How Sikkim was won! The British Experience

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By: Joydeep Hazarika

On 14th April, 1975, Sikkim became the 22nd state of the Indian Union. Sikkim, regarded as one of the Seven Sister states of northeast India, has a stormy history when we look into its accession into the Indian Union. For centuries Sikkim had remained a Shangri-La for most outsiders. With its rich culture influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, Sikkim has always offered an oriental treat that is rarely seen in South Asia.

Sikkim’s first inhabitants were the Lepchas and Rongs. They were later absorbed into the later invading tribes and clans that overran the land in the coming centuries. Sikkim finds mention in the ancient Hindu scriptures as Indrakil or “Garden of Lord Indra.” The spread of Buddhism in Sikkim is attributed to Guru Rinpoche who came to the land in the 9th century AD. According to legend the Guru blessed the land, introduced Buddhism to Sikkim and also foretold the era of the monarchy in the state, which would arrive centuries later.

In 1642, the fifth generation descendant of Guru Tashi, Phuntsog Namgyal was consecrated as the first Denjong Gyalpo or the Chogyal (king) of Sikkim by the three great Lamas who came from the north, west and south to Yuksom Norbugang in West Sikkim. The event, Naljor Chezhi, was as predicted by Guru Rinpoche some eight hundred years before. This historical gathering of the three virtuous lamas is called Yuksom, which in Lepcha means the ‘Three Superior Ones’. The Chogyal, along with the three lamas proselytised the Lepcha tribes into Buddhism and annexed the Chumbi Valley, the present-day Darjeeling district and parts of today’s eastern Nepal. For centuries, Sikkim was ruled by these Chogyal monarchs who had titular privileges from the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Sikkim had always attracted attention from outsiders. More so, because of its strategic location due to which it was viewed as an easy passageway to Tibet. Sikkim’s first brush with trouble from the outside world started when it was invaded by Nepal in 1700 AD. Sikkim lost much of its territory to Nepal and continued sharing an uneasy relationship with it throughout the medieval period. The arrival of the British in India saw Sikkim allying itself with them as they had a common enemy- Nepal. The Nepalis used to carry out frequent raids into the British territories in India. British India successfully befriended Sikkim. They felt that by doing so the expanding powers of the Gorkhas would be curtailed. British also looked forward to establishing trade link with Tibet and it was felt that the route through Sikkim was the most feasible one.

Sikkim’s developing relations with the British invited the ire of Nepal and it attacked Sikkim again with vengeance. This prompted the British to intervene and thus started the Gurkha War in 1814. In this war, Nepal was defeated and as a result the Treaty of Sugauli was signed between them. As a direct spin-off, British India signed another treaty with Sikkim in 1817 known as the Treaty of Titalia in which former territories, which the Nepalis had captured, were restored to Sikkim. H. H. Risley had written in the Gazette of Sikkim in 1894, “By the Treaty of Titalia, British India has assumed the position of Lord’s paramount of Sikkim and a title to exercise a predominant influence in that State has remained undisputed.” And this paved the way for a curious relationship between the Sikkimese and the British.

Meanwhile, the British viewed Sikkim as a gateway to Tibet and possibilities to explore the ancient Silk Route lightened up. However ties between Sikkim and India grew sour with the taxation of the area of Morang by the British. In 1835, Sikkim was forced to cede the town of Darjeeling to the British on the condition that a compensation of Rs 35,000 is paid to them. The British however did not pay the compensation as had been stipulated and this led to a quick deterioration of relations between the two countries. There were also differences between the British Government and Sikkim over the status of people of Sikkim. Because of the increased importance of Darjeeling as a hill resort and a frontier outpost to Tibet and Sikkim, many citizens of Sikkim mostly of the labour class started to settle there as British subjects. The migration disturbed the feudal lords in Sikkim who resorted to forcibly getting the migrants back to Sikkim. This annoyed the British Government, which considered this as an act of kidnapping British citizens.

There were also occasional hiccups in the British-Sikkimese relationship. In 1849, Dr. Campbell, the Superintendent of Darjeeling, and Dr. Hooker, a visiting botanist, were captured and detained in Sikkim. The next year, a strong force was sent to rescue them and the subsequent uprising by the Sikkimese was suppressed. The settlement of a large number of Nepali migrants in Sikkim also caused tensions between the Chogyal and the British especially because the latter favoured their presence in the state. The presence of the British in Sikkim also worried the Tibetans who had always regarded Sikkim as their satellite state. The heavy inroads that the British made into Sikkim led the Tibetans into conflict with the British in 1888. But these were easily quelled away.

Throughout the British regime, Sikkim remained as a protectorate state of the British Empire with the Chogyal monarch as its head. The Britishers appointed Claude White as the first political officer in Sikkim in 1889 and the then Chogyal Thutob Namgyal was virtually under his supervision. Thutob Namgyal shifted the capital from Tumlong to Gangtok in 1894.

Although there were occasional skirmishes between the Sikkimese and the British expeditioners, relations between the two remained more or less peaceful throughout the period. And in 1947, Sikkim passed over as a protectorate state to independent India. Sikkim’s assimilation into India is a different affair altogether. And this shows how democratic aspirations got the better of monarchy afterall.

Read more about Sikkim merger in “How Sikkim was won! Tryst with India”

(Joydeep Hazarika belongs from Guwahati, Assam. He is currently based in Delhi as an Associate Producer with Doordarshan. He is an aspiring writer and takes keen interest in photography and cartooning.)



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