When India gained independence in 1947, the privileges that were enjoyed by the British Government in Sikkim passed over to the new independent regime of India. Sikkim, along with the other Princely states formed a great dilemma to the Indian leaders who had to bring in these states for the purpose of a united Indian Union. But compared to the other Princely states, the process applied for Sikkim was somewhat different and it was given up to gradual and slow assimilation in contrast to other Princley states such as Hyderabad and Kashmir.
During the time of independence, the then Chogyal Tashi Namgyal was successful in getting a special protectorate status for Sikkim. This was in face of stiff resistance from local parties like Sikkim State Congress who wanted a democratic setup and accession of Sikkim to the Union of India. These political parties which rose as a consequence of the rise of various political parties in India were to play a great role in Sikkim’s absorption into India. Most of these parties, like the Sikkim State Congress, were dominated by Nepali migrants who resented the domination of the Chogyal. And their best bet in this regard was the increasing Indian influence in the state machinery of Sikkim.
Sikkim had retained guarantees of independence from Britain when she became independent, and such guarantees were transferred to the Indian government when it gained independence in 1947. A popular vote for Sikkim to join the Indian Union failed and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to a special protectorate status for Sikkim. Sikkim was to be a tributary of India, in which India controlled its external defence, diplomacy and communication. A state council was established in 1955 to allow for constitutional government for the Chogyal, which was sustained until 1973.
During the Sino-Indian War of 1962, Sikkim became one of the bones of contentions with the Chinese. As China regarded Sikkim as a part of Tibet because of its Buddhist affiliations, it refused to see it as a part of India or even status quo. Skirmishes occurred and this resulted in the old Nathula Pass being closed with it being finally reopened in 2006. Sikkim along with Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh form the trio who prefer Indian occupation to the Chinese after witnessing the Tibetan experience.
The old ruler Tashi Namgyal died in 1963 after suffering from cancer. The last hereditary ruler, the Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, ascended the throne in 1965. Trouble began to brew for the Chogyal even before he assumed the throne, as Prime Minister Nehru, who had carefully preserved Sikkim’s status as an independent protectorate, died in 1964. His daughter Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966, and being the authoritarian that she was, she had little patience for maintaining an independent Sikkim or its monarchy. The reigning Chogyal was viewed by India as politically dangerous, especially after his American wife, Hope Cooke, published a journal article advocating a return of certain former Sikkimese properties.
By the beginning of 1970, there were tremors in the political ranks and file of the State, which demanded the removal of Monarchy and the establishment of a democratic setup. This finally culminated in wide spread agitation against Sikkim Durbar in 1973.There was a complete collapse in the administration. The Indian Government tried to bring about a semblence of order in the state by appointing a Chief administrator Mr. B. S. Das. Cold relations between the Chogyal and the Kazi (Prime Minister) Lendup Dorji saw further events which resulted in elections in the state which finally paved way for the weakening of the institution of monarchy and Sikkim transformed from a protectorate state to an associate State. On 4th September 1974, Kazi Lendup Dorji, who was also the leader of the Sikkim Congress, was elected as the Chief Minister of the state. The Chogyal however still remained as the constitutional figure head monarch in the new setup. Mr. B. B. Lal was the first Governor of Sikkim. In this, the Kazi played a pivotal role in Sikkim’s assimilation into India as a full-fledged state and bringing about democratic aspirations among the Sikkimese youth who began to view the Chogyal monarch as a symbol of tyranny.
Matters came to a head in 1975 when the Kazi appealed to the Indian Parliament for representation and a change of status to statehood. On April 14, 1975, a referendum was held, in which Sikkim voted to merge with the union of India. Sikkim became the 22nd Indian State on April 26, 1975. On May 16, 1975, Sikkim officially became a state of the Indian Union and Lendup Dorji became head of State (Chief Minister). This was promptly recognised by the United Nations and all countries except China.
The 1979 assembly election saw Nar Bahadur Bhandari elected as the Chief Minister of Sikkim. Bhandhari held on to win again in 1984 and 1989. In 1994, Assembly politician Pawan Kumar Chamling became the Chief Minister of Sikkim. In 1999 and 2004, Chamling consolidated his position to sweep the polls. China’s attitude on Sikkim also changed over the period. In 2003, with the thawing of ties between the two nations, Sikkim was finally recognised to be a part of India by China. The two governments also proposed to open the Nathula and Jelepla Passes in 2005.
Sikkim’s assimilation into India is a curious blend of politics and strategy. The end of monarchy and the augmentation of democratic setup heralded a new era for Sikkim from where today it is one of the most peaceful states in India. The policies that were advocated for Sikkim show as to how the institution of monarchy was gradually weakened and the democratic aspirations resulted in the concrete entry of Indian power into Sikkim’s state machinery. The fear psychosis against China was also a major factor here. Personal politics and cult domination have played their part as well. Nobody can refute the contribution of Kazi Lendup Dorji in Sikkim’s assimilation into India. Many intellectuals wonder if the strategy of Sikkim’s assimilation process could have been used in other princely states such as Kashmir for better results. Though that is highly debatable, the fact remains that in Sikkim’s case the right policies were used to make it an integral part of 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.)