Intrigue, love and the great game: a story of Sikkim

This is an overall tapestry of vivid colour and powerful imagery, with vignettes and insights into geopolitics, and also the personal lives of those who shaped these major events. It has all the ingredients for a major feature film: Love and hate, suspense and suspicion, great powers and small nations, a Shangri-la, beautiful foreign and Sikkimese princesses and a handsome king

Some years ago, during a wet September, I had gone trekking in Sikkim in the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. Getting there was another story — first driving up from Bagdogra airport up a bumpy and narrow, winding road to Gangtok, the Capital. After leaving Gangtok in a sturdy jeep, we travelled along a narrow but smooth country road, constantly moving towards hilly crowns. Where the road ended, we walked through plantations of giant cardamom (Sikkim’s prime commercial crop), shadowed by high trees, to the home stay which was to be a base for the next two days.

Of course, it was spectacularly beautiful. But as I was chatting with the guide, I remarked on four things: One, that the country road that we had been on was in remarkably good shape even during the monsoons, unlike many hill roads in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland which assume a state of collapse after the first fierce burst of rains. Two, that there were cobbled village paths leading to homesteads at 6,000 feet and later, as I discovered, even at 11,000 feet. Three, there was electricity; four, running water.

In my view, this was an extraordinary achievement for any State, especially a Himalayan one with such enormous challenges of connectivity. I still remember what one villager told me: “The roads were originally built by the Chogyal and his administration by getting villagers and local people involved; people had a stake in these roads, that’s one reason they were built well.”

They credited the current Government of Chief Minister Pawan Chamling (now into his fifth consecutive term as head of Government there, an unprecedented feat) with other benefits — electricity, drinking water and village paths. There was a basic point here, in the perception of that villager — that the foundations of good governance were laid by former royalty. It is not my point that many people shared that view, whether a majority or otherwise. But it was certainly a view I have heard over many years.

A visit to Gangtok in the 1960s and the early 1970s was like a visit to a fairytale kingdom, a land asdifferent to the dusty, hot plains of Bengal, Bihar and elsewhere as any other, crested by the Himalaya and crisp, cold, clean and green. It was not part of India, it was a Protectorate, governed by a monarchy which was over 300 years old and whose territory once reached into the Chumbi Valley of Tibet.

To the elfin-like Hope Cooke, a 19-year-old New Yorker who met and fell in love with the Chogyal, Thondup Namgyal, it must have been truly a fairy tale romance, initially, one that sadly was to collapse into a thousand fragments, with the former New York debutante driven into self-exile by scheming opponents, a king who lost his kingdom to a vicious campaign by politicians determined to grab power and Delhi’s unrelenting drive to control, capture and absorb the State, using every possible subterfuge, from crude censorship and simple snooping to intimidation and physical force.

What is amazing is the silence on Sikkim. Or is it that surprising, when we look at the facts? On May 15, 1975, Sikkim became a State of India, shedding (or was it disrobed?) its Protectorate status, and its earlier nomenclature of a Himalayan kingdom.

Little is known in the public realm about its past barring when it became a part of India, barring academic tomes on its society and culture. This is surprising in these days of vast social networks and ‘social media’ apart from the 24-hour raucous television channels and more than raucous and often incorrect anchors, when research and documentation as well as gossip, dirt, ‘good news’ and just about everything else from pedophilia to constitutional correctness can be dug up online and appropriated as one’s own.

That is why it is important to look at benchmark books which can fill the gap about what a great editor and scholar like the late BG Verghese called the “annexation” of Sikkim — he lost his job at the Hindustan Times after writing stinging editorials on the event, attacking New Delhi for betraying a smaller neighbour.

Perhaps absorption would have been a better word? “The worst suspicions about the manner in which the protector has reduced its helpless and inoffensive ward, with some genuine and much synthetic drama, will now find confirmation,” the editorial blazed. To say that it was not annexation would be “self-deception and compound dishonesty with folly”.

There are two such books and both of them are by good journalists, with an eye for detail and a flair for language. The first book was by the editor and columnist Sunanda K Datta-Ray whose Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim reads like a thriller. Datta-Ray saw the action from up close and was a correspondent for two influential newspapers, one in India — The Statesman — and another in London, the Observer. His views may be slanted in favour of the former Chogyal, for Datta-Ray believed that Smash and Grab was the “only account of the militarism, deceit and betrayal that policymakers are…capable of”.

The book and the story of Sikkim are terrific yarns, full of intrigue, romance, bitterness and anger. Smash and Grab came close to being banned at the time it was published, but the book disappeared from the market when its author and publisher were slapped with a defamation case. But 28 years later, Datta-Ray came out with a new edition of Smash and Grab which should be recommended reading for every student and faculty of history and political science wanting to know about the North-eastern region, for every member of Parliament and the State Assembly of Sikkim and the other States of the region, many of whom are completely unaware of the duplicity, intrigue and challenges of pre-1974 that wrapped Sikkim into India’s embrace.

