What really makes a Sikkimese?
India’s Supreme Court set off a storm by describing Sikkimese-Nepalis as people of “foreign origin.” As “Indian” Old Settlers fight for new rights, Sikkim’s Bhutia-Lepcha and Nepali communities face a reckoning over belonging and identity.
As an Indian-Nepali – or an Indian-Gorkha, the term some others prefer – I have often found it easier to shrug my shoulders and walk away from racist encounters where I am called "chinky", "chowmein" or "Chinese" than from those occasions when I am mistaken for a Nepalese. I use "Nepalese" deliberately to mean a citizen of Nepal, as opposed to "Nepali", which denotes a much broader cultural and linguistic connection that transcends any single national identity. As someone born and raised in Sikkim, and although of Nepali and Bhutia-Lepcha descent, my Indian-Nepali heritage forms an important part of my cultural identity. I suppose being called "chinky" somehow binds me to the collective racism faced by other people from India's Northeast – it unites all Northeasterners, considered outsiders to mainland Indian culture, and in effect contributes to an alternative version of Indian citizenship where it is okay to not "look Indian". Being taunted as a Nepalese, on the other hand, can be an especially isolating experience: it singles out me and other Indian-Nepalis, and leaves us alone to defend our rightful sense of belonging to India, usually through reiteration of our loyalty to and many sacrifices for the nation.
This was already, always, an ordeal. Then, recently, a verdict from the Supreme Court of India left us grappling yet again to defend our history and our legitimate place in Sikkim – and, in effect, in India.
This January, the court passed judgement in a long-running case where the Association of Old Settlers of Sikkim, and Sikkimese women married to Indian men of non-Sikkimese descent, had asked to be exempted from paying income tax, like other bonafide Sikkimese. The court ruled in their favour, and in its justification for extending the exemption it observed, "there was no difference made out between the original inhabitants of Sikkim, namely the Bhutia-Lepchas and the person of foreign origin settled in Sikkim like the Nepalis [emphasis mine] or persons of Indian origin who had settled down in Sikkim generations back."
The court ruled that the definition of "Sikkimese" under India's Income-Tax Act Section 10 (26AAA) "shall also include all Indians, who have permanently settled in Sikkim prior to the merger with India on 26.04.1975 irrespective of the fact that whether their names have been recorded in the register maintained under the Sikkim Subjects Regulations, 1961 or not." The earlier exclusion from the income-tax exemption of "Old Indian settlers, who have permanently settled in Sikkim prior to merger of Sikkim with India" was deemed to violate the right to equality under the Indian constitution, and so struck down.
With that, for Sikkimese-Nepalis, the issue of being labelled as foreigners took on a different tenor and gained serious political heft, possibly because it was linked with the larger definition of who is, or can claim to be, Sikkimese. Driven by anger and perhaps even fear, Sikkimese-Nepalis, supported by the Bhutia and Lepcha communities, took to social media and the streets to protest. A newly formed Joint Action Council spearheaded a solidarity bandh, or shutdown, a rare occurrence in Sikkim. The Sikkim state government and the Indian central government in New Delhi jointly approached the Supreme Court, appealing for it to delete the reference to "persons of foreign origin" in relation to Sikkimese-Nepalis.
Despite a political blame-game that ensued, this sometimes moralistic, vitriolic but mostly patriotic outrage – patriotic towards both Sikkim and India – led to the desired outcome, and quite quickly. In February, the Supreme Court ordered the deletion of the reference to Sikkimese-Nepalis as people of "foreign origin". Despite this, the judgement opened an opportunity for discussion and reconfiguration of the definition of a Sikkimese. By the court's benchmark, everyone – or at least everyone living in Sikkim prior to the 1975 merger – could be Sikkimese and claim equal rights, in contravention of the Sikkim Subjects Regulation of 1961, which otherwise outlines the legal conditions of belonging to Sikkim.
