Tenzin Nyima, RIP. Shame on you, Modi sarkar! Shame on us, Indians!

Indian Special Frontier Force (SFF) – Boot Camp & Military Fitness Institute
The Special Frontier Force badge

There were two casualties in the night operation on Aug 29 by a unit of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) to take Black Top Hill south east of the Thakung post — the main Indian encampment on the southern bank of the Pangong Lake.

SFF, recruiting mainly from the exile Tibetan community in India, was set up originally at the end of the 1962 War as the country’s covert warfare arm in the fight against China. As a ready motivated force of youthful, highly trained commando, its formal brief is to clandestinely carry out tasks to hinder the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in its rear areas in Chinese-occupied Tibet (COT) even as the Indian army takes on the enemy frontally in conventional hostilities. Initially it was manned by the warlike khampas of the Kham region of eastern Tibet, who formed the praetorian guard for the Lama-ist order centered on Lhasa. Armed with obsolete weapons, the khampas offered enough resistance to hold up for a while the advance elements of the invading PLA force rushing to capture Lhasa in 1949. SFF now comprises besides mostly exile Tibetans also other mountain people.

(The Ladakh Scouts and the Nubra Guards — comprising natives of the Shyok and Nubra Valleys, merged later into the Ladakh Scouts, were founded for similar reasons and missions in their respective native areas of deployment.) The SFF and the Ladakh Scouts are manned by people with unique constitutions that thrive in the thin high mountain air and can better withstand the harsh environs of high altitudes than the plains-origin soldiery.

It is hardly surprising the SFF set about its task with gusto on Black Top Hill, because it is precisely their unbounded enthusiasm and get-go attitude that eventuated in some free lance, unauthorized, actions by many of its trained personnel expert in demolitions and other destructive jobs inside Tibet whereupon, the Government of India in its characteristic craven-ness, decreed in 1973 that it not be used within 10 kms of the Line of Actual Control, defeating the very purpose of the SFF! May be after the latest Chinese adventurism in eastern Ladakh and the manner in which the SFF have performed, the Modi government will end these foolish, even ridiculous, restrictions on the SFF activity and permit its routine use across the LAC to impose on the PLA recurring high cost in lives and destroyed assets.

Officered by the army, the SFF has its own rank and organizational structure and payscales, and is based out of Chakrata near Dehradun, in a training complex called ‘Establishment 22’. It comes under the purview of the Special Services Bureau controlled by RAW. Formed into some 36 Companies, or six battalions, the SFF is the go-to unit for high risk actions and the only such outfit with several companies trained as paracommando for airborne operations. It has played a role in many actions, notably in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Time to enlarge these units — the Ladakh Scouts and especially the SFF by several battalions each and let them get on with their work unhindered.

Now to revert to Aug 29 night ops: Commander of the lead SFF company, Tenzin Nyima, was killed by a landmine when he was leading his troops in the approaches to the Black Top Hill. The fact that the area was mined suggests the Chinese had planted them in anticipation of preventing Indians from occupying it in strength. That Hill was taken and the Chinese prevented from establishing themselves there — the highest point on the Pangong Tso’s southern bank with a panoramic 360 degree view with a look down line of sight targeting now available, making the Chinese post at Moldo on the Spanggur Lake extremely vulnerable. With the subsequent Indian presence on Gurung Hill and Magar Hill at lower altitudes on either side of the Spanggur Gap, the PLA force, boasting of some armoured vehicles at Moldo, is pretty much bottled up.

The Black Top action was prompted, reports say, by sighting of a Chinese movement. The more likely reason may have been an electronic signals intercept of the PLA plan for the occupation of the Black Top and associated hill heights — Red Top, Helmet Top, et al, whence the approval of the preemption mission.


For Special Forces, the difference between war and peace is notional. Even so, the least that outfits like the SFF can expect is that those of its members who lose their lives in operations are accorded the honour and recognition due martyrs, their bravery publicly eulogized, their families treated by the government with the utmost respect and visibly and conspicuously showered with the gratitude of the nation.

Instead, the brave SFF company commander Tenzin Nyima, aged 53, lies unheralded, forlorn, in a casket draped with the Indian tricolour and the Tibetan flag in a modest house in the refugee colony in the village of Choglamsar in Ladakh, his memory emblemized by Tibetan mourning rituals and the flickering flame of yak butter lamps with the only thing ringing in the ears of the Nyima Family being, not the accolades of a grateful nation, but the advice by possibly a RAW official to not talk to anyone about commander Tenzin’s SFF antecedents and his 33-year service! The Nyima family was hesitant to speak for fear of Indian government’s reprisals. Reached for comment, the Indian defence and home ministries had nothing to say.

