In the annals of history- The democratic movement in Sikkim and its impact

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While the democratic movement remains a highly acknowledged time period in the annals of our history, not much is done apart from an annual lip service on the State Day, when much is yet to be written, researched and preserved. The time presents a fascinating era with internal chaos within the erstwhile Himalayan Kingdom which was marching towards its biggest transition.

Before Indian independence, there were social organisations confined to isolated pockets with social rather than political aims in Sikkim. There was Praja Sudharak Samaj in the capital (Gangtok) under the leadership of Tashi Tshering, Praja Sammelan at Temi Tarku (South Sikkim) under the leadership of Gobardhan Pradhan and the Praja Mandal at Chakhung (West Sikkim) under the leadership of Kazi Lhendup Dorji Khangsarpa. Political activities started simmering in Sikkim after Indian independence. Indian independence and the establishment of popular governments in some of the states encouraged these organisations to come together with pronounced political aims. The movement aimed at destroying the power of Thikadars (landlords); a kalo bhari system of forced labour and practices like Jharlangi (unpaid labour), which resulted in considerable hardship, and the reason why people voiced against this system.

On 7 December 1947, the leaders of the regional organisations met at Gangtok and called for political awakening in Sikkim. In a largely attended public meeting at Gangtok, a new political party, the first-ever political party of Sikkim, the Sikkim State Congress (SSC) was formed with Tashi Tshering as its President and Chandra Das Rai as its General Secretary. Tashi Tshering had been for many years employed as a clerk in the Residency (British Political Office). All the prominent leaders in the Sikkimese politics came from the educated class of the Sikkimese society. This new educated class of contemporary Sikkimese society desired a free Sikkim.

The launch of the movement is attributed to a pre-literate culture transiting slowly, indeed very slowly towards literacy. In no country with a predominantly illiterate population has a protest of any significant strength taken place. In the colonial period, much urban growth occurred, the development of urban working class and salaried people planted the seeds of ‘agitation’ which sprouted as the political movements in due course.

According to the democratic movement leader and former Deputy Speaker, LB Basnet, “the net result of the Chogyal’s rule was the growing strength of corrupt sycophants, who lined their pockets with little or no care for administrative efficiency or the wellbeing of the people.”

Sikkimese began to receive Western education from the 1870s onwards after Christian Missionaries in Kalimpong actively sought to attract Sikkimese to schools that they had established there. The number of educated Sikkimese was small, and it was only after the British Government founded more and more schools, and with the private effort of the missionaries reinforcing this growth, that a significant class of educated Sikkimese developed. There were western model schools in Sikkim by 1890s.

John Claude White started a school in Gangtok with nine pupils who were being taught the alphabets in Tibetan and later it was extended to other subjects. By introducing modern education in Sikkim, the British brought Sikkimese people in contact with the extensive and profound achievements of the modern West in the sphere of scientific and social scientific knowledge. Many families were able to advance their social and economic status as a result of granting modern education. The introduction of modern education in Sikkim was a progressive act of British rule. It was secular in character, liberal in essence and open to all. It was the key which opened the great treasures of rationalist and democratic thought of the West.

However, the introduction of modern education in Sikkim was primarily motivated by the politico-administrative and economic needs of the British in Sikkim. This tiny Himalayan region was strategically important as the gateway to Tibet and beyond. With their regional Political Officer Resident in Gangtok as an imperial stepping stone, the British inevitably became involved in the internal affairs of Sikkim. It was, therefore, necessary to establish schools and colleges to produce the educated people who would assist them in the administrative apparatus of the colonial rule. The British Government entrusted the key posts in the state machinery to the British and filled the subordinate posts with educated Sikkimese.

Despite the limitations and distortions of the education imparted, the fact remains that Britain, by spreading modern education in Sikkim, liberal and technical, even due to its own needs, objectively played a progressive role. Sikkimese took western education with zeal. It was felt that familiarity with western ideas was breeding political discontent. There emerged political dangers to the ruling elite because of English education. Theory and practice in imparting education did not entirely coincide. The development of the small educated stratum played a crucial role in the political movements in Sikkim men such as Tashi Tshering, Chandra Das Rai, Raghubir Basnet, Captain Dimick Singh Lepcha, etc. It was clearly understood from the outset that an educated elite was dangerous for the maintenance of political stability, the praxis of colonial education resulted in the production of Sikkimese elites which posed challenges to the local ruling elite.

