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.
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.