Sikkim presents a paradox for Southasia. It is an enormously prosperous state, but one whose economy flourishes due only to largesse from New Delhi. Significant potentials for mountain tourism, agro-forestry and hydropower do exist, but for now the Sikkimese are rich merely because of the INR 150 million that the Indian government pours into the state (population 5.4 lakhs by the 2001 census) every year. And that figure is only the direct government support, which is supplemented by much ancillary assistance, from rural road-building to self-employment schemes. But will the state be able to stand on its own once the pampering, inevitably, comes to an end? For now, in the rush to access the official munificence, few seem to be asking this question – nor working to upgrade the local human resource, first and foremost through an upgradation of education. The unchecked rush to the future is also visible in the Gangtok government opening up the great Teesta river and its tributaries to hydropower extraction without reference to the environment, culture and economics.
Sikkim owes its enviable status as a sump for central funds to two factors. First is the sensitive border with Tibet, which the state abuts. And second is the ghost, so to speak, of the 1975 merger, when a New Delhi-engineered move brought the formerly independent protectorate within the Indian Union. Both of these factors today lead New Delhi to close its eyes to the inefficiencies, wastage and corruption that take place in this particular Centre-state relationship. The sensitivity of the Indian security establishment to the border with China, of course, goes back to the 1962 war, in which New Delhi was found unprepared and emerged humiliated. The aftermath has been a heightened sensitivity, if not paranoia, regarding the northern frontier, which colours New Delhi’s dealing with the entire rimland, including Bhutan and Nepal. For its part, Sikkim provides the closest point to the Tibetan Plateau, to the metropolitan centres of the Ganga basin. Besides the 200,000 soldiers that are stationed in the frontier there, India remains massively aware of the need not to make the local population unhappy. And so, the cheque-book is always out.
New Delhi is also alert to the fact that Sikkim is not a lingering flotsam of Partition, such as the Kashmir problem. Nor is the issue one of discontent within the already-charted boundaries of independent India, as is extant in the Northeast and especially Nagaland. Instead, Sikkim was a kingdom ruled by a Bhutia chogyal (‘dharma raja’), which was peaceably brought within the ambit of the Indian state. This is a unique provenance, which provides the Sikkimese with the opportunity to make demands of the Indian exchequer like no other.
As such, the chief minister for the last 15 years, Pawan Chamling, has an unprecedented opportunity to prepare Sikkim for the future. First and foremost, he has to train the populace and economy for the day when the charm of Sikkim’s uniqueness begins to wear off. But can he do it, amidst the ennui evident in Sikkim that comes from having it easy, and the larger problems within and without the state? As we speak, Chamling is in an unassailable position as chief minister: politically astute and with a full war chest. The opposition, represented by former chief minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, was decimated in the last state assembly elections, in April, when Chamling’s Sikkim Democratic Front swept all MLA seats. He was also powerful enough within his party to deny seats to all of 21 sitting MLAs, thus providing opportunity to a new crop of elected politicos – and simultaneously rejuvenating the party. Yet there are indications of an autocratic bent that could stifle dissent, which would certainly not prepare the state for an evolution into the ‘knowledge society’ that the chief minister claims to want.
Chamling must also toy with the idea of being the acknowledged leader among the Nepali-speaking citizens of India. But he knows not to extend his ambitions in that particular direction too far, because doing so would raise predisposed fears regarding the formation of a ‘greater Nepal’, both at the Centre and in the individual states of North India. Though a Bhutia-Lepcha nobility originally ruled Sikkim, it was the Nepali speakers, including members of the Limbu community, that eventually became ascendant, both numerically and politically. Sikkim thus emerged as the powerful centre of ‘Nepali-Indian’ identity, given that the neighbouring Darjeeling Hills was but part of a ‘hill council’ within the West Bengal state. As such, some harboured the hope that the Nepali-speakers’ identity would find a root in Sikkim, given that the community is otherwise scattered in the Indian Northeast and elsewhere in India. The community is obviously proud of Chamling, or for that matter Bhandari before him, since these were the only ‘Nepali’ chief ministers in India.
However, the ability of Sikkim to emerge as such a focus, and for Chamling to be such a leader, has suffered a blow due to India’s emerging caste-ethnic policy, particularly since the adoption of the Mandal Commission report in 1990. In addition to reservations in Sikkim for the Bhutia and Lepcha (a protective measure to retain their original monarchy-era identities) reservations also became available under the Schedule Caste and Other Backward Classes categories. Post-Mandal, various Nepali-speaking communities, such as the Rai, Limbu, Magar, Tamang and others, were able to seek access to reservation quotas on the basis of being named OBCs.
The Nepali language had been a binding factor for many Indian citizens of hill-Nepali origin, and this aspect peaked with the campaign to have Nepali recognised as an official language of India under the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution. That campaign, which met with success in 1992, was led by then Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari and his spouse Dil Kumari Bhandari, a member of the Lok Sabha when the language issue was argued and won. However, together with the decline in the political fortunes of this couple, the fracturing of the Nepali political clout has since moved on apace due to the post-Mandal differentiations. It is better now to seek separate destinies by accessing the reservation quota as an ‘ST’ or an ‘OBC’. For this reason, among others, it appears that Sikkim will happily stay insular and enjoy the privileges of its uniqueness rather than try to emerge as any kind of Nepali state that threatens the larger Indian equilibrium.
On the other hand, it is unclear how Sikkim and Darjeeling, across the Rangit River, would coexist as two demographically identical entities, one of them coddled and the other feeling poor and neglected. For being a region demographically identical to Sikkim, the Darjeeling Hills receive none of the largesse that is available to Sikkim. There will come a time when Chief Minister Chamling and the leader of the campaign for Gorkhaland, Bimal Gurung, will have to discuss this matter with cool heads. What seems likely is that the former will not want to take on the larger sociological and demographic challenges, where his leadership would certainly help. For instance, Chamling could help to generate self-confidence among the Nepali-speaker citizens of India; he could come to some kind of a cohabitation arrangement with Darjeeling; and he could help prepare his state for the future.
At this point, however, he does not seem inclined to touch the first two suggestions, due to the political minefield and uncertainties they represent. The last, meanwhile, he probably would not be able to see through, given that the people of Sikkim today are simply too comfortable. Consider the numbers. During the 2007-08 fiscal year, New Delhi provided INR 7.4 million, nearly 50 percent of the state’s total revenue, as grants in aid to the Sikkim government. This translates into INR 13,745 per Sikkimese citizen, one of the highest rates in the world. What is more, Sikkim’s subjects – defined as the subjects of the erstwhile kingdom and their descendents recorded in the Sikkim Subjects Register created in 1961 – are exempt from paying income tax on all money earned in the state. With all this, it might be too much for even the most dynamic chief minister to try and shake up the superstructure.