Giving Darjeeling back to Sikkim would restore the historical unity of this region. Old Sikkim was the land of the Bhutias and Lepchas; the future Sukhim would be a Nepali-dominated state of the Indian Union, which would respond to the frustrations of the Nepalis of India and defuse today’s tensions.
The hill area cast of the Kosi river was known as Denzong (valley of rice) to Tibetans. Earlier settlers, the Lepchas, called it Neliang (the country of caverns).
When a Lepcha chief brought his newly wed Limbu wife to his newly constructed bamboo house, she is said to have exclaimed, “Sukhim!” — the new house. This is how the name Sikkim came to be applied to this forested, hilly territory which lies east of Nepal’s Limbuan and west of Lho’mon (Bhutan).
Three Bhotia lamas came down to Denzong in search of new land and converts. As they could not resolve their separate claims, in 1641 AD, they invited Phuntso Thondup Namgyal, a local patriarch, to be the chogyal (the one who rules according to the chho, or religion).
The kingship thus acquired was lost by Phuntso Thondup’s 12th descendant Palden Thondup Namgyal in 1975, when Sikkim was incorporated into India.
The eclipse of the Namgyal rule was the culmination of conflict between a distinct but inflated identity of the Chogyal on one hand, and the desire of his subjects (by now overwhelmingly Nepali) to have a more meaningful say in their destiny. Thus, Sikkim lost forever its identity as a Bhotia principality tucked away in the mists of the Himalaya. And what has emerged is a Nepali-controlled Sikkimese state of India, an entity which has now become the focus of a new series of expectations in the region.
The picturesque contours o f Sikkimese history of the last two hundred years reveals a Namgyal dynasty, itself Bhotia, that was exclusively oriented towards Tibet. The limited affairs of state were run with the help of Magairs, Limbus and Lepchas. But the mid 1700s saw the rise of the House of Gorkha to the west and the demanding Deb Rajas in Bhutan, in the East. These developments proved disastrous for Denzong, which suffered intrusions and raids from both west and east and lost large chunks of territory. On more than one occasion, the Namgyal ruling family fled to Tibet as political refugees.
By the last quarter of the 18th century, Sikkim had lost to Bhutan its territories east of the Teesta. (This territory included the Kalimpong area, which was attached to Darjeeling district after the Anglo-Bhutan War of 1864-65.) Meanwhile, the Gorkhali generals Jahar Singh and Kaji Damodar Pandey sacked the Sikkimese capital Rabdantse and took over the right bank of the Teesta, leaving King Tenzing Namgyal a refugee within his own country.
The rise of the British Indian Empire in Muglan to the south complicated matters even more. The British wanted to open up the shortest route between Calcutta and Lhasa, and Sikkim fell strategically in the way. George Bogle, Warren Hasting’s envoy to Tibet, was well-received by the Panchen Lama at Tashilhunpo, and the British were keen to remove all the intermediary hurdles between them and the trans-Himalayan trade.
After the Anglo-Gorkha war of 1814-16, keeping in mind the future utility of Sikkim for trade with Tibet, the British restored to the Chogyal the territories vacated by the Nepalis east of the Mechi. By this act, however, Sikkim lost its claims on Limbuan, and its western boundaries were set in stone.
In 1835, the British managed to secure a lease from the Chogyal for about 138 square miles around the village of Dorji Liang, which surveyors had recommended as an ideal site for a sanatorium for convalescent Europeans. The lease for Darjeeling was set at Rs 3000 per annum– this was later raised to Rs 6000– but was soon discontinued after Sikkim briefly took captive a team including J.D. Hooker, the famous botanist. As a consequence. Sikkim also lost her territories from the Rummah and Rungeet rivers in the north and east to the Tarai in the south.
Thus, in the historical shedding of its territory, Sikkim lost the Darjeeling enclave as well. In Darjeeling, the British went out of their way to induce colonials, traders, labourers and craftsmen to move in. And so there were immigrants from Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, as well as a large number of arrivals who were fleeing feudal situations in those countries.
The Sikkim Durbar did not appreciate the prosperity and phenomenal growth of Darjeeling, This was particularly true of the Kazi courtiers, because the Darjeeling area had originally come under them. When disgruntled Kazis kidnapped some Darjeeling residents, the British despatched a force of 1200 to Tamlong, the capitol, and were later able to extract a 23-article treaty which tamed the Chogyal into a British-dependent Maharaja.
