The curious case of establishment 22
For 47 years, India has kept secret an elite regiment of Tibetan commandos. They fought gallantly in the big wars, but their valour cannot be openly recognised, writes Amitava Sanyal.
It’s not easy to find Radug Ngawang’s house among the maze of narrow lanes in Majnu ka Tilla, the bustling Tibetan settlement by the Yamuna in north Delhi. As we get closer, some people offer us directions. After all, the 83-year-old Ngawang is known within the community as one of the handful of bodyguards who accompanied the Dalai Lama when he fled to India in 1959.
What they probably don’t know is that he was also an elite commando trained and armed by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And that for a decade and a half he was first a soldier and then leader of a top-secret Indian regiment that was raised exactly 47 years ago yesterday. Ngawang was a founding member of what, in grand government euphemism, is known as Establishment 22.
The story of this still-secret regiment, however, reads like a set of Catch 22 situations.
Though it was raised to fight the Chinese army in Tibet, it has fought in several theatres of war except that one. It’s so classified a set-up that even the army may not know what it’s up to — it reports directly to the prime minister via the directorate general of security in the cabinet secretariat; so the gallantry of its soldiers cannot be publicly recognised. It’s supposed to be a group of volunteers; but all school-passing Tibetan children not making a certain grade are still expected to join it.
Jawaharlal Nehru took the decision to raise the force on his birthday in 1962. It was also the day the war with China resumed on the eastern front after a brief lull. On the advice of Intelligence Bureau founder-director Bhola Nath Mullick and World War II veteran Biju Patnaik, Nehru ordered the raising of a Tibetan guerrilla force that could engage the Chinese in the uber-tough terrains of the Himalayas.
Sitting in his house on the Yamuna, Ngawang says that it was early 1963 when the first batch of about 12,000 Tibetans was brought to Chakrata, 100 km from Dehradun. Former armyman Sujan Singh Uban was the first inspector-general tasked with turning these rugged highlanders into fierce fighters — with substantial help from the CIA. The group took its intriguing name after the 22 Mountain Regiment that Uban had fought for during WWII.
Since then, the regiment — also called the Special Frontier Force (SFF) — has participated with exemplary skill in Operation Eagle (securing Chittagong hills during the Bangladesh War of 1971, where 46 soldiers of the regiment died), Operation Bluestar (clearing Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1984), Operation Meghdoot (securing the Siachen glacier in 1984) and Operation Vijay (war with Pakistan at Kargil in 1999).
Some reports later claimed that SFF’s mandate had been changed to include anti-terrorist operations. But Vikram Sood, director of the Research & Analysis Wing during 2001-03, and B. Raman, additional secretary in the security wing of the cabinet secretariat during 1988-94, deny any change from the original mandate.
The total number of soldiers, though, has changed — swelling to about 20,000 around 1970 and then whittling down to below 10,000. It’s difficult to know the exact count at present because of the tight lid of secrecy.
The lid was, however, blown in 1978. Indian newspapers reported that an electronic intelligence machine passed on by the CIA and mounted atop Nanda Devi in 1965 to track Chinese missile tests had gone missing. The bigger worry was over the plutonium generator that powered the machine. As Prime Minister Morarji Desai assured a worried Parliament on nuclear safety, the mention of SFF, that had mostly manned the operation, slipped out.
Captain Manmohan Singh Kohli, 78, adviser to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (then called the Frontier Rifles) who led the operation, says, “The SFF men were real tough… Once, when we were building a helipad a large rock had to be removed. It needed seven men to lift — even six wouldn’t do. Then, one of the SFF guys said, ‘Put it on my back.’ And he alone carried it about 15 feet and threw it.”
Commandant Dinesh Tewari, 68, a former Gurkha regiment captain who put thousands of SFF soldiers through a gruelling 44-week commando course during 1969-75, says, “They can survive in any condition... On some winter mornings I would watch some of them taking chilly water into their mouth, warming it, and then spitting it out to wash their face.”
But for all their hardship and valour, SFF men and women have got little official recognition.
Ngawang, who retired as a Dapon (equivalent of a brigadier), the top rank among SFF’s Tibetans, in 1976, says, “We were promised medals after Bangladesh, but never got them — only some cash, that too a few thousands.” On retirement he got Rs 19,000. He and his wife Dechen, who trained for SFF’s women’s wing, have sold sweaters and run restaurants to make ends meet.
Some other ex-members, too, run shops in Dharamshala or Delhi. Many more others bide their last years at an old-age home in Dehradun.
Only recently have a few SFF soldiers been given gallantry awards for Siachen and Kargil. Payscales, too, have been made to match those in the army. A serving soldier reports that a few months ago, for the first time, the government promised them pensions.
But a soldier wants recognition, too. Captain Kohli, who was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva medal, says, “I was conferred the AVSM by the Navy, because it was a covert operation... I am sure the SFF men get recognition and awards within their own system.” Just that nobody is saying how.