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Sunset for the Chogyal

The merger of Sikkim with India was a result of political aspirations, intrigue and misplaced actions

Chief Minister Kazi Lhendup Dorji Khangsarpa being sworn in as the first Chief Minister of democratic Sikkim by Governor BB Lal on May 16, 1975 (archive photo)

Iwas having lunch when I got a call from Kewal Singh, the foreign secretary, asking me to report to him immediately. It was April 7, 1973. I rushed to the foreign office. Kewal Singh, welcoming me warmly, said, ‘You are being sent to take over charge of the Sikkim government immediately. The Sikkim administration has collapsed and the Chogyal (ruler) wants immediate assistance. The people are on the streets, demanding a democratic system. Everything is at a standstill with the government. You will have to fly out immediately and take over, restore normalcy and seek a political solution, keeping in mind the demands of the people. It is a tricky assignment. We trust your diplomatic skills to handle the situation.’ He cautioned me about Chinese reactions. The Indian Army was on the alert. On reaching Siliguri, I was pushed into an Air Force helicopter and flown to Gangtok. The helipad was lined on both sides by anti-Chogyal demonstrators, led by Kazi Lhendup Dorji. Sudhir Devare of the (Indian) Political Office, the chief secretary of Sikkim, the police commissioner, and the Indian Army’s representative, all welcomed me. The next day, when I asked for a meeting with the Chogyal, his secretary informed me that he had to consult his royal astrologer to decide the auspicious date and timing of our meeting. I might have been deputed by India’s Prime Minister to take over the government, but the Chogyal was the ruler and constitutionally I was his appointee. I was received by him a day later, at a time that suited his stars. Our meeting was disastrous and acrimonious. After the usual exchange of ceremonial scarves, the Chogyal said, ‘Mr Das, please note that Sikkim is not Goa, which you have come to take over as administrator. We are independent, and your services have been lent to my government. Let there be no misunderstanding on this.’ Then he began to rail against the injustice of his situation, of how Delhi had treated him, and how Kazi Lhendup’s men were behaving like goons out to destroy Sikkim’s identity. He asked me to tell Delhi that it was he, the Chogyal, who was a true friend of India, and not those rogues who roamed the streets spreading terror and violence. He was shocked that in spite of being an honorary major-general of the Indian Army, he had been insulted by this very army. It had taken over all the police stations, confining theirpersonnel to the barracks.

Finally, he stated that he could not accept my designation as the administrator. I suggested very diplomatically that perhaps the title could be changed to chief executive. Though a very shrewd person, he missed the nuance of this title. ‘Chief executive’ automatically gives the status of a head, covering all executive powers. Without realising it, he agreed, and I obtained the foreign secretary’s consent. Thus, posted as administrator, I became the chief executive of Sikkim, heading the government with all the powers which the Chogyal exercised as a ruler, except judicial powers, wherein he was the ultimate court of appeal over Sikkim’s high court.

On reaching Gangtok, I went straight to my friend, Shankar Bajpai, at India House. It was a historical building, constructed by the British in the early twentieth century as the Residency. It was the seat of British power, where the first political officer, Sir Claude White, presided in 1904, looking after Bhutan and Sikkim. In those very beautiful surroundings, we sat over a drink and lunch, little realising that we would rewrite the history of Sikkim by correcting the errors of the post-Independence Government of India.

Shankar wanted to know the instructions I had brought from Kewal Singh. I had just jotted down the key points in a small diary. None of these indicated the final objective. Typical of Mrs Gandhi, she never allowed herself to be pinned down to a political commitment, except in generalities, leaving her close advisers to draw conclusions which fitted into her approach. Shankar and I smiled at one directive: ‘We must support the aspirations of the people of Sikkim, and should not allow the Chogyal to exploit them.’ In fact, this was the key to all future planning, and gave an answer that was in accordance with Mrs Gandhi’s thinking. The word ‘merger’ was never mentioned. Even Kewal, our ‘controller’ from behind the scenes, never uttered this word. But Shankar and I knew without being told. This enabled us to move ahead in unison and we achieved all that we had to.

Delhi came under virulent attack by China and Pakistan and severe criticism from some Western nations, including the US, thus bringing us under great pressure. While the Soviet Union was advising caution, others were attacking India, calling it a colonial power. Bhutan, adjoining Sikkim, which did not like Sikkim, kept very quiet through all this, though it relished the idea of the kingdom being delinked from Bhutan. Of all the countries which should have been happy, it was Nepal, with 75 per cent of the Sikkimese being of Nepalese origin, which was India’s biggest critic!

The Chinese were right on the borders, at Nathu La, having access from Tibet. This was once the main point of British political and economic dominance of inner Tibet. Based on historical evidence, there were two enclaves within Tibet which Sikkim claimed. These were occupied by China. Sikkim itself was claimed as a part of the Chinese empire. It was obvious that China was concerned with the extension of India’s political presence after the fall of the Sikkim government. Delhi had not foreseen an international response that was so critical of India. India wanted a quick settlement of key issues, such as fresh elections based on one man, one vote. The Chogyal was vehement in his opposition to this demand. With the electorate being 75 per cent Nepalese, but under Bhutia dominationheaded by himself, he knew he would be defeated.

