Sikkim’s political history as a subject of study has attracted the least attention so far of scholars of history and as such it remains a daunting challenge that needs to be adequately met. Nevertheless, whatever facts and fictions that are presently available to us must from the basis of its assessment and study. However, according to a rough estimate Sikkim’s history, ever since its recorded journey from the past, seems very likely to have passed through four phases broadly that are significantly noteworthy.
(i) Democratically-run Tribaldom: Even while kingdom after kingdom ruled by autocrats and feudal overlords had become established that encircled Sikkim from almost all sides, Sikkim was still a tribaldom, broken up into as many fragments as there were tribal heads who led a virtually nomadic existence. Amongst the various tribes constituting the inhabitants of the then Sikkim, the Lepcha tribe was solely led by the “Panu”, the Bhutia tribe was ruled by their religious head, the Tsongs were administered by their elected head, the Subba, while the Mangars were led by one whose claim to leadership rested purely on his physical strength and fighting prowess. The Lepchas, as a rule, were universally accepted by all as the original dwellers of the land and hence all other tribes who came later to this land had no qualms about accepting “Panu”, the Lepcha leader, as the supreme head despite the fact that it was the individually elected leader of each tribe who was responsible for running the affairs of each clan. This highly democratic system of running the affairs of the land that had not yet attained the status of a kingdom seemed to have survived until the end of the fourteenth century A.D. Even if it had made its initial inroads into the nomadic life of the clannish tribes of the day, agriculture was far from being accepted as a way of life to augment the economic well-being of the mixed populace that inhabited the then Sikkim. Raising animals, mainly cattle and sheep, was the main occupation of the people. Even the institution of marriage lacked firm basis of legal and moral acceptance. The law of the jungle was what generally prevailed and as a result constant fighting amongst the various tribes often erupted to may the social harmony. Weapons of defence and offence being strictly limited, physical strength and fighting prowess in combat often played vital part in determining the outcome of a clash that settled the controverted issue. For this reason, the electing of a leader from Lepcha’s Panu downward was strictly based on physical strength and fighting ability of the would-be leader. The people of this land in those balmy days, therefore, practiced and enjoyed a unique form of democracy and freedom where the concept of class was totally absent. Even though the Panu and other leaders of the clans commanded unique status during the period of crisis that often led to physical combats based on strength, these leaders from Panu downward in normal times of peace and tranquility were always among equals. The concept of wealth then being an unknown quantity, there was no distinction that separated the rich from the poor, the big from the small, because the concept of status and class was totally absent from the existing social milieu. Nobody had ever thought of drawing a line that distinguished a master from his slave or servant.
(ii) The advent of a King: In 1642 Phuntso Namgyal, by proclaiming himself as king of Sikkim, started the dynastic rule that was to last for nearly 330 years. Whereas by this time the neighboring countries like Tibet and Nepal had already come under the full way of kingly rule where power had become polarized on the ruling monarch. Thus Sikkim, too was subsequently drawn into the maelstrom of power monopoly that converted the erstwhile Sikkim enjoying absolute democracy into a fiefdom, through ruled by a begin king to begin with.
Animal raising accounting mostly for pursuing nomadic life-style made imperative by constant need to look for greener pastures, thus gave way to agricultural pursuits that, in the long run, served only to strengthen the hands of the monarchy. Despite which, agriculture became the mainstay to augment the economic well-being of the people while, raising domesticated animals like cattle, sheep and horses as part of the agricultural process did much to augment the success of their main occupation – farming. In order to develop agricultural process on a broad scale and basis and to introduce innovative methods practiced in the neighboring kingdom like Nepal, procurement of skilled Labour force became inevitable. Thus, in course of time there was an influx of skilled hands at various modes of agricultural applications, who were brought into Sikkim by some innovative and ambitious noblemen of the day. If it was considered a normal practice for men to marry and maintain a number of wives, such marital misadventure on the part of the female sex became socially taboo and this gave way to the founding of the institution of marriage, where a woman had a role to play and fulfill by being faithful to her spouse and raise the children begotten through him. The rights and privileges of the people hitherto enjoyed by them became pawn at the hands of the palace to be doled out to the public as and when the Darbar was pleased to do so. The king along with his kiths and kins began willfully to run the administration of the country. Dictatorial rule in its milder form came into being to ensure that the palace was the ultimate authority and that all power flowed from there. In the capital itself, some noblemen close to the palace became absolute masters to rule over those sections of the populace who came directly under their influenye. The people under such feudal overlords were subjected to ruthless oppression and subjugation.
