Letting go of Sikkim's ghost

King Palden Thondup Namgyal, the last Chogyal (monarch) of Sikkim with his wife Hope Cooke.

Nearly half-a-century after the overthrow of Palden Thondup Namgyal, the 12th and last Chogyal of Sikkim and India’s formal annexation of the tiny kingdom, the ghost of Sikkim still haunts neighbouring Himalayan states.

Till today, there are frequent dark references by media commentators to New Delhi’s plans for the ‘Sikkimisation’ of Nepal as well.

Sikkim was the smallest of the three Himalayan kingdoms, sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan to the west and east, and between China and India in the north and south. Its location magnified tiny Sikkim’s strategic importance.

Although it was a sovereign country, after Indian independence in 1947, Sikkim (like Bhutan) had ceded to New Delhi authority over three important state affairs: defence, foreign relations and communication.

After the British left India, under a treaty signed on 12 December, 1950 Jawaharlal Nehru gave Sikkim a special protectorate status, maintaining the kingdom’s independence under the Chogyal, the king.

However, the Chogyal began to show an increasing desire to chart an independent course in foreign relations for his country. When Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1966, she showed little patience for the Chogyal’s authority, and even less tolerance for Sikkim’s desire for increased independence.

Internal political turmoil in Sikkim eventually gave India the pretext to wrest power from the Chogyal and install its own administrative head to rule the country in 1973. The Chogyal wanted to renegotiate the 1950 Treaty between Sikkim and India, and made attempts to establish independent foreign relations.

Indira Gandhi was especially suspicious of the Chogyal’s American-born wife, Hope Cooke, and the influence she had on him. She was suspicious of Sikkim’s unusually large new embassy building in New Delhi’s diplomatic quarter.

Then, in March 1975, the Chogyal and Queen Hope traveled to Kathmandu to attend King Birendra’s coronation, and even met Chinese and Pakistani leaders who were also attending.

Moreover, while in Kathmandu, the Chogyal gave a press conference all but denouncing India as a hurdle in Sikkim’s attempts to raise its international stature. The Chogyal instantly became even more of India’s bête noire.

The Chogyal’s desire to break out of India’s influence was audacious, but the king may not have been a smart enough statesman or politician to challenge such a powerful neighbour. At a time when he needed public support within Sikkim to stand up to India, he made no effort to end his political discrimination against the Sikkimese of ethnic Nepali origin.

This political alienation of Nepali-speakers, who then made up 75% of the population, proved to be fatally costly not only for this throne, but also for his kingdom.

The Chogyal had internal political problems to deal with, and there was pressure building up for greater democracy. Several political organisations, especially the Sikkim National Congress led by Kazi Lhendup Dorji and Sikkim Janata Congress, had widespread support from Sikkimese Nepalis.

The two parties demanded political freedom and preferred to put emphasis on the country’s development, in contrast to the Chogyal’s desire to break out of India’s traditional role as Sikkim’s master, especially in foreign affairs. In the eyes of the Nepali-speaking Sikkimese, the Chogyal was an unpopular autocratic ruler who wanted to disenfranchise them.

Three days after the Chogyal returned to Gangtok from Kathmandu, the Indian Army surrounded his palace on 9 April 1975. New Delhi then carefully stage-managed a referendum to let the Sikkimese people decide whether the country should remain independent, or to be assimilated into India. The result was a foregone conclusion.

Ironically, Sikkim’s ethnic Nepali majority voted overwhelmingly in favour of Sikkim’s assimilation with India rather than endure what they saw as the Chogyal’s ethnic discrimination. The reign of King Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Chogyal, came to an end and Sikkim became India’s 22nd state on April 26, 1975.

Kazi Lhendup Dorji became the first Chief Minister of the new Indian state of Sikkim. For Nepalis in Nepal, however, India’s stage-managed annexation evoked deep-seated fears that New Delhi could plan something similar.

Unlike Nepalis in Sikkim, Nepalis in Kathmandu staged street demonstrations against India, calling the referendum a charade. To this day, politicians in Nepal perceived to be close to New Delhi swiftly earn the ‘Lhendup Dorji’ label in the media.

Big Brother

India has loomed large right through recent Nepali history: the end of Rana rule, the Panchayat period and Nepal’s own referendum on the monarchy in 1980, the Indian blockade of 1990 and the subsequent People’s Movement, on to the India-brokered 12-point agreement to end the Maoist conflict in 2006, the new constitution and another five-month blockade by India in 2015.

