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Witness to change in and around Sikkim


When I began my field study in Sikkim around 1970, naturally my concentration was on issues directly related to the theme of my thesis. However, that was the phase in the regional history, when there was turmoil and upheaval all round, which I could not afford to switch off : Bhutan achieved impossible by acquiring an international personae as a member of the UNO; East Pakistan would turn into Bangladesh after a bloody armed crackdown by Pak armed forces; death of two rulers in two Himalayan kingdoms, Jigme Wangchuk of Bhutan and Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal; a frequent talk of ‘federation of Himalayan kingdoms’ and existence of snow man, yeti, in the greater Himalayan ranges and the peaks by the journalists and explorers. In Namgyal Sikkim too, there were novel concerns; there was whisper of revision of Treaty with India, concern of the courtiers for imagined protocols around the royal couple and ruler’s not so subtle canvassing for an international role for Sikkim. I recall there was a little known local journalist, Yakha, who would invariably tease me with story/question of Yeti and federation of the Himalayan kingdoms. I confess that I presumed those were journalists’ fancy of kite flying at the most and moved on to my prosaic ground level strenuous field research. The reality was that I was still tied with ethnography, in which I was trained in anthropology. However, I confess that I could not imagine at that time that for rest of my life, I shall be wedded to the issues of land and people of the eastern Himalayan region.  
Late lamented Lyonpo Dawa Tshering, the claimed longest serving Foreign Minister of Bhutan, was an extraordinarily polished diplomat. I was his formal guest thrice in 1993-1997. Once I would reach Thimphu, my first call would naturally be to him and he would welcome me in a most affable manner and would brief me about the latest development on the Lhotshampa episode. Then, there would be a telephonic call to him within about half an hour and he would turn to me, ‘His Majesty has granted an audience to you right now’. It would be a most polite and friendly suggestion indicating that he had prepared me for meeting with the Druk-rGyalpo Jigme Singhe Wangchuk, in the audience hall in the Thimphu dZong, the fort, and then I should proceed to meet his sovereign. He would have briefed me about the conspiracy to carve out ‘A Greater Nepal’ in the eastern Himalayan region beyond Darjeeling to Duars eastwards. By then, I had sufficient background information on the issues and in my limited knowledge of regional international relation I took it as a probing point for the future.
The Druk-rGyalpo would make his guests like me as if I was the most important person for him in the world, and I would be the person, who knew everything around and thus, I must understand the implications of Lhotshampa episode. He would take pains to elaborate on the sinister design under which Lhotshampa exodus to the refugee camps was organized. He would give instances, where he had himself intervened and requested unsuccessfully the bona fide Bhutanese leaving their country for the refugee camps in Nepal to stay back and not to undertake suicidal step to desert their country. Then he would provide some details how Lhotshampas still residing in Bhutan would be attacked, their properties would be vandalized, and even some of them would be abducted by the ‘terrorists from the camps’. Requested for the reasons for the increased violence against human and property, he would vaguely suggest that there was a sinister design to destabilize the kingdom under an organized move from outside.
