LHASA to KAILASH RANGE, A SAGA of BRAVERY By Col Lalit Chamola . This is a fictional story based on many published facts, books, writings, and conversations. References have been taken from newspaper articles, magazines, and books. LHASA to KAILASH RANGE, A SAGA of BRAVERY AND INTRIGUE.
LHASA to KAILASH RANGE, A SAGA of BRAVERY
In September 2020 the entire country was on tenterhooks due to two unprecedented events. The coronavirus which had originated in Wuhan town of China had reached its peak thus almost crippling the health care system and economy of India and the second event was the heightened tension caused on the border ( Line of Actual Control LAC) in Ladakh region of India. China was the reason for both. By middle of September the media and the public were Jubiliant as the news came that the Indian Army had turned the tables on the Chinese Army by occupying the Kailash Range on Pangong Tso Lake , thus giving the Indians a great military advantage. The forces being credited for doing so were the commandos from the special Frontier Force(S.F.F.). Siddhant a young boy studying for his National Defence Academy examination suddenly became interested in the news and taking the newspaper to his father a retired army officer said, “Papa, what is this special force which has unhinged the Chinese?” Brigadier Sengupta looked through his reading glasses, put the book “The Undoing Project” on the table and made his son sit down. He said, “Son, it is a very long and complicated story of bravery , utmost human endurance and keeping the love for the country alive.”
Siddhant said , “Papa, when I was a kid, I remember you also being part of this force called SFF, please tell me about it as, I also aspire to be a commando of the Indian Army one day”. Sengupta said,” Son, it is better that you listen to the entire saga from the horse’s mouth i.e. people who made this force so formidable. But for that you finish your NDA exam in November and then we will go to the actual horses of the force. Though a bit disappointed Siddhant left and started waiting for the day when he would meet the people of S.F.F. as his father had promised. In December 2020, Sengupta told his son, “Siddhant ,you and me are going to Vikas Nagar tomorrow to meet someone very special.”
“Tashi Delek” ( greetings and good luck) were the lovely and energetic words spoken by Tashi Thondup, an octagranian who greeted the duo. Tashi was old but still very energetic, enthusiastic and ramrod straight. There was so much happiness and good feelings in the atmosphere that young Siddhant smelled magic and so much warmth ,he anticipated that the day is going to be of great learning and adventure for him.
Sengupta looking towards Siddhant said, ” Here are three generations of a family which have done great service to the Tibetan cause, Buddhism and India. Siddhant wanted to know everything and hence turned towards the oldest of them and with folded hands requested him, ” Sir ,please tell me all about the Special Force and its courageous deeds.” Tashi Thondup said,”l was born in a peasant family of Khampas in 1935. I saw lot of happiness and freedom as a child till 1950 when the Chinese army invaded us and took control.”
Tibet was a free country and it had a theological society with the Dalai Lama as a religious and political head. It is said that the horses from the North Tibet, men from Central and North East Tibet( Khampas and Andows) and food from South only can complete Tibet . “In 1956 I was recruited and sent to Mustang Base in Nepal as part of the Chushi Gandruse(Tibetan Resistance Force,T.R.F.) where we were trained by CIA and launched into Tibet to conduct guerrilla war against the Chinese”. Siddhant noticed that the old man’s eyes were moist as if he was remembering his old days.
“In early 1959 I was made part of his holiness the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards. In March 1959 the only talk in Tibet was that the Chinese were planning to kill the Dalai Lama and hence our leader Gompa Tashi advised his holiness to escape. The Chinese were all over and hence a plan was made by which thousands of people from villages came to Lhasa and surrounded the Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama was staying.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was made to dress up like a soldier and on 17th March 1959 we escorted him on a long and treacherous journey to India. We walked during night time only to avoid any detection. The party comprised of the mother, sister, and brother of His Holiness. The T.R.F. had made arrangements for the security and hideouts. Finally on 31st March 1959 covering a distance of 230 km we reached the Indian Army’s post at Chutangmo in Tawang.” He went on to explain as to how happy and relieved they were to have brought His Holiness Dalai Lama to India where he was welcomed and given asylum.
