The myth of India’s Tibet card is finally shattered with the rare recognition of a secretive Indian military unit with Tibetan soldiers called Special Frontier Force (SFF). The public display of solidarity during the Tibetan soldier’s funeral ceremony, killed on the front lines of deadly clashes with China on 29 August, has virtually ‘revealed’ the secretive force raised by India through a lot of visibility to the event. Nyima Tenzin, a Tibetan soldier from the SSF was given a funeral with full military honours, wrapped in the Tibetan flag and the Tricolour, in Ladakh.
The ceremony was telecast across India and conveyed a solemn acknowledgment of the role ethnic Tibetans, descendants of those who sought refuge in India after China invaded and occupied Tibet in 1950, have played in India’s elite SFF border units.
The event was more significant was the suggestion that India questioned China’s sovereignty over Tibet, a red line for China. There was no response from the government if the publicity for the funeral was a policy shift or a signal to China that their current border standoffs at eastern Ladakh could be extended across the Himalayas, a strategic ace up the sleeve some analysts refer to as India’s Tibet card.
According to Jayadeva Ranade, a retired official of the external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), “the recognition is a clear message to China that your countrymen are fighting alongside us.”
“I don’t remember this force being acknowledged like this earlier,” added Ranade, who heads the Centre of China Analysis and Strategy, a research group in New Delhi.
India has been reticent about the nation’s secretive SFF forces and their ethnic make-up. But the SFF is part of the RAW, India’s external intelligence agency. But when it is deployed with the army, it is under the military’s operational control. However, the army prefers to keep the relationship under wraps. Akin to the US Special Forces, every member is trained as a para-commando and operates undercover in conjunction with the Indian military. In fact, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped India train Tibetan refugees to become part of a special force, the forerunner to today’s SFF, after the 1962 war.
The SFF and its Tibetan fighters have a valiant fighting record for India. The SFF played a crucial role during the Bangladesh Liberation Movement that helped defeat Pakistan in 1971 and create Bangladesh. SFF fighters also contributed to the 1999 war that dislodged Pakistani forces who had occupied heights in western Ladakh’s Kargil.
Even though the Indian government hasn’t formally acknowledged the Tibetan forces, the open support for the unit has aroused emotional appeal among the Tibetan-in-exile community who aspire to see Tibet as an independent nation.
According to Gonpo Dhundup, President of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a body that has more 30,000 members and is fighting for the region’s freedom acknowledged “I strongly feel that the younger generation will join the SFF in larger numbers as the event has sent out a message that our contribution will be recognised.”
Over 100,000 Tibetans live freely in different parts of India. Tibetans in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, however, face a high degree of state control over their lives and livelihoods, increasingly akin to the situation faced by ethnic Uighurs held in vocational camps in China’s western Xinjiang province. Over the decades, Indian leaders have avoided being seen as supporting or aligning with the cause of Tibet, despite hosting the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for over 60 years.
China considers the Dalai Lama, a darling of the West and Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his non-violent resistance to China’s annexation of Tibet, as an enemy of the state. But some wonder if Tibet’s peaceful resistance could begin to take a harder tack, particularly as Western powers including the US articulate new support for Tibet’s cause in the context of a wider new Cold War against China.
Analysts suggest that peaceful struggle could shift after the next Dalai Lama is selected, particularly as China is expected to attempt to prop up a successor chosen by it. The Dalai Lama, who has been based for decades in Dharamsala, has said any candidate handpicked by Beijing would be illegitimate. Geographically and strategically, India could be key in funnelling support to any new Tibetan resistance.
Tibetan disaffection has grown coincident with Chinese repression and forced Sinicization of Tibetan-Buddhism culture, according to Lobsang Sangay, President of Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), who spoke recently during a webinar held on September 28. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said the stability of China depends on the stability of Tibet. As recent as 2008, China’s Central Military Commission ranked Tibet as its most critical sovereign challenge, ahead of even Xinjiang and the self-governing island Taiwan, said Sangay.
It’s not clear if or how India may opt to play its Tibet card, but taboos on mentioning Tibet are breaking down. Analysts suggest New Delhi could start to lend its voice to calls for Tibetan autonomy and democracy, echoing Western critics, after remaining reticent for years to avoid irking Beijing. Indeed, India is now signalling to China for the first time in years that playing its long-held Tibet card is at least a strategic possibility. Perhaps, the time has come for a major foreign policy change in India’s position on Tibet.