Within a few years, the Nepali-speakers of Darjeeling began to move across and settle in Sikkim’s hills. Two Newar brothers were even granted a lease of land in 1867 by Sidkeong Namgyal, the then ruler of Sikkim. Nepalis found the Khansarpa Kazis, the Phodang Lama, and the Khansarpa Dewans (the two influential councillors of the royal court and ancestors of Lhendup Dorji Kazi, the first Chief Minister of Sikkim) as reliable advocates of immigration.
John Claude White, who was appointed Political Officer in June 1889, virtually took over as ruler of Sikkim. The Chogyal was provided with a monthly allowance of Rs 500 and kept in confinement with a small retinue in Darjeeling and Kurseong. Under White, the administration, economy and infrastructure were restructured, and large numbers of Nepali immigrants were welcomed in.
The Nepalis’ loyalty, perseverance and mercenary character endeared them to the British, who had become exasperated by the Tibetan punctiliousness of the Sikkimese elite. This bias against the Sikkim Durbar shows through in the Sikkim Gazetteer, whose celebrated author, Herbert Risly, predicted in 1894 that the khukuri would replace the prayer wheel in the Himalayan region.
Five decades of British control saw the Nepali trickle turn to a flood and the Lepcha-Bhutia community reduced to half the size of the Nepali-speakers. Their numerical superiority did not, of course, mean that the Nepalis were also politically powerful. As the British developed Gangtok, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, the Nepalis served as the underdog and the beast of burden.
The deliberate British policy of encouraging Nepali migration also had another motive. Because of the uncertainties of recruiting soldiers from within Nepal, the colonisers set about creating “soldier farms” — large Gorkha settlements in Dehradun, Darjeeling, Kurseong, Shillong and elsewhere. The less fortunate among Nepalis became herdsmen, while others found work with the coming of tea plantation and an organised forest department.
By 1872, Nepalis constituted 34 percent of the district of Darjeeling population, which totalled 94,712. A century later, in the 1980s, Nepali-speakers made up 90 percent of a population of a million.
The Darjeeling enclave was enlarged in 1854 by annexing territories so that it extended from Mechi to the Teesta and south to the Tarai, with the Kalimpong sub-division added after the Anglo-Bhutan war. From 1868 to 1905, Darjeeling was one of the districts of the Rajshahi Division of the Bengal Presidency. It was later tagged to the Bhagalpur Commissionary, until a separate province of Bihar and Orissa were created in 1912 and then again to the Rajshahi Division, continuing to be with it upto 1947 when it was made into a district of Jalpaiguri Division of West Bengal in the Indian Union.
After Indian independence, Darjeeling remained with Bengal as a ‘Hindu-majority’ district. The All India Gorkha League demanded its separation from Bengal and at one point even suggested its integration with Nepal. Somnath Lahiry, the only communist representative in the Indian Constituent Assembly, was agreeable to the formation of a separate “Gorkhasthan” for the hill people, and the two communist parties of India raised the issue of autonomy on the plea that the Nepali language was separate from Bengali.
In 1946, the Sikkim Durbar hired Indian advocate D.M. Sen to draft a memorandum for the return of Darjeeling — a demand which was ignored by the British Government. A feeble voice was also raised in 1966 by the royal consort Hope Cook Namgyal, for the revocation of the Darjeeling grant.
The demand for Darjeeling’s restoration was rejected by both Calcutta and Delhi, but the loudest protests were heard from Darjeeling itself, where the Nepali settlers claimed that the prosperity and development of Darjeeling were the result of their sweat and toil.
After the partition of the British Indian Empire, West Bengal was confronted with a massive human migration from East Pakistan. The Bengali refugee settlement became the first priority of the state Government. Thus it could do very little for investment in industrial and power sectors and lost its primacy as an industrial state of India. Extreme Marxist adventures launched in Naxalbari worsened the Urban industrial unrest of the 1960´s and the India-Pakistan war of 1971 which resulted in the emergence of Bangladesh, brought even more Bengalis to West Bengal. The predominantly Nepali Darjeeling was, thus, nowhere in the scheme of priori ties and became subject to neglect, exploitation and internal colonisation.