The judgement was widely read in Sikkim as the first step towards the distortion and erosion of Sikkim's special status and identity within the Indian Union, enshrined and protected in Article 371F of the Indian constitution. And these fears were not unfounded. In March, India's lower house approved the Finance Bill 2023, which extended income-tax exemption to all Sikkimese; the definition of a Sikkimese for the purposes of the exemption now included Old Settlers, people domiciled in Sikkim on or before 26 April 1975, as well as those who were not domiciled in Sikkim prior to 1975 but could establish "beyond doubt that their father, husband, paternal grandfather, or brother from the same father was domiciled in Sikkim on or before April 26, 1975." What began as a response to the insinuation against Sikkimese-Nepalis became a larger political mobilisation, with an audience of the entire Sikkimese citizenry. The issue escalated to encompass questions of who belongs to Sikkim, what the parameters of belonging are, and who gets to decide. And these questions revealed many anxieties about the future – especially around the spectre of unbridled migration into Sikkim if the strict old lines around belonging become porous, as well as the possible abrogation of Article 371F and with it the Old Laws that continue to guide Sikkimese legal frameworks.
For Sikkimese-Nepalis, straddling two hyphenated identities as both Sikkimese-Nepalis and Indian-Nepalis/Gorkhas has often placed us in a somewhat awkward position vis-à-vis the larger Indian-Nepali/Gorkha community. Sikkimese-Nepalis have been perceived as being slightly aloof: interested and sympathetic but not heavily invested in the larger politics and experiences of other Indian-Nepalis/Gorkhas, confident and cosy in our recognition as Indians via our identity as Sikkimese. But when belonging is more than just a matter of identity, and instead equates to essential rights and privileges, including access to or denial of resources, it does not take long for belonging to get politicised.
Identity and belonging are powerful, emotive issues, and it is easy to understand their political potency, especially when set against a context of diminishing social protections, increasing resource competition, seismic shifts in mobility within, to and from the region, as well as changing aspirations and imaginations of development and modernity. But what happens when one community's belonging is challenged by another community seeking to establish its own history and identity, in this case the "Indian" Old Settlers of Sikkim? Can we look beyond our historical and cultural differences to identify what actually comprises Sikkim as a place and our belonging to it? Or will we just give in to the convenience of divisive identity politics, which requires surrendering control over all our motives and actions to differences in religion, race and culture?
Moving and mountains
The eastern Himalayan borderland, like borderlands everywhere, was not always a borderland but a space of great movement and exchange entailing people, culture, trade, technology and innovations. The present borders here have their origins in colonial administration, or rather in the inability of colonial administrators to govern these supposedly unruly places without defined borders. Our understanding of history and enactment of politics continues to be shaped by these modern borders. While tribal identity and ethnicity are intrinsic parts of politics in Sikkim and in the eastern Himalaya generally, politics around belonging, identity and race are now beginning to intensify.
Situated between China, Bhutan and Nepal, the former kingdom of Sikkim became a part of India in 1975. Countless kings, colonisers, labourers, traders, monks, spies and mendicants have all travelled to or through Sikkim at different points in history, each shaping the religious, cultural and social terrain in their own ways. Sikkim was territorially consolidated in 1642 by Phuntsog Namgyal – its first chogyal, or temporal and spiritual king. Strategically located, it was a portal for trans-Himalayan trade with Tibet and, later, a buffer zone between India and China.
Sikkim was never formally colonised by the British but became a British protectorate after the Treaty of Tumlong in 1861. Colonial power and governance in Sikkim flowed through the office of the Political Officer, who managed and controlled different aspects of governance – especially around land, human and natural resources, and foreign affairs. Sikkim became a protectorate state of India in 1950. Thus, although it remained a monarchy, almost all the affairs of the state were controlled first by the British and then by India.
The Sino-Indian War of 1962 elevated Sikkim to the position of an important international frontier, and this led up to its eventual merger with India in 1975. As a condition of the merger, Sikkim was given special constitutional status, with its Old Laws protected under Article 371F.
The population of Sikkim comprises a mosaic of many tribal, ethnic and caste groups – including the Lepcha (Rong), Bhutia (Lhopo), Tsong (Limboo) and other ethnic and caste groups subsumed under the category of Nepali. Each group has its own history of origin and of belonging to Sikkim. Politically, the Bhutias and Lepchas are merged in a single ethnographic and political unit. The Nepalis, meanwhile, are considered an ethnic other to the Bhutia-Lepcha owing to their religion, culture and history. While these distinctions are effective in governing land and property rights – for instance, Nepalis cannot buy Bhutia-Lepcha land or property, but the reverse is allowed – the reservation of seats in the state legislative assembly, and in public education and employment, is based on a more cohesive sense of Sikkimese social and cultural history, with benefits provided to all three groups. In other contexts, Bhutias, Lepchas and Nepalis combine to form a numerical and political majority, and "Indians" — including especially Marwaris and Biharis – form the minority and ethnic other.
