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This article was first published 12 years ago

The Tibetans who fought the 1971 war

Last updated on: January 10, 2012 21:08 IST

Image: Dapon Ratuk Ngawang commanded the Tibetan secret regiment, known as the Special Frontier Forces or Establishment 22 which took part in the 1971 War
Photographs: Courtesy: Dapon Ratuk Ngawang Claude Arpi

Dapon Ratuk Ngawang was one of the senior leaders of the Voluntary Freedom Fighter Force in Tibet, a Tibetan guerrilla outfit which fought Chinese rule and played a key role in the Dalai Lama's escape to India in March 1959.

After the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, Ratuk Ngawang commanded the Tibetan secret regiment, known as the Special Frontier Forces, SSF, or Establishment 22, based near Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh.

Now 84, Ratuk Ngawag lives in the Tibetan colony of Majnu Ka Tilla in Delhi. He recently published his memoirs (in Tibetan) in which he recounts his early life in Kham province of Eastern Tibet and the escape to India as well as the Tibetan participation in the 1971 operations.

In an exclusive interview, he tells Claude Arpi about the SSF's role during the Bangladesh Liberation War.

In 1971, Ratuk Ngawang was a 'Dapon', often translated as 'Brigadier'; they were also known as 'Political Leaders.'

One of the aspects of the 1971 War which has never been publicised is the participation of Tibetan troops in the operations.

The official history of the war mentions all the victorious battles, but the Tibetan regiment is not mentioned. Today we have no document proving the Tibetan soldiers' participation.

We would be interested to hear from you more about the Tibetan Forces' role in the Bangladesh operations. We are also curious to find out about the directives (if any) from the Central Tibetan Administration (the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile) towards the Tibetan soldiers?

I have covered all these issues in my memoirs (published in Tibetan by the Amnye Machen Institute, Dharamsala). The Tibetan Regiment known as Special Frontier Forces or Establishment 22 has never officially been under the Indian Army.

It was established in 1962, after the Indo-China War. The main objective of the regiment was to fight the Chinese army with the help of the Indian Army.

At the time of the creation of the Force, we thought that the operations could be based at Lhuntse Dzong in Tibet (near the Indian border).

The plan was to engage the Chinese army in a military conflict within 5, 6 months of the Force's creation. But the Indo-China war came to an abrupt end (on November 22), and due to severe international pressure to maintain peace, no further military engagements occurred with China.

Therefore, the services of Establishment 22 regiment were not used as planned.

Tell us more about Establishment 22.

The Chinese took over Tibet in 1959. In 1960, the Government of India established a Force known as the Indo-Tibetan Border Force. Tibetan Establishment 22 was established in November 1962.

Who ordered the SFF to take part in the war?

A senior Indian Army officer, Major General Sujan Singh Uban (The SSF became known as 'Establishment 22' or simply 'Two-twos' because General Uban earlier served as commander of the 22 Mountain Brigade). At that time, he was the commander of the Tibetan Force.

A special army meeting was held in New Delhi; later we heard that General Uban had volunteered to lead the Establishment 22 regiment in the Bangladesh war.

It was S S Uban and my colleague Dapon Jampa Kalden who voluntarily decided to take part in the war.

Later they told me about their plans. First, I refused to join them, because to voluntarily go to war was for me 'illegal.' I told them that only if we got an order from the Government of India or from the Central Tibetan Administration, could we join the operation.

Moreover, I told them that Establishment 22 had not been created to fight 'for India'; rather it was established with the sole aim to fight the Chinese.

In fact, it is the reason why we get less salary as compared to Indian soldiers. We are not part of the regular Indian Army.

When the regiment was established, there was a mutual agreement that we would fight the Chinese. This did not happen.

However, I told General Uban and Dapon Jampa Kalden that if we were to get a formal order from the Indian government then we could join the operations.

Please ...

