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Witness to Change in and around Sikkim


Oh, God (Sikkim) / what you gave to me, I hereby return with all humility

I have been fortunate to have a good number of friends with whom I have been closely interacting for many years. Here I mention two of them in particular:  journalist Sanjoy Hazarika and academic Tanka Bahadur Subba, who would visit me at times of their convenience. Both of them were heading two academic institutions in 2012: Prof Sanjoy Hazarika was heading Centre for Northeast Study, Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi and Prof. Subba was the Vice-Chancellor of Sikkim University, Gangtok in Sikkim. Some way or other, Sanjoy came to know that I had about a dozen of evaluated Ph. D. theses lying at my place and I wished to handover to an academic institution. Sanjoy suggested that he would send somebody from his University to collect them for the Centre, where they proposed to start Ph D research programme. And that was the time, Prof. T B Subba came to me one evening and when he chanced to see those theses staked behind on the rack, he innocently asked me, ‘What are you going to do with them?’ I responded, ‘Sanjoy would take them to the Centre for Northeast Study’. ‘But I am taking them right now. My new university badly needs them. I shall talk to Sanjoy over it. You don’t have to worry about it , mouthing these words Professor Subba took some of them in his hands, went down the steps to the car and came back with the driver to collect the rest of them. And that was beginning of process, which is still incomplete.
When we got settled over some eats and drinks, I humorously said that since he had made a beginning that very evening by taking the old copies of the theses, he might have to take all my books to Gangtok. He responded off and cuff that he would love to do that. The matter ended that evening there, but it made me to think there after about my books; how lovingly and with a little sacrifice I had collected them and I was still using many of them for my on-going researches. Many a time, books were bought so lovingly when there was hardly any money around for the purpose. I recall an evening in 1972, or ’73, I had a princely amount of precious ten rupee note in my pocket and I was moving in a Calcutta Street with my newly married wife. I chanced to see a paperback on the pavement and bought it for rupees eight. And only then, I realized that I had to tell my wife that I had only two rupees left with me. She was surprised and asked me, ‘And you bought the book without thinking of me and we are both out of home in the market’. I wished I had some plausible answer to her query. But those were the happy go lucky days of IIT/K hostel, where you could naturally move without much money. At last, as always since then, she saved the situation. Then, I recalled how I had donated about 500 books to St. Xavier College, Ahmedabad and another lot of books to two of my former student-colleagues, Prof Lanu Aeir and Dr. Rekha Sampliang of NEHU, Shillong, when I was leaving the Department of Sociology after my retirement.  
My wife was willing to part with the books for the simple reason that it was increasingly becoming difficult to maintain them clean on the book shelves. I talked to my son about the books and he advised me to dispose them off as best as I could, as he would not require them. Moreover, he lives abroad and visits us once in a year. In between Prof. Subba kept on reminding me about donating the books to the University. My problem was that I was still engaged in a research assignment, which required at least some of the books I had. At last, it was decided that I shall donate my books to Sikkim University and they would take bulk of the books on an earlier date and the rest would be collected in course of time. The Vice-Chancellor informed his Executive Council of the proposed donation of the books and the Council decided to invite me to deliver the VIth  Foundation Day Lecture of Sikkim University on July 2, 2013. A suggestion was made that since the family had decided to donate the books, it was agreed that I should reach Gangtok along with my wife on the occasion to deliver the lecture.
The University in its wisdom had decided to organize the lecture at Saramsa Garden at Ranipul, Gangtok. The lecture was very well attended by the university community, intelligentsia of town and press corps on hand. Incidentally, before taking the decision to donate the books to Sikkim University, I had reasoned with myself that whatever I had achieved academically till then, it was all because of my research work on Sikkim, which had started some 45 years back, I should be grateful to Sikkim to return something of what I had got from the people of Sikkim. And possibly, this was the way to do something on way to it. For the occasion, I took two of my books, the oldest and the newest, and presented them to the Vice-Chancellor symbolically on the day with the invocation in Sanskrit, which meant trying to repay the debt undertaken. And then I talked about ‘social formation in and around Sikkim in the middle of 20th century’.
