Why is Sikkim’s merger with India being questioned by China?

Three weeks into the Doklam standoff, Sikkim wants its domestic issues – many of them near the Chicken’s Neck area – to be resolved expeditiously. The Chinese are aware of the region’s strategic importance. Pressing southward and taking control of the Chumbi Valley – where the Chogyal once lived -- cannot be allowed at any cost.

Written by P D Rai | Updated: July 11, 2017 10:16 am
India-China standoff, Doklam, Sikkim border, India, China, India-China relations, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, The danger is that the Chinese statements are aimed at finding resonance amongst some radical elements in Sikkim. (Representational photo)

For over three weeks now, India and China have been facing off against each other in the Doklam plateau, a disputed area between Bhutan and China, which is close to Sikkim’s Nathu La pass. There has been much fire and brimstone in the Chinese press on this matter and many in India have also commented on it.

But let’s be clear what this crisis is about, at least on China’s part : Strategic control of the Chumbi Valley and furthering the trijunction southward so that the Chinese can come within whispering distance of the Chicken’s Neck, or Siliguri Corridor.

What has been interesting to watch, for me, the Member of Parliament from Sikkim, for my chief minister, Mr Pawan Kumar Chamling, and for the people of Sikkim at large, is China’s especially shrill rhetoric about Sikkim.

At least through the press – and we know that the Chinese press is often a reflection of its government’s views – we have been quite surprised, even shocked, at the strong language used in some of the articles, invoking both the 1962 border conflict and challenging Sikkim’s integration with India.

“Although China recognized India’s annexation of Sikkim in 2003, it can readjust its stance on the matter. There are those in Sikkim that cherish its history as a separate state, and they are sensitive to how the outside world views the Sikkim issue. As long as there are voices in Chinese society supporting Sikkim’s independence, the voices will spread and fuel pro-independence appeals in Sikkim,” said Global Times, a newspaper said to be close to the Chinese State.

The Sikkim merger with India is a settled issue. China has de facto recognised it in 2003-04, and de jure the year after. Even the maps have been redrawn to affect this recognition. So why is China raking up this issue again?

The danger is that the Chinese statements are aimed at finding resonance amongst some radical elements in Sikkim.

From here in Gangtok, the reason for China’s escalating rhetoric seems clear. The contested Doklam plateau is disputed between Bhutan and China, which don’t have any diplomatic relations between each other. And although the trijunction area is on Sikkim’s side of the border, let us remember and be very clear about one fact : The Sikkim side of the border has never been under any contention.

It is very clear what the Chinese are doing. They are hoping to fan anti-India sentiments in the region by readjusting lines on the map and and disrupting settled geopolitical thinking. The editorials in Global Times point towards this view.

Since 1967, Sikkim’s borders with Tibet (China) have been very peaceful. Nathu La and Jelep La, the two passes on this border, serve as the entreport to the Tibetan plateau. At a height of 14,200 ft, Nathu La is open all summer, May through November, for border trade. The number of items of exchange remain limited since Nathu La was open for border trade just over a decade ago – but that’s another story. The picture-perfect pass with their smiling soldiers from both sides make for a wonderful photo opportunity for the hundreds of tourists visiting Nathu La. This was until three weeks ago.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the architect of the border trade through Nathu La. The agreement between Mr Vajpayee and Chinese president Hu Jintao was concluded in 2003.

Vajpayee met almost all prominent members of the party and the state during his visit to China in 2003, besides president Hu, and including Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao and Central Military Planning Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin.

In a joint declaration, the two sides agreed that they would not see each other as a threat. As a major concession to China, India recognised Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China.

The Chinese side also made some significant statements, especially concerning Sikkim. The Chinese agreed that for the purposes of border trade, Changgu in Sikkim would be recognised as the border trading point, with Nathu La as the passage. This is a de facto recognition of Sikkim as being a part of India.

What we need to remind the Chinese today is the principle of not seeing each as a threat that was agreed as long back as 2003. The rhetoric emanating out of the “spokespersons” from Beijing is at odds with this principle.

Moreover, the clock cannot be turned back even by self-styled nationalists within Sikkim. This is a message that we need to give China.

Sikkim – a haven of peace

Sikkim has been living in utmost peace and deriving benefits of development for its people for well over four decades as the 22nd State of India.

Sikkim’s strategic importance stems from Nathu La being a very accessible entreport to the Tibetan plateau and the Chumbi Valley. As late as the last decade of the 19th century, the Chogyal, our King, used to live there. The Chumbi Valley was part of Sikkim at the time.

By 1888 the Political Office was established in Gangtok with John Claude White as the first Political Officer of the Imperial Raj, virtually taking over the reins of administration from the King. The conduct of a military exercise into Tibet in 1904, known as the Younghusband expedition, was a direct result of that move. The opening of trade through Nathu La happened subsequently and stopped only in 1958, prior to the Indo-China war of 1962.

Under the careful eye of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, Sikkim merged with India in 1975. A referendum was held and Sikkimese voted unanimously, as many as 98 percent favoured joining the Indian Union. Through Parliament’s 36th Constitutional Amendment, we became the 22nd State of India.

Article 371 F of the Constitution provides for certain special rights and privileges for the People of Sikkim. This is very much in alignment with other states like Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland and Mizoram.

Hence, these must be upheld and promises kept to the people of Sikkim.

The Sikkim Democratic Front Party has been in the saddle for 23 years with Chief Minister Chamling already the longest serving chief minister in India, for five terms. He is known in New Delhi as the person who bridged the emotional deficit that the people of Sikkim once had with the nation.

But as SDF enters the 24th year of its governance, the peace and tranquillity that Sikkim is known for has been shattered from both sides of the borders. To our south the Gorkhaland movement has erupted. To the north the roar of the Chinese dragon has resulted in a standoff at Doklam in the tri-junction area.

Sikkim is now an advanced and well-developed state and the people of Sikkim have seen the fruits in terms of human development, thanks in part to Article 371F as cited above, but as much if not more due to peace and good governance.

Three weeks into the standoff, we want our domestic issues – many of them near the Chicken’s Neck area – to be resolved expeditiously. The Chinese are aware of the strategic importance of moving the trijunction further south toward this region. This cannot be allowed at any cost. Which means that maintaining domestic peace is of the utmost importance.

Like Sikkim, North Bengal and Darjeeling must get their fair share in the fruits of development of our nation, even as our Prime Minister seeks to play catch up with countries like China and Japan.

This very important fact must not be lost in the corridors of New Delhi or elsewhere.

P D Rai is a second-term Member of Parliament from Sikkim, from the Sikkim Democratic Party. He tweets @PremDasRai

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