Till today, although a number of books have been written about Sikkim and its neighbourhood over the past century and more, whether it is by P Brown and his Tours in Sikkim and the Darjeeling district (1917) or R Motokan’s Sikkim and Darjeeling: Compendium of Documents (2004) or the former Dewan of Bhutan, Sikkim and Nari Rustomji’s delightful Enchanted Frontiers: Sikkim, Bhutan and India’s North-eastern Borderlands (1971) — he later became Chief Secretary of Meghalaya and later also penned Sikkim: A Himalayan Tragedy. Hope Cooke too wrote her autobiography, Time Change (1980) and has rarely spoken to the media over the decades.

But there has always been space for one encompassing narrative of Sikkim that takes a look with depth and perspective, encompassing the stories and history, the nuances of politics and power, one that rises above palace intrigue, gossip and the personal as well as understands the notional and national goals of a regional power as India.

It is this gap that the author of the second book, Andrew Duff, seeks to bridge in his own Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom (Random House). Duff traces his interest in Sikkim to a colonial connection: A beloved set of grandparents who travelled there. It was, he said, the reading, re-reading and studying of his grandfather’s absorbing diary, photographs and 1922 tour notes of a trek through Sikkim, and later even into Tibet, which set him off on the journey.

But the time Duff got round to writing his 380-page tome, the Sikkim of the Chogyal, Hope Cooke, Datta-Ray, Kazi Lhendup Dorjee and his wife, the Kazini, and their assorted relatives, advisers, supporters and opponents, including brusque Indian officials and diplomats, had vanished. In its place is a robust State, under the rule of a farmer’s son, Pawan Chamling, whose Sikkim Democratic Front has won five consecutive elections, has increased the per capita income of his small population, ensured high quality of health, connectivity and education with national-level universities like Manipal springing up along with five-star resorts where stars like Richard Gere go, a network of hotels and restaurants in the overcrowded but spankingly clean Capital of Gangtok, which are a huge draw for chattering tourists from the plains as well as not-so-well heeled international hikers and travellers.

There’s a garland of guest houses and spartan but well designed resorts in distant valleys and hills, adding to the allure of the place. There’s a Central university and a young population, energetic and bustling along its streets and markets.

To read Duff is to walk in the footsteps of intrigue (no, not a whiff of it but a full barrel load), political conspiracies and into the pages of history. Some of his best writings are about the wedding of Hope and the Chogyal, when court officials and visitors twisted the night away, including the US Ambassador to India, the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The international media went ballistic with headlines such as “Where there’s Hope”, and spoke of Sikkimese dancing in the streets.

There are colourful heroes and villains who slip in and out of the book and one of the dominant figures is that of the overbearing Kazini, who made it her mission to drive Cooke away and ensure that her husband sat on the gaddi. She claimed at various times that she was linked to Belgian royalty and the founder of modern Finland. In truth, she was the daughter of a sergeant in the Black Watch and her real name was Elisa-Maria Langford-Rae.

This is an overall tapestry of vivid colour and powerful imagery, with vignettes and insights into geopolitics, and also the personal lives of those who shaped those major events. It has all the ingredients for a major feature film, love and hate, suspense and suspicion, great powers and small nations, a Shangri-la, beautiful foreign and Sikkimese princesses and a handsome king. I can also see the reasons why it will perhaps be never made by an Indian film maker: Datta-Ray found out the hard way when slapped with a defamation suit. These days, the mobs not court cases have it, don’t they?

The significance of this compelling book lies not just in the details of the intrigue and marital life of the Chogyal or those of his opponents, which is splendidly told, but in the equal eye for detail which Duff brings to the larger picture of Asia in the critical decades between the 1960s and 1980s.

Relations between India and China, the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, the Indian defeat in the Himalayan war, Chinese plans for the region, the CIA and Indian support to the anti-Chinese Khampa fighters in Tibet who were based in Nepal (and who were finally gunned down or captured by Nepalese forces under pressure from the Chinese; this has been documented elsewhere and is poignantly recorded in Kaushik Baruah’s novel, Wind Horse), figure in Duff’s well-written narrative.

There is a detailed conversation between Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping and US National Security Adviser (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger where the Chinese leader slams the Indian action in Sikkim: “They had pretty good control of it. Why did they have to annex it?”

Beijing was the only country to attack India publicly over its action in Sikkim, which over a period of a few years went from a kingdom into an associate State of the Indian Union. Duff is not unknowing and unsympathetic to Indian concerns after Delhi’s devastating reverses at the hands of the Chinese in 1962.

For someone who had not worked, researched or lived in Sikkim or the Himalayan borderlands till his first visit to Sikkim in 2009, the depth of research and extent of travel is visible. Duff came to these parts on the basis of a faded set of diaries and photos and started his story by taking the same trek that his grandfather had taken nearly a century earlier. He’s critical, funny, reflective but always engaging.