The situation in the Darjeeling hills, therefore, became gradually depressing/The locals faced a continuous crisis of identity, in language alone—having to deal with Nepali, Bengali, Hindi and English — because they were Nepali speaking residents of a Bengali medium state, in the nation-state of India. As – Indian Provinces are organised on linguistic principles, the relatively small number of Nepalis in Bengali speaking West Bengal invariably found themselves ignored for a meaningful public role.
It was out of desperation, therefore, that the Nepalis turned to the northeastern states, where the situation was favourable enough for them to find sustenance. Of late, however, even this safety valve is unavailable. There has been a rise in ethnic assertion in the Northeast, leading to a movement against the so-called foreign nationals.
The Indian National Congress had committed itself to reorganise the British Indian provinces on the principle of linguistic affiliation. Thus, the All India Gorkha League demanded the separation of Darjeeling and the Duars from West Bengal into a separate Gorkha state. In 1956, the State Reorganisation Commission did not consider the Gorkha League demand as territorially viable.
The Indian states were carved out mainly according to the linguistic principle, but historical antecedents and geographical contiguity were also kept in mind. Thus, the United Provinces and Rajputana were turned into Uttar Pradesh and Rajas than respectively, and Koch Bihar was attached to West Bengal, while Tripura remained distinct. However, within less than a decade ethnicity came to be recognised as a criterion—with the formation of Nagaland, followed by Meghalaya and Mizoram.
Meanwhile, in adjoining Sikkim, the Namgyal dynasty continued to rule over its increasingly restive majority Nepali subjects. As early as 1948, the Sikkim State Congress had started a movement on a three-point programme that demanded merger with India, establishment of a popular government, and abolition of zamindari. The merger with the Indian Union finally came about in 1975, and since then the state has been effectively under the control of the dominant Nepali-speakers.
While the Nepalis of Sikkim had been able to usurp power in Sikkim, throughout the 1980s Nepali-speakers in the rest of India, and most particularly in the Indian Northeast, began to feel increasingly threatened. A number of Nepalis from Nepal and Indian Nepalis were evicted from Assam and Meghalaya, where there was a rise in ethnic assertion and movement against “foreign nationals”. The refugees turned westwards along the Duars, to areas which had a Nepali concentration, where they expected a sympathetic response and support.
Many of the Northeast returnees had snapped all ties with the “mother country”, and so Nepal held no attraction. Sikkim was already saturated with the Nepalis. Bhutan had a strict policy of restricted entry to immigrants. In such a situation, the three districts of northern West Bengal (Koch Behar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling), which were already reeling under the influx of Bangladeshi refugees, had to act as hosts.
It was natural for the Indian Nepalis to feel uncared for, and the belief began to take hold that they must have their own homeland within the Indian Union. What emerged was the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), a movement to carve out a distinct Nepali-speaking slate within India, led by Subhas Ghising, an ex-soldier. The movement turned violent within no time, and the normal life in North Bengal, particularly Darjeeling, was completely derailed.
A tripartite agreement between the Delhi Government, West Bengal and GNLF led to the establishment of the Darjeeling Hill District Council in 1988 but it was hardly the Nepali homeland that had been sought. What has happened is that Nepalis have been divided into a number of factions working at cross purposes. Ghising’s insistence that “Gorkhali” is a language of ethnic Indians distinct from Nepali — a philologically untenable concept — served further to confuse and divide Indian Nepalis. This division and confusion is clear from the fact that the Nepali opinion leaders in India have not found it convenient to protest the eviction of Lhotshampa refugees from Bhutan that took place over the last two years.
A decades-old demand of Indian Nepalis has now been met with the constitutional recognition of Nepali as an Indian language, but this hardly means that the lot of ethnic Nepalis has changed, or that they feel more secure in the Indian Union. The GNLF was supposed to herald anew beginning, but today the situation of the Darjeeling hills is quite dismal. No centre of higher learning or research and no significant industrial venture have been built in the last four decades. Meanwhile, the profits from the tea industry are not reinvested here, but continue to be siphoned out of the hills. The rate of unemployment in this most densely populated of hill districts is at an all time high.
Meanwhile, the spectre of “Maha Nepal” has been raised by motivated individuals, it seems, with a view to diverting the attention from the natural aspirations of Nepali-speakers in India to assert an identity and develop a base as part of the Indian nation-state. Is there a way out for Indian Nepali in this confusing scenario?
