Buffer zone – Geographically strategic Sikkim


Defence of a nation is subjected to its geographic location, boundaries, frontiers, the strength, weakness of its neighbours and therefore it largely depends on the potentialities of people and their land. Every aggression accounted in Indian history has been made especially from the Western and the North-Western frontier. The Northern and the North-Eastern frontier of the Indian sub-continent always remained untouched and secure as there stood a guardian – ‘The Great Himalayas’. Ranging from Jammu & Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, it has always acted as a natural barrier against any possible foreign aggressors or invaders, protecting the overall Indian subcontinent since the Vedic age. Even the fiercest and strongest of the all kings, Genghis Khan, the Mongol ruler, who once ruled almost two-thirds of Asia and some parts of Europe, couldn’t penetrate through this barrier. The British too had recognized the overall importance of Himalayas for India’s (British Empire) defence and had worked out strategies to secure its strong presence in this part of the world. After the British left (1947), the Indian Government has continued to follow its predecessor’s footsteps, in-fact with more precision to fulfil its military requirements.

Along the vast Himalayan belt, there lays a small thumb-shaped landscape, sandwiched between the Singalila Range and the Chola Range in the Eastern Himalayas known as Sikkim or the ‘Belgium of Asia’, which is bounded from three sides by three international boundaries. Sikkim occupies a singularly unique position in the chain of Himalayan countries. It touches near about 165 kilometres of the boundary line with Tibet (China), 90 kilometres with Nepal, 30 kilometres with Bhutan and 45 kilometres of State boundary with West Bengal. The international border of Sikkim consists of several passes which go through the ranges of Eastern Himalayas. This border consists of Nyima-La, Kongra-La, Chung-La, Bomchho-La, Sera-La, Khungguni-La, Cho-La, Nathu-La, Jeelap-La and Batang-La passes which connects with Tibet (China). Bhutan is linked through Daka-La and Nepal is connected through Khong-La and Tonsang-La.

Due to its incredibly complex and volatile frontier region, this land has attended immense strategic importance but was recognized a bit later, only after the Anglo-Gurkha War of 1812-1816. Initially, the British were just interested in the expansion of the company’s territory. Prior to the war with the Gurkhas, the British were not really familiar with the location. After the war, through its various expeditions and research work carried out by some of the finest renowned personalities, the British began to realize Sikkim’s strategic location for the defence of its Empire. The strategic location of Sikkim could also be used as a watchdog for the entire region viz. Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and China. Along with it, they also came to understand that Sikkim had an immense potential for the development of trade link between the Indian sub-continent and heartland of Asia owing also the fact that strategically, Sikkim provided the shortest route between the two.

To fulfil its entire requirement, the British began to establish its authority bit by bit, slowly and steadily. The Nepal Government had already accepted defeat under ‘The Segowlee Agreement’ of 1815. After Nepal, the British signed the ‘Titalia Treaty’ with Sikkim on 10/2/1817 under which the land situated to the eastward of Mechi river and to the westward of Teesta river, formerly possessed by Rajah of Nepal but ceded by British was virtually transferred to Sikkim for namesake. The ‘Titalia Treaty’ also mentioned that any foreign national be it British, European or American could not enter Sikkim, without permission from the English Government. Darjeeling was gone by 1835 and finally, the British supremacy over Sikkim was established by the ‘Britain-China Convention’ of 1890 under which Sikkim became the protectorate of the British Government. After the death of the British Empire, the Indian Government continued to follow the British tactics. Sikkim continued to be the Indian buffer state and its protectorate under ‘Indo-Sikkim Friendship Treaty’ of 1950. The Hindustan Times reported this event as “this treaty will be hailed as a big step in strengthening the frontier defence of India”.

However, to India’s cataclysm, the other side of Himalayas too was seeing a tremendous change. In the year 1949, the Communist regime was established in China. The Red Army under the leadership of Mao Ze Dong was growing powerful and he had open plans of expansion for its territory. Thus, strategic game plans started on the playground of Eastern Himalayas, especially in Sikkim. In the year 1950-51, China imposed her 17 point agreement on the helpless four million Tibetans in a bid to bring Tibet under the firm grip of the Chinese Communists. If the Tibetan plateau was to be kept away from hostile hands, it was necessary for the security of the sub-continent to preserve Tibet as a neutral buffer zone. But the Chinese action against Tibet in 1959 hit India like an icy blast from the snow covered mountains. Thereafter, the Chinese put forth their claims on the two Himalayan States of Sikkim and Bhutan on the ground that they had a tributary relationship with the Ch’ing dynasty in the past. Along with it, China also tried to maintain good relations with Sikkim.

The strategic game between India and China reached its climax when China attacked the Himalayan borders of India. In her hostile manoeuvre of 1962, China demonstrated apparent intensions of gaining mastery over the approaches to North & North-Eastern India to establish herself as the dominant political power of Asia. The most important factor the strategic game on the playground of Sikkim was played between both neighbours due to the shortest available route through Sikkim to the plains of India or vice versa. The British had discovered this route through Sikkim for trade, but at the same time, it could also be used for a military purpose. Once the border passes are supposedly crossed, the Teesta river valley provides a comparatively easy and accessible route to the Indian plains which could eventually change the fate of more than a billion citizens of the sub-continent, creating a threat in the region.

Pt. Nehru once said, “Sikkim stands in the frontline of the defense of India. If something happens on their borders, it is an interference with the border of India”. It was this geographical location of Sikkim which prompted China to give a call of Himalayan Kingdom’s Federation (Nepal, Sikkim & Bhutan) and secure for itself a firm base in the Himalayan borders. India always recognized the strategic significance of Sikkim. The treaty of 1950 was not sufficient for further strategic activities on the ground of Sikkim. If not cared for the situation might have exploded any day proving very inconvenient for India. Hence, the merger of Sikkim with India became essence for her national interest and security needs.

By Nawin Kiran Pradhan M.A. (Pol. Sc), PG (Journalism & Mass Com.) LLB, BA. The author can be contacted at nawinus@gmail.com

NB: Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer. For any queries or contradictions, the author can be contacted in his/her email id.


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