The migration of these "Indian" plainsmen to Sikkim is not particularly new or surprising given Sikkim's location on an important trade route with Tibet. Entrepreneurial traders from different parts of India first arrived in the late 19th century, acting as suppliers to the British during their Himalayan expansion and later diversifying into the trade in wool, cardamom and other cash crops. Over time, industrious Marwari families established businesses in Sikkim and nearby Darjeeling, and some were even invited to set up businesses in different parts of the kingdom. For instance, the first bank in Sikkim was established by the firm of Jethmull Bhojraj, a Marwari businessman. With investments in Sikkim and Darjeeling, it acted as the state bank, collecting taxes and receiving commissions on all transactions. Along with Marwaris, many Biharis have also been migrating to Sikkim since the early 19th century to trade, establish small businesses and to work – sometimes as administrative staff for the British and the Sikkimese royal family, and often as wage labourers.
While hill groups vie for reservations in government employment and access to other public goods, "Indians" typically fill in the vacuum for vendors, grocers, traders and suppliers. Although hill communities continue to make forays into business, most commercial enterprises are still dominated by Marwari and Bihari families, who have the advantage of their expansive business and familial connections in different parts of India as well as their well-established local networks. While Marwaris control the upper echelons of business as suppliers, wholesalers and contractors, Biharis control most of the trade in fresh produce, provision goods and liquor. The 2015 election of Shakti Singh Choudhary, an "Indian" as the mayor of Gangtok, Sikkim's capital, is a testament to these groups' growing influence and their political connections with other communities in this constituency.
Along with these Old Settlers, a new stream of "Indian" migrants also now resides in Sikkim, drawn by ever-increasing opportunities in private companies (especially pharmaceutical factories) as well as construction in major towns and development projects across the state. These highly mobile migrants – who work as managers, technicians, carpenters, masons, labourers and the like – hail from Islampur and other parts of Bihar, as well as places in West Bengal and Odisha.
While anyone can reside in Sikkim, not everyone can claim legal status or belonging as Sikkimese. The Sikkim Subject Regulation, 1961, outlines the criteria for recognition as Sikkim Subjects – basically organised around residence in the kingdom prior to 1961, documented through land ownership, tax receipts, and so on. After the merger with India, Sikkim Subject status became the basis for qualification as an Indian citizen. However, along with ownership of land and property, ethnicity was also one of the primary bases for recognition as a Sikkim Subject. This meant that a wide section of the population was left out from the register of Subjects, leading to its amendment in 1962 and again in 1989.
Of particular note here are members of the "Indian" business community, many of whom retained their Indian citizenship while living and working in the kingdom of Sikkim. While some had accepted Sikkimese citizenship, others had declined the opportunity when the Sikkim Subjects Register was being drawn up. In the current context, those without Sikkim Subject status are not eligible for the rights and preferential treatment accorded to Sikkimese by the state and central governments, even if they have lived in Sikkim from 1961 or earlier. Indians without Sikkim Subject status but living in Sikkim prior to 1975 have been issued Residential Certificates that make them eligible for trade licenses, as well as property ownership in areas designated as municipalities. However, they cannot attain government employment or access other benefits. Most importantly, unlike Sikkim Subjects, until recently they were not exempt from paying income tax. That exemption traces back to the Sikkim Income Tax Manual, 1948, later absorbed into the Indian Income-Tax Act of 1961 as Section 10 (26AAA).
Settlers and Subjects
The restricted income-tax exemption has been a point of discontent for a significant number of "Indians" without Sikkim Subject status, who organised themselves under the Association of Old Settlers of Sikkim. In 2013, they appealed to the Supreme Court of India to be granted the same exemption, and in effect be treated on par with other Sikkimese. Their petition, while discussing unconstitutional discrimination, also highlighted that the 95 percent of the state's population exempted from income tax included "70 percent people of Nepalese origin." In the game of hyphenated identities, the Old Settlers had stepped over the Sikkimese-Nepalis to assert their belonging to Sikkim.