There are two critical sources for this book, apart from the archives, the libraries and the books, magazine articles, essays and scholarly tomes he has read and collected. The first is the man who asks the opening question in the introduction: “What do you know about Sikkim?” It is the monk Sonam Yongda who hurls the query at Duff, the same Yongda who was a Captain in Sikkim Guard who had been with his king through the worst of times and who believed the Chogyal had been the victim of a “terrible” wrong. The second are the letters, accounts and interviews with Martha Hamilton, who headed the main girl’s school in Sikkim and her successor Ishbel Ritchie.

However, Duff in his listing of sources in the bibliography, does not say if he consulted the huge resources (though numbingly bureaucratic) of India’s National Archives or the Nehru Memorial Library, one of its premier libraries, which has Nehru’s papers and those of many officials, politicians, diplomats and others. One assumes he did not since he has referred to all other sources in detail. This is a serious gap as much of the book is not just about Sikkim or Tibet and China but about their relationships with India.

Another is that, like other books which focus on the politics of Sikkim and its vast neighbourhood, the economic and environmental issues are barely reflected upon. This needs to be addressed in future narratives. A question that needs to be asked and researched robustly is how has Sikkim done post-Chogyal and after its incorporation into India? This needs to be seen not just in terms of per capita income or GDP or as a ‘green State’ which it touts or tom-toming the present Government’s achievements, but also consider social phenomena such as why, with such good indicators of growth, is the rate of suicides among the highest in India?

Many do not come off well in the book, including the handsome Chogyal himself who comes across as vacillating and weak, too eager to please Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in an effort to keep his place in his kingdom and assure a role for the dynasty in the face of growing political protests. He died of cancer, a lonely and embittered man in 1982, frustrated by a lost marriage, extensive drinking and the failure to match the wiles of Indira Gandhi and her aides. But some years later he would have been surprised but gladdened when his worst foe, the Kazi, who led the movement overturned the monarchy and made Sikkim a part of India, dramatically repudiated all that he had himself done.

At the age of 91, 22 years after the merger, the State’s first Chief Minister made an astonishing statement: He declared that Sikkim should govern itself outside the framework of the Constitution of India and demanded that New Delhi “immediately restore to us, the people of Sikkim, the status of ‘Protectorate State’ guaranteed… by the India-Sikkim Treaty of 1950”.

‘Sikkim’ is not about two despairing or beloved souls, but about two Governments, one tiny and the other vast, on clashing trajectories, and how one ruler and his aides refused to see the writing on the wall while the other drove a non-stop relentless campaign for change.

Even Morarji Desai, who briefly replaced Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister when a popular wave of unrest threw her and the Congress out of power after the authoritarian state of emergency, acknowledged that India had wronged its small neighbour. “It was not a desirable step… it was wrong for a big country to do that,” he told The New York Times. “Many of the neighbouring States were bothered about it because they were smaller and they thought it could be done to others. But I cannot undo it now.”

The question to ask is 40 years on, what are people saying in Sikkim about the merger. The thing is they’re saying very much if anything at all because it’s not even an issue.

I was interested in what Probir Pramanik, a Hindustan Times reporter, said: “Many youngsters whom I met in Sikkim in the late 1990s had scant knowledge of the merger. To a majority of them, the Chogyal was merely somebody who once lived in the Victorian style palace atop the ridge in Gangtok. Was he a king or something? Did he not live at Mintogang (the Chief Minister’s residence)… was what a young Sikkimese journalist once asked me.”

He continued: “After taking over as Sikkim’s Chief Minister for a second term in 1999, Pawan Chamling told me: ‘People have moved on, the merger is history now. What we need is integration with the rest of the country.’ But there are sections of Sikkimese who still see the merger as a betrayal. ‘The people of Sikkim never wanted the merger. There should have been two referendums on the merger,’ said Sonam Wangdi, a former Chief Secretary of Sikkim’. ‘Indira Gandhi did not want Sikkim with the Chogyal. She wanted a Sikkim without the Chogyal, so she abolished the institution of the Chogyal’”.

So there are three questions we may close with, as we assess this complex Himalayan State and its fragmented history and the narratives, which flow about it, including Duff’s: How will Sikkim’s history be recorded in a history of post-colonial India especially in these days of history re-assessment (if not re-writing)? Will the subaltern have a role in that telling? And anyway, as the monk and ex-Sikkim Guard Sonam Yongda asks, what do we know about Sikkim?

The answer to the latter will come from ensuring that more writing, not less, emerges, writing which is critical and reflective, nuanced and robust, based on good research and sensitive understanding. And understanding will grow only when the full story is taught in schools, colleges and universities, especially in Sikkim.


By Sanjoy Hazarika /

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