The Special Frontier Force (SFF) comprising of ethnic Tibetans recently foiled the Chinese military’s attempt to change status quo in the south bank of Pangong Tso region. (Picture for representation: PTI)
For most people in India, the Special Frontier Force (SFF) came an educational experience earlier this week. It was for the first time that many heard about the SFF, when the unit thwarted the Chinese military’s attempt to change status quo on the south bank of Pangong Tso region.
This was reportedly the first time that the SFF was used in an active situation along the Line of Actual Control or the border with China. The interesting part of the story is that the SFF was raised as a response to the Chinese invasion of India in 1962. The force had been pressed into use along the Line of Control with Pakistan, but the unit was never used in action against the Chinese.
Character-wise, the SFF is a covert operation unit. It is not an Army unit. At least one wing of the SFF comprises of ethnic Tibetans, and is also known as the Vikas Battalion. The SFF works under the Cabinet Secretariat, unlike the wings of military, which come under the Ministry of Defence. The Cabinet Secretariat is the same department of the government under which the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) functions. The SFF and R&AW work in close coordination.
WHY COVERT FORCE
The use of the ethnic Tibetans-led SFF unit in the active eastern Ladakh zone came as a surprise because the Army had been the one keeping an eye on the LAC since the Chinese push in May.
However, given that China has made most of its advances in Aksai Chin and rest of eastern Ladakh through covert means, the use of a highly trained unit in the same mode of warfare meant business for India. The government sent across an obvious message that Chinese covert play along the LAC would be responded in the same manner.
The SFF is a unit that was raised in the post-1962 war period with joint training by Indian forces and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US. Ethnic Tibetans or Tibetans-in-exile make up sizeable portion of this force.
A TIBETAN MESSAGE
The ethnic Tibetans have come into the picture at a time when China has launched a fresh drive to change the cultural identity of Tibet — an autonomous region under Chinese control that has a long history of its own driving force from Lama-based sects of Buddhism.
Tibetans resisted Chinese moves to overrun their erstwhile kingdom in 1950s. China under Xi Jinping has revived the campaign to “sinicise” Tibetan Buddhism. Xi Jinping has been calling for sinicisation — streamlining of the ethnic and religious minorities with the Han Chinese community — of the Tibetans for over few years now.
As recently as on August 29, Xi Jinping said the Chinese military needed to strengthen its defences in Tibet and administration to sinicise Tibetan religion and culture in sync with the principles of the Communist Party of China and majoritarian culture of the ethnic Han community.
In response, Tibetans-in-exile and their leaders have sought help from the international community for protection of their cultural and democratic rights. A Tibetan government-in-exile functions from India. Its leaders have called upon the Indian government to shed its reluctance in supporting the Tibetan cause.
The appeal from the Tibetan community has grabbed attention of world politics to the extent that Democratic Party nominee in the US presidential election, Joe Biden has promised to sanction the Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuse in Tibet.
China has been critical of India’s support to the Tibetans. Against this background, the Indian government went ahead with the strategy of using ethnic Tibetans in an active military conflict zone along the LAC in Ladakh. This is another message that India has tried to send to China in a subtle but military manner.