A coffin containing the body of Tenzin Nyima, a senior rank Tibetan official from India's Special Frontier Force, is pictured at his residence in Leh, Sept 1, 2020. — Reuters
The late SFF Company commander Tenzin Nyima lies forlornly

The Reuters news agency carried this story about Tenzin Nyima but not a single major Indian newspaper or online news service published it. I got it from the Karachi-based Pakistani daily, Dawn, at https://www.dawn.com/news/1577705/tibetan-soldiers-death-near-tense-india-china-border-sheds-light-on-covert-unit. The story quotes a young member of the kashag — the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala. “We respect and love India for giving us shelter but it is time the nation acknowledges the crucial role played by our men in the SFF,” Lhagyari Namgyal Dolkar, a 34-year-old Tibetan lawmaker told Reuters. “If an Indian soldier dies, the country declares him as a martyr, government pays rich tribute. Why are Tibetan refugees not bestowed the same respect?” asks Dolkar, whose family members have served in the SFF, with an uncle who fought on the Kargil heights in 1999.

It is time the services of the SFF and martyrs like Nyima are publicly acknowledged and praised by the defence minister Rajnath Singh and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the role of the Tibetans in SFF nationally lauded, and their special military role against the PLA ceremoniously marked and celebrated. And hereafter, RAW should encourage and reward the SFF for its derring-do behind the Chinese lines, and otherwise set them loose to create mayhem in Tibet. For too long the Indian government and the Indian military have acted, where China is concerned, like the proverbial rabbit in a python’s pen — frightened into immobility, eyes glazed, brains dazed, as if awaiting doom.

Having finally and belatedly woken up to the possibilities, let the army brass not now fall back into its usual passive defensive funk. Rather than remain content with the actions to-date, the army should exploit the psychological edge it has secured against the PLA and proceed expeditiously to seal off the Chinese bridgehead on the southern bank of the Pangong on the Chinese side of the LAC (as recommended in my previous post).

It is such bold follow-up forward propulsive actions that will unhinge the PLA and loosen its blockade at the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains — the far greater strategic concern for India, even as the pressure eases on the Indian army units on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake, enabling them to drive the Chinese all the way back to Finger 8. After all, what use are Indian troops sitting atop Finger 4 ridge?

These are tactical moves that surely don’t require the Leh XIV Corps Commander to get cleared by that perfectly wretched band of nincompoops and dunderheads in the China Study Circle (which also includes the Vice Chief of the Army Staff as ex-officio member) — the premier fount of China policy in the government. Good Lord! Modiji will do the national interest no harm if he never listens to this bunch of idiots ever again.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, domestic politics, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian para-military forces, Intelligence, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, society, South Asia, Special Forces, Tibet. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Tenzin Nyima, RIP. Shame on you, Modi sarkar! Shame on us, Indians!

  1. Raju says:

    What about Economic attack on China by GOI ?

    • Sure. Then you have defeatists like Shyam Saran, former FS, who says India can’t impose economic costs.

    • Sankar says:

      @Raju: Well, economic attack cannot recapture lost sovereign territory. It can only dent the warfighting potential of China to some degree. But China has surely taken that aspect into account in their pursuit of aggression – they are not as naive as India’s Modiji!

    • Bhishma says:

      GOI has many types of punitive actions as options. The banning of apps is an economic attack. Although using only economic reprisals in return for a military action is very limp wristed.

      Economic attacks are to be done and sustained over a long period for any tangible effect on an adversaries response.

      Imagine you have a neighbour with a grocery store. Now imagine that you buy a lot of your groceries from this neighbour. This grocer breaks down your wall, kills your sons in the process and claims that you are to blame.

      What should be your response?

      Sure. Stop buying from that grocer. But should that be the primary and only punitive response to that murderous grocer?

      If cancelling orders is all that’s done then don’t be surprised if that grocer enters your bedroom next.

      Firstly… Deal with the primary form of force applied on you. Defend yourself. With violence. Shed their blood. Kill their sons as they killed yours. That’s the primary required response.

      The fact that you refuse to do business with them should just be just an incidental thing.

      Bandits with vile intent are swarming inside your house. Instead of stopping them with force. Now. Period. We are debating how much we should trade?

      What are we? Men or chickens?

