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Sikkim's clash of civilisations

The old faultlines of identity remain despite aggressive modernity

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

The seminar on "Tibet's Relation with the Himalayas" that the Foundation for Non-Violent Alternatives (FNVA) organised in Gangtok last week recalled Jigdal Densapa who died recently. Descended from Sikkim's ancient Lepcha chiefs and a hereditary Kazi of Barmiok, Densapa was secretary to the last Chogyal of Sikkim. Sir Patrick Shaw, a former Australian high commissioner to India, called him "the only modern man in Sikkim".

That's what I remembered as learned seminar papers by Sangeeta Thapliyal of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses' Col P K Gautam or Nani Bath of Itanagar's Rajiv Gandhi University focussed on threats to national identity in Nepal, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. With modernity run riot in Sikkim, I didn't see a single man in the ankle-length robe called baku or kho, which is the Sikkimese male's traditional attire. Densapa wore it with dignity.

The empty desolation of the Chogyal's palace is as indicative of the new Sikkim as bustling crowds in the wide walkway of Mahatma Gandhi Marg. Its crowded shops and cafes cater mainly to budget tourists whose colloquial Bengali rises stridently above the hubbub. But here and there, pleasant sanctuaries like Baker's Cafe and the just-opened Coffee Shop, offer a touch of more sophisticated leisure. Where smelly, run-down Dewan's in the bazaar was once the only hostelry, hotels now sprout every few yards, ranging from the ostentatious Mayfair and elegant Denzong Residency to hole-in-the-wall hovels. Two boast casinos where locals squander their new-found wealth on the turn of the wheel.

Rajiv Gandhi's calculation that only 15 per cent of development funds reach the target means that 600,000 Sikkimese are making money hand over fist. In their past innocence, my Sikkimese friends didn't think of exploiting the absence of excise duty under the Chogyal. But the shrewd Indian businessmen who flooded Gangtok after the protected kingdom became India's 22nd state quickly grasped they needed only an address in Sikkim, a front man and a dummy company to make a killing from duty-free goods. Soon, greed overcame prudence. Factories elsewhere in India began rolling out manufactures stamped "Made in Sikkim". The exchequer may have lost Rs 3,50 crore on evaded tobacco duty alone.

Despite aggressive changes, however, Sikkim cannot afford to abandon its past. The 300,000 registered "Sikkim subjects" (meaning they or their ancestors were bona fide residents of the kingdom) pay no income tax. About 225,000 of them are ethnic Nepalese. Another 35,000 Nepalese probably have fake certificates. Sikkim's Tibeto-Buddhist ethic has been watered down, and some indigenes complain of existing on sufferance. Kazi Lendhup Dorji, the first chief minister whom many Sikkimese regard as the "country-seller" even while they formally honour his memory, once chided me for not speaking Nepalese. "It's the language of the people," he said.

The monarchy would never have been overthrown and the kingdom merged without Nepalese cooperation. Since they accused the Chogyal and his Bhutiya-Lepcha courtiers of trampling on their Hindu Nepalese identity, you would expect them to make common cause now with West Bengal's militant Nepalese, especially as Darjeeling district once belonged to Sikkim. Gangtok's fairy-tale Assembly even recently passed a resolution supporting Gorkhaland. But do they want to join it? Certainly not. As Kazi's Hindu ethnic Nepalese successor Nar Bahadur Bhandari put it, Sikkim had merged but would not be submerged.

Since they are no longer fighting a durbar that derived its symbols and rituals from Manchu China, the Nepalese who constitute 75 per cent of Sikkim's population don't need to reinvent themselves as Gorkha. They are proudly Sikkimese, masters in their own home. Merger would erode an identity that synthesises the legacy of six centuries of Tibet's cultural influence. Sikkim can be put in India, but Tibet can't be taken out of Sikkim. Merger would also cost the Sikkimese their protected jobs and special privileges.

Uttam Lal, a young idealist who teaches geography and natural resources management at Sikkim University, spoke passionately of the threat that both man and beast face on Sikkim's border with Tibet. He meant mines, barbed wire fencing and other defensive measures. The menace of modernity is no less serious. It is as much in need of the attention of organisations like the FNVA, which calls itself an "institute for developing peace studies". There can be no peace unless healthy survival is ensured.

Tailpiece: When Densapa led a group of fellow Bhutiya-Lepcha notables to Delhi to seek Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, Kunwar Natwar Singh, then a minister, remarked wryly he had never seen such a sophisticated bunch of tribals. But ST status was granted.

First Published: Fri, April 19 2013. 22:46 IST