Due to internal conflict that showed itself from time to time within the palace and the external threat that materialized from the Gurkha attacks which the country had to face often, the king and his followers had often had to flee the palace, seeking safety elsewhere. In spite of such early uncertainties that plagued his rule, the Namgyal dynasty, however, continued to rule over Sikkim for 330 years – in itself a unique record.
(iii) Foreign Influence On Sikkim Polity: At a time when Nepal was bent upon extending its boundaries through conquest, Sikkim’s giant neighbour to the south had already become a part of the British Empire. Therefore, it had become expedient for the wily Englishmen to put a stop to the growing menace of Gurkha’s expansionist ambition. The British tactical policy to contain the Gurkha menace consisted in acting as a mediator between the marauding Gurkhas on the one hand and the country under seige on the other to work out a peace treaty so that the treaty so entered into would prevent the attacking Gurkhas from taking over the captured territories of the vanquished country. It was during the reign of T enzing Namgyal that the Gurkhas under the command of Damodar Pandey had succeeded in capturing many parts of Sikkim.
The Sugauli Treaty of 1815-16 put a final stop to Nepal’s ambition of conquest and as per terms and conditions laid down in the said treaty, Nepal had to surrender whatever territories it won over and annexed of Sikkim back to the Sukhimpatti. Despite the fact that the Treaty of Sugauli enabled Sikkim to retrieve its lost territories, the next two years saw the whole of Sikkim being annexed by the Raj under the Treaty of Tittalia, thus bringing the sovereignty of Sikkim under the then hegemony of the British Raj. Even a territory like Darjeeling with its unique scenic beauty and salubrious mountain climate was annexed to the Raj in 1833.
It was during the reign of Dewan Namgyal (Pagla Dewan) that Sikkim had somehow attained its peak of power when the ruling monarch had made some determined gestures t assert his country’s independent status. In spite of this the Treaty of 1861 between Sikkim and the East India Company only served to make Sikkim all the more dependent on its giant neighbour to the south. When the Company Raj decided to establish a trading relation with Tibet, Sikkim was reduced to the status of a buffer state between China in the no British India to the South. In 1888 when Tibet was forced t vacate Ringtu while in the’ meantime a treaty of mutual friendship was forged between China and the Company Raj in 1890, Sikkim was further reduced to the status of a Protectorate of the Raj.
(iv) The beginning of Democratic Movement: With the escalation of freedom movement in India under the throes of the raj, a sign of similar aspiration apparently began to take root in the Sikkimese. It fell to the lot of the educated youth of the day in Sikkim to raise the voice in favour of democracy and democratic rule in the State rather than the dictates of the durbar. However, the stalwarts who led the early movement for democracy in Sikkim were purely inspired by the freedom movement then being overtly waged in British India under the leadership of the National Congress. It is interesting to note that even those early movements for democracy in Sikkim were not without the Indian influence, as those leaders of the day had a penchant for duplicating everything that was being undertaken by the leaders of the National Congress in the contemporary India under the Raj. It was for this reason alone that then leaders in their preoccupation to ape and photocopy the Indian leadership for freedom movement in the sub-continent, ended up ignoring nationalism they inherently owed to Sikkim.
The sole objective of this political body, the National Party, was to thwart and neutralise the democratic aspirations of the Sikkimese masses and to preserve and uphold the nationalistic favour of the State that was strictly confined to the sections of the population who figured as the gross minority in the State. If the National Party, on the one hand, was led by leaders loyal to the interest of the Durbar, the State Congress on the other hand had workers, sympathizers and followers who were from the bulk of commoners, but its leadership was wholly manned by stalwarts who apparently hailed from the upper echelon of society. The opposing leadership that faced each other there only to neutralise each other’s effectiveness and while one group lacked nationalism – it being non-existent in their manifesto – despite its massive support base, the opposing group, despite its nationalistic favour to maintain its sovereignty – even if it was self-effacing – it lacked massive support that otherwise come from the masses that, by and large, remained passive and cold towards Durbar’s overtures. For this reason in particular the democratic movement that finally overtook the tiny fiefdom was pathetically devoid of nationalistic overtone that’ made the merger look like the only option left open to choose for Sikkimese at large. And this accounted for a bloodless coup.
