Next month, it will be 25 years since the Indian annexation of Sikkim. Sudheer Sharma looks back at how a Himalayan kingdom lost its sovereignty.
King Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Chogyal of Sikkim was in his palace on the morning of 6 April, 1975 when the roar of army trucks climbing the steep streets of Gangtok brought him running to the window. There were Indian soldiers everywhere, they had surrounded the palace, and short rapid bursts of machine gun fire could be heard. Basanta Kumar Chhetri, a 19-year-old guard at the palace’s main gate, was struck by a bullet and killed—the first casualty of the takeover. The 5,000-strong Indian force didn’t take more than 30 minutes to subdue the palace guards who numbered only 243. By 12.45 it was all over, Sikkim ceased to exist as an independent kingdom.
Captured palace guards, hands raised high were packed into trucks and taken away, singing: “Dela sil, li gi, gang changka chibso” (may my country keep blooming like a flower). But by the, the Indian tri-colour had replaced the Sikkimese flag at the palace where the 12th king of the Namgyal dynasty was held prisoner. “The Chogyal was a great believer in India. He had huge respect for Mahatma Gnadhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Not in his wildest dreams did he think India would ever swallow up his kingdom,” recalls Captain Sonam Yongda, the Chogyal’s aide-de-camp. Nehru himself had told journalist Kuldip Nayar in 1960: “Taking a small country like Sikkim by force would be like shooting a fly with a rifle.” Ironically it was Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi who cited “national interest” to make Sikkim the 22nd state in the Indian union.
In the years leading up to the 1975 annexation, there was enough evidence that all was not well in relations between New Delhi and Gangtok. The seeds were sown as far back as 1947 after India gained independence, when the Sikkim State Congress started an anti-monarchist movement to introduce democracy, end feudalism and merge with India. “We went to Delhi to talk to Nehru about these demands,” recalls CD Rai, a rebel leader. “He told us, we’ll help you with democracy and getting rid of feudalism, but don’t talk about merger now.” Relenting to pressure from pro-democracy supporters, the 11th Chogyal was forced to include Rai in a five-member council of ministers, to sign a one-sided treaty with India which would effectively turn Sikkim into an Indian
“protectorate”, and allow the stationing of an Indian “political officer” in Gangtok.
As a leader of international stature with an anti-imperialist role on the world stage, Nehru did not want to be seen to be bullying small neighbours in his own backyard. But by 1964 Nehru had died and so had the 11th Chogyal, Sir Tashi Namgyal. There was a new breed of young and impatient political people emerging in Sikkim and things were in ferment. The plot thickened when Kaji Lendup Dorji (also known as LD Kaji) of the Sikkim National Congress, who had an ancestral feud with the Chogyal’s family, entered the fray. By 1973, New Delhi was openly supporting the Kaji’s Sikkim National Congress. Pushed into a corner, the new Chogyal signed a tripatrite agreement with political parties and India under which there was further erosion of his powers. LD Kaji’s Sikkim National Congress won an overwhelming majority in the 1974 elections, and within a year the cabinet passed a bill asking for the Chogyal’s removal. The house sought a referendum, during which the decision was endorsed. “That was a charade,” says KC Pradhan, who was then minister of agriculture. “The voting was directed by the
India’s “Chief Executive” in Gangtok wrote: “Sikkim’s merger was necessary for Indian national interest. And we worked to that end. Maybe if the Chogyal had been smarter, and played his cards better, it wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.”
It is also said that the real battle was not between the Chogyal and Kaji Lendup Dorji, but between their wives. On one side was Queen Hope Cook, the American wife of the Chogyal and on the other was the Belgian wife of the Kaji, Elisa-Maria Standford. “This was a proxy war between the American and the Belgian,” says former chief minister, BB Gurung. But there was a third woman involved: Indira Gandhi in New Delhi.
Chogyal Palden met the 24-year-old New Yorker, Hope Cook, in Darjeeling in 1963 and married her. For Cook, this was a dream come true: to become the queen of an independent kingdom in Shangrila. She started taking the message of Sikkimese independence to the youth, and the allegations started flying thick and fast that she was a CIA agent. These were the coldest years of the Cold War, and there was a tendency in India to see a “foreign hand” behind everything so it was not unusual for the American queen to be labelled a CIA agent. However, as Hope Cook’s relations with Delhi deteriorated, so did her marriage with the Chogyal. In 1973, she took her two children and went back to New York. She hasn’t returned to Sikkim since.
Then there was Elisa-Maria, daughter of a Belgian father and German mother who left her Scottish husband in Burma and married LD Kaji in Delhi in 1957. The two couldn’t have been more different. Elisa-Maria wanted to be Sikkim’s First Lady, but Hope Cook stood in the way. “She didn’t just want to be the wife of an Indian chief minister, she wanted to be the wife of the prime minister of an independent Sikkim.” With that kind of an ambition, it was not surprising that with annexation, neither Hope Cook nor Elisa-Maria got what they wanted.
Meanwhile in New Delhi, Indira Gandhi was going from strength to strength, and India was flexing its muscles. The 1971 Bangladesh war and the atomic test in 1974 gave Delhi the confidence to take care of Sikkim once and for all. Indira Gandhi was concerned that Sikkim may show independent tendencies and become a UN member like Bhutan did in 1971, and she also didn’t take kindly to the three Himalayan kingdoms, Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal, getting too cosy with each other. The Chogyal attended King Birendra’s coronation in Kathmandu in 1975 and hobnobbed with the Pakistanis and the Chinese, and there was a lobby in Delhi that felt Sikkim may get Chinese help to become independent.
In his book on the Indian intelligence agency, Inside RAW, The story of India’s secret service, Ashok Raina writes that New Delhi had taken the decision to annex Sikkim in 1971, and that the RAW used the next two years to create the right conditions within Sikkim to make that happen. The key here was to use the predominantly-Hindu Sikkimese of Nepali origin who complained of discrimination from the Buddhist king and elite to rise up. “What we felt then was that the Chogyal was unjust to us,” says CD Rai, editor of Gangtok Times and ex-minister. “We thought it may be better to be Indian than to be oppressed by the king.”
So, when the Indian troops moved in there was general jubilation on the streets of Gangtok. It was in fact in faraway Kathmandu that there were reverberations. Beijing expressed grave concern. But in the absence of popular protests against the Indian move, there was only muted reaction at the United Nations in New York. It was only later that there were contrary opinions within India—Morarji Desai said in 1978 that the merger was a mistake. Even Sikkimese political leaders who fought for the merger said it was a blunder and worked to roll it back. But by then it was too late.
Today, most Sikkimese know they lost their independence in 1975, and Siliguri-bound passengers in Gangtok still say they are “going to India”. The elite have benefited from New Delhi’s largesse and aren’t complaining. As ex-chief minister BB Gurung says: “We can’t turn the clock back now.”
This article was first published in Nepal Times From Issue #35 (23 March 00 - 29 March 00). http://www.nepalitimes.com/issue/35/Nation/9621 pic: scan from a book