In the formulation of Lord Nathaniel Curzon, the Viceroy of India, the British India was ‘the noblest trophy of the British genius and the most splendid appendage of the Imperial Crown’ and she had reached its zenith of achievement by the end of Nineteenth Century. And for the safe-guarding that, they had created a chain of buffer states around the land boundary of their Indian possession. First of all, they succeeded in creating external buffer states of Afghanistan, Tibet and Thailand between British India and her imperial competitors such as Russia, China and France respectively. Then they thought of creating internal buffer states within their imperial possession from Baluchistan in the west to Assam Hills in the east. The Himalayan mountain chain was considered to be impregnable natural boundary of the Empire. Incidentally, they created a series of local rulers in various regions as the princely states (where they did not exist till then), who would rule their fiefs in whatever the way they could under the guidance of a resident British officers.
Moreover, they had developed a type of un-written Munroe Doctrine about Himalayas, on which they had as if an imperial monopoly. Sikkim was one of the small princely states midway in the Himalayan chain of buffer states on the important trade route between Calcutta, the imperial capital, to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital of the theocrat, the Dalai Lama. The British Political Officers located at Gangtok were invariably known as experts in Tibetan language and they were in-charge of the British affairs of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. The Residency in Gangtok was known as the watch tower over the Central Asia in general and Tibet in particular. These political officers were practically the father figures for the ruling families of Sikkim and Bhutan. They used to see that the royal children got proper education, trained in English table manners and food habits and would even fix up their marital ties as well. Three of them, who presided over the Political office in Gangtok, Charles A Bell (1909-1918), Frederick A Bailey (1918-1928) and Basil J Gould (1936-1946), wrote standard books on Tibet and other Himalayan regions.
Nari Khurshid (N K) Rustomji ICS, who visited Gangtok in early 1940’s, informs that Namgyal children were very fond of Political Officer Basil Gould and would invariably visit the Residency, where they would be treated with English cookies. Raja S T Dorji, the Bhutan Agent in India and his nephew, Palden Thondup Namgyal, entreated Basil Gould that in the event of British withdrawing from Indian Empire, their principalities would like to continue with the same relations with the British Empire, which they had till then. The P O informed them that it was not possible to do so in the aftermath of Second World War and advised them to form a Buddhist Federation of Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim. But having received the news of advancing People’s Liberation Army towards Tibet later after defeating the San Yat Sen’s Nationalist forces, he as well advised the two gentlemen to rush to Delhi with their memoranda to meet the Cabinet Mission, sent by the British government. The two delegations reached Delhi and parked themselves waiting for the opportunity to meet the ‘Mission’. But in the busy scheduled of the Mission, it was not possible to find time for the two delegations. And they were advised to go back home and wait for the instruction.  
At the end, the two Durbars received an advisory issued by the Department of Political and Foreign, Government of India on August 10, 1946:
‘…In practice, it may well prove difficult to secure a tidy solution to the future of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, even to the eastern marches of Kashmir (i.e. Ladakh). This will largely depend on the future policy and fate of China and hence of Tibet. The Government of the (Indian) Union must be prepared for complication on Northeastern Frontiers and evolve a policy to meet them. This may well have to be that of maintaining all the principalities in virtual independence of India, but as buffer, as far as possible, (as) client states. There may be greater advantages in according Sikkim a more independent status than seeking to absorb Bhutan as well as Sikkim in the Indian Union...Their importance is strategic in direct relation to Tibet and China …’  
It appears that the above advisory determined the strategy of the Government of India and her actions pertaining to Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim after 1947. Moreover, the Government of India was tied with many other larger fronts such as Kashmir and Hyderabad. And thus one finds the Government of India first signing the standstill treaties with all the three principalities and then signing the fresh treaties with three of them almost on the same old British Treaties’ dotted lines. Naturally, the rulers of the principalities were aware of the way the Government of India would act with them and thus they had evolved their strategies to deal with the populist leaders agitating for democratization in the streets. And that was the main reason why the democratic movements in Sikkim, Nepal and subsequently in Bhutan were suppressed and the rulers grew stronger than even before. There was another difference, which had to be noted, and that is, unlike imperial functionaries, the leaders of the democratic India had no luxury to ignore public opinion and they could not crush the dissenting voices with impunity. Thus, there was a phase in the regional history of 1950’s, when the rulers of three principalities flagrantly ignored New Delhi’s sensitivity on the issues of democratic movements with impunity.   
