Sikkim archives in Bangladesh

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Alex McKay mentioned the existence of the East India Company archives in Rangpur, which could cover the period 1750-1850, and which have not yet been looked into by any historian. In the late 18th century in the division of East India Company, there were several Provincial Councils such as Provincial Council of Dhaka, Provincial Council of Dinagepore and Districts such as District of Rangpur, District of Rajshahi in Eastern Bengal. A group of districts constituted a Provincial Council. On 25 July 1777, Warren Hastings (the first de facto Governor-General of India) appointed Charles Busling to the Charge and Superintendency of the Districts of Rangpur, and the other Districts comprehended in the collectorship of Rangpur.
His work was to form a Settlement of whole Districts independently of the Provincial Council. Conforming to the instructions sent by the head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, Fort William, to the provincial Councils, it was stated, to furnish the Provincial Council with an Account of the Settlement and other papers relating to it and the Account of the Collections and Disbursements, and record their orders for the disposal. Thus, the collectorship of Rangpur became the repository of the documents of the whole districts placed under his authority.


The records of Sikkim fell under this collectorship when Sikkim came into contact with the East India Company. It was in the Anglo-Gorkha conflict (1814-16), where she acted as a faithful and according to the extent of her resources, a useful ally to the British.

In the aftermath of Gorkha-Tibet/China war (1788-1792), and in a final peace treaty (1792) between China and Nepal, Sikkim suffered considerable losses. Sikkim was not represented at the negotiations and Tibet refused to listen to her pleas on the ground that Bhutan had rendered assistance, but Sikkim had not. The Nepal-Sikkim boundary was drawn further back to the left bank of the River Teesta, which was not the original boundary. This, according to Sikkim history (1908), was due to the absence of Sikkimese representatives, the indifference of Tibet and misrepresentations made by Nepal. Sikkim not only lost most of her territories to Nepal, but Tibet also pushed down its boundary to the Chola-Jeylep range.


The Chinese tried to appease the Sikkimese after the peace treaty, which went in favour of Nepal, Sikkim suffering losses to her territories. The documents held at Palace Archives at Namgyal Institute of Tibetology (NIT), Gangtok, such as document PD/6.1/006 states that the Sikkim-Nepal border have been delimited but if Sikkim and Nepal dispute the border the borders established during the time of the sixth Dalai Lama would be reinstated; and PD/6.1/007 from the Chinese Amban to the Sikkimese government, which attempted to buy-off the Sikkimese with expensive gifts to settle the matter. The Chinese had no intention of re-opening treaty negotiations which may have had the result of increasing conflict between Nepal and China/Tibet. The affairs of Sikkim continued in this unsatisfactory note till the British’s rupture with the Gorkhas in 1814.

What is uncertain is the extent of Gorkha control over Sikkimese territory after the final peace treaty between Tibet, China and Nepal. Most of the secondary literature seems divided on the actual geographical distinctions between Nepalese controlled Sikkim and the areas under the authority of the Sikkimese Chogyals. F.I.S. Tucker (1957), states that the six thousand troops that were dispatched to Sikkim in 1788 which overran most of the Sikkimese territory in the Terai and the hills but were unable to penetrate the area surrounding modern Gangtok. B.J. Hasrat (1971), however, seems to be confused in regard to the limits of Nepalese conquest as he states that the Gorkhas possessed most of Sikkim, but the area of Nag po ri (presumably this refers to Nag ri which equates roughly with the modern Indian administrative district of Darjeeling) was held jointly by Sikkim and Nepal. This seems to be mistaken as this particular region remained under direct Nepalese control until the end of the Anglo-Gorkha war and the signing of the treaty of Sugauli in 1815. L. F. Stiller (1973) on the other hand, shows the eastern border of Nepal as following the Rambang River until its confluence with the Teesta (the territory to the east of the Teesta was under the administration of Bhutan).

The map in Bajracharya’s book entitled Bahadur Shah: the Regent of Nepal (1992), shows that Nepal had possession of all of Sikkim’s territory in the Terai south of the Rambang River, west of the Teesta and east of the Mechi River. While it has been established that the Nepalese had control of the Sikkimese capital of Rabdentse in 1788, what is not known is for how long they occupied this territory to the west of the Teesta and in the hills. The Denzong Gyalrab (1908) sheds no light on this issue, being mainly concerned lamenting the injustice of the Nepalese invasion. There is one clue to be found in the Dak Kar Pa family history (document YA8) and that is the place where the document was written and some of the contents. This was virtuously written in the time of the middle of the second month of the fire dragon year (1796) from the high place of the dual system (of religion and politics) the palace of Rabdentse. While it could be the case that this reference to Rabdentse is nothing more than the wish of the government to maintain continuity with territory lost during the Nepalese invasion, it appears not to be so. A more detailed examination of the Tibetan documents, primarily document YA8 clarifies the extent of Nepalese control in the western Sikkimese hills.

