The Sangha Seat: An underrated political influence in Sikkim

The Sangha Seat: An underrated political influence in Sikkim
Photo Credit: Election Commission of India

In Sikkim, at the centre of a pitched battle for political control that played out in 2019, a notable amount of scrutiny was levelled by contestants at the presence of a singular Assembly seat: the Sangha seat. This seat was subsequently won by Sonam Lama, a monk-turned-political candidate of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) party and sole representative of Sikkim’s unique 32nd constituency referred to as the Sangha.  

The significance of this sole seat stems from the fact that it is reserved for Buddhist monks belonging only to registered monasteries in the state. Its value is traditional -- a political memento of a constitutional amendment in 1973 that granted ethnic groups such as the Sikkimese, the Bhutia Lepcha (BL) and Nepalis of Sikkimese origin a path to Indian citizenship. This was done via the 36th Amendment of the Constitution -- specifically, Article 371F, which along with detailing the distinct citizenship status of Sikkimese subjects, acts as a provision that safeguards the traditional legal systems and laws of the kingdom of Sikkim prior to its merging with the Indian union as the 22nd Indian state.

It also acts as a guardrail for the Sikkimese’s political, social and economic rights. The Sangha constituency is unique since it does not exist on the State’s map, has no geographical boundaries and comprises approximately 3,300 voters (an amalgamation of monks and nuns) from Sikkim’s monastic community.  It is also part of the ancient historical heritage from Sikkim’s monarchy when the ministers of the king were selected from the general people and priests. It is thus, in all respects, an ST seat reserved for a constituency whose members come from 111 recognized Buddhist monasteries. To further break it down: of the total 32 seats of Sikkim Assembly, 18 are general, 2 are reserved for SC, and 12 for ST, including the lone Sangha seat.

What then is the significance of the Sangha seat in Sikkim’s unique political process? For one, it has the lowest number of voters, making it a hotly contested spot for candidates who seek to lure the votes of the Buddhist clergy. Candidates typically do so by pledging to undertake the enthronement of the Karmapa (a high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader) in the state of Sikkim; during the 2019 elections, both the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) and the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) included the enthronement of the Karmapa in their election manifesto.

Winning the seat also guarantees the victor a place on the state’s cabinet as the Minister of the Department of Rural Management and Ecclesiastical Affairs. This alone makes the legislative value of the seat considerable since the Department oversees the external functionings of the monasteries and mandirs in Sikkim and is in charge of large tracts of protected forest land, rivers and lakes -- the ecological protection of which is an essential mandate for the Sikkimese people.

In fact, widespread resentment against the Chamling-led SDF (which lost to Golay-led SKM in 2019) was possibly in part the people’s response to SDF’s turn in the direction of hydroelectric dam projects. In an interview with the Firstpost, Lama Kalzang Wangdi Bhutia of Gangtok’s Enchey monastery said, “The ruling Sikkim Democratic Front has been diluting our religious beliefs and culture in the name of development with big hydro projects in and around Buddhist places of worship protected by UNESCO… [and] by our own law of the land, ‘The Places of Worship (Special Provision) Act, 1991’ enacted by Parliament of India.” He also criticised the SDF’s divisive ‘vote-bank politics’ as flagrantly erosive of Article 371F and consequently, the Bhutia and Lepcha’s political rights in the state. 

With the displeasure of the Sangha constituency stirred, the SDF possibly worsened matters for itself in the 2019 elections by joining the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) formed in Assam, 2016 by the BJP. Since Sikkim is the only state to have consistently voted only for regional parties and views national parties with justifiable suspicion, it did little to boost the SDF’s chances of victory in the eyes and favours of the voters in any shape or form; in fact, it suffered a serious historical defeat for the first time after 25 years and was compelled to yield complete political ground to the SKM in the 2019 elections. The sole Sangha seat itself was won by SKM’s Sonam Lama, who beat his SDF candidate by a 26.2% margin.  

Since then, the SKM has completed a year and a half in the office. While it’s still too early to pass review judgements on the success of their legislative agenda, the SKM government did have a swift and effective response to the pandemic that broke out this year and displayed a sense of adept capability that was lacking in the central government’s slow and confused reaction to the outbreak.

In any case, the Sangha seat remains a distinctively unique socio-political tool; one that is ancient yet flexible and capable enough to adapt itself to rapidly changing political processes across the country while also having a tangible enough impact on them so as to reshape the legislative map as a whole.

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