Sunday 6 September 2020

Behind the Uniform

 (I wrote this review of Tibetan Guerrillas in Exile, a documentary film by Tibetan filmmaker Kelsang Rinchen, in 2009 and is included in my book Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics. With the SFF now in sharp focus due to open conflicts between India and China in Indo-Tibetan borders, this rare documentary is important. Please watch and share. Thank you.)

Watch trailer here:

Full doc. here:

On 20 October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army (the PLA) attacked India. They crossed two 16,000-foot passes, routing the Indian border sentries. In Ladakh in Northwestern India, the Chinese army swiftly overwhelmed fifteen of twenty-one Indian army posts. By the second week of November, the PLA took over the town of Tawang in the Northeastern Frontier Area (NEFA) and marched toward Tezpur in the Brahmaputra Valley. 

India’s dismal performance in this high-altitude battleground of the Sino-Indian War prompted the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to raise the Special Frontier Force on 14 November. Nehru made this decision on his birthday on the advice of the Intelligence Bureau founder-director, Bhola Nath Mullick, and World War II veteran Biju Patnaik – later to become the chief minister of Orissa. Incidentally, it was on the same day that the Chinese army resumed its attack on the eastern front after a brief lull. 

On 20 November, six days after the creation of the special force, Jawaharlal Nerhru addressed the nation on All India Radio: ‘Huge Chinese armies have been marching in northern part of NEFA. We have had reverses in Walong, Se La and today Bomdila, a small town in NEFA had also fallen. We shall not rest until the invader goes out of India or pushed out,’ he said. ‘This was the lowest watermark of India morale,’ wrote Dr P. B. Sinha and Colonel A. A. Athale in their mammoth and now-declassified book History of the Conflict with China - 1962 published by India’s Ministry of Defence.

The Cabinet Secretariat under Nehru ordered that the SFF should be an elite force composed mainly of Tibetan refugees. Its main goal was to conduct covert operations behind the lines of the PLA and to engage its soldiers in the über-tough terrain of the Himalayas. The first Inspector-General of the SFF was a retired Indian Army Major-General, Sujan Singh Uban. Not long after, the SFF was re-named as ‘Establishment 22’ since Uban was commander of the 22 Mountain Regiment in World War II.

Members of the SFF numbering around twelve thousand mostly came from Chushi-Gang-Druk, a resistance group founded in Tibet by Andrugtsang Gonpo Tashi, a Tibetan businessman. The resistance fighters of this force had come into exile with the Dalai Lama in the aftermath of China’s occupation of Tibet. They welcomed the founding of Establishment 22 in the hope that through this new regular force a Tibetan army could be maintained to fight against the Chinese some day in the distant future. ‘The main objective was to fight the Chinese to get back independence for Tibet. That was why I joined the force,’ said Passang, an SFF veteran. But, till this day the opportunity to fight for their country has never arisen.

However, a few months before the Bangladesh War in 1971, the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wired a message to the Tibetan soldiers. ‘We cannot compel you to fight a war for us, but the fact is that General A. A. K. Niazi [Pakistan’s military commander in East Pakistan] is treating the people of East Pakistan very badly. India has to do something about it,’ Gandhi wrote, ‘In a way, it is similar to the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans in Tibet; we are facing a similar situation. It would be appreciated if you could help us fight the war for liberating the people of Bangladesh.’ 

Consequently, three columns of SFF led by Gyato Dhondup, Ratuk Nawang and Pekar Trinley, who were simply identified as ‘political leaders’, infiltrated into Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan. In collaboration with the Mukti Bahini or Freedom Fighters, an armed group fighting against the Pakistani army, the SFF conducted raids destroying infrastructure such as bridges and communication lines –  especially in Chittagong, where an important naval base was located – that enabled the Indian Army to advance into East Pakistan. However, this operation by around three thousand Tibetan soldiers was so secret that even the Indian army knew nothing of it. ‘We knew that they were there. But what they were doing I had no idea,’ admitted Major-General K. K. Tewari, who was Chief Signal Officer during the war.

One of the biggest achievements of the SFF was the demolition of Do Hazari Bridge that connects Chittagong to Burma. On 16 December 1971, Lt. Gen Niazi of the Pakistan Army signed the Instrument of Surrender and over ninety thousand Pakistani troops surrendered to the Indian forces making it the largest military surrender since World War II. However, thousands of these defeated soldiers were planning to escape into China via neighbouring Burma by crossing the Do Hazari Bridge. 

A day after the signing of the surrender, the SFF received an urgent message from the chief of Indian Eastern Command, Lt.-General Jagjit Singh Arora, ordering them to destroy this strategic bridge. This was one of many successful missions that the SFF undertook in the Indo-Bangladesh War. 

Over the course of their covert operation, the three Tibetan columns lost fifty-two soldiers, including one of their commanding officers, Gyato Dhondup. Hundreds were injured. Tibetan Guerrillas in Exile, a documentary by Kalsang Rinchen, a young Tibetan filmmaker, tells the stories of the SFF and these Tibetan veterans who today mostly live in old peoples’ homes, playing carom and making noodles to make ends meet.

In the summer of 2008, Kalsang – then a student at the University of Buffalo – traveled to India with his polished script and cameras. The journey was to document the life story of these veterans, their roles in the Bangladesh War and their fates in the aftermath. Inspite of his limited student budget, and the official embargo placed on the subject, Kalsang has done an admirable job in narrating the lives of these brave and dwindling former soldiers. 

The most agonizing experience that one gets watching this documentary is the void in the faces of these veterans stemming from their unfulfilled dream of fighting for their country. In 1963, when a column of the SFF was posted in Bogtai, a border post spanning India, Tibet and Bhutan, some soldiers took a few steps into Tibet, picked up handfuls of earth and shouted out loud: ‘This is my land! This is my land!’ If we look deeply into their eyes, we see that they still hold the amber of hope that there might be one last battle to reclaim their country.
‘I want to fight for Tibet, even if that means throwing some dust in the enemy’s eyes,’ says Lama Kunchok, an SFF veteran, looking straight into the camera and the hue of his monk’s robes glowing bright.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative review, excellent background for the important documentary film. Should be required reading for both Tibetans and Indians (and others could learn a great deal as well).