The violent death of a Tibetan commando soldier who belonged to an Indian special forces unit near the China-India border has provided the public with rare insight into the operations of a little-known elite force.
Tibetan soldier Nyima Tenzin, 53, a company leader in the Special Frontier Force (SFF) under the Indian army, died in a land mine blast in late August, near the site of border tensions with Chinese troops. Another junior soldier was critically injured in the same explosion.
Few details are publicly known about the covert force that was set up soon after a war between India and China in 1962. The Indian government hasn’t published any official count of the size of the force, although some experts estimate its strength at around 5,000 to 10,000 men.
Tibetan historian Jianglin Li said the Special Frontier Force consists mostly of Tibetans, who were born and raised in high plateau climate.
“For India, an important lesson from the 1962 war with China is to find the right soldiers. At that time, a considerable number of the Indian soldiers were Sikhs, most of whom came from the plains. They didn’t perform well in high-altitude areas,” she told VOA.
According to Li, the Indian government then realized soldiers with special physical attributes and fitness were needed for any potential conflict at the Sino-Indian border, a high plateau area.
The government led by Jawaharlal Nehru subsequently formed a special force, recruiting mostly Tibetans in exile, who fled to India in 1959 with the 14th Dalai Lama after the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet. These Tibetans have lived at high altitudes for generations; for them, walking on high land 5,000 meters above the sea level is like walking on the ground, experts say.
Considered an elite force in the India army, the SFF takes its orders directly from the Indian prime minister. It is based in Chakrata, nearly 700 kilometers from Ladakh, a key friction point in the current India-China border conflict.
Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan writer and activist in Dharamshala, told VOA that the force was trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1960s.
“At that time, the main purpose of the group was to fight the PLA across the border,” he said. The Tibetan troops obtained weapons and equipment as well as training from the CIA, he said.
The U.S. government pulled the CIA out of the training program following then-Republican President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Yet the SFF kept receiving training from the Indian army to prepare for any potential conflict in the region. Over the years, the Indian government has deployed the SFF in various military operations.
SFF soldiers have successfully waged wars for India starting with the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh against Pakistan. During the Kargil War in 1999, SFF soldiers captured Tiger Hill from the rival Pakistani soldiers, leading to India’s victory.
The Reuters news agency quoted Amitabh Mathur, a former Indian government adviser on Tibetan affairs, as saying he wasn’t surprised the Indian government decided to deploy the SFF troops this time, as they were “crack troops, especially in the context of mountain climbing and high-altitude warfare.”
'Ultimate dream of Tibetan soldiers'
Within the Tibetan community, grieving has begun over Nyima’s death. His coffin has been draped with Indian and Tibetan flags in a refugee colony in Choglamsar, a village in India’s Ladakh region. According to Tsundue, many of the soldiers mourning the loss of Nyima simply want to return to their remote Himalayan homeland.
“With the current border conflict, they might have a chance to fight against China and drive Chinese troops out of Tibet,” he explained. “This is the ultimate dream of Tibetan soldiers. They hope to fight the Chinese and play an important role in the fight for Tibet's independence."
VOA reached out to the Tibetan Government in Exile for comments. Karma Choeying, spokesperson for the Central Tibetan Administration, said the administration “does not comment on this matter.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Wednesday said she did not know whether Tibetans were fighting for India, but urged caution.
“We are firmly opposed to any country, including India, supporting the secession activities of Tibetan pro-independence forces or providing them with any assistance or physical space,” she said.
This story originated in VOA's Mandarin service.