From 1959 till 1962 he was serving as bodyguard of Dalai Lama when on 14th November, 1962 on the birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru the Special Frontier Force(S.F.F.) was formed under the leadership of an ex army officer Brig S.S.Uban. Tashi Thondup became part of this secret force comprising of nearly 10000 Tibetan refugees. The weapons were supplied by the American agency C.I.A. and the training started in Chakrata area of Garhwal hills. A few of them were selected for the leadership roles and Tashi was one of them. It was extremely difficult to bring in discipline and military order in the Tibetan youths but it had to be done. Thondup said, “I distinctly remember my first Airdrop training. I was part of a small team who was taken to Charbatia in Orissa where the project “Oak Tree 1” was conducted under the mercurial Biju Patnaik who offered his Kalinga Airlines for the parachute training.
Tashi further went on to narrate that one day in 1963 Brig Uban called him and said,” Tashi you along with eighty Pinjas will take part in an exercise” Garud” with Indian Army. They have raised doubts about our capabilities and fitness. I want you to prove the mettle. It is a question of our existence.”Tashi Thondup led a team of dedicated Pinjas all trained as paratroopers to take part in the mountain training exercise codenamed “Garud”. In the exercise they competed with Indian Army’s Infantry battalions in mountain and high altitude areas. The results established the physical fitness and Gorilla capabilities of the Special Frontier Force. There after the army accepted them and the decision was taken to keep them as a secret force with approximately 5,000 soldiers.Tashi Thondup became emotional while telling about his exploits in Bangladesh.
” I was OF– 4 level company leader under our Dhapon(OF-7) Dhandup and I was selected to lead the secret mission to destroy the Kaptai Dam on Karnfuli river. This dam was very important as it supplied electricity to the Chittagong area where Pakistan’s Crack 2 SSG commando Unit and 97 Infantry Brigade were located. We successfully destroyed the dam and all hell broke loose for the Pakistani Army. The Indian Army came after a week and then we withdrew for blocking the escape routes for Pakistani army from Chittagong to Burma (Myanmar)”.
Siddhant was listening with rapt attention. He felt as if he had been transported to the area where Tashi had performed such courageous task. Tashi retired from the Special Force in 1980 and had settled down in Vikas Nagar. His son Tsangpo following the tradition of the Khampas had joined the special Frontier Force and was ready to show what the tough, brave and dynamic Tibetans are made of. It was now his turn to take forward what his father had done for the Tibetan cause.Tsangpo who had been a colleague of Brig Sengupta now called for tea and snacks. The customary Tibetan butter tea and momos were irresistible. Though extremely tasty and mouth watering but the young lad Siddhant was more keen to listen to the stories from Tsangpo. He said,” I used to idolise my father and hence to be a commando like him, I joined the Special Force in 1979.”
He was posted in Leh when one fine day the orders were received in June 1983 that they had to go for an extremely difficult and arduous operation under Maj Pushkar. He was lucky to be part of that patrolling party. He told that they kept working for days with loads till they reached Indira Col on Saltaro Ridge on Siachen Glacier and they were the first to construct a hut on the glacier.”
lt is said that India extends from Indira Col(on Saltoro Ridge, Siachen Gacier) to Indira point Car Nicobar Island in Andaman Nicobar. The area is completely covered with snow and with hardly any navigation aids and proper clothing, it must have been a herculean task for the soldiers to go up to an area more than 6000 metres in height on an uncharted territory. it was beyond the imagination of Siddhant because he had never seen a glacier and all that he knew about such area was through the movies or programs on Discovery Channel. Siddhant requested Tsang Po to tell him more about the challenging task that he had done as part of Special Force. Siddhant asked, “What is the most difficult task that he had undertaken?” l can’t pinpoint any one specific task but the one closest to my heart is the mountaineering operation in the Batalik area of Kargil during the Kargil war in June 1999.”