These insinuations caused widespread discontent among the Nepali community in Sikkim. In an attempt to defuse the situation, the Old Settlers amended the petition and issued a press release offering their apologies to the Sikkimese-Nepali community. That press release ends, "we were and are always treated as outsiders … no one can feel the pain more than us as we have felt this pain on a daily basis." Fast-forward to 2023, and these amendments were evidently not brought to the notice of the Supreme Court, leading to the offending statement in the original judgment.
While the amended judgement calmed one set of tensions, it nullified the distinction between Sikkim Subjects and non-Sikkim Subjects, at least for the purposes of the income-tax exemption. And while this did not alter anything for the average Sikkimese, or even for Sikkimese-Nepalis, it triggered grave anxiety about what was to come next.
The Supreme Court verdict was the trigger we didn't know we needed; it opened up important conversations that we were too uncomfortable to initiate otherwise. For Sikkimese-Nepalis, the verdict raised questions about our belonging and identity as Sikkimese and Indians in three different ways. First, by placing Sikkimese-Nepalis on an equal footing with the Old Settlers, the verdict disrupted the ethnic trifecta of Bhutia, Lepcha and Nepali that we thought would endure unequivocally. This extended a history of insinuations that we are foreigners in India. Second, for the Old Settlers the case was perhaps a means of asserting their sense of belonging to Sikkim, and broadening the definition of Sikkimese citizenship beyond race and culture, but in validating the belonging of one community the verdict cast aspersions on that of another. And finally, by granting the Old Settlers rights similar to those of Sikkim Subjects, the verdict diluted, or was at least perceived to dilute, the value of Sikkim Subject status. The question emerged: who else can now claim to belong to Sikkim?
The issues faced by Sikkimese-Nepalis and the Old Settlers intersect on many levels. Both communities have lived in Sikkim and India for well over a hundred years, yet continue to struggle for recognition, legitimacy and social acceptance as Indians and Sikkimese respectively. How long do we have to live in a place before we can belong to that place or country? Fifty years? A hundred years? Or can we never belong because we are not part of a particular ethnic or tribal group, do not speak a particular language, or have a distinct history and culture? What will it take to make us Sikkimese-Nepalis a little bit more Indian, and the Old Settlers a little bit more Sikkimese? The histories of Sikkimese-Nepalis and the Old Settlers are different, yet both groups are seeking affirmation of identities determined by time, by the length of their histories in a particular place.
One could argue that approaching the Supreme Court and taking down another group to strengthen your own position is perhaps not the best way to build community. Some have argued that the instrumental strategy of the Old Settlers is a result of their historical and cultural difference from others in Sikkim and their lack of socio-cultural integration with other hill groups. But what does integration in a multi-ethnic, heterogeneous society look like? What is this supposed homogeneous hill culture that everyone is supposed to ascribe to? It is easy to blame our Marwari, Bihari and Bengali friends, neighbours and colleagues for not living the same social, religious or cultural lives as us, for not partaking in the same events and festivals that we celebrate, or for not marrying outside their own communities. But it is important to remember that in many multi-ethnic societies, integration is not a one-way process.
How well do we – Bhutia, Lepcha and Nepali – know them? They are a part of the social landscape, deemed essential for the services they provide, living among us but not accepted as belonging here. The roles that they can occupy in the social matrix, as well as their behaviour, is pre-determined – they have to "stay in their place" and perform only those roles expected of them. These specific roles are now so entrenched that both hill groups and "Indians" are wary about transgressing socially accepted norms, especially around male–female interaction. Despite sharing the same geographical and political space, hill people and "Indians" inhabit two seemingly different cultural worlds. Just as "Indians" are never accepted as belonging in the hills nor represented in popular imaginations of the hills, we hill people are not able to fully enter or understand the exclusive world of our "Indian" neighbours.
The aim here is not to shift the blame from one community to another, but to initiate some reflection over how our society and politics is geared at the present moment; because the questions we ask of our minorities are the ones that are asked of us when we leave the sanctuary of the hills. Until we start to reflect on our intentions, actions and politics, it will always be easier to choose prejudice and vitriol over reason and compassion.
