By Kaydor Aukatsang
I was a student at the Special Frontier Force (SFF) School, then located in the cantonment town of Chakrata, from 1972-to mid-1975. My stay was brief, but those fleeting thirty months yielded a rich bounty of memories to sustain a lifetime. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share a bit of my story and our shared history as the school recently commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding.
The SFF School, which was established in 1970, was one of a kind. It was a special school for the children of Tibetan families serving in the SFF aka Establishment 22, a paramilitary special force set up in 1962 by the government of India. This legendary unit, which was 10,000 Tibetans strong at its peak in the seventies, is one of the unsung heroes of the Tibetan freedom struggle. Tibetans, men and women, joined because they hoped this organization would provide them the training and arms to fight against the Chinese government, which occupied Tibet in 1959. The unit was so highly regarded during its heydays that Indian Prime Ministers including Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Moraji Desai and many other VVIPs visited the Unit and thanked the Tibetans for their valor and service. Tibetan soldiers of SFF played a significant role in the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971 and have since contributed to protecting India’s border with Pakistan and China.
My earliest memories are of joining the school as a day scholar and being walked to school every day from my home above One Gate. We lived in military housing provided to my late Pala who was one of the founding officers and the First Dapon of SFF. I was a rambunctious little boy, always getting into trouble, and the primary source of many anxious moments for my poor Amala. One of my daily routine was to stop at the langar of 36 Company on the walk back from school and pester the cook for a piece of the oil-rich and humongous poori which I would share with my little sister at home.
Random bouts of seizures made for a disruptive and disconcerting four years from ages four to seven years. I tried everything from consulting traditional healers, taking Tibetan medicine and finally western medicine, but the affliction lasted till my seventh birthday. This medical condition interfered with my education and my parents were uncomfortable sending me to a boarding school. However, after my Amala and younger siblings relocated to Herbertpur, my parents had no choice but to admit me into SFF as a residential student for the final ten to twelve months of my time at the SFF School. Given my illness and the brief hostel period, I was allowed to stay with Tao Geshe la, the resident spiritual teacher, rather than in the dorm with other students.
I was assigned small chores by Geshe la such as ringing the daily morning wake-up bell and preparing the room for the weekly evening Buddhism story telling session where Geshe la would enthrall students sharing episodes from the Epic of King Gesar and other stories based on Buddha’s life and Tibetan Buddhist scripture. Geshe la was a beloved and widely respected figure in the school. Even today, many fondly remember the story telling sessions where students crammed together would listen with rapt attention to every word. The early inhabitants of the school buildings were British officers and their families as Chakrata was originally a cantonment of the British Indian Army with the British having arrived there as early as 1869. I remember stories of certain areas being haunted and of students having seen Caucasian women dressed in white stalking the area after dark. Student toilets back then were open pits covered by a plank of wood. Going to toilet at night was only for the brave hearted as it involved walking a fair distance in total darkness and coming to grips with your fear of running into one of the white-clad ones.
One of the positive outcomes from the brave and dedicated service of the early Tibetans serving in SFF was the generous benefit and other compensation provided by the military leadership. In the early eighties, my late Pala was asked to oversee a major program of purchasing private land and building retirement homes for ex-soldiers in the Lakhanwala and Khera Camp areas of Dehra Dun. This included building an old age home for seniors in Lakhanwala, a petrol pump in Herbertpur to be run by former SFF Tibetan soldiers wounded in the 1971 Bangladesh War, and purchase of a land adjacent to the petrol pump where the current SFF CST School is located. The land selected for building the relocated school in the early eighties used to be a dense tropical fruit tree forest where everything from mangoes, guava and litchi was grown by the private landowner. We used to play in this forest as children as my parents built a house on the edge of the school in the heart of Herbertpur. My Pala checked in regularly with the construction of the new school and approved all major project decisions.
SFF School is very different today. The school is now academically under the Central Tibetan School Administration and SFF’s role is limited to supporting the residential students. The dwindling number of Tibetan students at the school reflects the profound changes within the larger Tibetan refugee community in South Asia. The primary driver of this change is the migration of large number of Tibetans to the West. The outbound migration combined with declining birth rates has led to sharp decline in school and monastic enrollment and overall workforce in the Tibetan exile community. Settlements are being hollowed out and the community is becoming more geographically scattered. These changes present both challenges as well as opportunities for the Tibetan leadership. How can SFF School cope and continue to excel as an educational institution that now serves both Tibetans as well as the local Indian population? How can Tibetan education in exile up its quality through focusing on a smaller number of schools? Regardless of where SFF CST School is headed, no one can take away the school’s rich and special history, and the large body of former students and teachers many of whom have gone on to serve in leadership positions in the Tibetan community.
(The above piece will appear in a souvenir magazine to commemorate SFF CST Herbertpur School’s Golden Jubilee which was recently celebrated from February 7-9, 2020.)