It appears that the Himalayan kings were short-sighted and thus, they failed miserably to appreciate the demand of the changing times. No doubt, by 1960’s all three of them emerged stronger than before and they were able to crush the popular movements launched by the commoners for reforming the archaic feudal system. Had they decided to reign in their kingdoms, possibly they would have been accepted, but they decided to rule over their subjects as their ancestors had done before. But time proved them wrong shortly. First, it was the turn of Sikkim. The former Crown Prince, and now the Maharaja, (who prided himself to be called, Chhogyal, the Dharamraja,) Palden Thondup Namgyal, had turned his multi-ethnic State into an out and out a Bhutia principality. The people rose in revolt and he failed to manoeuvre them as he used to do in the past. At the end, he lost his queen, kingdom, crown prince and at the end, his voice because of throat cancer by 1980. It is immaterial whether it was merger or annexation, it is a fact that former principality of Sikkim turned out to be a part of the Indian Union in 1975. Soon thereafter, Nepal and Bhutan were caught in internal upheavals in 1990’s. Nepal was caught simultaneously in democratic movements and violent Marxist uprising in extensive rural areas, which continued for about two decades resulting in end of Shah dynastic rule in 2008. Bhutan suffered from unprecedented ethnic clash within, when more than a hundred thousand Lhotshampas were forced to flee away to the refugee camps in Nepal. At last, it was about a dozen of western countries, which came forward to bail Bhutan out by taking most of the refugees in their fold. Happily, Bhutan evolved its own democratic procedure at last and since then a democratic government is functioning under the benign gaze of the Druk-rGyalpo, the dragon king.  In this way, out of three Himalayan Princely States of 1950’s, only Bhutan survives as a kingdom and that too, as an exotic and romantic world of the lamaist Himalaya. The Druk-rGyalpo continues to project his kingdom as the environment friendly Himalayan land, the Shangri-La, of Yaks, monks, and Dzongs (monastic forts) to the bewildered western world.
I had donated my collection of books to the University without any condition. But in their wisdom they invited me to deliver a distinguished lecture on the Foundation Day. Naturally, the host took care of our hospitality appropriately. The Registrar K. Deb ran into me next morning prior to our departure to the airport for a homeward journey. He asked me if everything was alright. I looked at him in a way as if enquiring why he was asking. ‘Has somebody met you from the administration/finance?’ When I responded to him in the negative, he was terribly surprised and expressed his regret for the lapse. Then he took all the relevant papers of travel from me for processing. And we two, my wife and I, left for the airport in the vehicle provided by the University. Some days after that event, the Vice-Chancellor of the University, who happened to be in Delhi, came to our residence. Handing over a cheque for our travel amount, he laughingly informed us that the  Vice- Chancellor was over-ruled by the University Officers, the Registrar and the Finance Officer, and they decided to pay for Mrs Sinha’s travel as well, on the plea that it was the family, which had donated the books. There have been occasions, when I visited Sikkim University library and was informed by the staff and some teachers that the donated books were being used reasonably well.  However, as a teacher, I felt gratified when Prof Chandel, the person who has built up the University Library with his electronic expertise as the leading institution of its type, informed me that the collection was the most used section in his library, when he came for collecting the second lot of books in January, 2020.      

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi