When the era of Kingdom started and the many land came under the clout of kings, Sikkim still remained a tribaldom. Tribes were fragmented with different leaders heading them. Every tribe was far from contemporary development and led a very nomadic life. Amongst the various tribes constituting the inhabitants of the then Sikkim, the Lepcha tribe was solely led by the “Panu”. The Bhutia tribe was ruled by their religious head. The Tsongs were administered by their elected head, the Subba, while the Mangars leadership rested on the mighty and hardy of the tribe.
The Lepchas, even then, were considered as the original dwellers of Sikkim. Any tribe who came later to Sikkim had no penitence to consider “Panu”, the Lepcha leader as the supreme head. Though the day to day affairs were govern by the elected tribe leader.
All the tribes were governed democratically. This system survived until the end of the 14th century. Since, these tribes led the nomadic life, raising animals, mainly cattle and sheep, was the main occupation of the people. Agriculture was far from being accepted as a way of life to augment the economic well-being. The people of this land in those days, therefore, practiced and enjoyed a unique form of democracy and freedom where the concept of class was totally absent. There was no segregation between rich and poor, master and slave. Even the institution of marriage never existed as the moral and legal practice.
Even though the “Panu” and other leaders of the clan commanded unique status during the period of crisis that often led to physical combats based on strength. These leaders from Panu, in normal times of peace and tranquility, were always among equals. For this reason, the electing of a leader from Lepcha’s Panu downward was strictly based on physical strength and fighting ability.
Sikkim: The Kingdom
The Monarchy in Sikkim survived for 330 years. In the year 1642 Phuntso Namgyal, the fifth generation descendant of Guru Tashi, was enthroned as the Chogyal (King) by the Lamas. However, neighbour kingdom like Nepal and Tibet were already under the monarchy and witnessed the power struggle. Gradually, Sikkim also became the dome for supremacy, ending the absolute democracy.
This transition changed many things and especially the life style of Sikkimese. Animal raising, which till now accounted for the economic well being took the back seat. It paved way to agriculture which only helped the monarchy get stronger. Agriculture became the mainstay of earnings and animal farming augmented the side income. In order to scale up agricultural productivity the skilled labours were brought in from the neighbouring states. These men started marrying many women. But this was not accepted in the society and an institution of marriage was founded.
The king along with his kiths and kins began willfully to run the administration of the country. Dictatorial rule in its milder form came into being to ensure that the palace was the ultimate authority and that all power flowed from there. In the capital itself, some noblemen close to the palace became absolute masters to rule over those sections of the populace who came directly under their influence. The people under such feudal overlords were subjected to ruthless oppression and subjugation.
Many a times, due to conflicts and external attacks, King and his followers had to flee the palace, seeking safety elsewhere. In spite of such early uncertainties that plagued his rule, the Namgyal dynasty continued to rule over Sikkim for 330 years – in itself a unique record.
Sikkim under the British Raj
At the time when Nepal was flexing its muscles to expand its territory, Sikkim’s neighbor, India was already under the British control. That brought the conflict of interest between the Ghorka’s expansionist ambitions and the British tactical policies.
During the reign of Tenzing Namgyal, the Gorkha’s under the command of Damodar Pandey, attacked the Sikkim and succeeded in capturing many parts of Sikkim. The wily English made them to enter into a treaty with vanquished state that would prevent them taking over the captured territories of Sikkim
The Sugauli Treaty of 1815-16 put a final stop to Nepal’s ambition of conquest and as per terms and conditions laid down in the said treaty, Nepal had to surrender whatever territories it won over and annexed of Sikkim back to the Sukhimpatti, the King. Despite the fact that the Treaty of Sugauli enabled Sikkim to retrieve its lost territories, the next two years saw the whole of Sikkim being annexed by the Raj under the Treaty of Tittalia, thus bringing the sovereignty of Sikkim under the hegemony of the British Raj. Even a territory like Darjeeling with its unique scenic beauty and salubrious mountain climate was annexed to the Raj in 1833.
It was during the reign of Dewan Namgyal (Pagla Dewan) that Sikkim had somehow attained its peak of power when the ruling monarch had made some determined gestures to assert his country’s independent status. In spite of this the Treaty of 1861 between Sikkim and the East India Company only served to make Sikkim all the more dependent on its giant neighbour to the south. When the Company Raj decided to establish a trading relation with Tibet, Sikkim was reduced to the status of a buffer state between China in the north and British India to the South.
Sikkim: Inroads to Democracy and the fall of Kingdom
Just after the India’s independence, the demand for political liberalization in Sikkim started.
The Sikkim State Congress (SSC) was formed in 1947. The party insisted on the abolition of feudal land holdings, formation of an interim government with the representation of popular leaders and eventually a merger with India. The Indian government convinced the King to introduce land reforms and install a government with two representative from Kings side and three nominees from SSC. India, at that point of time, was not keen on Sikkim’s merger with the Indian Union. That’s how India balanced the power centers in Sikkim for the sake of peace and stability.
The Sikkim ruler promptly introduced some reforms in the legal system and judicial procedures. But he was not forthcoming on the popular representation in the government. The Sikkim Maharaja virtually handed over his power to his son, Palden Thondup who floated a royalist political organization called Sikkim National Party (SNP), on April 30, 1948 with the objective of opposing the SSC. With the help of this party, the feudal ruler of Sikkim tried to consolidate his power provoking agitations by SSC in 1949. The agitators marched to the palace in support of their demands. Under the pressure of the agitators and the Indian Political Officer in Gantok, Mr. Harishwar Dayal, the Maharaja was forced to constitute a new Ministry with popular representation from the SSC.
The inherent political contradictions between the Maharaja and the popular representatives, with Crown Prince working the popular ministry all the time, did not allow the compromise devised by India to function. The popular representatives threatened to resign from the government and to resume their agitation for democratization. The Indian Political Officer interveened in favour of the Maharaja by dismissing all the popular representatives.
To access the situation created by the agitation, Nehru had sent his Deputy Minister of External Affairs to Sikkim. He, it seems, went back with the impression that the Maharaja would be a better ally in strengthening India’s security interests in Sikkim than the democratic leaders. That is why, soon after the Minister’s departure, the Indian representative in Gantok dismissed the popular government and took the administration in his own hands. That was the end of struggle for democracy in Sikkim. Subsequently, India continued to strengthen Sikkim Monarchy in the interest of stability until the beginning of the seventies, when again, the larger interests of India’s perceived security, democratic movement was encouraged and Sikkim was eventually integrated into the Indian Union.