Those so-called demagogy of the day were woefully conscious of their limitation and shortcoming who fully realized that it was beyond them to usher in democracy in Sikkim through their efforts alone. They had no guts or imagination to work for a democracy that would come through hard toil and sacrifice as they were least prepared to exert will and effort for it. They no doubt believed in the right thing by having faith in the potential of true democracy and the good things it would bring to the State; but they pinned their .belief down in the wrong place when they expected the Indian leadership to put it on a silver platter and proffer it to them for a price. Which was precisely what happened when democracy came to Sikkim and with it the merger which the Sikkimese had to pay as a price for democracy.
The National Party in tow with the Durbar on the other hand were extremely’ keen to retain the identity of Sikkim more or less as an independent entity, but they were least inclined to establish a democratic set-up with which to respond to the aspirations of the masses. The Chogyal to them was a symbol of unity and nationalism, but, sadly enough, the Chogyal did little to evoke the kind of patriotism in the masses that remained forever alienated through the machination of his hangers-on. Therefore, when the merger came in 1975, it seemed the most natural and obvious thing that could have happened to Sikkim.
Despite the fact that there appeared to be two opposing political forces fighting for and against a common cause, the two Parties, in essence, were both led by persons of considerable means, most of whom were essentially landlords of Sikkim. A Party of the common masses led by a commoner was yet to be born in Sikkim of those days. Their mutual opposition which they apparently shared with each other gave way to an open contest between the two that saw them vying for New Delhi’s attention and apparent favour. Leaders of both the Parties went virtually out of their way to please and placate Delhi. Little wonder, New Delhi finally responded by doing what, according to late Mrs. Gandhi, should have been done much earlier. Pundit Nehru in this regard had once declared publicly that to annexe Sikkim by force to India would amount to shooting down a fly with a gun.
The democratic history of Sikkim in today’s parlance based on adult franchise begins after the merger with India in 1975. The leaders from the earlier generation, some of whom are still happily with us, have often done their best to elude us on the question of Sikkim’s merger by providing wrong impressio’l on the need to merge Sikkim in the mainstream so also on the circumstances that made the exercise necessary. And these wise guys are often under the illusion that they alone are the worthy sons of Sikkim’s soil while the rest are a mere burden on the State. In this regard, Shri N.B. Bhandari is perhaps the worst of the lot whose penchant for taking undeserved credit for having single-handedly preserved what remained of the Sikkimese rights and privileges after the merger, never seems to flag with passing years. His penchant for highlighting physical pains and suffering which he underwent as a result of beating at the hands of the CRPF jawans during the merger movement is still very much a part of him which he never fails to bring up at all his public addresses. “The pain inflicted by the beating I received at the hands of the CRPF jawans is still with me after all these years and the part of my body that sustained the injury still hurts,” says N.B. Bhandari every time he brings up the merger issue at a public meeting. The truth being the lie is again something else. It was, in fact, his fool-hardyness that led to the much publicized beating which consisted of a couple of dandas that landed on his person before he made a hasty retreat. He had not the slightest inkling as to what was going on as the movement gathered momentum to indicate in no uncertain terms that a positive history was in the process of being made. If he failed to read the writing on the wall then it was his fault that earned him the dandas he could have easily avoided. He was, no doubt taken prisoner at Barhampur jail in West Bengal where he remained imprisoned for a couple of months before he was set free on the plea that he would not repeat the same mistake again. Had Bhandari been seriously implicated in his fight for Sikkim’s freedom and sovereignty, he would have remained behind bars as a political prisoner for 14/15 years like Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir did, who remained steadfast in his demand to the last. But Nar Bhandur Bhandari had relented and given up the ghost within a couple of months after he found himself in the can at Barhampur and had pleaded never to repeat the same mistake again. For his pain, his head was shaved off and released on condition never to come back for the same offence. And he never did.
