It was on May 16, 1975 that Sikkim became 22nd state of the Union of India. While in many modern narratives, the tale of the former kingdom under the Namgyal dynasty acquiring Indian statehood begins in the decades close to the 1970s, the real story, according to experts, can only be understood by tracing the events back to 1640s when Namgyal rule was first established.
ATTACKS DURING NAMGYAL RULE
Beginning with Phuntsog Namgyal, the first chogyal (monarch), the Namgyal dynasty ruled Sikkim until 1975. At one point, the kingdom of Sikkim included the Chumbi valley and Darjeeling; the former being part of China now.
In the early 1700s, the region saw a series of conflicts between Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet, which resulted in a shrinking of Sikkim’s territorial boundaries.
When the British arrived, their expansion plans in the Indian subcontinent included controlling the Himalayan states.
The kingdom of Nepal, meanwhile, continued with its attempts to expand its territory. This resulted in the Anglo-Nepalese war (November, 1814 to March, 1816), also known as the Gorkha war, which was fought between the Gorkhali army and the East India Company. Both sides had ambitious expansion plans for the strategically important mountainous north of the Indian subcontinent.
In 1814, Sikkim allied with the East India Company in the latter’s campaign against Nepal. The Company won and restored to Sikkim some of the territories that Nepal had wrested from it in 1780.
THE TURNING POINT
A turning point in the history of Sikkim involves the appointment of John Claude White, a civil servant in British India who in 1889 was appointed the Political Officer of Sikkim, which by then was a British Protectorate under the Treaty of Tumlong signed in March, 1861 .
As with most of the Indian subcontinent that the British had under their administrative control, the kingdom of Sikkim, although a protectorate, had little choice in the administration of its own kingdom.
“The British encourage Nepali migration into Sikkim and it didn’t really happen with the monarch’s consent,” said Dr Ugen Bhutia, Assistant Professor at the Department of Liberal Arts at SRM University, Amaravati.
The Namgyal monarch could not criticize decisions made by the British, but the ruler did complain about this influx of Nepali migrants into the kingdom.
The reason wasn’t complex: The monarch was Buddhist, and Sikkim was a Buddhist kingdom. The Nepali migrant population in Sikkim was growing. An increase in their numbers would have meant a demographic shift in the Buddhist kingdom. “They were not Buddhist and they belonged to a different ethnicity,” Bhutia said.
SCENARIO AFTER 1947
Three years after India’s Independence in 1947, Sikkim became a protectorate of India. In 1950, a treaty was signed between the then Sikkim monarch Tashi Namgyal and India’s then Political Officer in Sikkim, Harishwar Dayal. A clause in the treaty read: “Sikkim shall continue to be a Protectorate of India and, subject to the provisions of this Treaty, shall enjoy autonomy in regard to its internal affairs.”
Geopolitical changes during that time put Sikkim in a delicate position. China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949 and Nepal’s attacks on Sikkim throughout the kingdom’s history were cited as reasons why the kingdom needed the support and protection of a powerful ally.
Further, the talk of persecution of Tibetans after China’s arrival at the scene generated fear of the possibility of Sikkim suffering a similar fate.
“Broadly, Sikkim’s ethnicity can be divided into three: Butia, Lepcha and Nepali. So the Bhutia and Lepcha, who are Buddhists, began feeling threatened by what was happening in Tibet,” Bhutia explained, adding: “There is a history of migration of the Bhutia from Tibet into Sikkim and the Lepcha converted to Buddhism.”
DALAI LAMA’S ARRIVAL
In March 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet. After the Dalai Lama reached Indian borders, he and his entourage settled at the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh.
A month later, he traveled to Mussoorie, where he met then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to discuss the future of the Tibetan refugees who had traveled with him.
The repercussions of India’s decision to welcome and give refuge to the Dalai Lama sent a message to some in Sikkim that unlike China, aligning with India would guarantee their protection and security, said Bhutia. “This was the perspective of the ruling elite in Sikkim,” he added.
DISCONTENT AGAINST MONARCHY
The period between the 1950s and the 1970s marked growing discontent in Sikkim. Primarily, there was anger against the monarchy because of growing inequality and feudal control.
In December 1947, political groups came together and formed the Sikkim State Congress, a political party that supported the merging of Sikkim with the Union of India.
Three years later, the Sikkim National Party was formed that supported the monarchy and independence of the kingdom. A democratic system would have meant a reduction in powers held by the monarch in Sikkim and some researchers believe that the last monarch, Palden Thondup Namgyal, attempted to reduce civil and political liberties.
Anti-monarchy protests grew in 1973, following which the royal palace was surrounded by thousands of protesters.
Indian troops arrived after the monarch was left with no choice but to ask New Delhi to send assistance. Finally, a tripartite agreement was signed in the same year between the chogyal, the Indian government, and three major political reforms, so that major political reforms could be introduced.
A year later, in 1974, elections were held, where the Sikkim State Congress led by Kazi Lhendup Dorji won, defeating pro-independence parties. That year, a new constitution was adopted, which restricted the role of the monarch to a titular post, which Palden Thondup Namgyal bitterly resolved.
In the same year, India upgraded Sikkim’s status from protectorate to “associated state”, allotting to it one seat each in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Opposed to the move, the monarch attempted to bring international attention to it soon after.
A newspaper report in The Montreal Gazette dated September 9, 1974, mentioned that the monarch wrote to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and other leaders “asking them not to proceed with the virtual annexation of Sikkim”. The monarch had said that merging with India would “destroy” the kingdom’s “separate identity and status as Indian protectorate”.
The newspaper report added: “According to Indian officials, New Delhi decided to consolidate its hold on the strategic mountaintop when the chogyal, encouraged by his American-born wife, former New York socialite Hope Cooke, began demanding autonomy.”
Some reports indicate that political leaders in Sikkim criticizing the monarch’s attempts overseas at trying to garner sympathy for his hold over the country.
DECISION TO JOIN INDIA
A referendum was held in 1975 where an overwhelming majority voted in favor of abolishing the monarchy and joining India.
A total 59,637 voted in favor of abolishing the monarchy and joining India, with only 1,496 voting against.
Sikkim’s new parliament, led by Kazi Lhendup Dorjee, proposed a bill for Sikkim to become an Indian state, which was accepted by the Indian government.
“There is a debate that goes on in Sikkim on whether it was merged or annexed. But what is interesting is that there is no anti-India sentiment there,” Bhutia pointed out.