New Delhi: With the government according a 21-gun salute to the Tibetan soldier from the Special Frontier Force (SFF) who lost his life in the ongoing India-China border face-off, there’s sudden interest in the SFF and its genesis.
Rahul Bedi’s report in The Wire analysing China’s ire over the use of Tibetans in border operations noted how the SFF was raised in November 1962 right after India’s poor show in the military confrontation with China that year. It highlighted the fact that the SFF “was originally under the purview of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), whose chief B.N. Mullik was one of its progenitors.”
The report also underlined how, in the early years of its existence, the chief task assigned to the SFF was “deployment against the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) and gathering intelligence on China from either inside Tibet – where its personnel had a wide network of contacts and associates – or via cross-border reconnaissance missions or raids or both.” Within a month of the Chinese ceasefire, the force was functional.
Though written in 1971, Mullik’s book My Years With Nehru: The Chinese Betrayal, a detailed account of the sequence of events in the corridors of power on the response to the Chinese aggression in 1962 and the immediate aftermath, said nothing about the creation of the SFF for obvious reasons.
But the book contains a fascinating account of an October 1962 blueprint for the creation of a similar force involving the Assamese people with its underground headquarters in my home town, Golaghat in upper Assam – to fight the Chinese if they tried to occupy the state.
Mullik developed the idea after he got to know on the morning of October 20 that the Indian Army was “seriously thinking of abandoning Assam altogether and withdrawing all troops from both north and south Assam.”
On hearing that the Army, in spite of divided opinion over the matter, was to put the proposal up to the Union cabinet later that day, Mullik relates how he rushed to Lal Bahadur Shastri, then home minister in Nehru’s government, to resist the proposal. He told Shastri:
“Once we left Assam, North Bengal also could not be defended and the only defensive position would be east of Kathiar (Bihar). The composition of the population of Assam State plus Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, etc. was such that once the Chinese got into that area it would be impossible for us to get back Assam again, particularly because East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) would be blocking all lines of communication. Moreover, the territory would be parcelled out by the two new friends, China and Pakistan.”
“I said that the Assamese had suffered a lot and they did not deserve to be deserted in a moment of danger; and if this was allowed to happen, with what face would we ask for their loyalty or claim Assam as a part of India?” he added.
According to Mullik, Shastri understood his point but was non-committal on whether the government would be able to “interfere if Army Headquarters pressed for withdrawal of troops from Assam for military reasons, particularly in the circumstances in which the army was placed at that time.”
Mullik wrote, “I came back to my room and did some deep thinking. I made up my mind to quit the Intelligence Bureau and go to Assam to build up a resistance movement against the Chinese. I called my joint directors and told them the plan that I had worked out in my mind.”
According to the plan, seven or eight battalions of armed police would be moved immediately to Jorhat town to hold the area south of the Gauhati-Dibrugarh railway line and also build up people’s resistance in those areas.
He felt it would be difficult for the Chinese to control the whole of that area. “The Assamese people, whom I knew very well and who had a great history of resistance against foreign invaders, would, I was sure, respond readily and continue the resistance till India was in a position to win back this territory again.”
As per the plan, the focus would be to hold on to Silchar airport in Assam’s Barak Valley. The thought behind it was that if the Chinese came to the south bank of the Brahmaputra, the Jorhat and the Dibrugarh airfields would be impossible to access. Then joint director Balbir Singh and Mullik asked Air Marshal Aspy Engineer to lift the battalions to Jorhat “at once”. They were to be collected from different states and the airlifting of the troops, according to him, began from the Dum Dum airport in West Bengal “from the early morning of November 21”.
On November 21, at a lunch meeting, Mullik informed Nehru about the plan and offered to resign from his job to carry out the task. He would fly to Assam the next morning. Nehru told Mullik to carry on with the resistance movement and postpone his decision to resign from the post, also asking, whether he would be able to come to Delhi often. “I said yes, as long as the Silchar airfield could be used and the Air Force could fly me…”
It was in that meeting that Nehru asked Mullik to take along Bijoy Patnaik, who too had met Nehru a day before with a similar plan. Bijoy Patnaik was Bijoyananda Patnaik, or former Odisha chief minister and ace pilot Biju Patnaik, a nationalist at heart who had run many sorties on his Dakota DC-3 from Delhi’s Safdarjung airfield to keep away raiders from Srinagar airport in 1947. Patnaik had by then also rescued the Indonesian prime minister, Sultan Sjahrir, from Dutch hands at Nehru’s behest.
