November 7, 2002


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

The truth about Sikkim

People have forgotten that India's actual chicken's neck lies along the 20km narrow Siliguri corridor formed by Nepal and Bangladesh. Staring ominously at the chicken's neck is the Chinese dagger made by the strategic Chumbi valley whose two shoulders --- one in Sikkim and the other in Bhutan --- are personified in the majesty of Paunhuri and Chomulhari peaks that merge at the historic Sinchula Pass on the trijunction of China, Bhutan, and India.

This is also the tip of the dagger just 100km away from the Siliguri corridor and a rather China-friendly Bangladesh. From a military and operational context, Sikkim is closest to Lhasa. North Sikkim and the Chumbi salient --- the gateway to the erstwhile trade route between Lhasa and Calcutta --- offer India tactical and strategic military options against China, and vice-versa.

In 1911, Captain Francis Younghusband pioneered the invasion of Lhasa through the Chumbi valley fighting battles at Yatung and Gyantse. Till the late 1950s, Indian Army detachments were posted at Lhasa and Yatung, protecting the trademarks. Until two years ago, the owner of Gangtok's Hotel Tashi Delek, Mr Hira Lal Lakhotia, whose parents came to Sikkim much before Younghusband, had a bank account in Yatung. Along with fellow Marwaris, they still own much of the businesses in Sikkim.

Hotel Tashi Delek is still by far the most popular and lies in the heart of Gangtok town. It commands a ringside view of Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga --- land of five treasures), but has lost some of its old world charm due to the mushrooming jungle of concrete that has disfigured the skyline. Gangtok was once called the city of three hills and three white women: the American wife of the Chogyal on one hill, the British wife of the resident commissioner on the other, and the Belgian wife of the chief minister on the third hill.

These wives, local gossip said, ran Sikkim and made much of the history of the times.

It started nearly three centuries ago with the Bhutias coming from across Tibet and subjugating the original Lepcha inhabitants easily. The first Chogyal had hoped to consecrate his dynasty at Yuksom in east Sikkim, but destiny had chosen Gangtok.

In 1975, there was yet another takeover, this time organised by the itinerant immigrants from Nepal. On April 9, in a swift and sudden military operation that left many mental scars among the Bhutias especially, the Indian Army deployed on Nathu La and the watershed in Sikkim since 1963 took over the Chogyal's palace by disarming the Royal Sikkim Guards, ironically officered by the Indian Army, and seizing the royal armoury.

The Chogyal was drinking his favourite Remy Martin when the commandant of the Royal Sikkim Guards, Lt Col K S Gurung, announced the surrender.

Mr John Lall and Sunanda K Datta Ray have written about 1975, but two stories can be added. First, that the officer leading the assault on the palace and the major defending the Chogyal were the Jagota brothers, one from the Jat Regiment and the other from the Gurkha Regiment. The two had orders to act in the best traditions of the Indian Army.

The second episode is about how the Chogyal, on learning that the Sikkimese guard at the main gate had been killed, wore his Indian Army uniform --- he was honorary colonel of the 8 Gurkhas, walked to the palace gates, and saluted the slain soldier.

Several years later, repudiating the proposed construction of a controversial dam across the River Teesta, Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari noted, "Sikkim has peacefully merged with India, but we have no desire of being submerged by the Teesta."

The institution of the Chogyal, though officially dismantled in 1975, has several admirers. Like the Shah kings in Nepal, the Chogyal for nearly 300 years, much longer than the monarchy in Nepal, had become the rallying point. His son, the new Chogyal, became a monk and spends much of his time in Kathmandu. Most of the Chogyal's land and assets have been taken over by the government. The Nepalese worry that India might do a Sikkim on Nepal --- dismantle the monarchy and assimilate the country.

Bordering north Bengal, Sikkim's strategic assets and vulnerabilities forced it to enter the rough and tumble of the Indian mainstream, though some well-wishers of Sikkim believe it needs to be protected from India itself. Sikkim was admitted to the Northeast Council in 1999 and is savouring its benefits. Today it is the country's most stable and secure frontline state, a model for social cohesion and security. It is the only border state without any palpable threat of insurgency or social disorder. The five lakh Sikkimese blend three cultures: Nepalese, Bhutia, and Lepcha.

Yet the Nepali-ness predominates, reviving fears from across the Singa-Lila range, which marks the 100km long western border with Nepal. Forty kilometres of this border are porous, the rest perennially snowbound.

The Royal Nepal Army's crackdown against Maoists in the districts of Taplejung and Panchthari bordering Sikkim could force the Maoists into Sikkim, especially since barring the Chia-Bhanjyang post the rest of the border is unguarded. Units of the Special Services Bureau have not been deployed as required. Four companies of Sikkim's lone India Reserve battalion are doing duty in Delhi. The other three were recently commissioned and could be deployed along 13 points on the border provided Delhi picks up the bill.

Maoists are known to have transited through Sikkim and some have even been picked up. But spotters and early warning drills at village level have deterred Maoists from coming in. Both Sikkim and North Bengal (Ghising-land) are acutely conscious of the security threat Maoists can pose to tourism and the gross national happiness of the predominant Nepalese community.

Sikkim has virtually a one-party system. Whichever the party in power, as the Sikkim Democratic Front now or Sikkim Sangram Parishad earlier, the ruling party enjoys brute majority and invariably supports whoever rules in Delhi. This has obvious drawbacks, but the Sikkimese prefer political stability for their development.

Sikkim is also trying to give development a regional focus, incorporating Nepal, Bhutan and north Bengal fashioned after the growth triangle. The new buzzword is revenue generation. The main assets are its compactness, water resources, eco-tourism, Danny Denzongpa and Baichung Bhutia.

There are hurdles too, the biggest being accessibility. NH31A, the road from the international airport at Bagdogra to Gangtok, passes through the Siliguri corridor. One single road in a questionable state of repair passes dangerously across Siliguri's no-man's land --- the only land link to Sikkim and the rest of the Northeast via Tiger Bridge. A five-hour backbreaking journey is not the best way to reach Gangtok. Frequent bandhs by Ghising's Gurkhas, like the Maoists next door, and avalanches add to the traveller's woes. A super express highway linking Calcutta to Gangtok --- and who knows, soon via Nathu La to Lhasa and a STOL airport, could alter the fortunes of Sikkim and north Bengal.

The central government could revive the proposal for reopening the ancient trade route to Tibet. Are the Chinese worried this could signal their de facto recognition of Sikkim as a part of India? The Chinese do not dispute the border with Sikkim. Are India's security planners concerned that trade could open the back door to the Siliguri corridor?

The army opened Nathu La and Chagu Lake to tourists two years ago. For decades, this was considered strategic sacrilege. The Sikkimese have one other wish --- the resolution of the stalemate over the succession of the 17th Karmapa and unlocking the padlock on the Rumtek monastery. This would be good for social harmony and tourism.

Sikkim's wish list is not unreasonable. The watershed separating Chinese and Indian soldiers has been a historical barrier, instead of a gateway between two markets and two civilisations. Sikkim could soon flag off a rerun of the Younghusband Expedition from Jelep La to Lhasa.

As for the security of the Siliguri corridor, that can be left to the new presiding deity of Nathu La, the legendary and ubiquitous Baba Harbhajan Singh, who will have to forgo his annual leave during the campaigning season.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

Remembering a War: A special feature

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