'We were told there was no alternative, but to go to war for India'

Image: Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, Major General S S Uban, Lieutenant General T S Oberoi after the 1971 war
Photographs: Courtesy, Ratuk Ngawang

Did Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, give the directives to the Tibetan soldiers to join the Bangladesh war or was it someone else?

The directive came from the department of security of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala.

The department had called us for a meeting. They told us that there was no alternative but to go to war 'for India.'

Moreover, they told us that the Indian government was in a very critical situation at that time and our participation in the war could help save a lot of Indian lives.

Did you have any contact with R N Kao who was responsible for external intelligence in the Cabinet secretariat?

Yes. R N Kao was a high level officer of the Indian government and Indira Gandhi's close associate. But our commander was General S S Uban. He had visited New Delhi and also informed the Central Tibetan Administration about his plans to lead the SFF in the Bangladesh war.

After he came back to our base (in Uttar Pradesh), he sent Jampa Kalden and me to meet officials of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala.

We told the administration about our initial reluctance to join the war. But since the Central Tibetan Administration had already decided about sending Establishment 22 to the war, we would go for it.

Was R N Kao involved in the decision?

R N Kao was a high level official and not a military man. So he was not directly involved in the operations. But he instructed us and advised us to prepare ourselves and fight well.

Was Mr Kao giving orders to General Uban?

General Uban was a military officer. R N Kao was a high ranking official, therefore he had greater authority.

When we captured Chittagong, R N Kao came to visit Establishment 22 and gave awards and speeches in praise of the Tibetan unit's heroic battles. R N Kao was a very patriotic person.

After the decision to participate in the operations was taken, Dapon Dhondup Gyatotsang (who lost his life during the 1971 operations), Dapon Pekar Thinley and myself divided the regiment into three units.

We decided that each one of us would lead one unit in the war.

Due to his age and despite his military experience, Dapon Jampa Kalden couldn't take part in the war. He remained the administrative link between the Indian government and Establishment 22.

Gyalo Thondup was the chief strategist of Dehra Dun's SFF, but he was not involved in the decision to send Tibetan soldiers to the Bangladesh war.

When the Tibetan refugees first came to India, the Indian government had categorically urged the Tibetans not to participate in any political activities.

Much before the Bangladesh war, Gyalo Thondup and Andrug Gonpo Tashi (the founder of the Tibetan Volunteer Force in Tibet) had already resigned from their military posts.

Please ...

'We joined the '71 war in the hope that Indian Army will help us fight the Chinese one day'

Image: Formation of the Mukti Bahini

How many Mukti Bahini were trained at Uttar Pradesh by General Uban?

After Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was imprisoned in West Pakistan, more than 1,000 of his supporters escaped to India. Many of them were stationed near by the SSF camp.

We trained them in military combat. They were known as the Mukti Bahini.

Some of them were related to Mujibur Rahman. They later acted as our guides and contact persons during the war though they did not actually fight with us.

Though it was us who fought the real war and suffered the casualties, all the credit has later been given to the Mukti Bahini (because the Tibetan Force was involved under the guise of the Mukti Bahini).

Were the Mukti Bahini also under the command of General Uban?

Yes. General Uban provided the training to the Mukti Bahini.

When did you and the other two Dapons reach Bangladesh?

It was in November 1971. I was 39 years old at that time.

Did you go to Bangladesh before the beginning of the war or during the war?

We went before the Bangladesh war started. Though we were meant to fight the Chinese in a guerrilla warfare, during the Bangladesh war, our main enemy was the Mizo insurgents.

Just as the Tibetans were trained by the Indian Army, the Mizo soldiers were trained by Pakistan.

When and how did you go?

We went from the base of Establishment 22 in Uttar Pradesh to Dum Dum airport (Kolkata) by plane. From Dum Dum we went to Demagiri in Mizoram by motor vehicles. It took us three days.

After reaching the Bangladesh border (the Chittagong Hill Tracks), we had a meeting and went straight into the battle.

We left for the war on November 12 and fought for 28 days after which we came out victorious.

Many soldiers from the Pakistani side were killed and many surrendered.

What was General Uban's military objective in the war?