The uprising of 1949 is perhaps the crucial event in the history of Sikkim because it was for the first time ‘voices’ was raised against the authority of Chogyal (monarch). In February 1949, the leaders of the SSC comprising of Tashi Tshering, Chandra Das Rai, Dimick Singh Lepcha and Raghubir Basnet, held an annual party meeting at Rangpo, East Sikkim and called on the launch of the protest movement in Sikkim for the abolition of landlordism and the formation of a democratic government. To press for the fulfilment of the twin demands, the SSC under the leadership of Tashi Tshering, took a first positive step towards Satyagraha (true-plea) movement. At the Rangpo Convention, a resolution was unanimously passed calling upon the people to start ‘non-rent campaign’ whereby, until the demands of the Congress would be met, the people would refuse to pay land revenue and house tax.

As a result of the protest movement, the prominent rebel leaders, namely Namgyal Tshering, Chandra Das Rai, Ram Prasad, Jam. Ratna Bahadur Khatri, Jam. Budhiman Rai, Ongdi Bhutia, Chanchula, Abichandra Kharel, Brihaspati Prasai, Chukchum Sangdarpa, and Katuk Lama were arrested by the Sikkim Government. As a repercussion, about 5,000 people poured into Gangtok bazaar and held a demonstration against the arbitrary arrest of the rebel leaders. Thousands of people turned up and were expressing their anger against the highhandedness of the government. The demonstration displayed the gulf between the people and the ruling class in Sikkim. It marked the irreparable breakdown of the relationship between the masses and the ruling class.

The Durbar used various moves and tactics to weaken the popular agitation and introduced a ‘parity’ system. Most famous for Sikkimese political development, the divisive politics of Chogyal reinforced the ethnoreligious divisions among Sikkimese people. The communalism was deliberately placed as a stumbling block in the path of the candidates who enjoyed the popular support. According to the formula laid down in the Proclamation of the Durbar regarding the parity system, a candidate representing a particular community would not be declared elected even if he had polled the highest number of votes unless he could secure 15% of the votes of the other communities in that particular constituency.

The politics of Chogyal never allowed the development of a nationalist feeling among the Sikkimese people, which resulted in a fragmented society. The reform movements represented the strife of the conscious and progressive sections of the Sikkimese people to democratise social institutions and remodel old religious outlooks to suit the new social needs. This consciousness has a historical tendency to come to the surface in the vicinity of some radical sections of the rural masses long before being generalised on a national scale in any country. These tenets have not always received the attention they warrant. The determination of the first class of leaders of the social movements was to secure the authority so that they could use it to gather up the tempo of social and religious reforms in Sikkim.

The British colonialism in India developed an Indian national consciousness; there is a causal relationship between colonisation and the development of national consciousness. However, the politics of Chogyal in Sikkim failed to develop Sikkimese national consciousness.

The General Elections of 1973 proved to be a crucial point in the history of Sikkim. There was a widespread allegation in the state that the Durbar having rigged the 1973 polls to the advantage of the National Party. Later developments which completely eclipsed the National Party makes one believe that there must have been some truth in the allegation. It was discovered during the counting of the votes in the White Hall (in Gangtok) that some ballot papers from Rawang not been separated along the perforation and it was found in the National Party candidate’s box. The National Party came out as the largest single party capturing as many as eleven seats out of the eighteen elected positions to the State Council. The National Congress Chief, Kazi Lhendup Dorji, was utterly disillusioned and decided that the only alternative left under these circumstances was intense popular agitation. The leader of another mass-based party, KC Pradhan of the Janata Congress also seconded the Kazi. Him along with Kazi Lhendup Dorji, charging the presiding officer with ‘aiding and abetting the Sikkim National Party in rigging the elections’ walked out of the counting hall alleging the polls have not been conducted in a free and fair manner.

Far from shaping a national consciousness, the Chogyal’s policies produced a politically fragmented population, and this fragmentation was mirrored in the referendum on Sikkim’s future political status which was held in 1975 (which was asked by the Chogyal). On April 14, 1975, the referendum was held thus authoritarian conceptions were replaced by the libertarian ones which affirmed that all individuals should have equal rights and freedom irrespective of anything.

A new chapter in the history of modern Sikkim began that of 22nd state of the Indian Union with the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination ushering democracy in Sikkim.

This transitional phase continued for a long time post-merger leading to long governments ushering a sense of stability and economic progress taking the state go more ‘mainstream’.

The democratic movement in Sikkim was also one of the most compelling narratives with a multiplicity of players bringing some dynamic shift in the state’s identity and status.

Many members of the democratic movements including BB Gooroong, NB Khatiwada and RC Poudyal are amongst us presenting that important phase of our collective conscience. Once in an interview, former Chief Minister, BB Gooroong, highlighted the role played by the individuals who contributed to the mass awakening that happened to bring democracy. He also had said that Article 371(f) is what the Sikkimese people have as armour with its role as a constitution within a constitution.

