How Did The Integration Of Sikkim With India Take Place?
Book review of ‘Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom’ by Andrew Duff.
Sikkim is a small state sandwiched between India and China (Tibet). Before its annexation, Sikkim was a monarchy ruled by the Namgyal family. The last Chogyal (King) of Sikkim was Palden Thondup Namgyal, the tenth Chogyal of Sikkim.
Unlike its neighbors Bhutan and Nepal, Sikkim has held high strategic importance during the British era, because of the land trading route that laid alongside Sikkim- the Chumbi Valley. The Himalayan Kingdom came to the notice of the British Empire while it was looking for allies around the fringes of Nepal during the 1814-16 Anglo-Gurkha War. The Sikkimese who had been victimized by the Gorkhas in the past readily assisted the British in the hope of regaining their lost territory from the Gorkhas, only to lose it again to the British, later.
In 1835, the British had secured a permanent presence in the region by persuading the Chogyal of the time, to sign over a small ridge of Sikkimese land, Darjeeling nominally as a sanatorium or hill station.
‘Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom’ by Andrew Duff highlights the deputation of a British official in the Royal Durbar of Sikkim, after the signing of the Anglo-Chinese Convention, as the first seed sown that will eventually lead to the integration of Sikkim with the Indian mainland in mid 1970s.
Even after India got independence, the protectorate status of Sikkim was maintained and the British Officer in the Royal Durbar of Sikkim only got replaced by the Indian Political officer.
Although the Sikkimese people took great pride in
their Chogyal and considered him as an ultimate symbol of their unique
identity, there were signs of discontent against the existing political set up
of the state especially from the Nepali community in Sikkim.
In 1940s, huge protests were organized across the state- demanding for the abolition of antiquated land laws and also demanding for a responsible government that was more representative of the actual ethnic make-up of the state (Nepalese population constituted 75 percent of the total population of Sikkim while the Chogyal belonged to the minority Bhutia- Lepcha community)
Although the Chogyal was astute
enough to promise the consideration of reforms in the state, as the protesters
were outnumbering the royal guards by a huge number, it had ignited the flame.
Following the Chogyal’s promise of considering reforms in the land laws of the state, the Sikkim State Congress (SSC) party emerged which not only represented the true ethnic makeup of Sikkim but that will also play a huge role in shaping the future of Sikkim.
The book portrays Sikkim as the victim of the Indian administration and how it paid the cost of being geographically surrounded by the two Asian giants-India and China, who were constantly skeptical of the other’s expansionist intentions in Sikkim.
With the geopolitics of the region transforming in
dangerous manners- rising communism in West Bengal and Nepal, rise of Chinese
aggression in Tibet, and the rising protests by the Nepali community in Sikkim - the Indian Government was not in a mood to take chances in
The Indian government appointed an Indian Dewan (Prime Minister), in Sikkim pending a full-blown treaty between Indian and Sikkim. This appointment of a Dewan in Sikkim by the Indian Government further fanned the Chogyal’s skepticism against the intentions of the Indian Administration.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, had been unable to make a concrete decision on the fate of Sikkim as he felt that an outright annexation would put India in a negative light on the global stage and full autonomy, which was although never in question, would be detrimental to India’s defense strategy.
In the meantime the Chogyal had pulled every stop to maintain the separate identity and independent status of Sikkim. In his every foreign visit, which he conducted frequently to showcase Sikkim as much as possible, he talked of Sikkim as a separate country and always travelled under the Sikkimese flag.
The book rightly describes the Sino –India conflict of 1962 as a major turning point in the India-Sikkim relations as it further directed the attention of the Indian strategic advisers towards Sikkim and its importance in defending the border with China.
The death of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 tensed the
Chogyal, as he knew that among the Indian Administration it was only Mr. Nehru
who had his ears for the aspirations of Sikkim even if those aspirations were
not India’s aspirations as well and so it was only him under whose leadership
Sikkim could dream of an independent future of its own.
The Chogyal was not wrong in believing that the death of Mr. Nehru without the settlement of the Indo-Sikkim treaty could have grave consequences for Sikkim in the coming time.After Nehru’s death, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the Prime Minister and was replaced by Indira Gandhi upon his sudden death two years later.
Indira Gandhi’s administration brought new hope of independence to the Chogyal as he had known her during her trips to Sikkim with her father. Although the Chogyal was happy that he might have finally found an ear as attentive and considerate to Sikkim as Mr. Nehru, his happiness very shortly turned into disappointment.
The book mentions a couple of events after Indira Gandhi assumed office that played a huge role in sealing the fate of Sikkim:
· Cho La Incident: On 1 October 1967, the Chinese army infiltrated into Sikkim. Although the Indian Army completely drove out the Chinese Army by 10 October 1967, this incident proved right into the worst fears of the Indian Strategic advisers that Sikkim could turn out to be China’s gateway to North-East of India.
· Chogyal’s frequent foreign trips to Western countries with the intention to promote the unique culture of Sikkim in far off lands and hence to garner International support for the sovereignty of Sikkim in case of an eventuality didn’t go down well with the Indian administration
· Rising communism in the neighboring Nepal and the demand for a separate Gorkhaland by the Nepalese of Sikkim (which constituted 75 percent of the population) also induced India to decide the status of Sikkim concretely.
