Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom
I arrived on posting in Gangtok in May 1974 and Sikkim’s merger with India took place in May 1975 - thus serving in the Office of the Political Officer in a substantive capacity for precisely one year. I had an inside view being an eye witness-cum-participant in the extraordinarily exciting events of the last 12 months leading up to the merger with India. As is normal in the case of diplomats, I had made it my business to read and get briefed about Sikkim and the past role of the Political Office - this background provides the context for my remarks on the book.
In strong contrast to my friend Sunanda Datta Ray’s book ‘Smash and Grab: India’s Annexation of Sikkim’, Andrew Duff did not appear to have had a premeditated agenda to begin with. His book had an accidental birth as he explains in the Introduction and the Prologue. However, biases and subjectivity become increasingly evident as the writing of this book progressed - what had originally attracted his attention was a human interest story that turned into a book project about the evolving political relationship between India and the Protectorate of Sikkim which India inherited from the British till the historical anachronism of a supposedly independent Himalayan Kingdom was finally merged into the Indian Republic.
The first few chapters are an easy read evoking nostalgia for anybody who has lived even for a short time in Sikkim. Duff begins skating on thinner ice as he starts writing about political issues; as this part of the book unfolds, given Duff’s many visits to Sikkim and his meetings with a very wide cross section of people, he could have done a much better job by a more balanced presentation rather than mainly and somewhat uncritically adopting the narrative of people who were very obviously very pro-Chogyal almost wholesale.
The author has used a highly imaginative and unusual approach for a book of this nature according utterly undue centrality to the personal correspondence of two Scottish headmistresses of a school in Gangtok with their families back home - “the key to unlocking this story were the (weekly) letters of Martha Hamilton and Ishbel Ritchie” which “provided a unique perspective on the world of Sikkim”; ignoring the self-evident reality that they were complete nonentities in the context of the political firmament even of Gangtok let alone Sikkim. Given that “she had direct access to the palace” and that their social life revolved entirely around the Bhutia elite, no one would have taken their opinions with even the slightest degree of seriousness except their family and personal friends. Much has been made of their letters being censored but given the delicate political situation such actions would have been normal in any country; no letters were destroyed or blocked from being sent or portions being excised. The fact is that no Indian agency ever thought they were worth seriously troubling.
It is particularly disappointing that much of Chapter Nine dealing with the very crucial events of April-May 1975 and specially those describing the disarming of the Sikkim Guards have been uncritically lifted in very large measure from Datta Ray’s book - which Datta Ray appears to have taken hook, line and sinker from a clearly delusional and hallucinating Chogyal, whose particularly close friend he was. Just one illustrative example: I know from personal knowledge that the alleged visits of the Political Officer and the GOC 15th Mountain Division to the Chogyal simply did not take place on that particular day and therefore the supposed, patently bizarre, conversations between them are complete concoctions. This over reliance on Datta Ray’s book has caused Duff’s book to include many glaring factual errors which could have been avoided with greater diligence and intellectual honesty.
There would not have been a story to write about had it not been for Nehru’s obdurate romanticism about Sikkim resulting in it being treated exceptionally when all other princely states, which had been members of the Chamber of Princes, had to choose between acceding to India or Pakistan but not remaining independent. Nehru granted Sikkim a special status akin to what was granted by the British, and this was enshrined in the 1950 treaty; Indira Gandhi was content with this situation too. It was only after the Bangladesh events in 1971-72 that India’s thinking regarding the future of Sikkim started changing.
After Kewal Singh’s advent as Foreign Secretary in succession to TN Kaul (a strong adherent of the Nehruvian approach to Sikkim), elements of change began manifesting themselves; however, a continuing lack of clarity about India’s precise objectives and how to secure them remained till the end of 1974, leaving the principal Indian actors in Gangtok understandably perplexed about how they should proceed causing avoidable misunderstandings and confusion on the ground. Much of the negativity in the descriptions of events during this final phase in Duff’s book is due to this unfortunate reality.
The perceptible bad taste left behind after the merger was very greatly exacerbated by the very autocratic, extremely crude and ham-handed manner of handling of several developments in the last seven months by new Chief Executive BB Lal - his interactions with people were deeply offensive to all who interacted with him on both sides of the fence. It could and should have been handled much better.
In the final two-three days to the run up of the unavoidably necessary disarming of the Sikkim Guards, two issues of the highest concern to the Government of India were: first, no harm should come to the person of the Chogyal; secondly, a shoot-out with the Sikkim Guards must be avoided at all costs. Therefore, things were done in a certain way, which have been misconstrued by writers such as Datta Ray and Duff because they were not aware of this background.
To his credit, the author has brought out very clearly the innumerable instances where the Chogyal gratuitously went out of his way to provoke India by flaunting symbols of an independent State and demonstratively interacting with foreign dignitaries and officials deliberately seeking the internationalisation of the Sikkim issue. His antics while attending King Birendra’s coronation in February 1975 finally sealed his fate. Such behaviour over the years had contributed very considerably to India’s growing antipathy and irritation.
Though not considered seriously in the book it merits mention that the Chogyal had been offered more generous terms more than once than those offered to many other Maharajas; but he rejected them willfully, choosing to gamble big time and losing. He recalled this wistfully, more than once, in his later years.
Having said all this, there is no doubt that there was a charisma about the Chogyal, both as a person and as an institution, and there is no question that he enjoyed considerable popularity in Gangtok and in north Sikkim but for all of the more heavily populated east, west and south Sikkim the reality was entirely different and this is not something that RAW or anybody else manufactured or even could have. Opinions of the small Bhutia gentry of Gangtok must not be construed as the opinions and wishes of the people of Sikkim as a whole or even of a significant proportion of Gangtok’s population.
When the Chogyal’s body lay in state in Gangtok, the Indian State rightly paid him homage; there was no personal animus against him. Duff is right in quoting Nari Rustamji, ICS, a former Dewan, and a particularly close and sincere friend, and a personal adviser of the Chogyal for decades: “By a kind of inescapable necessity, he annihilated himself”- accurately summing up the Chogyal’s contribution to his fate.
What happened in Sikkim was an inevitable and integral part of evolving contemporary historical processes. Given Sikkim’s extremely significant strategic location both in the context of India’s very strained relations with China, and the potentially destructive strategic fall-out of Nepali ethnic revanchism, it is indeed a wonder that India took as long as it did in bringing about Sikkim’s merger. China’s invasion of Tibet highlights India’s far more gentle and prosaic approach - a long, meandering, somewhat bumbling and less than efficiently executed constitutionalist integration of Sikkim into the Indian Union. Duff quotes the Acting British High Commissioner in India reporting to his Ministry - “in the days of British India we would have done just the same.” The author quotes another British diplomat writing more candidly and accurately: “Over the years the Chogyal has been extraordinarily inept in handling his own subjects …(India’s) main interest throughout has been preserving stability in an area of the utmost strategic sensitivity at a time when relations with China are still cool.” India could have incorporated Sikkim in 1947 itself or at any time later but did not do so unlike what many countries of the world have done brazenly even in contemporary times. India has no need whatsoever to be or feel apologetic.