As India and China jostle for position in eastern Ladakh, reports are swirling of the possible role played by the mysterious 'Special Frontier Force' (SFF) in occupying strategic heights on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and on the intervening night of 29 and 30 August in thwarting an attempt by Beijing to to "unilaterally" change the status quo on the southern bank of Pangong Tso lake.
But what do we know about this outfit, its history and its goals?
As per The Times of India, the outfit is headquartered in Chakrata (Uttarakhand) and is made up of at least five battalions or 5,000 elite paratroopers trained in mountain warfare. It was initially trained by the Intelligence Bureau, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Research and Analysis Wing.
It is important to note that the SFF is not part of the Indian Army. Rather, it falls under the Directorate General of Security (DGS), a covert organisation operating under the Cabinet Secretariat (which answers directly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi), as per India Today. The DGS is itself part of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW)
As per a report in Indian Express, the SFF, formed immediately after the 1962 war with China, earlier recruited Tibetans but now comprises a mix of Tibetans and Gorkhas. Initially called Establishment 22, it was named by Major General Sujan Singh Uban, an artillery officer who'd previously named commanded 22 Mountain Regiment, as per the report.
Uban commanded this regiment in the British Indian Army during World War II, as per The Times of India.
As per The New Indian Express, the SFF's first cadres were drawn from the Khampas (people of Kham region in Tibet, which is under Chinese occupation), who were the original bodyguards of the Dalai Lama. Its primary function was to conduct covert ops behind enemy lines in case of another war with China, as per the report.
The outfit has been used in select operations of a highly sensitive nature: 'Operation Eagle' (Chittagong Hills in the 1971 Indo-Pak war), 'Operation Bluestar' (Golden Temple in 1984) 'Operation Meghdoot' (Siachen Glacier in 1984) and 'Operation Vijay' (Kargil, 1999) as per the newspaper.
The units that comprise the SFF are known as Vikas battalions. Former Chief of Army Staff General Dalbir Singh held the office of Inspector General of the force at one point while in his service, as per the Indian Express report.
As per The Times of India, while no active or retired Indian Army officer acknowledged the role of the SFF in the operations that occurred over the weekend, they did acknowledge its presence in Ladakh and other places along the frontier.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), former GOC of 15 Corps, told the newspaper "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."
A retired lieutenant-general, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the newspaper, "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."