A fresh in­sight into Sikkim’s merger with In­dia

The king’s Amer­i­can wife, Hope Cooke did very lit­tle to change the per­cep­tion of her be­ing a CIA agent. She also ar­gued that Dar­jeel­ing should be re­turned to Sikkim.

The Sunday Guardian - - Covert -

Long be­fore Lon­don-based jour­nal­ist An­drew Duff wrote Sikkim: Re­quiem for a Hi­malayan King­dom in 2015, Su­nanda K. Datta- Ray’s Smash and Grab: The An­nex­a­tion of Sikkim was my primer on what be­came In­dia’s 22nd state in 1975. The book, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1984 and later reprinted in 2013, at­tempted to shat­ter the longheld per­cep­tion that Sikkim’s merger with In­dia was all smooth and hunky-dory.

Read­ing Datta-Ray, a sense of guilt and sole­cism emerges. It makes us be­lieve that demo­cratic In­dia did to Sikkim in the 1970s what Com­mu­nist China com­mit­ted in Ti­bet in the 1950s—smash and grab. The In­dian forces took over the king­dom ruled by a “be­nign” and “benev­o­lent” monarch, Ch­ogyal Palden Thondup Nam­gyal, who—much like the reader of the book—was ut­terly be­wil­dered by Delhi’s move. “They’ve got ev­ery­thing al­ready! What more can In­dia pos­si­bly want?” the king would say. Un­der the 1950 treaty, af­ter all, In­dia con­trolled Sikkim’s for­eign re­la­tions, de­fence and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and could also in­ter­vene if law and order were threat­ened or if there was gross in­ter­nal mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But was Thondup as naïve, be­nign and benev­o­lent as he had been made out to be? Was the merger such a trav­esty of jus­tice, fair play and, worse, com­mon sense, as Datta-Ray wanted us to be­lieve? If G. B. S. Sidhu’s just re­leased Sikkim: Dawn of Democ­racy is any­thing to go by, these as­sump­tions can’t be fur­ther than truth. What adds to the book’s cred­i­bil­ity is that Sidhu was the head of the three-man RAW team in Gang­tok, tasked to raise a united op­po­si­tion to com­pel the Ch­ogyal for the merger. The book de­fends the move, say­ing it not just “un­did the wrong done by In­dia to the peo­ple of Sikkim by deny­ing them the right to ac­cede to, and fi­nally merge with, the Union of In­dia”, but also pro­tect its strate­gic in­ter­ests in “this vul­ner­a­ble and heav­ily de­fended sec­tor” along the Sino-In­dian bor­der.

In­dia no longer, writes Sidhu, had to de­pend on the whims and fan­cies, and the grow­ing un­pre­dictabil­ity of the Ch­ogyal, who was get­ting rest­less—es­pe­cially af­ter his mar­riage with Hope Cooke, a young Amer­i­can he had met at a ho­tel in Dar­jeel­ing—to se­cure an in­de­pen­dent sta­tus for Sikkim on the lines of neigh­bour­ing Bhutan. “Imag­ine the im­pli­ca­tions of a dis­sat­is­fied, sulk­ing or even a re­volt­ing Ch­ogyal in the back­ground of a Dok­lam­like face-off be­tween China’s Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) and the In­dian Army, with the Com­mu­nist Party of China’s Peo­ple’s Daily pub­li­ca­tion, Global Times, threat­en­ing to in­cite re­volt in Sikkim against In­dia,” the au­thor re­minds us.

Sidhu’s as­sess­ment of the Ch­ogyal is in sharp con­trast to that of a “be­nign, benev­o­lent” king. “Thondup was like a man pos­sessed. He was pos­sessed with the idea of se­cur­ing in­de­pen­dent sta­tus for Sikkim, like the one en­joyed by neigh­bour­ing Bhutan, whose king was a rel­a­tive of his.” But in do­ing so, adds the au­thor, “he be­came to­tally obliv­i­ous to the changed geopo­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties and In­dia’s se­cu­rity in­ter­ests in Sikkim.”

One finds a sim­i­lar por­trayal of the Sikkimese king in An­drew Duff’s ac­count, which seems largely sym­pa­thetic to the roy­alty, but bereft of any ro­man­ti­cism at­tached. The Bri­tish jour­nal­ist, for in­stance, quotes Henry Kissinger ask­ing one of his staffers, Mr Ather­ton, why In­dia “an­nexed” Sikkim. To this Mr Ather­ton replied: “I don’t think they (In­dia) re­ally wanted to take this last step, un­til the Ch­ogyal started to as­sert more au­thor­ity than he had. And he made some state­ments at the corona­tion of the King of Nepal pub­licly, which upset the In­di­ans.”

