Sikkim is the second smallest state of the Indian Republic, after Goa. The state is Buddhist-majority and has been ruled by the same party for years, winning election after election. As much as Sikkim might seem as another vibrant state of India, its history is intriguing. From a small kingdom that made the mistake of supporting the English East India Company to being annexed by the mighty Independent India, Sikkim's story is fully of mystery and conspiracy.
In this documentary, we try to understand how the monarchy in Sikkim functioned, where it went terribly wrong and how Sikkim eventually became the 22nd state of India.
Legend goes that one night, Prince Khye Bumsa of the Royal House of Kham of Eastern Tibet received a divine instruction in his sleep to travel southwards and seek his fortune. In 1642, his fifth generation descendant Phuntsog Namgyal became the first Chogyal, or King, of Sikkim. As a deeply religious Buddhist kingdom, the new King was consecrated by three revered Lamas.
However, over successive generations, the Kingdom faced many invasions. Starting with an invasion by Bhutan that was repelled with Tibetan aid to numerous invasions by the Nepalese, Sikkim began losing territory to Nepal, a process that ended only with the help of Chinese troops who could fight the fierce Gorkhas of Nepal.
When the East India Company seized control of a majority of neighbouring India, the rulers of Sikkim saw an opportunity. With the British looking to defeat the Nepalese, Sikkim allied itself with the British. This would prove to be an unwise decision, as the British began to illegally tax the Sikkimese region of Morang. In 1849, two British doctors, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker and Dr Archibald Campbell, began exploring Sikkim without permission and were arrested.
The arrests angered the British, who set forth to annex Sikkim's territory. Eventually, Darjeeling and Morang were annexed by British India in 1853 and, in 1890, all of Sikkim became a British protectorate with the Chogyal as the nominal head.
In 1947, after India attained Independence, a referendum held in Sikkim voted against joining the Indian Union. Subsequently, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to confer the status of a protectorate upon Sikkim. Under this special arrangement, matters such as foreign relations and defense were handled by India while Sikkim retained a great deal of autonomy. A state council was formed and a Government under the Chogyal was established.
The arrangement worked well under Nehru. However, things began to change when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister. India was caught in the midst of the cold war: the mighty United States of America and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads. While India officially toed the line of Non-Alignment, it was all too clear that it was closer to the USSR than it was to the USA. At the height of Indira Gandhi's tenure, anti-Americanism peaked. Any American in India was considered a CIA agent; the Government was extremely weary of American influence, even as neighbouring Pakistan began to ally itself with the Americans.
In a strange turn of events, the Chogyal of Sikkim decided to marry for a second time. Only this time, his wife was American. This move angered Indira Gandhi and tensions began to rise. Meanwhile, the Sikkim National Congress, a powerful political party in Sikkim, started demanding greater representation for the Nepalese minority. Riots and clashes broke out in Sikkim and there was a deep sense of dislike towards the Chogyal. The Indian Government saw this as a move by the Americans to interfere in India's affairs.
Finally, in 1975, the Kazi (Prime Minister) of Sikkim went against the Chogyal and appealed to the Indian Parliament to change Sikkim's status to a full state of India. His appeal was approved. In April 1975, a 5,000-strong contingent of the Indian Army invaded Sikkim and surrounded the Chogyal's palace. His 300 bodyguards, who were themselves trained by the Indian Army, were caught and driven away, while one of them was shot. The Chogyal was arrested. In his last letter to Indira Gandhi, he wrote:
I have no words when the Indian army was sent today in a surprise attack on Sikkim Guards who are less than 300 strong and were trained, equipped and officered by the Indian army who looked upon each other as comrades. This is a most treacherous and black day in the history of democratic India in solving the survival of our little country by use of arms.
The Chogyal died under Indian surveillance, supposedly of a weak heart. The Sikkim National Flag was lowered and subsequently banned, being replaced by the Indian Tricolour. A referendum was held under which 59% of the electorate came out to vote. Of them, 97.5% approved a merger with India. However, historians strongly dispute the statistics provided by the Indian Government as well as the fairness of the referendum, which was conducted by the Indian Army. Nonetheless, Sikkim was merged with the Indian Union as its 22nd State.
Interestingly, the treaty which enabled the merger had a special clause inserted into it by India: the merger of Sikkim and India could never be disputed in any court of the land, including the Supreme Court. Of all the instruments of accession signed between various Princely States and the Indian Union, only this one contains this special clause. Details of what actions Indian Intelligence agencies took before the annexation, including the accession of Bhutan to the United Nations, remain sketchy, mostly because the Government classifies it as a state secret.
Today, Sikkim is like any other state of India. It is nominally headed by a Governor while executive power lies with the Chief Minister and his Cabinet, who belong to and are responsible to an elected unicameral State Legislative Assembly. Sikkim's flourishing economy is based on agriculture and tourism. Sikkim is one of the most peaceful states of India. It sends one member to each house of Parliament.
While the youth of Sikkim are firmly in favour of it remaining an Indian State, there is always the thought of how a quiet little Himalayan Kingdom turned into a battleground and was gobbled up by a much-larger country that had just freed itself from foreign rule. As they say, destiny plays strange games.