Palden Thondup Namgyal, the 12th and last Chogyal of Sikkim, would complain bitterly to his Indian friends, “Why are they doing this? They’ve got everything already! What more can India possibly want?” And his friends would believe that agents of the government of India were doing their utmost to wreck the administration of a benevolent king. Accounts of Sunanda K Datta-Ray and others of similar views have kept alive the late Chogyal’s lament, with Indira Gandhi cast in the role of a successor to British imperialism. This is grist to the mill of those in Nepal constantly cautioning about the Sikkimisation of Nepal (however different the circumstances).
Even the Global Times of China recently threatened to rouse the people of Sikkim to demanding independence. Credible counter-narratives placing an “Indian” perspective have been absent, or incomplete. GBS Sidhu provides a comprehensive account of the history of Sikkim since 1947, and of the eventful days leading to its merger with India. As the R&AW representative in Gangtok, he was both a major actor in and a close observer of the rapidly moving kaleidoscope of events from 1973 to 1975.
Jawaharlal Nehru granted special status to Sikkim in 1947, overriding Vallabhbhai Patel and BN Rau, who equated Sikkim with other members of the Chamber of Princes. Years later, PN Dhar recalled that Indira Gandhi had said “in very clear terms” that her father had made a mistake in not heeding the wishes of the people of Sikkim to merge with India. Nehru possibly saw the parallel between Sikkim and Tibet envisaged in the Anglo-Chinese convention of March 1890, where their respective interests in Sikkim and Tibet were acknowledged, and, thus, Tibet was expected to be reciprocally left alone. He was soon to be gravely disillusioned. Sikkim’s demand to be put on the same platform as Bhutan was, however, rejected.
As the author points out, the Indian attitude after 1947 “left very little scope for the pro-democracy and anti-durbar political forces in Sikkim to fight for its merger with India.” Meanwhile, Palden Thondup Namgyal — later the Chogyal — continued to feed into India’s security concerns with assurances that he would be the best bet for India. The electoral system introduced through a 1953 proclamation had given overwhelming weightage to the Bhutia-Lepcha population, despite their being 25 per cent of the population.
The majority Nepali population faced discrimination at many levels. Agricultural and other reforms were not touched by the durbar. The cornerstone of Indian policy, support to the durbar on perceived security interests, “ran foul of the people’s aspirations”. A warning bell would have sounded in the Indian establishment on Hope Cooke’s 1966 article seeking the restoration of Darjeeling. A CIA connection, unsubstantiated and likely untrue, was suspected.
The Chogyal made the mistake, like many others, of underestimating Indira Gandhi when she became prime minister in 1966. Anti-India protests were encouraged and his European visits portrayed as meetings with local royalty. There was a demand for revising the 1950 treaty as between two sovereign states and suggestions for joining the UN. Soon, the Chogyal was to acquire a staunch supporter in the new Indian foreign secretary, TN Kaul, whom he had known since the early 1950s. Unknown to Kaul, then principal secretary PN Haksar advised the PM, “There was a time in 1947 when the people of Sikkim were with India. Thereafter, we developed great fondness for the Sikkim durbar and now we wait on his frowns and his smiles… we must not delude ourselves. The Chogyal wants independence, a membership of the UN and is gradually eroding our will.”
In early December 1972, Kaul was replaced by Kewal Singh, a shrewd diplomat with no personal axe to grind. By the end of 1972, in language reminiscent of William Shakespeare, India Gandhi asked RN Kao, the legendary head of the R&AW, “ to do something about Sikkim”.
Sidhu went to Gangtok in 1973 as head of a small R&AW team, ostensibly to inform the Chogyal of Chinese activities. His real charter was to liaise with the Sikkim Congress, provide them with assistance and advice in the final, by then, aim of Sikkim’s merger with India. Sidhu recounts in detail his efforts to unify the pro-democracy and pro-merger political forces in Sikkim, which also happened to represent the majority. His efforts contributed to their resounding victory in the 1974 elections and subsequent resolutions leading to the merger of Sikkim in April, 1975.
Sidhu’s account of his tenure in Gangtok is absorbing. All the characters in the last act of the play, the Chogyal and Gyalmo, the irresistible sister Coocoola, Kazi Lhendup Dorjee, whose lifelong ambition was to see Sikkim as a part of India, the Scottish Kazini Elisa Maria who occasionally played foolish and dangerous games, political officer KS Bajpai and Gurbachan Singh, the principal executives, BS Das and his successor come to life in this extraordinary account.
Sidhu makes no bones about his personal admiration for the Kazi, whom he considers a true Indian patriot. There is nothing defensive about Sidhu’s narrative that India did withdraw its support to the Chogyal and let the will of the people prevail with its support.
Of the Chogyal, there was prescient comment on his character, when he was only the Maharaj Kumar, by the then diwan, JS Lall in a note for Nehru in 1953: “The Maharaj Kumar once remarked that the state is the ruler. When he becomes the ruler himself, he will probably try to put this into effect, and thus set forces into motion which might well annihilate him and his dynasty.” This prophecy was to hold true for another dynasty as well in neighbouring Nepal a few decades later, where king Gyanendra suffered from the same hubris.
Though written decades after the events described, Sidhu’s account is essential for students of Indian history. It lays to rest any suggestion of the forcible annexation of Sikkim. It also casts a searing light on the functioning of the Indian establishment where, at various times, the heads of the foreign policy and intelligence establishments and others kept the cards so close to their chests that senior field officers were misguided about national objectives, confusing friends and adversaries alike. In this context, one must have some sympathy both for the Chogyal and his apologists for misreading the omens. Sidhu’s account brilliantly recaptures the aura of those times.
Deb Mukharji is former Indian ambassador to Nepal
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