangladesh war; Operation Bluestar in 1984; Operation Meghdoot at the Siachen Glacier, also 1984; and Operation Vijay in the 1999 Kargil war. Strangely enough, the SFF is not an officially recognized entity in government records. No acclaim or accolades have come its way despite salvaging the national honour on multiple occasions. The US Navy Seals is also a covert force of manifold capability. But Uncle Sam never kept their existence a classified secret. What Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film, Zero Dark Thirty, did was quadruple the interest on the exacting operational standards of the Seals.

Intelligence officials attribute the success in wresting control of Finger 4 to the army efforts in getting its act together in the last few months. The prime minister’s pep talk to the generals on July 3 at the army base in Nimo, 30 kms from Leh, was a factor. Acting proactively rather than react in defence paid huge dividends. Duality of command, however, remains a huge stumbling block. Awareness on the fine line between command and control just does not seem to exist. The shortcoming came in for sharp criticism in the report of the Kargil Review Committee tabled in Parliament on 23 February 2000.  Corrective measures have yet to be applied.

The Union Home ministry’s reluctance to give up control on the assorted para-military formations along the LoC and LAC in Kashmir and Ladakh, as well as the North-East poses serious hindrances in the command structure. Lack of coordination between the Army, Intelligence, and the home ministry continues to create confusion.

The Border Security Force (BSF) is charged with the task of patrolling sizeable swathes of our borders in the north, north-east, as well as Rajasthan. The entire 3,488 border with China is assigned to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) in pursuance of the government’s policy of “One Border One Force”. The ITBP also replaced the Assam Rifles in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in 2004. The 185-year-old Assam Rifles, in fact, has been the biggest sufferer in the tussle for control between the Union Home Ministry and the Ministry of Defence. The decision was left to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) which failed to make up its mind. The matter was taken up by the court which has now given the government 12 weeks to decide on who controls Assam Rifles.

A retired Intelligence official told this writer that the Union Home Ministry had also wanted to bring the Bharatiya Coast Guards under its thumb post-Kargil, but the Navy refused to relent. The ministry’s hunger for power, he said, betrayed an alarming lack of trust in the army which alone is responsible for national security. With war clouds louring over Ladakh, confusion in the command system is the surest road to perdition. Paramilitary forces lack the army’s discipline. Even the SFF is no exception as apparent from an exclusionary rule introduced in 1975.  The rule prohibits members of the Vikas battalion from being deployed within 10 km of the Indo-Chinese border sans explicit instructions. This was done after several incidents were reported in which SFF personnel conducted unsanctioned cross-border raids and intelligence operations.

The bottom line: Respecting the overall command of the Bharatiya army is crucial to the success of any military operation regardless of who wields administrative authority over paramilitary formations fighting shoulder to shoulder.


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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.