And today, Mr. Bhandari is living on the interests he had earned over those few months he had unwillingly spent behind bars at Barhampur jail following the merger that made Sikkim part of India.
He has since succeeded in administering dandas after dandas on those who opposed his dictatorial rule, including a murder he masterminded and got away with; but he hardly makes mention of his misdeeds that set him apart as an incorrigible despot. However, he never fails to sing the glory’ of those few months he spent in Barhampur jail like a parrot glory of God’s name without knowing what it is doing.
World history is replete with events that are stranger than fiction. A historic event happened to transpire in Sikkim that is no less strange than fiction. A liberated country often adopts democracy as the best form of governance the outgoing century has known. But what happened in Sikkim was just the opposite. A merger with India was the price the Sikkimese were .required to pay in exchange for democracy that was proffered to us on a silver platter. It was democracy the Sikkimese leaders of the day had always asked for as a means of ridding of the ruling Chogyal and they got it duly handed over to them. When democracy made its advent into Sikkim, the Chogyal with a dynastic history of 330 years was bundled off to become a part of History. Sikkim had to give up the Protectorate status it had consistently enjoyed even after India became independent in 1947. Indeed, the price the Sikkimese had had to pay for democracy had been pretty heavy. But on a closer examination of Sikkim’s past history, it becomes evidently clear that what followed as a matter of course was bound tojJappen sooner or later. The Chogyal and all those leaders who became instrumental in the merger of Sikkim were flocked together by a common destiny to play their respective parts as prisoners of history.
Merger became reality when Sikkim was declared the 22nd State of the Indian Union. Although the merger in 1975 marked the beginning of Parliamentary democracy in Sikkim, yet the general masses remained somewhat isolated from the mainstream as fruits of democracy failed to reach the grass roots population who constituted the bulk of the havenots in the State. The reason for this is again linked with the history of the State. It must be clearly understood.
At the time of the merger, the State was devoid of properly planned communication network. It lacked comprehensive infrastructures for heavy and light industries, the very geography of this tiny State being at a disadvantage. It was a thoroughly backward State with insurmountable mountains and inaccessible terrains as its natural heritage but endowed with a rich array of unmatched and unspoilt scenic beauty that abounds in gay abundance. Democracy became established in the governing machinery of the State but it failed to reach the teeming masses at the base of the social pyramid. The State coffer was pumped to overflowing with development funds and the fruits of development did become manifest in various forms that could be seen and felt everywhere as they vibrated in unison with the spirit and ambition of the emerging bourgeois class who stood to gain most from the on-going rhythm of development in the State while the grassroots people remained practically isolated from the fruits of development overtaking the State. Democracy meant little or nothing to them when their inherent fear of the rich and mighty remained ever glued to their psyche to haunt them with the same intensity it had done over the years prior to the merger. The bulk of the State’s population remained . riddled with illiteracy superstitions and a host of ills that a backward society becomes heir to that blighted their hope of ever gaining a decent life-style. The fear-psychosis instilled before by the Durbar and the Kazis who ruled the roost with iron hands was now replaced by the fear-psychosis they felt towards the Chief Minster, Ministers and the MLAs. The Sikkimese masses were not happy with the antics of Kazi Lhendup Dorji who led the then State Congress Party, but there was no suitable option to replace him. The people were unhappy at the way things were and yet there was none to take up the cudgel and fight for people’s rights.