It happened that the region beyond the south of Singla (an area close to the modern boundary of South Sikkim and West Bengal) slipped into the hands of the Nepalese. The territory referred here includes the district of modern Darjeeling and the land of the Sikkimese Terai extending eastwards to the Teesta and south beyond Siliguri. From lines 22-4 of YA8, the areas of land which remained in the ownership of the Dak Kar Pa family are listed and included in this list is the area of Yang Gang which relates to the modern estate of Yang Thang Dzong, the residential lands of the Dak Kar Pa family in West Sikkim. This seems to suggest that the region permanently acquired by the Nepalese after the invasion of Sikkim was the Terai up to where the Rambang River meets the Teesta and then following the Teesta southwards to the plains. What is still ambiguous, however, is the duration that the areas of West Sikkim, including the palace of Rabdentse, were held by the Nepalese after the invasion of 1788. The boundary of Nepal in the East remained extended up to river Teesta till 1815, as Risley (1894) states- “for some years, Pemayangtse and south to the Teesta tract paid rent to Nepal…The infant Sikkim ruler (Tshugphud Namgyal), after his return from Tibet, remained ruler only of a small tract to the east of Teesta with his capital at Gangtok.”


The opportunity to exact revenge on Nepal and China/Tibet came with the Anglo-Gorkha war (1814-1816), where Sikkim could reclaim her possessions and ignored Chinese requests to avoid contact with the British. In the eventual Treaty of Titaliya (1817) between the Rajah of Sikkim and British, Rajah was rewarded by the recovery of a considerable portion of his territory lost during the Sino-Gorkha War (1788-1792). This includes the part of the hill to the westward of the Teesta, and great Rangit rivers, and south of the River Rambang, the Darjeeling District. The company added a tract of low land, Morung, to the east of Mechi river. However, the British returned some of the territories to constitute Sikkim as a barrier against Gorkha ambitions under their protection, and eventually it was hoped, would lead to the enlargement of British commercial relations with Tibet.
The British-Sikkim relation began positively with the collaboration during the Anglo-Gorkha war. However, with the eventual transfer of Darjeeling hills to East India Company, deteriorated the relationship.

Alex McKay conjectured about the presence of East India Company archives in Rangpur, Bangladesh. During the period of East India Company authority in Bengal, the Company stationed a Collector in Rangpur (now in northern Bangladesh). The Rangpur Collector, as I discussed in the beginning, was the main source of political and commercial information about Sikkim, as well as Bhutan and Tibet. The Collectors, of whom the most famous was Warren Hasting’s envoy to Bhutan and Tibet, George Bogle (1746-81), was responsible for the Company’s commercial relations across territory that stretched to the borders of Sikkim, Bhutan and Assam. While a selection of the Collectors’ records was published between 1914 and 1927, the actual collection has apparently never attracted scholars.

Rangpur, a local archive in a remote district that has endured floods, famine and civil war, as it passed from the control of British colonial India to independent (East) Pakistan, before becoming part of Bangladesh in 1971, seemed to hold few attractions for scholars. Bangladesh, now not only open to scholars but—Islamic fundamentalism aside—increasingly stable and easily accessible, while the scholastic value of such regional archives is now widely recognised. Thus, I recently visited Bangladesh to enquire about this archive, thinking that even if nothing was left besides insect-eaten documents, then at least I could inform other researchers of the situation there. In the Bangladesh capital, with assistance from Dhaka University professors, I began by enquiring about any other EIC archives, but the National Museum Library confirmed that all of the primary sources for the nation’s history were now held at the National Archives of Bangladesh on Syed Mahbub Morshed Ave. All regional archives for the 1770s-1880s period were originally collected at the National Library in 1985-86 before being transferred to the custodianship of the National Archives in 2006. Among them were the early Rangpur District Records, and as only more recent records are now kept in Rangpur, I had at least discovered that there was little point in my travelling there.
The National Archives catalogue indicates that Rangpur District records for the period from July 1777 to March 1889 are part of their collection comprising 516 bound volumes of documents, volumes that would surely shed considerable light on many historical processes in the region. However, Senior Archivist, Elias Miah contended that “the documents are not properly arranged, yet it may take time to provide all the relevant documents and are in the process of arranging systematically.” In the record room, what I saw confirmed that without additional workforce and funding, there is little prospect of that process being completed shortly. Scholars will probably have some years to wait before the material is available. In the meantime, their condition was worrying; the records were not well maintained and were scattered around the record room. I took some photographs and with just a handful of documents relevant to my work I returned to India, that was in May of 2016.

