With the two south Asian giant at loggerheads over the Dokalam tri-junction near Bhutan, the delicate political relations between India and China is once again under the spotlight. Sino-Indian relations have never been smooth and the border conflict between the two nations has had an impact on three monarchies in the north eastern part of India — Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. While the borders with Nepal and Bhutan reached a somewhat definite solution, the issue of Sikkim was far more fluid till as late as the 1970s.
In the midst of the ongoing row with China, the Chinese media has once again raised concern over Sikkim and called upon its state to support Sikkim’s “independence” from what it considers unfair political control by India. In order to understand the Chinese media’s assertion, one needs to reflect back on the long history of definitions, redefinitions and contradictions that have existed between the Indian state and the Sikkimese monarchy.
The state of Sikkim was established in 1642, when three Tibetan lamas consecrated Phuntsong Namgyal as the first ruler of Chogyal of Sikkim. The monarchy of the Namgyal dynasty was maintained for the next 333 years before it became part of the Indian union in 1975 as its 22nd state.
The Sikkimese monarchy came into contact with the British rulers in early 19th century. Both the monarchy and the colonial state had certain vested interests in each other. For Sikkim, the British appeared as the best means of protection from the neighbouring kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan. For the British, Sikkim appeared to have a common enemy with them in the form of the Gorkha kingdom of Nepal. Further, an understanding with Sikkim would open up a prosperous trade route for them in the north eastern part of the state. Consequently, after the Anglo-Gorkha war of 1814-16, Sikkim got back a number of territories that Nepal had previously captured. At the same time they signed the treaty of Titaliya with the British in 1817. The treaty of Titaliya gave the British authorities a number of commercial and political advantages in Sikkim. However, it was also decided that the region would not directly come under the colonial governance and would be an independent entity. The status enjoyed by Sikkim under the British can best be termed as a “colonial periphery state”, which means that while it was not under colonial rule, the region was heavily controlled by the British.
The ambiguity that arose in the relation between the newly independent Indian government and Sikkim after 1947 was firmly rooted in the policy of control devised by the British over the north eastern state. Political scientist Leo E. Rose says neither was Sikkim a feudatory “Native State” in the true meaning of the term, nor did it have sufficient internal autonomy. However, when the Indian state was formed, this unclear structure of governance on the monarchy had to be altered.
The immediate result of the change in governance was a controversy over whether the Indian state would get to inherit all the paramount rights that the British enjoyed in Sikkim. The monarchy in Sikkim, however, was strongly opposed to such a situation. When Sikkim refused to be a part of the Indian union, the government of India decided to give it “special status” while indicating that they would not insist upon the state’s full accession. While respecting a large amount of internal autonomy in the Sikkim monarchy, the India-Sikkim treaty of 1950 was particularly focussed on frontier security. Thereby the Indian government had all the powers to take measures for the territorial integrity and security of Sikkim and India and had the right to station armed forces in the region, as per the necessity.
It would be wrong to state that Indian control on Sikkim after the treaty of 1950 was resisted by the Sikkimese population. The time at which the negotiations between the two regions were taking place was also a period of political turmoil within Sikkim and the ruling dynasty needed the support of the Indian government for survival. On the other hand, Sikkim was also to a large extent economically dependent on the Indian state which funded their developmental programmes and administrative expenditures.
Despite the division of powers and responsibilities recorded within the treaty, Sikkim’s status, particularly in the international arena remained largely ambiguous. Since 1962, there emerged frequent demands within Sikkim for greater internal and external autonomy for the state. On one hand there was a demand to reduce Indian control over administration while on the other hand there was a greater need to allow the region a larger voice in its dealing with the outside world, which was seen as a necessity in order to bring in financial benefits through tourism.
Since 1959, when the Sino-Indian border dispute first gained public attention, the Sikkimese demand for greater control over its security system acquired currency. This demand arose in the background of larger Indian military presence in the region during the war. Similar demands were raised again during the India-Pakistan war of 1965. After 1966 the Sikkimese demand for autonomy moved from the arena of defense to that of economic and trade interests.
While on one hand a large section of Sikkim demanded autonomy during this period, on the other hand the internal political tensions had gone out of hand. In 1973 demonstrations took place in front of the palace of the last Chogyal of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal. In 1975, at the request of the prime minister of Sikkim, the Indian army took over the city of Gangtok and disbanded the monarch. A referendum held soon after led to a large majority voting against the monarchy, and accepting to be a part of the Indian union.