At a time when everything was tipsy truly due to complete dearth of able leadership in the overall scenario of feudal Sikkim, when Nar Bahadur Bhandari, with his sweet talks and a glib tongue appeared on the scene to make his political debut on the basis of talking bigger than the pair of panties he wore. That the ruling Chogyal must concede to the democratic form of governance in Sikkim being the burning issue of the day, N.B. Bhandari elected to oppose the said sentiment of the day. This he diffuse for the sake of opposing an issue that often made headlines in the local papers of the day. And based on this singular fete of his, he had declared himself as the leading democrat of the State. But going against the tide that sought to usher in democracy into Sikkim, he, by design, had metamorphosed overnight to become the leading democrat of the State. It was this stand of his – his stand against democratic rule in the State when the Chogyal was the ruling monarch – that enabled Bhandari to announce himself as pro-Cho9YClI and later as an anti-merger stalwart. It was this stared that later prepared him for the ‘Sikkim pharkaunchhu’ gimmickry with which he successfully spearheaded the election campaigns of 1979. Bhandari then was a supporter of the throne alright – a nationalist born overnight who, however, took full advantage of the fundamental rights granted to him of speech and expression by the Indian Constitution which he made full use of during the ‘Sikkim pharkaunchhu’ campaigns by calling names to Indian leaders that also included the Prime Minister with impunity. This he was able to do for various reasons. When Sikkim was in the process of being merged in the mainstream as the 22nd state of the union, there was a hue and cry raised by the opposition leaders in both the houses of Parliament while it had caused considerable eye-brow raising among neighboring powers outside the country. In the ensuing circumstances, the squabbling Janata Government at the Centre thought it best to overlook Bhandari’s antics, though definitely anti-national in overtone, as mere tantrums of a disgruntled politician just out to win votes. Besides, the Centre was convinced that the merger had become an irreversible fact of history that was beyond re-capture and redress. But in this tiny backward State of the then Sikkim Bhandari’s gimmickry did make an impact of sorts that sent Kazi Lhendup Dorji’s Janata party packing when the Party Kazi led at the hosting was totally routed, losing 32 out of 32 seats in the assembly. Bhandari romped home a winner, though not by a margin as was anticipated. Apart was the ‘poor-man’ background which he brought home to project before the Sikkimese masses who, in return, identified him as their very own. He would literally cry out aloud, shedding crocodile’s tears while addressing himself as a ‘poor orphan’ but determined to make every promise come true. This, having gone through the grinding mill of the Chogyal and later of Kazi’s, the gullible Sikkimese went head over heel to accept Bhandari as their ‘Messiah’ as Bhandari had somehow succeeded in identifying himself with the burden of being a poor man’s son!!
Gratitude in politics is often short-lived and leaders of Bhandari’s ilk have faulty memory. Soon everything was forgotten once Nar Bahadur took rein of office; the masses who stood by him during election time and the spate of promises mingled with the crying appeal he had made from the party platform both faded into limbo. He turned his attention towards cultivating the friendship of a handful of rich businessmen who became his business associates and began working in their interests so that his own interest was duly served. Bhandari, unlike the Chogyal and Lhendup Kazi before him, had a band of sycophants who hailed from the business circle and hence they were rank outsiders, while the sycophants who surrounded the Chogyal and L. D. Kazi were rich Sikkimese landlords who were purely sons of the soil of Sikkim. And as Bhandari was fully conversant with the ways of former autocrats and feudal overlords who ruled Sikkim with iron hands, the art of the oppressor he had previously acquired stood him in good stead when he himself became the ruler of Sikkim. A man who once addressed himself before the people as a discarded orphan, Bhandari had no compunction in abusing his public office when he began to rule as a monarch without a crown. Hailing from a poor home it was not long before he became master of millions. The fundamental rights of speech and expression granted by the Constitution to its citizens became imprisoned within the bounds of Mintokgang, the official residence of the Chief Minister of Sikkim. Those who sought to exercise their democratic rights, despite Bhandari’s strictures, were treated with icy fingers of death that suddenly overtook them. The clever ones with keen instinct for survival became pawns at the hands of Nar Bahadur who bought them at will, no matter what the price, as long as the buying was good. Those who dared to defy Bhandari’s offer to buy in order to uphold their personal integrity, were ruthlessly trampled underfoot. The public at large were reduced to helpless spectators who had no option but to maintain discreet silence to avoid Bhandari’s wrath. Tyranny and repression knew no bounds. All development funds allocated by the Centre for the upliftment of the Sikkimese people became Bhandari’s personal wealth to be doled out to his business associates, sycophants, the rag-tag and the bobtails of the prize ring of politics. The State coffers are all dry and empty. The general masses are reduced to paupers while Bhandari and those of his likes have become billionaires.