Likewise, one of the critical problems with conducting historical research in Sikkim in the past was the lack of accurate and authentic records. However, with the transfer of Sikkimese Royal Palace Archives in 2008 to the custodianship of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology (NIT), and the recent breakthrough in the East India Company archives in Bangladesh (2016) which was hitherto unexplored and the current, The Sikkim Palace Archive Digitisation Project (2016-2017) has dramatically eased this problem. According to Mullard (2010), “this collection of documents is, perhaps, one of the greatest discoveries of recent years as the scope and content of the material is extremely diverse.” Now, historical research on Sikkim has become possible due to the availability of these sources. The local Sikkimese history is grounded in a methodology which places oral accounts at par with documentary evidence. Now, an empirical study on Sikkim can be done that cannot be proven inaccurate by the historical method.

I again visited Bangladesh in June 2018, at this time I was able to get hold of some relevant documents. Mainly, from the period 1886-1914 from Secretariat Records Room which included correspondences, boundary demarcation reports, administrative reports, land records, census reports, military records, report on Sikkim budget, records on allowances of British officials, enquiry into the system of rents in Sikkim, Reports on Public Works Department, report on State revenues, allowances of Maharajah of Sikkim etc. The records I went through and became successful in bringing some of them with me are primarily printed documents, easy to read, but there is a massive bundle of files, basically, handwritten which surely contains a large amount of information which are lying at bay there. The papers dating back to the second half of the 18th century to the third half of the 19th century are mostly handwritten records. To retrieve that information from there, one has to be a handwriting expert. The Sikkim archives also fall into this category. An extensive project on record-keeping may decipher some of the hidden facts about Sikkim of that period which is not revealed yet.

After the partition of Bengal in 1947, there is no evidence to suggest that the archival materials were brought back to India. National Archives of India (NAI) contains the files that were not considered important enough at the time to take to London. A period after 1913, concerning Sikkim, is difficult to get access, as most of the Sikkim files come under restriction because it touches the McMahon Line issue. Most of the files we see in the British Library, we do not see in NAI and vice-versa. Therefore, it is necessary to visit both places to have a comprehensive idea about the events that occurred in the region. And I can confirm that the files I saw in Dhaka, did not see in NAI when I visited there in the summer of last year.

There were no serious efforts to bring back those archival materials and that remained in the Rangpur District Archives until 1985-86 when it was transferred to National Library of Bangladesh and then to National Archives in 2006. It is now only after several decades the efforts are being made to retrieve the valuable information from the Collectorship of Rangpur, now kept at National Archives and is not present in the British Library and NAI. While a selection of these records was published between 1914 and 1927, in Walter K. Firminger edited volume, but the actual collection never attracted scholars. The political turmoil that followed after passing the control from British colonial India to independent (East) Pakistan, till becoming the sovereign State of Bangladesh in 1971. It is now only after a number of decades a part of this collection has been used in some of the studies. Henceforth, a number of articles and new researches would be done and possibly new books would be written using this collection, which would certainly add new knowledge to the existing knowledge.

References
Primary Source
National Archives of Bangladesh, a letter from Warren Hastings to Charles Busling dated 25 July 1777, Secretariat Records Room.
Secondary Sources
Balikci-Denjongpa, A. (2011). Introduction Part II: Sikkim Studies and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. In A. McKay, & A. Balikci-Denjongpa, Buddhist Himalaya: Studies in Religion, History and Culture (pp. 11-28). New Delhi: Vee Enn Print.
Hamilton, W. (1828). The East-India Gazetteer. London: Parbury, Allen and Co.
McKay, A. (2017). “The Sikkim Palace Archive Digitisation Project,” The Newsletter, no. 76. Spring.
Mullard, S. (2011). Opening the Hidden Land: State Formation and the Construction of Sikkimese History. Leiden: Brill.
Mullard, S. (2003). The Brag dkar pa family and g.yang thang rdzong: an example of internal alliances in Sikkim. Bulletin of Tibetology, Vol. 39, No. 2 , 53-68.
Mullard, S., & Wongchuk, H. (2010). Royal Records: A Catalogue of Sikkimese Palace Archive. Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Bhuddhist Studies.
Pradhan, K. (1991). The Gorkha Conquests: the Process and Consequences of the Unification of Nepal, with particular reference to Eastern Nepal. Calcutta: Oxford University Press.
Rai, R. (2017). East India Company Archives. The IIAS Newsletter | No.76 | Spring.
Risley, H. H. (1894). The Gazetteer of Sikhim. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretari

By Rajiv Rai. Author is a research scholar at Sikkim Central University. He can be reached via his email: rajivrai844@gmail.com

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