Nepali politicians have found India-bashing to be a potent tool during elections to drum up nationalist support. And India has often obliged by behaving like Big Brother.

After the first Constituent Assembly abolished Nepal’s monarchy in 2008, there were murmurs of India’s ‘grand design’. These voices grew louder when Nepal’s first Vice President Parmananda Jha, a member of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) took his oath of office in Hindi.

The MJF itself emerged as a credible political force, a power-broker and king-maker, and there was widespread belief in Kathmandu that it was New Delhi’s pawn. India was accused of using Nepal’s Madhesi population, just as it had used Nepali-speakers to foment unrest in Sikkim half-a-century earlier.

The activities of successive Indian ambassadors after 2006 were minutely followed by the media, which reported on their actual and fictitious meetings with Nepali politicians. The envoys appeared to have direct access to parlours of politicians in breach of diplomatic norms, and the press had a field day covering what it saw as New Delhi’s meddling.

Given Nepal’s overwhelming economic dependence on India, and the history of New Delhi’s heavy-handedness in its neighbourhood, paranoia about Indian intentions is understandable. But it is a bit of a stretch to fan fears of an imminent ‘Sikkimisation’ of Nepal.

Nepal’s modern foreign policy history is starkly different from the Chogyal’s Sikkim, and the country’s geostrategic situation has much stronger stock value than Sikkim ever did. Nepal’s shares a substantially longer border with India and China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region, providing both neighbouring countries to the north and the south a strategic geopolitical buffer.

The very fact that a neutral Nepal allows both China and India not to have to deploy the kind of military presence as they have amassed eyeball-to-eyeball in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh means huge savings in money, men and matériel.

On the other hand, Sikkim’s much smaller size did not give it that advantage. Its location astride India’s ‘Chicken Neck’ corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh had made Sikkim too strategic for its own good because of the proximity of China’s Chumbi Valley.

In Nepal, suspicion and paranoia about India takes flights of fancy – especially among those living north of the Chure-Bhavar line. To some extent, given India’s looming presence and its actions in the past, the fear is justified.

But for the most part, this unfettered obsession about Nepal being swallowed up by India distracts attention from the real danger – New Delhi’s unspoken expectation of subservience from landlocked Nepal. Even though Indian politicians and diplomats may not articulate it so clearly, India’s rowdy media is obsessed about ungrateful Nepalis always on the verge of selling themselves off to China.

On the other hand, the single-minded preoccupation of Nepalis that we are about to be ‘Sikkimised’ comes from our own deep-seated sense of insecurity, magnifying and perpetuating it. This is not only unlikely, but also unfortunate and misdirected.

Nepal never had the quasi-sovereign status that Sikkim had. It has always vigorously sought to establish independent foreign relations with other countries, establishing foreign missions, embassies and consulates.

Diplomatic relations between Nepal’s kingdoms and the Chinese empire go back to the 7th century, when they first exchanged emissaries. Nepal is the only country with a consulate in Lhasa. Modern China after Mao’s revolution annexed Tibet just as India subsumed Sikkim. But although Chinese imperial regimes sometimes sought to bring Nepal under their sphere of influence, Beijing never attempted to ‘Tibetise’ Nepal.

However, this is not to say that New Delhi and Beijing have no interest in Nepal, and both will leave Kathmandu to its own devices. They have tried, and will keep trying, to exert influence in Nepal for their own national and strategic interests.

China may be comfortable with the status quo as long as Nepal is not a launch pad for Tibetan nationalism, while India will try to maintain the sphere of influence that it inherited from the British. The 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty, widely seen in Nepal to be unequal, is an example of New Delhi’s attempt to maintain its dominance.

The 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed on 31 July 1950 by a newly-independent India with the Rana regime was skewed in some respects. For example, it requires Nepal to consult with India prior to importing weapons from other countries, a clause that was used to impose the blockade in 1980 when Nepal sourced anti-aircraft guns from China.

The Treaty was an encroachment on Nepal’s sovereignty, and is at the root of much of the persisting anti-India sentiment in Nepal. It tends to crop up in the manifesto of just about every political party in Nepal at election time, including the Maoists’ 40-point demand before the start of the conflict in 1996.

