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Lifting the 'sacred veil' on Sikkim

Srinath Raghavan 

Annexation of Sikkim
Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Tranquebar; 415 pages; Rs 795

Sunanda K Datta-Ray's account of the annexation of Sikkim was originally published in 1984. The book's detailed dismantling of the conventional wisdom about a constitutional "merger" of Sikkim raised several hackles. Not least because it shredded the myths and lies perpetrated by the government's propaganda with the connivance of a supine and apathetic media. A defamation suit was duly filed and the Delhi High Court issued an interim order forbidding sales until the case was settled. Eventually an out-of-court settlement was reached and the ban on sales lifted; but the publisher claimed that no copies of the book were left to be sold and nor would he reprint. Pusillanimity of publishers evidently has a long history in India.

The appearance of a revised edition is welcome and long overdue. The book is stamped with all the qualities that make Mr Datta-Ray one of our finest chroniclers of contemporary history: it is thoroughly researched, closely argued, and superbly written. By turning the spotlight on a neglected episode in our recent history, the book compels us to think anew about the seemingly anodyne project of "nation-building".

During the British Raj, Sikkim had a "subordinate alliance" with the Crown. At the time of India's independence, New Delhi recognised this special status of Sikkim. The deputy minister of foreign affairs averred that Sikkim was "something between a state in India and an independent state". In December 1950, New Delhi concluded a treaty with Sikkim, recognising it as a "protectorate". India was responsible for external affairs, defence and communications, while Sikkim would enjoy autonomy in internal affairs subject to India's ultimate responsibility for maintaining law and order. This treaty was concluded against the backdrop of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the treaties concluded by India with the other Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan. It is interesting to note that during this period India turned down requests from Sikkimese political parties that sought accession to India.

By 1965, when Palden Thondup Namgyal became the new ruler - or Chogyal - of Sikkim, the context of India-Sikkim relations had changed. On the one hand, the Chogyal understandably sought to move towards a position of increased sovereignty. On the other hand, New Delhi took a less relaxed view of its relationship with Sikkim. In the wake of the disastrous war with China in 1962, India grew increasingly concerned about its security. And Sikkim was in many ways the weakest link in India's defensive arrangements, if only because of geography, and the site of many of the tense stand-offs with the Chinese. So, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a dim view of Sikkim's efforts to relax New Delhi's tight embrace.

Besides, the Indian government was also uncomfortable with the terminology of "protectorate" - a word that carried a distinctively negative connotation in the era of decolonisation. In May 1972, New Delhi suggested that the treaty of 1950 be modified to read that Sikkim would be "in permanent association with India". The Chogyal responded by suggesting that it be changed to state that "Sikkim in full sovereign rights enters into a permanent association" with India.

Thereafter, the Indian government decided to take matters into its own hands. Its chosen instrument was the political parties - principally comprising people of Nepali origin in Sikkim who also were a numerical majority - that were opposed to the Chogyal. The Research and Analysis Wing funded and supported the opposition movement, leading eventually to direct Indian intervention under the pretext of maintaining law and order. The anti-Chogyal parties were swept to power in the election of 1974. They promptly introduced a new Constitution and sought Sikkim's "association" with India. In turn, New Delhi amended its own Constitution to "absorb" Sikkim.

Mr Datta-Ray sharply underlines the absurdity of an international treaty being superseded by an amendment of the Indian Constitution. Such egregious legal legerdemain was possible because of Indira Gandhi's parliamentary majority - though it must be added that most opposition parties willingly went along with it. Mr Datta-Ray's account of this sordid story has been amply corroborated by memoirs published by Indian officials since his book originally appeared. Few open-minded readers will come away from this book without feeling outraged at India's handling of Sikkim.

Yet Mr Datta-Ray is a better prosecutor than judge. For instance, he does not acknowledge the fact that the Chogyal's own missteps strengthened the hands of his adversaries. His unwillingness to grant full democratic rights to the Nepali majority at the right time gave India a useful lever to prise him out of power. By all accounts, the Chogyal was a fine and sensitive man, but his attempt to simultaneously take on India and his own populace was deeply flawed. This point becomes clearer when we compare the fate of Sikkim with that of Bhutan. To be sure, Bhutan had a stronger claim to sovereignty than did Sikkim. Yet the Bhutanese monarch handled the relationship with India adroitly, and by 1971 had secured Bhutan's entry into the United Nations.

More problematically, Mr Datta-Ray presents the Sikkim story as a dark aberration in India's tryst with democracy. The fact, however, remains that the Indian state has seldom shied away from using force when its security - especially territorial - interests are seen as threatened. Think of the accession of Junagadh, Hyderabad or Manipur. Constitutional chicanery? Consider the use of Article 370, which ostensibly preserves the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, but in practice has been used to whittle down any semblance of autonomy. As a citizen, I find all this deplorable, but as a historian I know that in its ruthless realpolitik the Indian state has been no different from other states in modern history.

Edmund Burke famously said at the trial of Warren Hastings that "there is a sacred veil to be thrown over the beginnings of all government". It is Mr Datta-Ray's achievement that he momentarily lifts this veil and punctures the pretensions of the Indian state. But to grasp the real import of this story, we may need to dispense with its author's own pieties.

The reviewer is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and lecturer in defence studies at King's College London

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First Published: Tue, February 25 2014. 21:25 IST