I was instructed by Delhi to restore normalcy in Sikkim, run its administration without any major incidents, and get rid of pro-Chogyal elements in the bureaucracy, who dominated the court. I was able to restore the administration fairly quickly. But I failed to bring the Chogyal in line on the issue of one man, one vote, even though he was agreeable to holding fresh elections. Sandwiched between the political officer putting pressure as India’s representative, and myself as his chief executive advising him to fall in line with the changed times, the Chogyal capitulated. The famous agreement of May 8, 1973 between himand Kazi Lhendup Dorji, with India as a guarantor for maintaining his dynasty and providing justice to all ethnic elements, sealed the Chogyal’s fate.

With the May 8 agreement coming into the fore, and things beginning to settle down, the international criticism cooled down. The Chogyal’s American wife, Hope Cooke, whose ambitions were to be a queen, realised that she had the status only of the Chogyal’s wife and nothing more. She decided to leave Sikkim. The Chogyal pleaded with her to be at his side, as he needed her at that difficult juncture, but she refused. I saw her off on August 14, 1973. Her last words were. ‘Mr Das, please look after my husband. I have no role to play now.’

Preparations for fresh elections based on the one man, one vote principle began. Before the elections, the Chogyal wanted to take a tour of south Sikkim, which consisted mainly of persons of Nepalese origin. The environment was very hostile to him in this area and I advised him against such a tour, but he was insistent. He also wanted me to accompany him in order to prove that he was the ruler and I, merely a symbol of Delhi, was his chief executive, and therefore a subordinate.

BEING the head of the monastic order, the Chogyal started his tour with a visit to the monasteries in this area. Earlier, the lamas would line the streets, but this time they were missing. Apart from conducting a formal ceremony of worship, he found he had lost the ecclesiastical hold. It was a big shock. But the worst was to come when he started the tour. He faced abusive slogans, witnessed shoes tied to his portraits, and heard the crowds threatening him. He had lost his charisma as a ruler. With tears in his eyes, he held my hand and said, ‘I did so much for my people. And now I am humiliated in this way. Why?’ I had no answer. The minority domination of Bhutias, constituting just 14 per cent of the population, and misuse of power through an artificially created proportional representation had provided the Sikkim Congress a handle to beat the Chogyal with. I myself felt greatly sad. A tiny Himalayan kingdom, gifted with peace and unimaginable beauty, had become a hotbed of intrigue and exploitation.

The elections were conducted without any violence. The Chogyal-supported Nationalist Party, consisting mainly of Bhutias, won only one seat out of 32. The newly constituted assembly was called to take oath, but the Sikkim Congress refused to swear in the name of the Chogyal. His name was substituted by the word ‘God’. Then they refused to allow the Chogyal to address the assembly, as had been the custom. After great persuasion, they agreed to my reading out the Chogyal’s inaugural address, in which he highlighted the separate political and cultural identity of Sikkim. As Speaker, I had to preside over the House under the new Constitution, framed under the May 8 agreement. I was not only the speaker, but also had to preside over the executive council of ministers of Sikkim, the replica of a cabinet. While Kazi Lhendup Dorji ledthe council, there was no post of chief minister. I was virtually the chief minister.

The interim constitution drafted for the new setup was full of contradictions. As president of the council, I was answerable for the actions of the government before the assembly. As speaker, I could question these very actions and even had powers to pull up the councillors! Very soon, some of the leaders of the Sikkim Congress started a whisper campaign, demanding the positions of prime minister and Speaker for the newly elected national assembly. Chogyal supporters feared that Sikkim’s separate identity was likely to be lost unless the post of a prime minister was created. The Chogyal had appointed a Sidlon (somewhat like a prime minister) before the anti-Chogyal movement started. ES Chopra, a very senior retired IFS officer, was the incumbent, but he could not last long in the circumstances that developed. Delhi also refused to recognise him as the Sidlon. We feared that the Chogyal, having lost the first round, would instigate forces which demanded positions and power in the new government that would identify Sikkim as an independent entity. It also became very awkward for me as chief executive to be presiding over the cabinet, over the head of Kazi Lhendup, who was the rightful leader of the government.

MEANWHILE, Kazi Lhendup realised that without coming to a closer political and economic association with India, a demand pending from 1947, he would lose the gains of his party’s victory. He was also apprehensive, and very rightly so, of the Chogyal and the Nationalist Party creating serious problems in Sikkim’s governance. He and his senior advisers decided to approach Delhi for an association with India, enjoying rights and privileges as did the states of India. This written request was accepted by the Government of India, to correct the mistake made in 1947. A resolution was framed to be put up before the assembly, for its approval to approach India. It was a step toward Mrs Gandhi’s conception of Sikkim’s integration.

