Note:The views is of the author, not of Sikkim Chronicle
By Amrit Sharma. Sharma has a Masters in English from Hindu College, Delhi University and a Masters in Mass Communications from M.C.R. C, Jamia. He worked in NDTV and then went on to Head Communications in Multi-national companies in Delhi, Spain, Switzerland and U.K. He recently moved back to Sikkim and currently runs a Homestay in Gangtok.
Sikkim is a tiny land locked state that shares three international borders and is home to some of the highest mountains in the world. Its rugged terrain and often times harsh climate meant that for centuries it was only inhabited by the hardy mountain people who braved nature and the elements to make their homeland the blessed valley of rice by giving their blood, sweat and tears for this land.
Before the British introduced modern administration and opened trade with India, the major occupation of the Sikkimese was agriculture. Barter was more common than the use of currency and the plainsmen of India were least bothered about this tiny frugal country perched on the high hills of the Himalayas. When the kingdom opened its doors to trade, the plainsmen came in with the scent of money. They came in to trade our cardamom, our ginger, our oranges, our brooms, our rice – all our produce that came from the unimaginable feat accomplished by our ancestors of taming our steep hills and creating our terrace fields.
The simple people of Sikkim who had had no contact with the outside world and who had no experience with dealing in money or trade fell easy prey to the plainsmen who were generational traders in India. Sikkimese were trapped into bad debts and un-payable interests when these traders started ensnaring people by giving them loans. The situation got so bad that the Sikkim Durbar had to issue a proclamation in 1933 barring plainsmen from entering the villages and for them to restrict their business only to notified bazaar areas.
In 1975, Sikkim merged with India and the Sikkimese became Indian while the plainsmen who had come here to trade from India remained Indians as before. In return of the huge sacrifice of our sovereignty, the Govt. of India promised to protect our unique identity and secure and uphold our social, economic and political rights. These safeguards born out of the 8th May agreement came to be enshrined in Article 371F of the Constitution of India.
For a few decades after the merger, things remained stable. The Sikkimese who were mostly first generation educated took to government jobs, the younger generation pursued higher education in the best colleges in India and abroad, while the plainsmen strengthened their hold over the economy of the state by expanding from simple trade to undertaking huge govt. infrastructure projects running into crores of rupees. But the demography of the state remained pretty much the same other than the border areas which saw a significant increase in people coming from Bihar and West Bengal.
Tides of Change
Things changed drastically in the 90s with the opening up of tourism and the easing of ILP. Overnight hotels mushroomed all over, starting in Gangtok and then in all towns on major tourist routes. Along with the lakhs of tourists, lakhs of others came to support this booming sector – to lease and run hotels, staff to work in these hotels, to drive taxis and luxury vehicles, to run travel agencies, to sell jhalmuri, fruit juice, coffee tea, momo to the tourists. Seeing the easy money that the first wave made, more and more waves of people poured in, to the extent that there are towns in Sikkim now where the Sikkimese are a tiny minority.
Threat to our Political Rights
While 371F is meant to protect our socio-economic and political rights, our political rights have been withering away for decades. Firstly an ordinance passed abruptly and unconstitutionally by Parliament removed the reservation of seats for Nepalis in the state legislature. The Nepali seats were made general seats; open to anyone with voting rights in Sikkim.
This ordinance goes against the very basis of 371F as any of the old Laws of Sikkim could have been amended or repealed only upto two years after 1975 i.e only until 1977. Secondly, although the Old Laws clearly state that only Sikkim Subjects can stand for elections and only Sikkim Subjects can vote in elections, politicians and bureaucrats have never enforced this in the state for their petty gains. Since vote bank politics has come to play a dominant role in the politics of the state, having a whole group of voters who don’t demand accountability from the govt. nor depend on govt. largesse and benefits, that undocumented and amorphous pool of voters is too tempting a voting pool for the politicians to ignore.
This is becoming a huge threat for the political rights of ethnic Sikkimese and the day is not far when outsiders will determine the political agendas of the state and the Sikkimese will have no say in their own political future. We have already had a Non-Sikkimese Mayor in Gangtok, it is just a matter of time before we have a Non-Sikkimese Chief Minister in Sikkim.
Threat to National Security
Sikkim is located in a very sensitive tri-juncture with porous borders with three nations. While the border with Nepal has remained trouble free, the borders with China and Bhutan have seen a lot of friction in recent years. China is building infrastructure along the border on a war footing and India is also investing a lot to strengthen the roads along those borderlines. In this scenario, it is very dangerous for national security to not have records and antecedents of visitors entering Sikkim.
We see news reports of Pakistani and Chinese spies being caught within Sikkim or at Bagdogra, we hear reports of Bangladeshis and Nepali nationals working and residing in restricted areas where even us Sikkimese need permits to visit, of Bhutanese nationals running businesses in Sikkim. This kind of unchecked and unsupervised entry of people into Sikkim can lead to all kinds of anti-national activities being carried out within the state by vested interests. The Sikkimese are a peace-loving people, we do not want our soil to be used to carry out activities which may shatter our centuries old peace and tranquility.
Changing Social Fabric
When Sikkim was a Kingdom, it had the distinction of having the world’s lowest crime rate. That was still the case a few decades after the merger but of late, the crime rate is going up. From petty crimes of theft and burglary, we now have murders, rapes, sexual assaults on children and brutal assaults – something unheard of when I was growing up. Even our political landscape has turned violent – we may not have learnt the language of discourse, debate and ideology from mainland India but we have definitely learnt the goonda politics from there. Stone pelting, effigy burning, life threatening assaults, the use of firearms, the issuance of threats and abuses from political podiums have become everyday occurrences in the state. All of this has come from the changing social fabric of our state – as our demography is changing our social values are changing too.
In our homes, we Sikkimese are still a very polite people – we don’t even accept anything with one hand! However in the larger social space, our values are getting completely eroded. If we don’t check this, our collective Sikkimese culture of politeness, humility and peacefulness will all vanish without a trace.