Rethinking impacts of casinos in Sikkim

Courtesy: Sikkim Diaries

Recently, the news of a new casino coming up in Mangan has bewildered at least those who would be concerned by such news. One can easily categorise the responses towards the existence of casinos in Sikkim into three sections- first, those who support and welcome casinos for local employment, but would advocate for restrictions on the entry of local gamblers in it. Both, the previous SDF and the current SKM government can be put under this category. It may be noted that the state government in 2016, banned the entry of locals in the casinos in Sikkim through an amendment to the Sikkim Casino Games (Control and Tax) Rules, 2007.

The second category sees that the arrival of casinos would corrupt local cultures and identities; though gambling in various forms already exists in local culture and tradition. But unlike casinos, these are not profit-oriented ventures and considered a past time activity.

And the third category, the larger section, is of course, those who are yet to figure out for themselves the negative or positive side of casinos.

It would be an easy task to reject casinos in totality and demand for its ban. Doing so will take us nowhere, because it will be targeting a symptom and not the cause. The question that needs to be asked is whether people will stop gambling if casinos are banned? Playing cards and dice games have been a part of our culture for ages. Are casinos the modern manifestation of our traditional practice or will it be instrumental to bringing devastating impact on the cultural fabric of the society?

Here, we should interrogate our perception of ‘being modern and developed’. It would be an interesting exercise to see casinos as the by-product of a larger developmental discourse of modernity. Doing so will make us understand that the Sikkimese society at present is in the midst of a transition between modernity and tradition. We should also see whether this development is just a transfer of our traditional practices into a larger canvas of modern forms or something different. Of course, not all developed and modern societies or nations or even those who aspire to be one, need to have casinos. In fact, in India, casinos and public gambling are prohibited through the Public Gambling Act of 1867, except in Sikkim, Goa and Daman and Diu. Still, casinos with their flashing lights and slots machines cannot be seen as pre-modern.

Modernity and its ideas in Sikkim

Modernity in Sikkim can be located in modern political ideas and concepts like democracy, responsible government, civil rights and so on, that emerged during the 1940s with the formation of political parties like Sikkim Praja Sammelan, Praja Mandal and Praja Sudharak Samaj. Later, these parties came together and formed Sikkim State Congress (SSC) in 1947, the year India was liberated from her colonial masters. The movement for democracy in Sikkim was largely influenced by the freedom struggle in India and its subsequent liberation. For obvious reasons, these leaders demanded the accession with India, so that they can get rid of the age old feudal system and the 300 year old Namgyal dynasty. This was, in a way, seeking modernity to a pre-modern Sikkim polity. At this point what we need to remember is that the leaders of the Indian freedom struggle themselves were the product of modern political ideas like nation-state, democracy, citizenship, etc.

Nation and nationalism is a modern concept that evolved in the post industrialised Western society. When these leaders imagined free India, they imagined a nation upholding democratic principles. No wonder Nehru took the pain to explain that there is no place for kings and queens in republican India – it will be a nation-state. Therefore, early political leaders and parties in Sikkim were not only protesting and mobilising against the monarchy, but were also rejecting the old system and replacing it with modern thoughts. To counter this sort of nation building, Chogyal Palden T. Namgyal, during his reign (1965-1975), tried to invoke national feeling through inventing traditions from the past and attempted to create counter Sikkimese nationalism. Jackie Hiltz in ‘Constructing Sikkimese National Identity in the 1960s and 1970’ has highlighted the emergence of national consciousness in Sikkim initiated by him. The emanation of national anthem and national flag during early years of 1960s and the implementation of Sikkim Subject Regulation Act formalizing the citizenship can be seen in this context.

The reason behind giving much space to the repeated political history of Sikkim is to highlight the fact that modernity is polymorphous. While (Indian) nationalism, democracy, citizenship, Article 371 (f) were the manifestation of modernity in (political) ideological form whereas dams, casinos, showrooms, etc., are its manifestations in a physical structural form. Most of the times these elements of modernity are in negotiation with traditions, like in the case of dam constructions in ethnically significant regions. Yet, it is also important to know that in many cases modernity transforms traditional practices, like in the case of gambling habits. And this is because modernity is understood vis-à-vis capitalist-consumeristic developmental discourse.

Though the discussion on capitalist developmental discourse is impossible here, it is necessary to point out its two features- one, capitalism can pick up any saleable element from the traditional practices of the society so that they can adapt it into a profitable format. Two, it promotes capital accumulation even if it is in the expanse of environment and culture.
Therefore, advocating a blanket ban on the casinos won’t take us anywhere, rather we also need to rethink about what ‘being modern’ or ‘developed’ means.

By Ugen Bhutia. The writer is an Assistant Professor at SRM – Amravati. The author can be contacted via his email ID

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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