Two distinguished journalists of India Sandeep Unnithan interviews Claude Arpi 

Reports swirling about on social media suggest that India deployed a secretive Tibetan paramilitary, the Special Frontier Force (SFF), to tackle Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh. The SFF is recruited from the Tibetan diaspora settled in India and officered by Indian Army soldiers. They form part of the Directorate General of Security (DGS), a covert organisation operating under the Cabinet Secretariat. The DGS is now part of India’s external agency R&AW. INDIA TODAY’s Sandeep Unnithan spoke with author and Tibetologist Claude Arpi to know more about the origins of this enigmatic organisation. Excerpts:

Q. There are reports that India might have deployed the Special Frontier Force for the first time along the LAC with China. Could you tell us more about this mysterious organisation which we don’t seem to find any official record of.

In November 1962 (after the Indo-China border war), B.N. Mullick, then director of the Intelligence Bureau and the CIA decided to recruit some Tibetan troops. At the time, the Tibetan guerrilla movement was active, so a lot of the soldiers and some officers were based in Kalimpong or Darjeeling in West Bengal. Mullick contacted them along with the Dalai Lama’s elder brother Gyalo Thondup. In the next few months, they recruited Tibetans from among the refugees who had come after 1959 to India. Very rapidly, they had 6,000-7,000 recruits. At the time, the idea was to go back and free Tibet from Chinese occupation. A group of recruiters went to the different Tibetan settlements and every young Tibetan was eager to go and fight for Tibet. But that objective was never fulfilled. The Tibetan forces never fought against China. They fought against Pakistan in 1971 and in the Bangladesh operations; Major Gen. Sujan Singh Uban was the first inspector-general of the SFF; they went into Bangladesh before the Indian troops and played a role there.

Q. So you’re saying that they’ve never been used along the China frontier which was their primary area of response but against Pakistan. How significant are these reports that we are reading on social media that the SFF was deployed?

There is absolutely no confirmation from the government and I don’t think there will be. But I think this is one of the few times that they’ve been used along the China border. In the 1960s, I think, some of them tended to cross over and create problems in China. So I think after that they were not kept very close to the border. And they are not just all Tibetans, there are Nepalis also [in the SFF]. At one point, there were some recruitment issues, so they are not 100 per cent Tibetan.

Q. How has the organisation changed since the 1962 war with China? Have their objectives changed?

It’s under the government of India, and it’s very secretive. In 1971, it was under the cabinet secretariat and it was Indira Gandhi who insisted on sending them to Bangladesh. The Indian Army’s Eastern Command in Kolkata was not very happy. Chief of staff, Major General J.F.R. Jacob was not keen on inducting them (for operations in East Pakistan) but Indira Gandhi and R N Kao (then RAW chief) insisted. The SFF has been under the cabinet secretariat and the operational aspects are under the Indian Army. But nothing official has been written about them.

Q. So this is a classic covert organisation where you are never going to get an official confirmation about their operations or indeed their existence.

For the Tibetans, it was a problem--in the sense that they were not getting the same salary as the Indian Army Jawans or they were not getting decorations; they will not get Maha Vir Chakras or Vir Chakras. It was a choice, and for many of them, it is employment. But I think that the youngsters who join the organisation are still dreaming of a free Tibet--maybe a very distant dream. At the same time, there is a dichotomy--the Dalai Lama preaches non-violence--so it is very difficult to manage that. It’s the same with the Ladakh Scouts who are also Buddhists. During the Kargil war, the evening before going for the (Chorbat La Pass operation), they got the blessing of the Dalai Lama, who was there at that time. For them, it was a great morale booster. Major Sonam Wangchuk got a Maha Vir Chakra for it.

Q. Given the way the relationship has deteriorated with the Chinese over the last few days, do you see a different role for the SFF in the days ahead?

The government of India has different special forces--the big difference in 1962 was that there were very few forces who were acclimatised and who could fight China on the border. Today, it’s very different. At Bana post in Siachen, you have Tamilian troops and Maharashtrian troops. India has worked out very scientifically the issue of acclimatisation. And they (the SFF) have become one of the many forces. Now you have the Ladakh Scouts, the Arunachal Scouts; that was the main role the SFF was to play in the 1960s—no other troops could do these for physical reasons. India has many different forces that it can use now; like in Galwan the Punjabis and Sikhs were there. The problem of acclimatisation is no longer there.