  2. Sankar says:

    Brilliant write-up!
    On an aside, the ‘fictitious’ LAC was contrived by China (1993?) after the Sumdorong Chu incident, to trap India in military paralysis so that China can consolidate its hold on the ground invaded, and then advance their soldiers to capture more territory by bringing out a new LAC map for dealing with India. It is the same tactics they used during their negotiation with Nehru in the years 1950-60 when they changed their map every third meeting with Delhi to demarcate the border. They use LAC to hoodwink as if it will become the negotiated border ground.
    International borders between nations are settled by fighting wars, not by diplomatic bullshit as the mandarins in Delhi have been trying to convince the gullible general public all these years. The political leadership is yet to absorb that fundamental in statecraft. The exception to this rule has been Indira Gandhi. Hopefully, the gain made in the heights of Pangong will be consolidated and retained by India’s military as India’s sovereign land, not to be given up in any future negotiation with China. As Churchill observed, peace can be achieved only by the threat of war.

  3. Edelbert Kmenlang Badwar says:

    The question is why were these preemptive actions not undertaken in the months before and also at other standoff points.We can easily make up for our territorial losses in the past but we choose not to.

  4. Commodore HA Gokhale says:

    “perfectly wretched band of nincompoops and dunderheads in the China Study Circle (which also includes the Vice Chief of the Army Staff as ex-officio member)”. Such language is certainly not befitting a senior analyst like Mr. Karnad. Thank heavens that he has been kinder to Mr. Modi than before. And they fault India with muzzling of press. LOL

  5. vivek says:

    may be pm modi was not made aware of this?

  6. Tony says:

    Hans should be given a bloody face they only respect fear admire envy lust power and power alone. Its also high time for kailasha to be brought back home and tibetans serving India should be given all the due respect and honours. What are we waiting for , why are nukes not being pointed at chengdu

  7. Anon says:

    Is china study circle a government body. Who are its members are they held accountable for failures ?

    • As I have stated in previous posts, the China Study Circle involves VCOAS diplomats, intelligence, and military officers — all with Mandarin language competence, as also several ex-officio members such as VCOAS. And no, like in the rest of the government, there’s no accountability for failures either in policy conceptualization or implementation.

  8. Sohamg says:

    I have been following your blog for quite a while. You have been consistently advocating the use of military force to chuck the chinese out of Indian territory. But you have not explained how India will counter the resultant Chinese retaliation (or have I missed it ?) . As you have said in one of your lectures on youtube, ” We can, at most, hold them back in a war. They’re strong.”

    • In my 2018 book, Staggering Forward, I resolve this dilemma by advocating nuclear weapons as cover for conducting conventional hostilities, with threat of nuclear first use atomic demolition munitions and canisterised Agni missiles. It is using the Chinese playbook against China. It involves a strategy a conventionally inferior China first successfully used after securing N-ICBMs against the US, North Korea against the US, and Pakistan against India.

      • Sankar says:

        I have read somewhere that the US senator Larry Pressler had once proposed to pass on nuclear-tipped submarine-launched missiles to India. Could you comment on that?

      • Never heard of any such proposal. And I was acquainted with Senator Larry Pressler from my time in Washington in the mid-’80s. He was a contributor to the 1994 Viking-Penguin book, the only one I have edited, a compilation of essays by notables — Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond.

    • Sankar says:

      Please do not forget that essentially India is a very big power (nuclear) in the world but the present commanders of the Indian military at the higher level are bereft of any strategic vision for standing up to the Chinese might. Furthermore, the Himalayas present formidable barrier for China to breach assuming India take control of the passes and higher ground at strategic points to deny access to the PLA. I refer to the erstwhile NATO doctrine to clarify what ‘strategic vision’ could imply. The Soviets in the1960s were militarily immensely powerful and could have overrun western Europe if they wanted. But to thwart that aggression General de Gaulle of France (as a member of Nato) formulated the concept of ‘Force de Frappe’ which was essentially nuclear riposte on Moscow in the event. With that prospect of being blinded, the Soviets never moved an inch to extend their hold on eastern Europe. The 1962 debacle happened since India did not carry out IAF airstrike on PLA bases in Tibet and the military commanders chosen and controlled the then political leadership had no plans to continue the war after initial reverses.

  9. Prajesh Banerjee says:

    I understand the pain of the writer . The writer needs to understand the pain of the compulsion.
    China would be quick to draw parallel to the Pakistani terrorist in the same feather .
    And the distinction between kashmir and Tibet would get mired

  10. Devendra says:

    I always love to read @professor Karnad articles

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