Kargil war was fresh in the mind of Siddhant and he said, ” Please tell me as this is the first time I am meeting someone who actually took part in that war.” Tsang Po said,”I am a mountaineer who has climbed Mount Everest and hence I was chosen for this task. We were a small team of seven climbers who had to climb a steep mountain at approximately 75 degree to 80 degree straight face. Pakistan was firing continuously and without climbing and putting ropes from top the soldiers would not have climbed up. At night we started our operation and by 2 a.m. had tied the ropes to enable the soldiers to climb up . The lnfantry Unit climbed up and then eliminated the Pakistani posts.”
Siddhant was awestruck, he could not imagine that he was talking to a super human who had risked his life so many times for the sake of this country.
Tashi Thondup said to Brig Sengupta ,”Sir ,let us move into the dining area for lunch now.” The delicious thupka, (noodle soup) traditional Tibetan dish was served. It was so delicious that Siddhant forgot the taste of thupka he had in the five star restaurant. He was still hungry for more stories and at the dining table itself addressed the youngest of them, Tango Norbu,”Norbu I believe you have just returned from Pangong Tso in Ladakh. I am hearing a lot many stories of the bravery of the special Force. I believe you are part of this force. Please tell me how did you stump the Chinese army?”Norbu stated that he was a student in 2008 when the news started coming of the protests by Tibetan in Lhasa, India and many other parts of the world. Some monks even self immolated themselves in Lhasa and during the month of March Many atrocities were committed by the Chinese on the Tibetans. The people said that more than 400 people were killed and thousands were arrested. He was so filled with anger that to take revenge on the Chinese he joined the Special Force.
In 2020 his unit was deployed in the Siachen Glacier when the news started coming about the Chinese aggression in the area of Eastern Ladakh in Galwan and Pangong Tso Lake area. In June the violent clashes took place between the Chinese and the Indian Army. “ln July we were surprised when we got the orders to move down from the glacier because we had completed only half the tenure.”The unit came down from the glacier and within days were moved directly by air from Thoise to Chishule. There was lot of activity on the entire front and they were now told to operate in small teams.”l was assigned the task to carry out the recce of the Helmet Top area on Kailash Range , alongside other teams which were carrying out recce of other areas like Gurung Hill, Magar Hill and Rezang La and Rinchin La.”He in detail explained as to how they used to operate only at night and in a few days time had identified various routes to go to the top areas to be occupied and other essential military tasks. By middle of August they had built up in sufficient numbers at the base and were ready for any action.
“On 29th August we got the orders to occupy the heights. I led my team in full battle load and as we had come from Siachen, hence were supremely fit and fully acclimatised. Within few hours we were on top of the helmet and other heights and before the sunrise we were only dug down and ready for any action. In the morning the Chinese who were coming up slowly were challenged by us and they they were taken completely by surprise and retreated.”There was so much enthusiasm and pride in his voice that he got up from his seat and said,
“My eyes were filled with tears when from the Helmet Top through the binoculars , I saw my homeland, Tibet. The road and the ruins of the fort built by Gen Zorawar was clearly visible. I wanted to be a bird and fly into the land of my forefathers. I was so happy to see my lovely beautiful Tibet which my grandfather had to abandon in 1959.”
Siddhant was so overtaken by that young man’s nostalgia that he got up and hugged the brave commando Norbu and shaking his hands with gratitude said,”Thank you commando Norbu for what you have done for my country and the cause of freedom. I am sure if the Jews could reclaim their motherland Israel after more than 1400 years, so will the Titans get their motherland and it will again be a free country provided the flame for freedom is kept alive by the spirit, enthusiasm and determination of people like you.” Brig Sengupta said,” Siddhant I hope you have got the answers to your query what is Special Force.””Yes, father I have got all the answers now and I have not only admiration but so much respect for these people.” “Tashi Delek” were the greetings exchanged before they left the abode of great warriors of Special Frontier Force.
Jay Hind,Jay Bharat
Col Lalit chamola ,Sena medal (Veteran)