22 Establishment, India’s Top Secret Unit Against China

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A possible platoon of SFF, Credits to Owners

The year was 1950. India, just 3 years after Independence. India enjoyed a warm relationship with its very close neighbor, Tibet. The Buddhist nation enjoyed deep connections that were both historical and diplomatic. However when Chinese expansion threatened the Buddhist nation, India couldn’t do anything to halt the encroachment of the Communist nation over the sovereignty of the small nation.

The PLA forced the local government, the institution of Dalai Lama to sign a document- “Plan for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”. One may wonder why India didn’t respond, because India lacked the military might to counter such a massive army.

The Dalai Lama and Maj. Gen. Uban inspect the SFF at Chakrata, June 1972 Courtesy

However, both nations didn’t want the situation to get worse with military intervention. Tibet wanted the situation to be raised in UN and seeked India’s help in doing so. Tibet couldn’t do it as they were following political isolationism and neutral hence not recognized by UN as a member state. Both nations were willing to make talks with the Communist nation, but failed in thwarting the unjust occupation of Tibet.

IN 1954, India and China signed the “PanchSheela” Agreement, which recognized the Chinese sovereignty of Tibet and India decided to withdraw its small military presence from Tibet. However Tibet neither recognized nor endorsed the agreement. China soon had full power over Tibet.

Soon India realized that a diplomatic intervention wouldn’t work well with China and their opposition of a Tibetan government as represented by the Institution of Dalai Lama. The Tibetan nationals too were displeased about the Chinese. Some internal resistance did erupt but not to that scale which could oppose the military.

The history of Special Frontier Force-Establishment No. 22 can be traced back to 1957-58 when the CIA launched Operation ST CIRCUS. This Commemoration on September 10, 2010 was the first time that US had officially acknowledge the CIA operation with the Tibetans and it includes the Mustang(Nepal) Operation.
This Commemoration on September 10, 2010 was the first time that US had officially acknowledge the CIA operation with the Tibetans and it includes the Mustang(Nepal) Operation. Credits to Owners.

Several high level visits were conducted between the two nations (China & India), but nothing proved fruitful. So, by 1957 when it became pretty evident that the PLA’s occupation over Tibet was not going to end, India and Tibet mutually decided to approach the next best option-the US of A.

This was a very clever decision as the Americans were interested in countering the expanse of Communism in Asia and had already fought the Korean War. However both nations wanted a covert operation to raise resistance against the Chinese and not a full-on war. So with the help of CIA, Tibetan freedom fighters were trained at covert CIA camps and the resistance was generated.

They supplied arms and equipment to fight the Chinese army. The CIA recruited locals to fight against the Chinese as guerrillas and were airdropped throughout the resistance period. But the Americans gravely underestimated the intelligence capability of the Chinese. The guerrillas took a huge hit. The resistance was thrashed by the PLA. Monks and civilians were executed.  Monasteries were bombed and shelled. The climax of this Tibetan Resistance was during March 1959, when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama had no choice but to seek political asylum in India. Tibetan Resistance was crushed.

The history of Special Frontier Force-Establishment No. 22: The Journey of a political refugee. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama had arrived in India during March 1959 and was presented a Guard of Honor by the Assam Rifles.
14th Dalai Lama had arrived in India on 31 March 1959 and was presented a Guard of Honor by the Assam Rifles in the Tawang Sector of the North East Frontier Agency which is renamed as Arunachal Pradesh. Credits to Owners.

China was surely angered at Tibetan Lama but was angered more by India’s policy of giving asylum to Dalai Lama. This indifference still exists between the two countries. With India’s role in Tibetan Resistance and the Forward Policy of Indian forces to cut-off Chinese posts that were intruding into the Indian Territory, came the war of 1962.

Thousands of miles away, USA was tracking the situation the whole time. Wary of the expansion of Chinese, CIA had to act quick to end the advancement of Chinese forces. As the war reached it’s zenith, a panicked Nehru sent letters to US Prez John.F.Kennedy urging for immediate action. And they responded. They already had the Tibetan resistance fighters by their side and they were ready anytime to kill the Chinese.

The dying Tibetan resistance movement was revived. In a meeting held on November 19, 1962 at the White House, President Kennedy, Dean David Rusk(Secretary of State), Averell Harriman(Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs), Robert McNamara(Secretary of Defense), General Paul Adams(Chief of the US Strike Command), John Kenneth Galbraith(US Ambassador to India), John A McCone(Director of Central Intelligence Agency), Desmond Fitzgerald(the Far Eastern CIA Chief), James Critchfield(the Near East CIA Chief), John Kenneth Knaus(CIA’s Tibet Task Force), and David Blee(CIA Station Chief in New Delhi) had decided upon a military aid package in support of the newly created military organization in India which was initially named as Establishment No. 22 and later the name Special Frontier Force.