The tiger in our minds
As Indian-Nepalis/Gorkhas and Northeasterners, we are well aware of how prejudice and stereotypes continue to shape our struggles for recognition and identity in India and Southasia. Embedded in our collective history as Indian-Nepalis/Gorkhas are numerous and recent memories of ethnic expulsion, of being driven out of our homes and lands – as has been experienced by Indian-Nepalis/Gorkhas in Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland – and of being forced into refugee camps, as experienced by the Lhotshampas of Bhutan. When read against this history of repeated rejection and expulsion, the continued use of the "foreigner" label for Indian-Nepalis/Gorkhas cannot be brushed aside; it is a symbolic rejection of our belonging as Indian citizens. I say symbolic because, legally, it does not impinge on my rights as an Indian citizen. But in life and in politics, symbols and representations matter – it is the everyday microaggressions that shape our identities and make up our identity politics. And it is quite possible for those who truly believe we are foreigners in India to quietly and politely ignore the amended judgement and instead use the unamended judgement as validation of their belief.
It seems this spectre of being labelled foreigners will follow us around for the foreseeable future. How, then, is the issue to be resolved? In a conversation about identity and homeland politics, the late Indra Bahadur Rai, one of the greatest Indian-Nepali writers, once told me, "There is a proverb in Nepali – Ban ko bagh le bhanda mann ko bagh le khancha" – The tiger in the forest might not eat you but the tiger in your mind will. "The Indian constitution is very clear on the position of the Nepalis. We are Indian citizens. We do not need to hide but I don't think we trust the constitution and maybe we have not studied it well enough." While we cannot look away from the structural and institutional injustices we face as Indian-Nepalis/Gorkhas, it is perhaps worth considering Rai's advice – to silence the mann ko bagh (the tiger in the mind), to be confident of our rights and conduct our politics as citizens of India, despite the naysayers.
By extending income-tax exemption to the Old Settlers, the Supreme Court's verdict led to new questions and anxieties around Sikkimese identity: Who else gets to be Sikkimese? How will this affect our other rights and privileges? Will the cracks in Sikkimese identity widen? And if they do, who or what is on the other side? What are we most afraid of losing? Our land, culture, community? And how are the answers to these questions gendered? Sadly, gender equality may not always be at the forefront of our agenda, given the lack of public acknowledgement of the income-tax exemption for Sikkimese women married to non-Sikkimese men.
The fears in these questions are not unfounded, especially when placed in the context of the Indian government's unilateral abrogation in 2019 of Article 370, revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir that had been granted to the territory as part of its own accession to the Indian Union. These fears were so palpable that the Supreme Court had to note in the amended judgment:
learned Senior Advocate appearing on behalf of the State have also requested to make suitable observations that this court has not expressed anything on the validity or interpretation of Article 371-F of the Constitution of India. No such clarification is required at all as the validity or interpretation of Article 371-F of the Constitution of India was not the subject matter before this court at all.
Although Sikkim's geopolitical imperatives and the history of its merger with India are very different to those of Jammu and Kashmir, given India's current hyper-nationalist political climate the verdict has given rise to new anxieties about Article 371F and its continued existence. Included in the gamut of anxieties for the future are fears over the loss of our land and resources to outsiders, fears of being outnumbered in our own home, of being deprived of opportunities, of the dilution and gradual erosion of our cultural practices, and much more. There are now serious calls for and official consideration of the introduction of Inner Line Permits to check the influx of outsiders into the state – a measure many other parts of the Northeast have felt the need for, but Sikkim has so far avoided.
Yes, Article 371F provides Sikkim and Sikkimese people with immense security, rights and privileges, but closer introspection reveals that a lot of what we fear is actually already underway: the unabated building of dams and tunnels, often destroying the sacred landscapes, natural environments, homes and livelihoods of so many Sikkimese; the rapid emergence of pharmaceutical townships on agricultural lands, benefiting only private companies and a select few local landowners and bureaucrats; the dizzying construction of buildings to be leased to hoteliers from outside the state; the destruction of the environment and local communities to make way for malls, parking lots and airports that are barely functional; the high levels of unemployment, youth suicide and rural migration, and the attendant loss of culture and community.
While the outrage over the Supreme Court verdict remains necessary and justified, where is the outrage over the erosion of our rights, the loss of our land and culture that we ourselves are enabling? Is it okay when we ourselves do it? While we are worried, and rightly so, about the abrogation of Article 370F and the erosion of our rights, it is prudent to not miss the forest for the trees. The layered ethnic landscape of Sikkim is not exclusive to the state but is visible across the eastern Himalaya, and raises pertinent questions around the contours of citizenship, identity and belonging: What will determine belonging in the Himalaya? What types of identity politics might emerge in the near future and how will Himalayan culture evolve?