The Indian Nepali
The Indian Nepalis are at times confused with Nepali foreigners and, not infrequently, they have to suffer physically and economically because of this overlapping identity. Time and again, they ask themselves, “Are we really Indian citizens?”
One can of course sympathise with the handlers of the Indian Union, who fear that allowing the creation of a small state of Gorkhaland on an ethnic basis would be akin to opening a pandora’s box. Meanwhile, there are also the West Bengal authorities playing on Bengali emotions by pointing out that GNLF plans would lead to the secession of Darjeeling.
While the Bengalis fear that Darjeeling would spin off their state, Nar Bahadur Bhandari would not like to see a merger of Darjeeling into his state, Sikkim. Where do we go from these divergent stands?
It is a fact that, for the sake of peace and security in the Indian Union if nothing else, the extremely vulnerable position of Indian Nepalis be rectified. The recognition of Nepali in the Constitution was a step in that direction, but does not go far enough. Precious time has been lost trying to shift blame from one to another, and the hour has come for serious people to take bold decisions.
Possibly, history provides the answer. If Darjeeling and Sikkim were to be united, as they were in the past, it would create a Nepali-majority state that has economic clout, with culture to match. The historical partitioning was hardly strategic and had to do with the British need for a sanatorium in the hills. On the other hand, Darjeeling and Sikkim share the same history and geography, and today they also share the same language and ethnicities.
A good-sized state of “Sukhim” would save New Delhi the embarrassment of creating a liny new state (Darjeeling) on ethnic and linguistic principles. Secondly, West Bengal will not be divided for creating a new state within West Bengal — it got Purulia from Bihar in 1956 and should have no objection to parting with a non-Bengal district. Thirdly, the Indian Nepalis will have a strong and viable state as the champion of their language, culture and overall identity. Fourthly, a stable, dedicated and satisfied Sukhim between Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and Bangladesh would be Bhutan, Tibet and Bangladesh would be strategically advantageous to the Indian Union.
Present-day Sikkim, which has been receiving a lot of economic assistance from the Centre, would have to share some of its economic resources and infrastructure with the less-privileged population of Darjeeling. However, this small initial sacrifice would be more than compensated by the revenue earned from the tea plantations, tourism, timber, hydroelectricity, industrial enterprises, etc., of the Darjeeling region.
Sikkim’s heavily dependent economy would then find its own strength. And if Darjeeling were to merge along with the Siliguri sub-division (which should be the case), Sukhim would have its own railhead and also be on the airways map of the country.
In Sukhim, a rotational system of office of Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, Home Minister and Finance Minister could easily be worked out between Sikkim and Darjeeling. Similarly, summer and winter capitals could be divided between Gangtok and Darjeeling. ‘North Sukhim’ and ‘South Sukhim’ could draw lots on where the high court, the university, or the state public service commission are to be housed.
Darjeeling, would provide the economic and cultural backbone of the new state to a degree that is out of the reach of present-day Sikkim. Once they are assured of an honourable home in the Indian Union, the Indian Nepalis, who are culturally sophisticated, will immediately undergo a cultural resurgence.
The old Sikkim state of the Bhotias and Lepchas has long ceased to exist, and the new enlarged state would not be taking anything more away from them than has not already been wrested. Of course, the new state would have to strongly protect the scheduled tribe status and constitutional guarantees of the Bhotias, Lepchas and Limbus. That would be only fair, given the historical legacy of demographic usurpation.
From the Indian national perspective, there is no doubt that state of Sukhim would integrate well into the Indian social and political milieu, as happened in the case of the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad.
From a political point of view, Sukhim would be able to play a bigger role in the Indian Union, and the presence of the Nepali Indians would finally he felt at the national level. At the same time, Sukhim provides the best insurance against any possible future contingency arising out of a divided frontier community in a sensitive region. It will also finally kill the frequently raised bogey of Maha Nepal — for all time.
Undoubtedly, there will be reservations in Sikkim, hostility in West Bengal, and reluctance on the part of the Centre. But what other choice is there?
A.C. Sinha teaches Sociology at the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong and is a specialist on population movements of the Indian Northeast. His latest book is Beyond the Trees, Tigers and Tribes: Historical Sociology of the Eastern Himalayan Forests (Har-Anand, New Delhi, 1993.)