The Chogyal realised the implications. He discussed the matter with me. Since I was his chief executive, he wanted me to be an instrument of opposition to this move; especially as I was the head of government as well as the Speaker. He also engaged a prominent person, a lady lawyer-friend, to question the legality of this resolution. I told the Chogyal frankly of the implications of his opposition. Sikkim had no legal status as an independent entity. I reminded him that as he was a member of the Chamber of Princes of India and an honorary major-general of the Indian Army, he had always been a part of the overall Indian political system. I told him that the legislature had the right to bring in a resolution of this nature. I cautioned him on his own status.

For Sikkim’s own good, and for its peace and prosperity, a close link to India, as was demanded by the Sikkim Congress, would be the real answer. Sikkim’s cultural identity would always be protected, and so would the Chogyal’s dynasty. He listened but did not respond. When he realised the inevitability of Sikkim’s close political and economic links to India through the Indian system and wanted to redeem the situation, he came to me in July 1974 for help, but it was too late by that time.

The resolution was carried through with only one member opposing it. Sikkim became an associate state of India. The government was to be headed by a chief minister, which Kazi Lhendup became. A Speaker was also designated. My post of chief executive was re-designated as that of a governor when Sikkim finally merged with India in 1975. BB Lal of the ICS, who succeeded me as the chief executive, took over as governor. From being an associate state, Sikkim’s merger as a full-fledged Indian state was a consequence of the ill-advised steps taken by the Chogyal when he went to Nepal in 1975 for the coronation of the king. His contacts with the Chinese, and some political statements he made, led to serious misunderstandings with the ruling government back home, as well as the Government of India. Therefore the Sikkim Congress demanded removal of the Chogyal and merger with India. A referendum was held on these issues and both were voted upon by a huge majority supporting the demands. The Chogyal thus lost the final round and his kingdom too.

The Chogyal, Thondup Namgyal, was a unique personality in many ways. He never wavered in asserting Sikkim’s separate identity. Even in the worst circumstance of losing his kingdom, he never compromised his dignity. The fighter that he was, he stood up to tremendous pressures. One could call him lacking in foresight, but his resolve to project Sikkim as a separate country never faltered. Only once, he showed his acceptance of defeat, and tried to commit suicide. He had lost his eldest son, his successor, in an accident. Hope Cooke and the two children from her had deserted him. It was too much to bear. He came to visit me in Bombay in 1979 when I was in Air-India. He poured his heart out and said, ‘Mr Das, I wish I had listened to your advice.’ He went to the US for treatment never to return. He died of cancer.

The story of Sikkim was dominated by ladies of eminence. The prime player was, of course, Indira Gandhi, whose determination to correct the historical error of 1947 of not accepting the request for merger was firm and final. Hope Cooke came on the scene, marrying the maharajaof Sikkim to be called the maharani or the queen. She played a crucial role in supporting the Chogyal’s anti-Indian tirade and tried to create a powerful lobby challenging India’s role in governing Sikkim. She was also suspected of being a conduit for external forces.

The third lady was the Kazini, a formidable Belgian lady married to Kazi Lhendup Dorji, the leader of the anti-Chogyal forces. This lady threw her weight around by claiming to have been close once to Kemal Ataturk of Turkey and then Chou Enlai of China. She married the Kazi to be the first lady. She took charge of the anti-establishment movement and adopted a Nepalese, Nar Bahadur, as her son to be the leader of the movement. Kazi, a political leader of standing, was used by her as a front for her own ambitions. The Chogyal and Hope Cooke hated her, treating her with utter contempt. I was often witness to the enactment of this unpleasant drama.

THE American and Belgian ladies played the most destructive role. In their ambition to be the lead lady, they manipulated the key players, the Chogyal and the Kazi. Both failed to retain the dignity of a small kingdom with rich cultural traditions. They hastened the collapse of their renters through misplaced actions. It was sad the way it all happened. The May 8 agreement could have been a sustainable process of merger with India. In fact, that was the way we expected Sikkim to accede to India, in the same manner as other states.

Mrs Gandhi became the architect of Sikkim’s new personality. Her sheer grit and determination against foreign pressure was once again displayed after 1971 when she defied the US, China and Pakistan, leading to the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent entity. She exhibited no emotions in decision-making in spite of being a very emotional person. She was ruthless in pursuing her goals. No one matched her. The acceptance by China of Sikkim as a part of India and opening of the trade route between China and India through Nathu La are a consequence of the steps India took. For Bhutan, Mrs Gandhi went out of her way to sponsor its UN membership. Thus both Bhutan and Sikkim acquired their new status and were delinked from the claim of China’s suzerainty. It was my privilege to have been a major player in both cases. The ultimate reality of this Himalayan range constituting Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim being the outer perimeter of India’s security was thus established and recognised by the world community, including China.

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