A major nail in the coffin was an article written by the Chogyal’s wife, Hope Cook- an American Socialite, in which she had indirectly questioned the territorial integrity of India.
The article bore the innocuous title, ‘The Sikkimese theory of landholding and the Darjeeling Grant’, but the contents were political dynamite. In it, she chose to question the legitimacy of the grant of Darjeeling district to the British East India Company in 1835, suggesting that Darjeeling had only ever been leased to the British by the Sikkimese, and inferring that, since all land in Sikkim belonged to the Royal family, there was a legitimate argument that Darjeeling should be returned to Sikkim. To the Indian press still with their tails up after the 1965 war, it appeared that she had questioned the legitimacy of Indian ownership of Darjeeling; that was bordering on the inflammatory, a clear challenge to the territorial integrity of India.
The Anti-Palace political parties that had sprung up in Sikkim, represented the voice of the Nepali population, which had no representation in the monarchy, and it inadvertently worked towards hastening the annexation of Sikkim to India. Though the main aim of these parties was to end monarchy and establish democratic government that was more representative of the true ethnic make-up of the state, they took the support provided by the Indian government without understanding its true intentions.
The book has especially emphasized on how heavy demonstrations were organized by these parties around Gangtok to put pressure on the Chogyal, with the help of monetary support from the Indian government. One such protest in the April of 1973 compelled the Chogyal to request the Indian government to take control of his country as his Royal guards were once again hugely outnumbered by the protesters.
The Indian government pounced at the opportunity, transferring full power in the state to the Indian Chief Executive meanwhile maintaining Chogyal as a mere constitutional monarch. To avoid the ire of the political parties, whose aim was not to merge with India but to establish democracy in Sikkim, bags full of cash were parceled out to influential people in the parties in order to win their acquiescence to the new state of affairs.
Nearing its end, Sikkim held its last election as an Indian protectorate in the April of 1974 which was conducted under the supervision of the Indian election commissioner and other senior officers from India. The main opposition party, Sikkim National Congress (SNC), swept to victory in 31 out of 32 seats more so due to the favorable delineation of constituencies decided by the Indian election commissioner.
Immediately after forming the government, the SNC leadership tabled 15 resolutions almost certainly prepared with the help and encouragement of Mr. B.S. Das (Chief Executive appointed by the Government of India) and his assistants. It stated that the assembly should resolve to draw up a constitution and to take immediate steps for Sikkim’s participation in the political and economic institutions of India.
One of the resolutions was to reduce the Chogyal to no more than a constitutional head of the Government of Sikkim. With full majority in the assembly, resolutions were quickly passed. The Indian constitutional adviser, an eminent jurist G.R. Rajagopal, was tasked with drafting the constitution of Sikkim. The recommendations were drafted with astonishing speed and sent to the Chogyal for his opinion on it.
The book has described the draft constitution less like a framework for a democratic Sikkim and more like a proposal for integration with India. It was unacceptable to all parties including the Chogyal and the SNC government. Demonstrators started to appear on the street and that was when Das called for an immediate session of the assembly.
Unable to understand the proposals tabled in the assembly (assembly members were not proficient in English), members unanimously agreed to all proposals of the constitutional advisor. As the author has mentioned, the Chogyal stepped up his futile efforts to keep the sovereignty of Sikkim by pleading with the Indian administration, but his requests fell on deaf ears.
In early 1975, the Chogyal travelled to Kathmandu to attend the coronation of Nepal’s King. He held a press conference in Nepal where he dramatically challenged the legitimacy of the 1974 constitutional amendment that made Sikkim an associate state of India.
The Kathmandu insolence made the Indian administration furious and provoked India for the final showdown with the Chogyal.On 7 April, the Indian government moved-
Two rows of men in CRP uniform stood on the ridge above. Bowling down the road from India house was a steady stream of one-ton military trucks and jeeps with lowered hoods. Soldiers in battle fatigues crammed the vehicles. The convoy stopped at the pavilion where men poured out to begin the advance. One file doubled towards the triple gateway. The other branched off to clamber down the ravine into the guards’ area from where Chhetri watched in horrified disbelief. The curtain was about to fall on over three centuries of Namgyal rule in Sikkim. Thondup sat in the palace under effective house arrest with all the phone lines dead. An emergency assembly was called on 10 April 1975 to pass two resolutions. The first was that the institution of the Chogyal is hereby abolished and Sikkim shall henceforth be a constituent unit of India, enjoying a democratic and fully responsible government. The second resolution provided for an immediate referendum on the first. 57 polling stations had been set up in record quick time for the hastily arranged referendum on 14 April 1975. Voters, many of them illiterate, were confronted with two boxes. One marked ‘FOR’ and the other ‘AGAINST’, with the ‘AGAINST’ box lying at the far end of the room making obvious the fact that the ‘AGAINST’ vote was being noted.The result showed 59,637 slips in favor and only 1,496 in ‘ÄGAINST’. The fight for an independent Sikkim was, to all intents and purposes, well and truly over. On 21 April, the Indian Parliament made Sikkim a constituent unit of India thus making it a fully-fledged Indian state, the 22nd in the union.
Never in its history did the Indian government act with such dexterity and swiftness.
The Sikkim annexation once again proved the relevance of the famous quote by Winston Churchill: “A nation has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”
The book is a must read for those interested in understanding the geopolitics of the time and the events that led to the final annexation of Sikkim.
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