We were thoroughly trained in commando warfare to fight the Chinese; we were requested to use these skills to fight in the Bangladesh war.

The Indian authorities had assured us that the Indian Army would fight with the Tibetans for the cause of Tibet. Their reasoning was that the Tibetan soldiers alone could not defeat the Chinese army.

That's why we decided to join the Bangladesh war. It was in the hope that the Indian Army will help us militarily one day to fight the Chinese.

Please ...

'Within 10 days, we captured almost all the enemy bases'

Image: Dapon Ratuk Ngawang, now 84, lives in New Delhi
Photographs: Claude Arpi

Before going to the war, did General Uban gave you any instructions to capture specific places or specific Pakistani military bases?

We had a map of the area (Chittagong Hills). Each of the three units (battalions) with a little more than 1,000 soldiers each included the Tibetan soldiers and some Mukti Bahini partisans.

Since General Uban was the commander of the Tibetan Special Frontier Forces, he gave us instructions in Hindi (we had Tibetan translators). He told us where to go and later through walkie-talkie we could inform him where we had reached and he would then tell us what we had to do.

The three Tibetan battalions had three Tibetan Dapons and three Indian colonels. The three Dapons and the three colonels always discussed the strategies, but the decisions were taken by General Uban after we had informed him.

Other than Demagiri, in which other places did the Tibetan soldiers fight?

Demagiri was the main military base. About 100 Tibetan soldiers and 100 Mukti Bahini were posted to guard the base.

Apart from senior military officials stationed at Demagiri, the base also had a hospital, where those who got injured in the battle could be treated. Most of the doctors were majors and captains of the Indian Armed Medical Corps.

The preparation for this had been done much before the beginning of the war.

The severely injured soldiers were taken by helicopters to other hospitals, but since the war was going on in the jungle of the Chittagong Hills, it was difficult for the helicopters to land. That is why many of the injured had to be sent by boats through the river.

When the Indian Army came to Demagiri at the beginning of the actual war, were the Indian soldiers able to help the Tibetan soldiers?

No. The Indian soldiers were not able to help us. Similarly, the Tibetan soldiers were also not able to help the Indian soldiers since both have been trained in different types of military warfare.

The Tibetan commandos were trained in guerrilla warfare whereas the Indian soldiers were trained in urban warfare.

Were your military objectives fulfilled?

Within ten days, we captured almost all the enemy bases except for two.

Most of the enemy bases had only 50 soldiers or so and when we attacked them, they were hugely outnumbered and surrendered within an hour of fighting.

On December 16, when news of the Indian Army's conquest of Dhaka became known, most of the remaining smaller units surrendered.

After the victory in the Bangladesh war, did you go to Chittagong for the official victory parade?

General Uban did organise a trip for us to go to Chittagong for the official victory ceremony. But we couldn't go as the Tibetan soldiers had been scattered in many different places.

Therefore, General Uban and R N Kao went to Chittagong to attend the official ceremony and discuss the perks and rewards for the Tibetan soldiers's contribution in the war.

We stayed back and celebrated the victory at our bases.

Claude Arpi notes: It is said General S S Uban's plan was to use the Tibetan Force to capture Chittagong, but the SFF did not have the artillery and the airlift support to conduct such a type of mission.

However, they conducted smaller missions in the Chittagong Hill Tracks including the operation at the Kalurghat radio station, attacks on bridges and on the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli River, 65 km upstream from Chittagong in Rangamati district.

They managed to stop the Pakistani 97 Independent Brigade and the 2nd Commando Battalion from retreating into Burma by cutting off their rear defences.

Establishment 22 lost 56 men and 190 were wounded in the 1971 operations.

The Indian government gave cash awards to 580 soldiers for their valourous conduct, but no bravery awards as the Tibetan soldiers were only 'The Phantoms of Chittagong', fighting a war which was not theirs under the guise of the Mukti Bahini.

I am indebted to Jamphel Shunu and Tenzin Lekshay for the translation of the interview.