Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom
THONDUP ARRIVED back in Gangtok utterly dejected, bitter and angry about the way he had been treated in Delhi. During his thorough examination of the documents while in the capital, he and his legal advisers had noticed that one clause—Clause 30—of the new act seemed to have been designed to allow for intervention in his country, by stating that ‘the Sikkim Government may… seek participation and representation for the people of Sikkim in the political institutions of India’.
He still found it hard to believe that Mrs Gandhi would actually allow for the clause to be used, even if, as Thondup knew was likely, the Kazi had made the request. A week after returning from Delhi, he fired off a letter to her, perhaps more in hope than expectation…
But he could feel his lifelines disappearing. A few days later he wrote a morose letter to Martha Hamilton, Ishbel Ritchie’s predecessor, with whom he maintained a correspondence relationship, enclosing voluminous documentation about what had taken place. ‘We have been through a thoroughly bad eighteen months,’ he wrote…
It was a plea for help—but he knew, deep down, that there was little Martha Hamilton could do. He was now on his own. The only thread he clung to was the existence of the 1950 treaty. His legal advisers were adamant that the treaty—which by definition was between two international parties, one of which he was still the titular head of—would prevent India changing Sikkim’s status without consulting him.
But Clause 30 had been worded in a deliberately vague way so as to make it almost an ‘enabling’ document. If the Assembly made a request to India, so the clause suggested, then India had something close to an obligation to allow ‘participation and representation for the people of Sikkim in the political institutions of India’. The only thing they required was the request.
And, for that, they had a willing accomplice in the Kazi.
In theory the act provided for the Chogyal to be kept informed of any further constitutional developments or changes. But this too had been cleverly worded: the act said that ‘important matters’ should be submitted to the Chogyal ‘for his information and for his approval of the action proposed to be taken’. What ‘important matters’ constituted was wide open to interpretation.
In any case over the next six weeks, theory counted for nothing. Pragmatism took over. No further Assembly resolutions were deemed necessary, despite this also being a requirement under the act. Instead a hasty direct request from the Kazi and four other newly appointed ‘ministers’ to activate Clause 30 arrived on Das’s desk towards the end of July. Das forwarded the request to the Indian government; he also sent it to Thondup, who immediately challenged it. Under the 8 May Agreement, Thondup pointed out, his approval was still required for any matters which involved Indo-Sikkim relations. He received no answer from Das. On 29 July, Thondup wrote separately to Mrs Gandhi, expressing his ‘strong objections to any step that might damage Sikkim’s international identity and affect relations with India’ It was not until 28 August—a full month later—that he received an answer to this letter, and then only from the Foreign Minister, Swaran Singh. Singh’s letter was dated 22 August; in it he said that the Indian government was ‘looking into the legal and constitutional implications’ of the Kazi’s letter, adding that ‘if it is found feasible to respond, we shall be happy to do so’. There was no mention of the 1950 treaty.
On 29 August, the day after Thondup received Swaran Singh’s letter, the reason for these delays and obfuscations became clear. Listening to a late-night news bulletin on All India Radio, Thondup and his adviser Jigdal Densapa could hardly believe their ears. The report stated that Mrs Gandhi intended to introduce an ‘Amendment Bill’ to the Indian constitution in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian parliament, with the aim of converting Sikkim into what was being termed an ‘associate state’. Thondup was stunned. It seemed he was expected to believe that, only six short days after Swaran Singh had said they were looking into ‘the legal and constitutional implications’, a draft bill had been prepared and parliamentary time had been found for it to be discussed.
It was not only Thondup who was caught by surprise. If the Indian government thought that they could slip the bill through without any adverse reaction, they were mistaken. The popular Hindustan Times was vehement in its criticism of the government’s actions. A leading article, entitled ‘Kanchenjungha, Here We Come’ (referencing the Sikkimese mountain), was accompanied by a cartoon entitled ‘The Autumn Collection!’ that depicted Indira Gandhi sashaying in an elaborate, long Himalayan dress emblazoned with the word ‘Sikkim’. The accompanying article was no less harsh…
But even the timing of the All India Radio announcement had been carefully planned, made late on a Thursday, leaving only one day before the weekend. First thing on Monday morning the bill was formally introduced in the Indian parliament. Foreign Minister Swaran Singh’s opening statement left the MPs in no doubt about the nature of the action. The bill was, he said, ‘a political matter and not a question of legal niceties’. But the growing opposition in the Lok Sabha to Indira Gandhi’s autocratic government would not be silenced; MP after MP pointed out that, political matter or not, the bill opened up a constitutional can of worms: the Congress (O) accused the government of outright ‘procedural and constitutional impropriety’, calling the new status a ‘disparate marriage between a republic and a monarchy’; the Jana Sangh, a Hindu nationalist opposition party, criticised the bill for not going far enough, creating an unworkable and meaningless halfway house of ‘associate state’. And, others asked, if the people had voted for this new status (the government was arguing that the 1974 elections were a vote for accession to the union), did that imply that they could later reverse it and leave the union by a further vote against it?
Excerpted with permission from Random House