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Special Frontier Force and Bangladesh War in 1971

  • Anwar A. Khan
  • 22nd April, 2022 03:25:12 PM
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The Tibetan heroes of Chattogram fought and defended our land in 1971, whatever the cost might be, they fought on the hilly terrains, they fought on the landing grounds, they fought in the fields and in the streets, they never surrendered to Pakistani terrible armed forces for just cause of Bangladesh.

But one of the aspects of the 1971 war in Bangladesh which has never been publicised is the participation of Tibetan troops in the operations.

The official history of the war mentions all the victorious battles, but the Tibetan regiment is not mentioned. Today we have no document proving the Tibetan soldiers’ participation.

On 51st anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh, we need to recall one of the best-kept secrets of the war - the role played by the Special Frontier Force (SSF), a highly trained Tibetan regiment based in today’s Uttarakhand, in the Chittagong Hills, Bangladesh.

The SFF played an important role along with the Mukti Bahini, the Bangladesh’s freedom fighters, in the Liberation War in the Chittagong Hills.

It was founded in November 1962, a week before China’s unilateral cease-fire. The idea was that the Tibetans would themselves ‘liberate’ Tibet!

Dapon Ratuk Ngawang, a senior Tibetan officer (who has now passed away), explained how the SSF became known as ‘Establishment 22’ or simply ‘Two-twos’: the first commandant of the force was a senior Indian Army officer, Brig (later Maj Gen) Sujan Singh Uban, an artillery officer, who had earlier served as Commander of the 22 Mountain Brigade.

The official history of the 1971 war published by the Ministry of Defence mentions all the victorious battles, but the Tibetan regiment is not even cited.

A few years ago, Dapon Ratuk (the rank of ‘dapon’ approximately corresponds to a Commanding Officer) explained in an interview, “The Tibetan regiment known as Special Frontier Forces (SFF) has never functioned under the control of the Indian Army. It was established in 1962, after the India-China war. The main objective of the regiment was to fight the Chinese Army with the help of the Indian Army.”

However, in 1971, the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi thought of using the Tibetan force to conduct guerrilla warfare within the-then East Pakistan; she mentioned this to RN Kao, the-then Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) Chief.

Brig Uban wrote in his memoirs, The Phantoms of Chittagong: “Suspecting it to be a long-drawn-out affair, the Government of India sent for me as an expert in unconventional guerrilla warfare and asked me to study the situation by visiting the border areas and meeting people and to submit a report, which I did after a hurried visit to the affected border areas and meeting several Bangladesh youth leaders.”

He goes on explaining: “My personal visit confirmed what the map showed, that is Bangladesh was a paradise for guerrilla warfare. Forests and hills, rivers, streams and lakes made many areas inaccessible. Yet there was fish and fowl in abundance to keep a guerrilla force functioning independently.”

Uban proposed to conduct guerrilla operations in the Chittagong Hills in order to cut the retreat route of the Pakistani troops. He recalled, “Apparently General Manekshaw, the-then Indian Army Chief had been thinking on similar lines and one day sent for me to investigate this possibility. Our minds met and I set out to prepare this Special Force of Northern Hill Tribes (the Tibetans) for this new venture. Leaders and men of this force did not take much time to understand the full implication of joining this venture and they made a representation in writing that they should be allowed to participate and make some contribution if ever Pakistan forced this war on India.”

Uban had two fighting forces under his command: The SFF as a commando force and the Mujib Bahini, the elite Bangladesh’s force.

In early 1971, the Tibetan force heard that during a special meeting called by the Indian Army in New Delhi, Brig Uban had volunteered to lead the Establishment 22 in the Bangladesh Liberation War, “It was SS Uban Singh and Dapon Jampa Kalden who voluntarily decided to take part in the War,” recalled their colleague Ratuk.

The narrative from the old Tibetan officer continued, “Later they told me about their plans. First, I refused to join them… I told them that the Establishment 22 had not been created to fight ‘for India’; rather it was established with the sole aim to fight the Chinese.”

Finally, after a directive came from the Department of Security of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, Dapon Ratuk accepted. “The Department told us that there was no alternative but to go to war ‘for India’. Moreover, they told us that the Indian government was in a very critical situation at that time and our participation in the war could help save a lot of Indian lives,” he recalled.

Through Brig Uban, the force was in direct contact with RN Kao, responsible for the External Intelligence in the Cabinet Secretariat.

Dapon remembered, “Once the decision to participate in the operations was taken, Dapon Dhondup Gyatotsang (he lost his life during the 1971 operations) and Dapon Pekar Thinley divided the regiment into three units. They decided that each one of us would lead one unit in the war. Due to his age and despite his military experience, Dapon Jampa Kalden couldn’t take part in the operations; he remained the administrative link between the Indian government and Establishment 22.”

The fascinating story of the Establishment 22 continued, “After we captured Chittagong, Kao came to visit our regiment (in Uttarakhand) and gave awards and speeches in praise of the Tibetan unit’s heroic battles” — a sort of acknowledgment of the sacrifice made by the Tibetans to liberate a country which was not theirs.

It is not surprising that the SFF was already present in former East Pakistan several months before the official start of the operations.

Some years ago, Dapon Jampa Kalden gave another perspective, “Initially there was some guerrilla training given in places like Tamil Nadu, to the Bangladesh’s guerrilla groups, the Mukti Bahini. The training was given by the Indian Army.”

In December 1970, a year before the beginning of the Army operations, the force was informed of the possibility of a war. In March 1971, it became obvious that India would have to go to war to liberate Bangladesh in order to solve the issue of millions of refugees in West Bengal.

Jampa Kalden recalled that in February 1971, the SFF had already started infiltrating Bangladesh along with the Mukti Bahini. At first, it was probably for reconnaissance only, simply because “the operation was decided in March, 1971 but they were already in Bangladesh in February, 1971. I was there two months before the operations were decided”, said the Tibetan officer.

He further explained, “The Mukti Bahini was very good at making guerrilla plans and at guerrilla tactics. Mukti Bahini was solely responsible; they would go on their own and fight. SSF were responsible to support the Mukti Bahini and provide some reinforcement to them. The real battle started in March, 1971.” This was after the massacre of the students on the campus in Dhaka by Gen Tikka Khan on 25 March, 1971.

Asked why very few in Eastern Command headquarters in Fort William in Kolkata knew about the operations in the Chittagong Hills, he replied, “Our headquarters was independent. We were under Chittagong Hill Tract Area command and Dapon Ratuk Ngawang was in-charge with Brig SS Uban.”

Incidentally, the force had only one helicopter. The pilot, Sqn Ldr Parvez Rustomji Jamasji, had to carry out all the duties, para-dropping over the battle sites, rations and ammunition dropping, rescue operations, etc. — a feat in itself for which the young pilot was awarded Vir Chakra.

It is very sad for their part; the Tibetans have never been officially rewarded or acknowledged, but we must officially recognize their contributions towards the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971.

The writer is an independent political analyst who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

Source: Sun Editorial