Interestingly, Nehru asked Mullik if he would take the then Army commander in that region, B.M. Kaul, into his group. Mullik said he “demurred” because Kaul was already “demoralised” and would not be an “asset in a guerrilla force”.
“Moreover, if he had faith in that type of resistance, he would have organised it in North Assam instead of ordering evacuation from it.”
In the cabinet meeting that evening, the Army, though, didn’t press for withdrawal of troops from Assam. Nehru, however, told Mullik to carry on with his plans and take Patnaik along.
By then Mullik had made arrangements for wireless communications between Guwahati, Golaghat and Delhi. “My aim then was to make Golaghat my headquarters.”
Mullik related that he met Patnaik that evening at his house on Delhi’s Hailey Road. By then Nehru had told him to ready himself to be a part of the plan. “He (Patnaik) said that he couldn’t cool his heels in Orissa when one part of India was about to go under the Chinese and he wanted to go to Assam and work with the people to organise them against the invaders.”
On the night of November 21, Mullik was informed by his staff in Assam that Nehru’s speech – broadcast on All India Radio to the people of that region that evening “to keep steady in the face of this national disaster had, instead of rousing their spirit, further dampened it because the people apprehended that this broadcast was only meant to prepare them for worse disasters to come.”
That speech of Nehru is still referred to in Assam, Arunachal and rest of the Northeast to highlight New Delhi’s apathy towards the people of its borderland.
Interestingly, a day after that speech, both Indira Gandhi and Shastri were in Assam as per pre-decided plans. Mullik was jittery about the prime minister’s daughter being in Tezpur, so close to enemy territory; Shastri was in Lakhimpur and addressed a public meeting close to Lilabari airport.
The night before Mullik was to travel to Assam to execute his plan was crucial. Early morning, a little before 3 am, Mullik was awakened by the monitor of the IB’s Delhi station placed near his bed. He was informed that earlier that night Peking Radio had announced a ceasefire “commencing from the midnight of the following night.”
He soon picked up Patnaik and reached the airport where Shastri was already present, ready to take off to Assam. In the light of the new development, they decided to rush to the prime minister’s house.
Nehru, Mullik related, was still sleeping. “We managed to wake him up and told him about the announcement (on Peking Radio).”
“The prime minister’s immediate reaction was as follows: ‘I knew this. This had to happen. This was bound to happen. How could the Chinese come any further? They had already come too far. Our army was unnecessarily alarmed. The Chinese, now that they are at the end of their supply routes, want to get a diplomatic victory over us. They may try to have their way but we will not give in to their demands.”
The conversation went on for half an hour where Nehru also spoke about the Chinese image going down in the Afro-Asian world, leading it to also “repair the damage by this show of magnanimity”.
He asked them to go to Assam that day as planned, which they did.
By 11 am, Mullik was in Guwahati. “Assam was in turmoil. The airport, the roads, the railway station were congested beyond all limits and still more people were coming in.” Though the news of the ceasefire was a relief, the condition that peace was dependent on “Indians behaving themselves” was worrying for the people.
In that book’s chapter, ‘Evacuation of Tezpur’, Mullik pointed out a significant sliver of what Nehru thought in regard to India-China policy.
“As Pandit Nehru had earlier explained to us, in a conflict between India and China, the United States could help to prosecute the war. But it could not prevent the war from breaking out. On the other hand, Russia could do it. If India took any such action which showed that she was inclining towards the United States, Russia then might come closer to China instead of drifting away, which she had been doing since 1960. It would have been against India’s security interests if that process was halted or reversed.”
In another century, when Indian and Chinese troops are watching each other eye to eye, when the Narendra Modi government is getting closer to the US, and with the first meetings between Indian and Chinese foreign ministers and defence ministers happening in Moscow, Nehru’s words seem to ring true.