SAGA CORNER

SIKKIM – REQUIEM FOR A HIMALAYAN KINGDOM

51pGapM0OVL._SX353_BO1204203200_”” alt=””51pGapM0OVL. SX353 BO1204203200 “” />The book “”Sikkim – Requiem For A Himalayan Kingdom”” is a well researched book by Andrew Duff, a freelance journalist based in London. It provides valuable insight into late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s thinking and her firm resolve and ruthlessness in annexing the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim in 1975. 

Against the backdrop of a Cold War machinations in Asia, the author recounts the last days of this landlocked Kingdom and the inside story of its last King Palden Thondup Namgyal along with his American wife Hope Cooke who together believed they could revive the ancient Kingdom. 

As the then head of Government, Gandhi had used her intelligence services to shatter their dreams surrounding the Palace with troops in capital Gangtok and making Sikkim the 22 state of the Union of India. 

Duff was fascinated by Sikkim thanks to his paternal grandfather having trekked from Darjeeling to Sikkim and found the hills captivating and breathtaking. “”Notes on a ten day circular route into the Sikkim Himalayas tour in October 1922″” that his paternal grandfather had written fascinated the young Scot. He decided to retrace his grandfather’s journey to Sikkim. 

It was in the 1980s Duff journeyed to the beautiful hilltop monastery of Pemayangtse when he was a teenager living in Edinburgh. From there over a period of time he travelled through Nepal into Tibet where he began to comprehend the delicate political and religious connections and tensions between the countries across the Himalayan region. 

But it was Sikkim’s tale that obsessed the author. He learnt that Sikkim’s ties to Tibet and its position alongside the biggest chink in the Himalayan massif had made it geopolitically valuable for centuries. 

The British involvement in Sikkim and Tibet in the early twentieth century had set up many of the Kingdom’s problems. After the British left in 1947, the Himalayan region had been at the centre of a period of international intrigue across Asia, a second front for the Cold War. Sikkim never stood a chance of being independent. 

Duff managed to have first hand, contemporaneous accounts of the years from 1959 to 1975 during which Thondup and Queen Cooke or Gyalmo had tried to reinvigorate the Kingdom of Sikkim. In all this Tibet’s occupation of China since 1950 cannot be overlooked. It was important to understand the motivations of Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 to 1984 which remained critical in telling the story of the Kingdom. 

Sikkim is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a small Kingdom tugs at the tailcoats of the Great Powers. Thondup, a shattered man after the annexation of Sikkim, died in 1982 but Cooke moved to New York. In 1835, the British had secured a permanent presence in the region by persuading the Chogyal at that time, Thondup’s great grandfather to sign over a small ridge of Sikkimese land, Darjeeling, nominally as a sanatorium or hill station. 

The initial deal was undoubtedly underhand but by the time the Chogyal and his advisers realised they had been misled, it was too late. They lodged a formal complaint to Calcutta who accepted in 1846 that Darjeeling had been acquired in a very questionable manner but by then the town was already a thriving hub of commercial activity in the hills. 

For the British it was the start of a concerted effort to open up trade through the land route that they had discovered lay alongside Sikkim: the Chumbi Valley. 

Following the annexation of Sikkim the official press organ in Sikkim, with Thondup’s knowledge, put out an angry piece emphasising what they called India’s ‘fascist policy’. On December 14, 1950, five days before the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, Thondup’s father, Sir Tashi, finally signed a new treaty formalising the arrangement between India and Sikkim. Given the worsening situation in Tibet no one was under any illusion about the strategic rationale behind the terms. 

Sikkim’s status as a protectorate of India was confirmed; Sikkim would enjoy autonomy in regard to its internal affairs while the government of India would remain ‘responsible for the defence and territorial integrity of Sikkim’ with the right to station troops there. The government of Sikkim was to have no dealings with any foreign power. 

It was in 1974 that things began to take shape leading to the annexation of Sikkim the next year in 1975. India’s worry was apparent with China having taken control of Tibet which was Sikkim’s immediate neighbour in the North. This tiny 70 miles by 40 miles territory was definitely being eyed by China which could have been gobbled up by the Dragon given its expansionist designs. 

Listening to the late night broadcast over All India Radio on August 29, 1974, Thondup and his adviser Jigdal Densapa could hardly believe their ears. The report stated that Gandhi intended introducing  an “”Amendment Bill”” to the Indian Constitution in the Lok Sabha aimed at converting Sikkim into an ‘associate state’. 

Just six days prior to this, then External Affairs minister Swaran Singh had written a letter to Thondup that they “”were looking into the legal and constitutional implications””, a draft bill had been prepared and Parliamentary time had been found for it to be discussed. The government was mistaken if it thought that the bill could slip through without any adverse reaction. 

The Hindustan Times newspaper was vehement in its criticism of the government’s actions. In a leading article entitled “”Kanchenjungha, Here We Come”” was accompanied by a cartoon “”The Autumn Collection!”” that depicted Indira Gandhi sashaying in a long Himalayan dress emblazoned with the word “”Sikkim””. The accompanying article was no less harsh and the newspaper’s respected editor B G Verghese, who died recently, was sacked within hours of the newspaper hitting the stands in the morning. The article embarrassed the government no end. It observed “”If it is not outright annexation, it comes close to it. To suggest anything else would be self deception and compound dishonesty with folly…..The worst suspicions about the manner in which the protector has seduced its helpless and inoffensive ward, with some genuine and much sympathetic drama, will not find confirmation. No country or people voluntarily choose self-effacement, and the Indian government is not going to be able to persuade the world that Sikkim’s “”annexation”” to India represents the will of the Sikkimese people. Indeed this issue has never been placed before them.””   

Many Sikkimese felt that India’s “”sense of justice”” had now been casually cast aside. What had started as a movement for democratic change within Sikkim had been hijacked and now threatened the very existence of Sikkim itself. Even as Gandhi assured that Sikkim’s ‘distinct personality”” will be respected, she pointed out that the Act was merely a response to a request from the leader of a democratically elected Assembly. The Indians had done their preparation well. 

Duff’s book is absorbing. A disappointed and dejected Thondup died in 1982. His old friend Nari Rustomji wrote in an obituary “”Sikkim’s existence for the rest of the world was a non-event. His (Thondup’s) principles might have been unrealistic and all wrong but he was not prepared to the very last to compromise with them. He was intoxicated by the passion for his land and his people.””

Book:SIKKIM – REQUIEM FOR A HIMALAYAN KINGDOM
Author:Andrew Duff
Publisher:Random House India
Pages:380
Price:599-INR

TR

(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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