Therefore, special clause for Sikkim in the Indian constitution is a result of this democratic movement which has not just succeeded in a progression of the society towards a modern, egalitarian one, it has by default, also protected all the rights and privileges enjoyed by all sections of Sikkimese society before the merger.

The Tripartite agreement between Chogyal, Government of India and political parties of Sikkim has also been one of its major victories which did bring a sense of justice to the members of the democratic movement but also to the different sections of the Sikkimese society who were all vulnerable to all forms of protection and social justice.

The current political narrative is also a situation stemming from the past with major political issues of the state dominated by the idea of social justice and freedom that was marked by a strong undercurrent of idealism.

Sikkim’s unique socio-political situation prevailing currently has its birth in the democratic movement which broke many glass ceilings of what was expected and routine.

The dramatic and sudden transition of the territory into a full-fledged state of the Indian Union was met with due consideration after all the turmoil resulting in relative peace and tranquillity which has avoided the state from any major breach.

Sikkim’s relative socio-economic contentment in today’s era has been largely the contribution of individuals who found a voice for more social justice and greater democracy.

A clear vision of history presenting different shades of opinion in the compelling history of Sikkim makes it an excellent subject for more research and new narratives to develop the future consciousness of the people of the Himalayan state.

The education policy of the governments, both at centre and state, promoting a uniform standardised history completely ignoring the Himalayan state’s past has led to a generation growing up with no sense of their own history.

This, however, has not stopped the researchers from delving deep into the past, which continues to be retold.

Usually, a certain narrative overpowers another when it comes to describing chapters of history. Sikkim’s history has its own share of perspective which has been a source of constant contesting views which can be seen as an ultimate goal by people with different ideology or views subscribing to certain parts of history.

In Sikkim, history is usually not a readily available subject due to our rich history being rather left untouched, not only has there been a consolidation of a unidimensional strand of history either being celebrated or discarded.

Here, we are giving our history through the prism of the democratic movement which had at some point of our collective conscience gave a different and fresh narrative to the already existential theory that has dominated our history.

Subaltern narrative of history is often ignored in Sikkim as the state power has usually dictated and dominated the writings of its history.

Ideally, Sikkimese authors and scholars should have delved into many common narratives of this period of history. This, however, has found few takers which has of late changed with many young students researching to connect the lost dots.

Many from other parts of the world have written extensively on Sikkim with and scholars having shared many compelling narratives of this place. These accounts like Sunanda Dutta Ray’s ‘Smash and Grab’ which provides some shades of this story that are equally enlightening. Andrew Duff’s ‘Sikkim, Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom’ also gives a vivid narrative that has dispelled many aspects of the past. However, what needs to be appreciated is that the interested find meaning in the Sikkim story which urgently needs to be told. GBS Sidhu’s ‘Sikkim- The Dawn of Democracy’ presented an insider version presenting a fresh narrative.

Many aspects of history, particularly in democratic societies, are often hotly contested, while we may find other compelling stories of the state highlighting a contrasting dimension other than the popular narrative. This perspective also falls in a subaltern view, which sees a situation from a common person’s perspective, who are often the most suffered yet most ignored. Therefore, democratic movement in Sikkim is an important milestone where the voice of many found its rightful place culminating into a collective conscience of ideas which has continuously guided the Himalayan state.

By Rajiv Rai/Nitesh R Pradhan. Rajiv Rai is a research scholar in the Department of International Relations, Sikkim University. Nitesh R Pradhan is a Gangtok based journalist.

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.

Kotturan, The Himalayan Gateway 1983: 94-5; Datta-Ray, Smash and Grab 1984: 52

Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India 1983: 226

Sikkim: Merger with India, Unpublished Typescript 1978: 209

McKay, Their Footprints Remain: Biomedical Beginnings Across the Indo-Tibetan Frontier 2007: 219

Extracts from Reports by J. C. White dated 11 March 1889, Secretariat Records Room, National Archives of Bangladesh

McKay, Their Footprints Remain: Biomedical Beginnings Across the Indo-Tibetan Frontier 2007: 237

McKay, Their Footprints Remain: Biomedical Beginnings Across the Indo-Tibetan Frontier 2007: 174

Rai, “India’s Independence and its Impact on Sikkim”, S. P. Wangdi (Ed.), Sikkim’s Raj Bhavan (pp. 101-106) 2011/2013: 104

Rai, “India’s Independence and its Impact on Sikkim”, S. P. Wangdi (Ed.), Sikkim’s Raj Bhavan (pp. 101-106) 2011/2013: 104

Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India 1983: 20

Kotturan, The Himalayan Gateway 1983: 107; Grover, India and Sikkim: Storm and Consolidation 1974: 59-60; Datta-Ray, Smash and Grab 1984: 166-67

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