However the war ended abruptly. China called unilateral ceasefire and withdrew from many locations. Many reports suggest US threatened to “NUKE” China if they were to continue the battle.

But that wasn’t the end for the CIA operation. Very soon, the then Defence Secretary of US Robert McNamara and his CIA chief John McCone flew to Delhi and met Indian intelligence officials. Indian Intelligence Bureau had lobbied intensively to create an elite unit of commandoes trained in guerrilla warfare to act against China inside their lines.

CIA and IB helmed the project and seasoned officer of the Indian Army, Major General Sujan Singh Uban, was chosen to be the first Inspector General of the force. He is legendary figure in the British Indian Army and was awarded a ‘Military Cross ’. He was the commander of 22 Mountain Regiment during WW2 and was the perfect choice for the role of head of the unit. The unit got the name 22 Establishment (read Two-Two Establishment) since he headed the 22nd Mountain Regiment.

SFF jungle training, WikimediaCommons

Based in Chakrata, Uttarakhand, the force was put under the direct supervision of the Intelligence Bureau, and later, the Research and Analysis Wing. With initial strength of 12,000, SFF commenced six months of training in rock climbing and guerrilla warfare. CIA provided most of the initial equipment and arms supply.

The soldiers were recruited with help from leaders, of the Chushi Gangdruk, the original Tibetan Resistance warriors. Soon the training started at Chakrata, 100 km from the city of Dehra Dun.The force was renamed as SFF (special Frontier Force). It was primarily raised to address the lack of intel during both war-time and peace-time operations.

With the formation of RAW by late 60’s , and with the help of the Aviation Research Centre which provided airlift facilities, SFF became fully airborne-qualified and a dedicated mountain and jungle warfare unit.

OPERATIONS of SFF

During the 60’s there was a major scare in CIA that China was going to test nuclear bombs at Lop Nor region. CIA lacked any concrete intelligence gathering inside China and was relying on U-2 spy planes for intel. It was too high profile and they wanted something much more subtle. So CIA along with RAW and ARC launched an operation to place an ELINT(Electronic Intelligence) device atop the Nanda Devi mountain to snoop on Chinese nuke tests.

A mountaineering expedition was launched with celebrated mountaineer M.S.Kohli leading the climb. The expedition was a cover for the operation. The team included CIA  operatives (most notably Jim Rhyne, a veteran STOL pilot), and SFF operatives. The mission suffered a setback when the team had to retreat following the adverse weather conditions. They were carrying a nuclear powered transmitter which was left out in a cave but when they returned for retrieving it, it wasn’t there.

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. Then Prime Minister Morarji Dessai spoke of the safety of the device at the Parliament, SFF slipped out and that was the first time public was aware of SFF’s presence.

Captain Mohan Singh Kohli, 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.

SFF badge which is allowed for public display,Credits to Owners

Commandant Dinesh Tewari, 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.”

SFF soldiers have proven their mettle in the Chittagong War. They were very valuable for their clandestine intelligence collection and also to train the Mujib Bahini, which led the bangladeshi’s against the Pakistan. SFF conducted several mission, including the destruction of the Kaptai Dam and other bridges.

The Phantoms of Chittagong – Courtesy

They were also part of the Operation BlueStar against Khalistan terrorists. Since they are under RAW, information regarding it’s operations are very scarce. They report directly to a Cabinet Secretary who reports directly to the PM. The former Army Chief Dalbir Singh Suhag was a former IG of the SFF.

An interesting fact is that the force is also known as Vikas and the soldiers Vikasi. The Tibet is free in the mind and soul of every Vikasi whenever they sing their Vikasi Song. They still carry the dream of a free Tibet in them. The Vikasi Song goes like this:

We are the Vikasi
The Chinese snatched Tibet from us
and kicked us out from our home
Even then, India
kept us like their own
One day, surely one day
we will teach the Chinese a lesson
Whenever opportunities arise
we will play with our lives In the Siachen glacier
we got our second chance
Our young martyrs
have no sadness whatsoever
Whether it is Kargil or Bangladesh
we will not lose our strength
Whenever opportunities arise
we will play with our lives
Where there is our Potala Palace
and lovely Norbu Lingka
The throne of the Dalai Lama
was dear even then
Remember those martyrs of ours
who sacrificed with their lives
Let’s sing together
Hail to our Tibet!
Hail to our Tibet!