Biju Patnaik and his Tibetan phantoms

Odisha Uncategorized
By Anil Dhir
Bhubaneswar, March 4, 2018: Up till the late 1990s, they were
regularly seen at the market of Choudwar. The locals took them to be Gurkhas of
the Odisha Special Armed Police, often deployed at the outer periphery of the
Charbatia Air Base. 
Old-timers remember their presence from the late sixties.
Few know that these groups of tough looking young men were
part of the Indian Army’s most secret guerrilla force, called the Special
Frontier Force (SFF) or simply Establishment 22, often referred to in military
parlance as “two-twos.” Very little is known about their presence and
activities; they functioned under the India Secret Service establishment
Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).Even today, the Indian government denies the
existence of this force.
It was Biju Patnaik who was instrumental in the formation of
Establishment 22. In fact, it was he who had mooted the idea of a Tibetan
Guerilla Force, comprising the Khampa rebels, after the 1962 Chinese
debacle.  As Nehru’s close confidant and
defence adviser, Biju along with the Intelligence Bureau Chief B.N.Mullick,
convinced Nehru that a force be formed comprising of members drawn from among
the Tibetan youth who had fled to India along with the Dalai Lama.
In their book “The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet”, Kenneth Conboy
and James Morrison have detailed Biju Patnaik’s role in the formation of the
force. It was under Biju’s stewardship that Indian intelligence had established
close relations with the Central Intelligence Agency for support of the Tibetan
resistance movement. In fact, India had allowed the CIA to set up camps and
train the Tibetan Guerillas. Biju Patnaik had also visited the USA twice as
Nehru’s representative. 
Establishment 22 was formed on November 14, 1962 on the occasion
of Nehru’s birthday. It was also the day the war with China resumed on the
eastern front, after a brief lull.  The
first guerillas were chosen from the CIA-run Mustang camp in Nepal that housed
members of the Chu Shi Gandruk, the main organization of the Khampa rebels.Biju
Patnaik met the Dalai Lama, as Nehru’s emissary, and convinced him to give his
tacit support. The Dalai Lama sent his elder brother Gyalo Thondupfor
negotiations with the Khampas in the Mustang Camp. Gyalo convinced them that a
regiment of 12,000 men was being raised to fight the Chinese Army in Tibet. The
irony of their existence since then is that over the sixty years of the SFF,
they have fought in several theatres of war, but never for their lost
The primary function of Establishment-22 was to conduct
covert operations behind the Chinese lines in the event of another Indo-China
war. They would infiltrate as guerillas and destroy Chinese lines and
communication; damage roads, airfields and radar installations; compel the
Chinese to deploy a disproportionate force at rear security; create insurgency
and rebellion in Tibetwhich would help the Indian army in  engaging the Chinese at the border. As such,
the recruits were trained as high-altitude paratroops-commandos, well versed in
the arts of ambush, demolition, survival and sabotage.
The first Camp was set up in Chakrata, 100 kms from Dehradun.
The Camp still exists and is the headquarters of the SFF. The recruits were
given six months of intensive training in rock climbing and guerrilla warfare.
Biju Patnaik was quick to set up another training camp at the Charbatia Air
Base and allotted 2500 acres of land at Chandragiri for a Tibetan Refugee
Settlement.Many later recruits to the SFF were from Chandragiri.
The story of these toughest and most secretive Special Forces
units in the world has never been told. 
It’s so classified that even the Indian Army does not know what it is up
to at any point of time. Establishment 22 reports directly to the Prime Minister
via the Directorate General of Security in the Cabinet Secretariat.
In 1966, the size of Establishment-22 was doubled and with
this the unit was given a new name – Special Frontier Force. By 1971, SFF was 8
battalions strong; one battalion was posted in Charbatia.Even though not
acknowledged by the Indian establishment, the SFF has, on many occasions,fought
for the cause of their host country. The Force participated with exemplary
skill in Operation Eagle (securing the Chittagong hills in the 1971 war),
Operation Bluestar (clearing the Golden Temple in 1984), Operation Meghdoot
(securing the Siachen glacier in 1984) and Operation Vijay (at Kargil in 1999).
Besides they have also been deployed in VIP security after Indira Gandhi’s
In 1971, Indira Gandhi’s 
sent a telegram to the Tibetan fightersin which she wrote, ‘We cannot
compel you to fight a war for us, but General AAK Niazi (the commander in East
Pakistan) is treating the people of East Pakistan very badly- the same way the
Chinese are treating the Tibetans in Tibet. We’d appreciate your help to
liberate the people of Bangladesh.” The Tibetan commanders of Establishment 22
had a short discussion, and thenunanimously agreed to fight. In the 3rd week of
October 1971, more than 3,000 SFF commandos were dropped in the Chittagong Hill
Tracts area bordering Mizoram. The Tibetans crossed the river on canoes and
launchedmanyhit-and-run strikes deep inside East Pakistan. They blew up the
Kaptai Dam, destroyed Pakistani military positions and killed many Pakistani
They struck fear into the Pakistani army, cutting off the
97th Independent Brigade and the 2nd SSG (Commando) battalion which were
entrenched in Chittagong. The ‘Phantoms’ successfully pinned the Pakistanis
down and cut off all escaperoutes. In fact, the Pakistani soldiers were seeing
ghosts all the time- ghosts who were always on the prowl, swoop down from
nowhere, and mercilessly eliminate them.
When the Pakistani Army surrendered on December 16, the SFF
commandos were only 40 km from Chittagong. For the first and only time in their
history, the Phantoms came out in the open on Chittagong Road to celebrate. The
locals were stunned by their sudden appearance. Even the Indian soldiers were
surprised.The Phantoms were soon ordered back into the shadows,and there they
have remained. In that operation, the SFF lost 49 lives and 190 were
injured.For their pivotal role in the war, 580 SFF troops were awarded cash
prizes by the Indian government. However, these recognitions were given
secretly, and none of the SFF Jawans received medals of high honor.
After the 1971 war, the SFF received a new name as Indira
Gandhi’s ‘own force’. She used the Force in the controversial assault on the
Golden Temple during Operation Bluestar. On 6 June 1984, the SFF commandos were
ordered to isolate Akal Takth and secure its western flank. Due to lack of
intelligence, SFF suffered heavy casualties and the army had to call tanks to
complete the operation.In 1999, SFF jawans were sent to confront Pakistani
force during Kargil’s Operation Vijay. It is rumored that the SFF was involved
in the retaking of Tiger Hills, one of the key battle zone during the war.
The Guerillas are supposed to be volunteers; but it is a
known fact that in the 54 Tibetan Refugee Settlements in India, Bhutan and
Nepal, Tibetan children who drop out of school or do not make a certain grade
are expected to join the SFF. The total number of soldiers, though, has
changed. It was 20,000 in the 1970’s but whittled down to below 10,000 in
recent years. When in 2012, the SFFquietly celebrated its golden jubilee,
nobody remembered Biju Babu. 
For all their hardship and valour, the SFF men and women have
not got official recognition. Most of them sell sweaters and run restaurants
after they are de-mobbed, but they keep their oath of secrecy and never speak
of their old days. I met a few of them in the Manju-ka-tila settlement at Delhi
and at Dharamshala; they refused to speak. The few who stay in Chandragiri,
talked of the1971 operations on condition of anonymity. 
The shadow phantoms, who initially joined to fight for their
Motherland Tibet, are now fighting someone else’s battle- not with any
mercenary greed but with gratitude to their ‘Aryabhumi”- a term that the Dalai
Lama has given to India which means “Land of the noble’. Biju Babu’s secret
army is still vital for our nation’s defence.

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