Sikkim was a small independent nation in the Himalayas.
When the British granted independence to India and Pakistan, two options were offered to the small nations in the region around India: to become part of newly-formed India or to remain free and sovereign nation-states as they were.
Countries such as Sikkim, Kashmir, Bhutan, and Nepal chose independence.
Sikkim later lost their independence by their assimilation into India. This assimilation was the result of several tactics deployed by India.
Sikkim before the Indian occupation
Sikkim was an independent state prior to its assimilation into the newly-formed state of India. Even as a British protectorate, the British Raj had guaranteed Sikkim its sovereignty. As a token of this trust, Sikkim participated in the Chamber of Princes, instituted by the British Raj in 1922.
Participants in this Chamber had the choice to become assimilated into India or to remain sovereign when the British left India in 1947. Sikkim, likewise, was assured of its continued sovereignty. A vote had been taken by India on whether or not to assimilate Sikkim, the majority voted to let Sikkim stay free.
Nehru, the prime minister of India at the time, had agreed to let Sikkim stay sovereign on the condition that it pay taxes to India. Sikkim’s foreign policy would be managed by India, its communications would be managed by India, and its borders would be protected by India.
These demands became official after a bilateral treaty was signed between India and Sikkim in 1950.
An Indian representative was sent to Sikkim to replace the British governor who had been stationed by the British Raj. India subsequently published a memorandum highlighting its demands regarding Sikkim’s constitution.
Many officials in Sikkim saw this as India, in contravention of the 1950 agreement, interfering with the domestic affairs of the smaller nation.
The Plot to Occupy Sikkim
The beginnings of Sikkim’s occupation lie with a pro-India political movement that grew in power. This movement lead to the rise of politicians and political actors who believed that assimilation into India was the best course of action for Sikkim.
One of the main issues for the rise of this movement lay in political clashes related to the methods of vote-counting regulated in Sikkim. Each vote cast by members of the majority Nepalese-speaking ethnic group would count as a single vote, while a vote cast by minority group would be counted as two votes. The intention behind the regulation had been to grant greater political power to minorities.
This issue was exploited by the pro-India political party and used as a platform for protests and criticism of the Sikkimese government. These protests culminated with the resignation of the Sikkimese prime minister. These protests and this movement had been “engineered” by India’s foreign intelligence agency.
In the aftermath, Sikkim was forced to sign a new agreement with India. It was signed on May 8, 1973. As per the agreement, each Sikkimese citizen would be granted one vote each; but in addition to this, India would be in charge of keeping the peace in Sikkim, and the Sikkimese government’s bureaucracy would be overseen by an Indian official. As per the agreement, all conflicts between the Sikkimese monarch and the Indian official would be resolved by the Central Government in India.
The Bungled Vote
The pro-Indian political party rose to power in Sikkim. In his book Sikkim: Requiem of a Himalayn Kingdom, Andrew Duff accused Indian foreign intelligence services and the Indian officials established in Sikkim of having helped engineer the sale of Sikkimese sovereignty to India under the pretext of establishing “democracy”.
India proceeded to expand its involvement in Sikkimese domestic affairs and hastened their occupation. One of India’s first steps were to introduce a law into the Sikkimese parliament which would mandate a national representative in Indian councils. Historians have later viewed the passing of this bill as having been achieved by bribery and threats. Parliamentarians who could not be bribed were seized and jailed.
As this was going on, no foreign journalists other than those vetted and approved by the Indian government were allowed to work in Sikkim.
Protests against the law erupted. The police force installed in Sikkim by the Indian government sprung into action to quell them.
In 1974, a pro-Indian prime minister came to power in Sikkim. His party won 31 seats in parliament. Nationalist groups claimed that Indian foul play was behind the electoral victory.
According to Sidhu, a former Indian intelligence agent, Indian foreign intelligence services were instrumental in crippling nationalist movements and political parties in Sikkim. Sidhu also claims that Indian intelligence had assured the prime minister of the support he would receive from members of the parliament.
Long after Sikkim’s assimilation, Indian intelligence had surveilled the monarch of Sikkim until his death in 1999.
After the law had been passed, a 1975 referendum was called for to settle the question on whether to keep the Sikkimese monarchy. Prior to the referendum, the Indian army marched into Sikkim and attacked the king’s army, disarmed them, and kept the Sikkimese monarch as a prisoner in his palace. India assumed control of Sikkim’s borders and restricted movement in and out of the state.
The referendum had a 63% turnout. Sunnada Datta-Ray, author of Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, wrote that the referendum was rigged, one conducted in name alone. He claimed that due to Sikkim’s poor communication networks, and its rugged geography, conducting a national referendum would have taken longer in reality than was claimed.
The referendum concluded with 97.5% of votes being cast for the dissolution of the monarchy, and for the assimilation of Sikkim into India.
No foreign journalist had observed or reported on this referendum. Indian journalists who criticized the referendum had later lost their jobs.
Sikkim was robbed of its sovereignty and assimilated into India under the administration of Indira Gandhi. Moraji Desaivani, her successor, criticized the assimilation but expressed that sovereignty could not be given back to the Sikkimese. Many protests erupted throughout India as a result of his statements.
The Maldives may very well become the second Sikkim in modern Indian history. Many Maldivian nationalist groups and conservative political thinkers have decried the ruling MDP’s adoration of India. It is perceived that India, Indian aid, Indian investment, and Indian institutions are preferred above that of all other foreign partners and allies. Some Maldivian thinkers have noted the stark similarities between the Sikkimese elites of the last days of Sikkim’s sovereignty with the attitudes and recorded statements of the leadership of the MDP.
It remains to be seen how the Maldives will proceed with its developing relationship with India, and how the Maldives will avoid the same Indian-made traps that Sikkim could not in the not-so-distant past.