Kanak Mani Dixit of Himal Southasia fame made a forceful presentation in 1993 at SOAS Conference on Bhutan, London and punctured the myth of Greater Nepal enunciated by Bhutanese establishment. He did confess to the extent that there was a little known NGO (None Government Organization), Greater Nepal Committee in Kathmandu, which wanted to abrogate Treaty of Peace (Segowlee), 1815 between HONOURABLE EAST INDIA COMPANY and Rajah of Nipal (Kathmandu) and demanded from the British Government the ceded territories back to Nepal. Incidentally, the demand was addressed to Great Britain, as if she still possessed those territories. The Prime Minister of Nepal of the time,  Girija Prasad Koirala, termed it as ‘a product of unsound minds’. Moreover, no political party or the government in Nepal had ever supported the move and made such a demand. Going in the details of the ceded territories in the east, west, and south of Nepal now in the Indian Union, there had never been anywhere more than three decades of Nepalese occupation in pre 1815 period. These territories have been in India for nearly two hundred years since then and the residents in those territories have been electing their own governments every five years, a dream for the Nepalese, which was yet to begin with in 1993. Forget about Bhutan  for the time being, where will the Greater Nepal be created?, asked Kanak Dixit. Naturally, ‘it will be on the Indian territories. Then who in Nepal will be prepared to take arms against the third largest army in the world, the Indian Army, in which there are Gorkha Regiments as well, who had taken oath to defend Indian territories?’ asked Mr. Dixit. Yes, there is an aspirational move among certain people of Nepal to take pride on the past glory, which got reflected in the literary and romantic imaginations. So there was more of air in it and there was no substance in the claimed sinister design of Nepal. However, not only Lyonpo Dawa Tshering of Bhutan, but Jyoti Basu, the Chief Minister of West Bengal and Subhas Ghishing of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) from Darjeeling also claimed that there was a ‘Nepalese design for a Greater Nepal’ and both of them were hinting about Darjeeling as the potential target of such a move.
Kanak published a long article in his journal, HIMAL SOUTHASIA, on it in 1993 and another one elsewhere subsequently. But the talk of Greater Nepal continued to circulate some way or other through the media. Kanak provoked me to undertake a study of this phantom of greater Nepal and I began toying with it. Darjeeling was still in the news for its unsettled affairs. Ethnic moves against the Nepalis continued off and on from the Northeastern states in India. And at the top of all that, there was stalemate between Nepal and Bhutan on the return of Lhotshampas refugees sheltered in the camps in Jhapa district of Nepal, but the delegates of the two governments were still negotiating. And that was the time a historian Vice Chancellor of Vishwabharati Santiniketan University had organized a seminar on History, Culture, Language and Communication in South Asia at NEHU, Shillong. I had made a presentation in which among others, I had pleaded the case of the Lhotshampas living in the refugee camps for decades by then. Before the discussion on the paper could start, the organizer posed a problem directly to me, but indirectly to the present scholars, ‘Do you remember there is a national consensus not to discuss the Bhutanese refugees and their problems? This is something in the national interest’ And there was an instant chorus of shouting from the present academic audience in opposition to what the Vice Chancellor had uttered and he had to  willy-nilly keep mum and the discussion continued as per the schedule. But it gave me the answer I was looking for on the question, ‘Why did the Indian media ignore the plight of the Bhutanese refugees languishing in the refugee camps?’ Otherwise, such a loud Indian mass media, maintaining such a boisterous silence? Possibly the Government of India had been an accomplice with the Bhutanese establishment in exodus of the refugees to the refugee camps. There was an occasion in India International Centre in New Delhi sometime in late 1990’s. When the some of us pointedly asked Shri J N Dixit, former Foreign Secretary of India, about India’s non-involvement in the Lhotshampas imbroglio. He responded that a few hundred thousand Nepalis speakers would not matter much to mother India, but others were shirking from taking their responsible shares of it.      

I presented a copy of my book on Sikkim to Shri B S Das, former Chief Executive of Sikkim at the India International Centre, New Delhi and he asked me what I was researching then. After some time, he enquired weather somebody from MEA/ MHA had met me for some discussion, to which I naturally replied in the negative. He responded that there would be a telephonic call to me from somebody in the government, and I should respond. There was a call from MEA (N) and they wanted to meet me with my papers. I did not understand much of it, but I responded affirmatively and reached the place at right time. The gentleman was a functionary of Ministry of External Affairs, who was looking after Indian interests in the North, which meant Nepal and Bhutan. I was puzzled to meet the gentleman seating at lofty site and ignorant of his charge or he pretended to do so. In our brief discussion, I realized that he may be expert on the government policies, but to my surprise, I found him illiterate on the existing literature on those countries. Exasperated, I asked him pointedly these were the latest books on the two countries, if had he read them? He replied in the negative, informed me that he hardly had time to read them. Then he asked me to leave those books along with my research proposal for consideration of B P Koirala Foundation and he would give me a call to meet again. And he did call me and informed that my research proposal was considered anti-national and thus it could not be considered by the Foundation.