Duff men­tions sev­eral in­stances of Thondup ag­gres­sively seek­ing an in­de­pen­dent iden­tity for Sikkim, de­spite the geopo­lit­i­cal sce­nario turn­ing more com­plex and grim for the Hi­malayan state, es­pe­cially since the de- ba­cle of 1962. Sev­eral lo­cal news­pa­pers had also come up in re­cent years, call­ing for Sikkim’s in­de­pen­dence. Cou­pled with these, the pres­ence of the king’s Amer­i­can wife must have alarmed the In­dian au­thor­i­ties. Hope Cooke, on her part, did very lit­tle to change the per­cep­tion of her be­ing a CIA agent (in­ter­est­ingly, Sidhu dis­ap­proves the idea of her be­ing a CIA agent), in­dulged as she did in cul­ti­vat­ing pow­er­ful friends in the West, and, worse, she wrote a piece in 1966 ar­gu­ing that Dar­jeel­ing should be re­turned to Sikkim. These de­vel­op­ments, es­pe­cially in the post-Nehru­vian set-up, made Sikkim ap­pear as “the weak­est buckle in the Hi­malayan belt”.

Also, to the Ch­ogyal’s dis­ad­van­tage, Indira Gandhi didn’t have her fa­ther’s nos­tal­gia and ro­man­ti­cism as­so­ci­ated with the Hi­malayan state, a no­tion which had in the past dis­cour­aged any demo­cratic op­po­si­tion to ac­quire crit­i­cal mass in Sikkim. Things wors­ened fur­ther when P.N. Hak­sar and P.N. Dhar be­came Prin­ci­pal Sec­re­taries and over­turned the pro-Ch­ogyal line of For­eign Sec­re­tary T.N. Kaul. Till then, writes Sidhu, the word merger was a “var­jit swar” (pro­hib­ited word) in the cor­ri­dors of power.

Sidhu, how­ever, con­cedes that the tim­ing of us­ing a heavy-handed In­dian Army op­er­a­tion to dis­arm the Sikkim Guards was a mis­take. The au­thor be­lieves the For­eign Of­fice mis­read the sit­u­a­tion and, in panic, pulled in the In­dian Army into ac­tion that was highly avoid­able. “The dis­arm­ing of the Sikkim Guards a day be­fore the Assem­bly passed the res­o­lu­tions, made the whole op­er­a­tion look as if it was un­der­taken to neu­tralise op­po­si­tion from within the Sikkim Congress leg­is­la­ture group to the pro­posed pass­ing of the merger-re­lated res­o­lu­tions in the Assem­bly on 10 April, which was far from the truth,” he writes.

The book is also sig­nif­i­cant for the fact that it at­tempts to cor­rect the dis­torted im­age of Kazi Lhendup Dorji, the man who suc­cess­fully led the demo­cratic move­ment in Sikkim, but got marginalised po­lit­i­cally and was later, un­for­tu­nately, ac­cused of selling his “coun­try” to In­dia. Sidhu, while throw­ing fresh light on him, con­cedes that when Kazi was be­ing at­tacked vi­ciously, no In­dian agency or per­son in au­thor­ity chose to do any­thing to neu­tralise such false and mo­ti­vated pro­pa­ganda. Kazi was the real hero of the Sikkim saga, but the na­tion chose to ig­nore, worse, for­get him.

Sidhu, with this book, puts the record straight as far as Sikkim’s merger with In­dia is con­cerned. There were other books, es­pe­cially M.K. Dhar’s Open Se­crets: In­dia’s In­tel­li­gence Un­veiled, which in the past chal­lenged the Gang­tok-cen­tric nar­ra­tives, but they lacked the grav­i­tas, orig­i­nal­ity and even au­then­tic­ity which Sidhu brings in this vol­ume. Sikkim: Dawn of Democ­racy of­fers an in­ci­sive in­sight into how In­dia, 28 years af­ter stupidly thwart­ing Sikkim’s merger with it, could pre­vent an­other Hi­malayan blun­der from hap­pen­ing, just in the nick of time.

Ch­ogyal Palden Thondup Nam­gyal and Hope Cooke in 1966.

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