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Remembering the ‘Phantoms of Chittagong’

  • Published at 11:56 pm December 27th, 2019
Photo: COURTESY
Photo: COURTESY

How a group of Tibetan commandos contributed to Bangladesh’s independence

After the 1962 Sino-Indian border skirmishes, the US intelligence agency CIA abandoned the Tibetan rebels. The rebels were trained by CIA at a secret Mustang base in Nepal that housed as many as 2,032 Tibetans for guerrilla warfare in Tibet.

Later, a senior Indian military officer, Sujan Singh Uban, commanded the Tibetan secret regiment, known as the Special Frontier Forces (SSF), based near Dehra Dun at the Himalayan foothills.

General Uban was also assigned to recruit and train the Bangladesh Liberation Force (BLF), dubbed as Mujib Bahini, which gave him a wider engagement in the Bangladesh battle.

Uban seized the opportunity and convinced the Indian spy agency RAW’s high command in New Delhi to deploy his Tibetan rebels to the eastern war theatre in occupied Bangladesh. After initial hiccups, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi agreed to sanction the deployment of the Tibetans guerrillas.

Indira seems not at ease with the endorsement. She wired a private message to the Tibetan commandos: “We cannot compel you to fight a war for us, but the fact is that General AAK Niazi (occupation army commander in Dhaka) is treating the people of Bangladesh very badly. India has to do something about it.

“In a way, it is like the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans in Tibet, we are facing a similar situation. It would be appreciated if you could help us fight the war for liberating the people of Bangladesh.”

Almost 49 years ago on a cold scary night of November 14 in Chittagong, a sentry guarding the post of Pakistan Special Service near his camp believed he saw a “ghost.”

The soldier did not hesitate to fire up. And the shadowy figures melted away in the darkness covered by dense forests of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The days were uncertain, and the nights were too risky.

The Pakistani soldier did not know that he had just killed one of the toughest CIA trained Tibetan guerrilla leaders -- Dhondup Gyatotsang, a Dapon (Brigadier in Tibetan).

In the third week of October 1971, the well-guarded covert mission Operation Eagle against the occupation Pakistan army was launched.

More than 3,000 (the exact number is disputed) Tibetan commandos from Special Frontier Forces were dropped at an obscure border village Demagiri in Mizoram, located across the Karnaphuli river, where the place was crowded with war refugees from Bangladesh.

In the second week of November 1971, the Tibetan guerrillas led by Dapon Dhondup Gyatotsang crossed the river in country boats and penetrated deep inside the frontier to launch a decisive guerrilla campaign.

The mission to the Phantoms was loud and clear: Blow up the Kaptai dam, damage the Pakistani military positions, and kill as many enemy troops as possible, destroy the bridges, military infrastructures, and restrain the Pakistani military movement.

The guerrillas were armed with Bulgarian AK-47s and traditional Tibetan knives or “Kukri,” and made radio contact with their Sikh commander somewhere across the border. The turbaned officer growled an order to carry on the mission they were assigned.

As the order came, the Tibetan commandos once again spread in the darkness and more aggressively swept the valleys of the hill-forest, remaining in shadows, obviously causing panic among the ranks of Khan-Shena (code name for Pakistan troops).

At the right moment, they struck decisively with lightning speed, raiding the fortified Pakistani military garrisons and mercilessly eliminating them. One after another, the enemy’s military position collapsed in the hills, earning the title “Phantoms of Chittagong.”

The Tibetans successfully restrained them in their respective positions and blocked a potential escape route into Myanmar for the Pakistani 97th Independent Brigade and second commando battalion of SSG strategically positioned in the Chittagong region.

Weeks before the India-Pakistan war broke out on December 3, 1971, the guerrillas virtually liberated large swatches of CHT with pre-emptive strikes before the Indian army barged into Chittagong.

On December 16, the day of the surrender of the Pakistan army at Dhaka, the Tibetan commandos were only 40km away from Chittagong and thus did end Operation Eagle.

The Phantom warriors lost 49 of their comrades (SSF claims death toll at 56), including their commander Dhondup Gyatotsang, and had 190 foot soldiers injured.

Unfortunately, their sacrifice was never officially recognized -- neither by India nor by Bangladesh.

Well, a few narratives are available on the military exploits of the unsung heroes of the exiled Tibetans, who fought a proxy war that was not theirs but participated covertly during the brutal birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

Operation Eagle was the most secret mission and officially the deployment does not exist in Indian military war history. Therefore, the Phantoms could not be decorated.

However, 580 brave heart Tibetan commandos were awarded cash prizes by the Indian authorities for their valorous conduct. 

Nothing more, nothing less! 

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, Ashoka Fellow (USA) and recipient of the Hellman-Hammett Award.