However, Nepalis have to recognise that the 1950 Treaty also gave Nepal what Sikkim never had. Article 1 explicitly provided that ‘there shall be everlasting peace and friendship between the Government of India and the Government of Nepal. The two Governments agree mutually to acknowledge and respect the complete sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of each other.’

At least in letter and spirit, if not in action, India was bound by the Treaty to maintain peace with Nepal and not play the role of an aggressor. More importantly, India explicitly acknowledged 70 years ago that Nepal was an independent, sovereign country and that it respected its territorial integrity.

Unless a Nepal government attempts to undermine India’s territorial integrity on its own, or by tilting too far towards China or Pakistan, New Delhi will have no reason to ‘Sikkimise’ Nepal. Besides, there are an estimated 60,000 Nepali nationals, apart from Indians of Nepali descent, enlisted in the Indian Army.

Some Nepali analysts tend to exaggerate the parallels between Sikkim and Nepal, and this serves no purpose except to fan the paranoia. Nepal’s foreign policy may be mishandled from time to time, but it is distinctly independent. We have only ourselves to blame when it does not work, for example, with the failure of our vaccine diplomacy at the moment.

Regionally, despite the signing of the 1950 Treaty with India, Nepal has strategically charted an equidistance with India and China. New Delhi diplomats tend to scoff at the word ‘equidistance’, but it has stood Nepal in good stead in keeping both giant neighbours at arm’s length.

The policy is derived from King Mahendra’s attempt to establish warm relations with China. His son, King Birendra, took the policy forward with his Nepal as a Zone of Peace (ZOP) proposal, a not-so-subtle attempt to tell the world that Nepal wanted to wriggle out of India’s sphere of influence.

Over 100 countries endorsed Nepal as a ZOP, with the notable exception of India. While it signaled to the world Nepal’s foreign policy aspiration, King Birendra’s proposal did not do much to keep India off Nepal’s back. By 1990, widespread street protests forced King Birendra to abolish the Panchayat system and turn himself into a constitutional monarch from an absolute one.

Prior to the invasion and formal annexation of Tibet by China in 1950, India considered Tibet, not Nepal, as its strategic buffer with China. When the Chinese invaded Tibet, India needed Nepal not only as an ally but also to serve as the next buffer line against China.

The Treaty of 1950 was a clear and distinct move by India to transform Nepal into a 900-km long frontier wall with China to protect its densely-populated Gangetic Plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.

This means that if India annexes Nepal, it will have to be on the frontlines with an economically and militarily ascendant China across the mountains. Why would India want to do that?

Naturally, New Delhi would prefer to preserve and extend its influence in Kathmandu. After the bruising blockade in 2015, the Indian mission is not engaged in overt influence-peddling, preferring a more low-key approach. This does not mean it has lost interest, New Delhi possibly now sees a politically stable Nepal being more in its interest than its policy of ‘controlled instability’.

It is now up to the Nepali people and their political leaders to be careful not to provide a motivation to rouse the Indian tiger with needless provocation to be an aggressive, expansionist force. Nepal must realise that its sovereignty is strengthened by domestic stability.

The kind of perpetual infighting and disunity that has characterised Nepali politics especially in the past two years, only undermines our independent status. Even the Chinese, who usually left Nepal’s political parties to sort out their own problems, had to step in when infighting within the NCP last year ultimately split the party.

Learning from the 2015 Madhes Movement and blockade, Nepal’s politicians should not allow Tarai politics to be a pretext for future Indian meddling. For this, Nepal must be a much more inclusive state, mindful of devolving political decision-making to neglected and marginalised groups. This ensures long-term stability, and cannot be seen as something that ‘disturbs communal harmony’.

Externally, Nepal should show restraint when ultra-nationalist pressure groups bring up the reclamation of Nepal’s historical territory ceded to British India in 1816. However strong our claim to Limpiyadhura, it is too sensitive an issue for Nepal’s political factions to use as nationalist ammunition against each other.

As long as Nepal seeks mutually respectful bilateral relations with India and China that builds on its own internal stability, it can play a positive role at a time of global polarisation and increased regional tension.

Nepal must live its policy of peaceful coexistence, be a peace-keeper in areas of conflict, and move forward as a confident nation, once and for all shedding its fear of Sikkim’s ghost.

Ajay Pradhan is an expatriate Nepali living in Vancouver who works for the Government of Canada as senior policy advisor for treaty negotiations and reconciliation on comprehensive land claims.

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