Saturday, September 25, 2010

How Sikkim was won!

On 14th April, 1975, Sikkim became the 22nd state of the Indian Union. Sikkim, regarded as one of the Seven Sister states of northeast India, has a stormy history when we look into its accession into the Indian Union. For centuries Sikkim had remained a Shangri-La for most outsiders. With its rich culture influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, Sikkim has always offered an oriental treat that is rarely seen in South Asia.

Sikkim’s first inhabitants were the Lepchas and Rongs. They were later absorbed into the later tribes and clans that overran the land in the coming centuries. Sikkim finds mention in the ancient Hindu scriptures as Indrakil or “Garden of Lord Indra.” The spread of Buddhism in Sikkim is attributed to Guru Rinpoche who came to the land in the 9th century AD. According to legend the Guru blessed the land, introduced Buddhism to Sikkim and also foretold the era of the monarchy in the state, which would arrive centuries later. There are numerous stories regarding the migration of Tibetans into Sikkim and the establishment of the Sikkimese monarchy. For centuries, Sikkim was ruled by the Chogyal monarchs who had titular privileges from the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Sikkim had always attracted attention from outsiders. More so because of its strategic location because of which it was viewed as an easy passageway to Tibet. Sikkim’s first brush with trouble from the outside world started when it was invaded by Nepal in 1700 AD. Sikkim lost much of its territory to Nepal and continued sharing an uneasy relationship with it throughout the medieval period. The arrival of the British in India saw Sikkim allying itself with them as they had a common enemy- Nepal. Sikkim’s developing relations with the British invited the ire of Nepal and it attacked Sikkim again with vengeance. This prompted the British to intervene and thus started the Gurkha War in 1814. Sikkim won back its lost territories in 1817. And this paved way for a curious relationship between the Sikkimese and the British.

Meanwhile, the British viewed Sikkim as a gateway to Tibet and possibilities to explore the ancient Silk Route lightened up. However ties between Sikkim and India grew sour with the taxation of the area of Morang by the British. In 1835, Sikkim was forced to cede the town of Darjeeling to the British on the condition that a compensation of Rs 35,000 is paid to them. Throughout the British regime, Sikkim remained as a protectorate state of the British Empire with the Chogyal monarch as its head. Although there were occasional skirmishes between the Sikkimese and the British expeditioners, relations between the two remained more or less peaceful throughout the period.

In 1947 when India became independent, the then Chogyal Tashi Namgyal was successful in getting a special status of protectorate for Sikkim. This was in face of stiff resistance from local parties like Sikkim State Congress who wanted a democratic setup and accession of Sikkim to the Union of India. These political parties which rose as a consequence of the rise of various political parties in India were to play a great role in Sikkim’s absorption into India. Most of these parties, like the Sikkim State Congress, were dominated by Nepali migrants who resented the domination of the Chogyal. And their best bet in this regard was the entry of direct Indian power into the state machinery of Sikkim.

Sikkim had retained guarantees of independence from Britain when she became independent, and such guarantees were transferred to the Indian government when it gained independence in 1947. A popular vote for Sikkim to join the Indian Union failed and India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to a special protectorate status for Sikkim. Sikkim was to be a tributary of India, in which India controlled its external defence, diplomacy and communication. A state council was established in 1955 to allow for constitutional government for the Chogyal, which was sustained until 1973.

During the Sino-Indian War of 1962, Sikkim became one of the bones of contentions with the Chinese. As China regarded Sikkim as a part of Tibet because of its Buddhist affiliations, it refused to see it as a part of India or even status quo. Skirmishes occurred and this resulted in the old Nathula Pass being closed with it being finally reopened in 2006. Sikkim along with Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh form the trio who prefer Indian occupation to the Chinese after seeing the Tibetan example.

The old ruler Tashi Namgyal died in 1963 after suffering from cancer. The last hereditary ruler, the Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal ascended the throne in 1965. Trouble began to brew for the Chogyal even before he assumed the throne, as Prime Minister Nehru, who had carefully preserved Sikkim's status as an independent protectorate, died in 1964. His daughter Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966, and being the authoritarian that she was, she had little patience for maintaining an independent Sikkim or its monarchy. The reigning Chogyal was viewed by India as politically dangerous, especially after his American wife, Hope Cooke, published a journal article advocating a return of certain former Sikkimese properties.

By the beginning of 1970 there were rumbling in the political ranks and file of the State, which demanded the removal of Monarchy and the establishment of a democratic setup. This finally culminated in wide spread agitation against Sikkim Durbar in 1973.There was a complete collapse in the administration. The Indian Government tried to bring about a semblence of order in the state by appointing a Chief administrator Mr. B. S. Das. Cold relations between the Chogyal and the Kazi (Prime Minister) Lendup Dorji saw further events which resulted in elections in the state which finally paved way for the dissolution of the monarchy and Sikkim transformed from a protectorate state to an associate State. On 4th September 1974, Kazi Lendup Dorji, who was also the leader of the Sikkim Congress, was elected as the Chief Minister of the state. The Chogyal however still remained as the constitutional figure head monarch in the new setup. Mr. B. B. Lal was the first Governor of Sikkim. In this, the Kazi played a pivotal role in Sikkim’s assimilation into India as a full-fledged state and bringing about democratic aspirations among the Sikkimese youth who began to view the Chogyal monarch as a symbol of tyranny.

Matters came to a head in 1975 when the Kazi appealed to the Indian Parliament for representation and a change of status to statehood. On April 14, 1975, a referendum was held, in which Sikkim voted to merge with the union of India. Sikkim became the 22nd Indian State on April 26, 1975. On May 16, 1975, Sikkim officially became a state of the Indian Union and Lendup Dorji became head of State (Chief Minister). This was promptly recognised by the United Nations and all countries except China.

The 1979 assembly election saw Nar Bahadur Bhandari elected as the Chief Minister of Sikkim. Bhandhari held on to win again in 1984 and 1989. In 1994, Assembly politician Pawan Kumar Chamling became the Chief Minister of Sikkim. In 1999 and 2004, Chamling consolidated his position to sweep the polls. China’s attitude on Sikkim also changed over the period. In 2003, with the thawing of ties between the two nations, Sikkim was finally recognised to be a part of India by China. The two governments also proposed to open the Nathula and Jelepla Passes in 2005.

Sikkim’s assimilation into India is a curious blend of politics and strategy. The end of monarchy and the augmentation of democratic setup heralded a new era for Sikkim from where today it is one of the most peaceful states in India. The policies that were advocated for Sikkim show as to how the institution of monarchy was gradually weakened and the democratic aspirations resulted in the concrete entry of Indian power into Sikkim’s state machinery. The fear psychosis against China was also a major factor here. Personal politics and cult domination have played their part as well. Nobody can refute the contribution of Kazi Lendup Dorji in Sikkim’s assimilation into India. And many intellectuals wonder if Sikkim’s process could have been used in other princely states such as Kashmir for better results. Though that is highly debatable, the fact remains that in Sikkim’s case the right policies were used to make it a firm part of India.

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