Saturday night’s operation on the south bank of Pangong Tso has brought into limelight the possible role of ‘Establishment 22’, a secret force also known as the Special Frontier Force (SFF) under the administrative control of the Cabinet secretariat and the PMO.
Senior Army officials acknowledged the presence of an SFF unit in eastern Ladakh but its interaction with the Army is minimal.
Raised towards the end of the 1962 war, SFF’s commandos are drawn from Tibetan refugees settled in India. They were initially trained by the Intelligence Bureau, RAW and CIA for covert operations behind enemy lines. In the first few decades after it was raised, the force was used to keep an eye on Chinese plans to deploy nuclear warheads.
The SFF gained its nickname ‘Establishment 22’ after its founder chief Sujan Singh Uban, who commanded the 22nd Mountain Regiment in the British Indian Army during World War II in Europe. Headquartered in Chakrata (Uttarakhand), it comprises at least five battalions or about 5,000 commandos who are elite paratroopers trained in mountain warfare.
No serving or retired Army officer would acknowledge the role of SFF in Saturday night’s operation but they all acknowledge the presence of SFF battalions in Ladakh and other places along the frontier. Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retired), former GOC of 15 Corps, said, “I have had ‘Vikas’ units alongside me while serving in Ladakh. Seen them play volleyball in vests at 16,000 feet. Their natural affinity for the ground too is very high, giving them a major advantage in operations.”
Others were less forthcoming and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We know about them… But their existence has been off the books. The few of us who get to serve with them are under oath,” a retired lieutenant general said.
Lt Gen D S Hooda (retired), who headed the all-important Northern Command during the surgical strikes across the LoC, told TOI that it was time for India to give a strong message economically, diplomatically and, if required, militarily, given the stubborn position adopted by China. “The ball is now in China’s court,” he said, adding that the Indian military was in a very strong position to take on any challenge.