I thanked him for his indulgence, collected my papers and came back wiser than before about the functioning of our bureaucracy. And in the process, my hunch that the Indian establishment was possibly involved with the Bhutanese in exodus of the Lhotshampa refugees got a further proof.  That instance made me to think about their British predecessors, who had authored books on their charge besides performing their normal duties in most trying circumstances. Very shortly, the Member-Secretary of the Indian Council of Social Sciences, New Delhi wrote to me in 2012 offering the National Fellowship for a period of two years. I accepted the offer and worked at the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi on the same proposal for a period of two years, which was considered anti-national by the ‘nationalists’ of the MEA earlier. The study was complete in 2014 and the report was duly submitted to sponsoring Institution on time. And a revised and updated version of that have been published from Routledge Publishing House London this very year.   
Around that time, Prof. B C Upreti, Director of Centre for South Asian Study, Rajasthan University, Jaipur had organized a seminar on Nepal. The seminar was for two days, in which apart from Indians, some Nepalese scholars were also invited to participate. There was also a representative from the Nepalese Embassy in New Delhi among the participants. By and large, he was more of an observer than a participant and I do not remember him ever asking for any question in any session. But he was a friendly person, who did not miss a single presentation to attend so far I remember. One evening in our post dinner session, I took him in confidence and asked him with all seriousness, ‘Sir, right now your hands are full with all types of problems at the national level. How on earth, you people permitted such a huge number of Lhotshampa refugee to enter your country adding further to your troubles?’ He paused for a while and then responded, ‘Look, Professor! Suppose a hundred thousand slaving Lhotshampas living in UNHCR camps in Nepal for long are sent back home to Bhutan as equal citizens with honour like the Dukpas, don’t you think prestige of Nepal as the champion of democracy would shore in the world?’ I did admire his flight of imagination of such a possibility, I thanked him for his views and said good night. However, I got another dimension of the same problem: poor Lhotshampas were being treated as a pawn in the game of Greater Nepal by the Nepalese establishment too.
I remember having heard in North Bengal in early 1970’s quite frequently the derisive remarks on the passing vehicles with Bhutanese and Sikkimese number plates as the ‘the son-in-laws of Government of India’. There was a built in envy among locals against the special treatment accorded to the two little principalities, and that too with considerable Nepali population, who were in many cases their relatives. Look at the situation afresh. Subhas Ghishing and his GNLF flagrantly used Bhutan Duars as sanctuary and support for their cause in terms of men and materials in 1980’s. Naturally, this could not have endeared them and their hosts Lhotshampas to already exasperated Bhutanese establishment. One can’t blame the Dukpas for guarding their interests in their own territory in retaliation. But who suffered in the process, immigrant Nepalese in Bhutan known as the Lhotshampas? The government of India had enough of headache in Darjeeling and Punjab in 1980’s, they would not have loved to have another radical front operating on their sensitive frontiers and possibly they naturally decided to extend a helping hand to Bhutan, when a request was made. And in the euphoria of ‘coming of the Second Democracy in 1990’, Nepal decided to fish in the troubled water of Bhutan, as a tool to shore up its newly acquired democratic credential. And what resulted in at the end? A very sad story of ethnic dispersal of the Lhotshampas from the lightly ruled plentiful land of Bhutan to the crowded and cramped refugee camps in Jhapa to the unknown and strange locales at last in the Western countries! Was the Greater Nepal to be created at the cost of poor Lhotshampas? What a tragic fall, my friends and country men? Now, it is even embarrassing to ask: where is Greater Nepal in the east and what happened to it?  I still remember the scene in which an old Lhotshampa gentleman in Damak refugee camp crying bitterly and accusing India: ‘I am a Hindu Gorkha, who had gone to take deep in Ganges at Varanasi. How can the Hindu India forget us? We are starving by the roadside and nobody cares for us’.      

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