In recounting the power play that led to Sikkim’s absorption into India, the author’s bias towards the deposed king is straightforward
Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom
by Andrew Duff
Publisher: Random House India, 2015
Price: Rs 599
Much of the western media and numerous authors in the 1960s and 1970s portrayed Sikkim as an exotic Himalayan Shangri-La. Interest in Sikkim was especially piqued after Hope Cooke, an attractive, young American woman, romanced and married Palden Thondup Namgyal, who quickly became Chogyal (hereditary ruler) of Sikkim. American readers, long fascinated with royalty, found in Hope Cooke echoes of the alluring Grace Kelly, who had, in the previous decade, married the wealthy Prince Rainier of Monaco. But while Kelly made headlines with her high-rolling European lifestyle, Gyalmo (queen) Hope Cooke and her Chogyal husband were caught up in the Himalayan power play that ended with the 1975 absorption of Sikkim into the Indian union.
There have always been two versions of this Sikkim story. The first, an idealistic and morally loaded interpretation, is about the benevolent monarch of an idyllic mountain kingdom who was cynically undermined and deposed by a large and powerful neighbour, India, which was actually treaty-bound to protect his dominions. A second version, grounded in political realism, tells of the ouster of an out-of-touch ruling elite from a privileged Lepcha-Bhutia minority that was lording it over the ethnic-Nepali majority. Both versions are variations of the truth.
Unquestionably, New Delhi acted opportunistically in absorbing Sikkim. Indian leaders of that period were guided less by considerations of morality than by the conviction that militarily blocking a looming China required full control of Sikkim, which controlled strategic parts of the Sino-Indian border, especially the Chumbi Valley. Given Nepal’s reluctance, already evident during that period and even more so now, to allow India freedom of action on the Himalayan border, India’s absorption of Sikkim was a pragmatic act of realpolitik.
In 1984, the journalist, Sunanda Datta-Ray, recounted the moral version of the story in his book, Smash and Grab: the Annexation of Sikkim. As the name suggests this book, which the Indian government duly banned, portrays an unscrupulous and heavy-handed New Delhi. Andrew Duff’s version borrows heavily from Datta-Ray, drawing extensively on the Chogyal’s own account of events. But while Datta-Ray had a single-minded thesis --- New Delhi’s perfidy --- Duff’s account is rather more nuanced. It draws from wider sources, including the personal correspondence of two Scottish women, both palace intimates, who provide revealing glimpses into palace gossip, albeit coloured by the prejudices of the British elite of that day. Duff has gone to some length to access diplomatic accounts of that time, including correspondence put out by Wikileaks. But his interpretation is naive, especially of American and Chinese conversations about India, which, during the Nixon-Kissinger-Mao-Zhou period, reflected deep hostility towards India on every subject, not just Sikkim.
Duff’s bias towards the Chogyal and his palace coterie is as straightforward as his antipathy towards the democrats who eventually took power. Scotswoman, Martha Hamilton, who describes the Chogyal as “a dear old man, dressed in a beautiful silk brocade”, is portrayed as “a tall, spirited, single, 28-year-old Scottish missionary”. In contrast, another Scotswoman, Elisa-Maria Langford-Rae --- the activist wife of the democratic leader, Kazi Llendup Dorji, who became Sikkim’s first chief minister in 1975 --- is described as “a shadowy Scottish woman who orchestrated events on behalf of her husband, the leading politician in Sikkim who harboured a lifelong grudge against the king”.
Even so, the intelligent reader who keeps in mind these biases will find this book a highly readable and fast-paced account of that crucial period when independent India consolidated its Himalayan borders. After extending administration to the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in the 1950s, the development and management of the Nepalese, Bhutanese and Sikkimese borders was an important concern in New Delhi, especially after the debacle of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The author presents not just the story of Sikkim, but usefully connects it with developments in the other two countries, illustrating why Sikkim joined India while Nepal and Bhutan remain independent countries.
In telling this story, the author overcomes the disadvantage of not having been present in Sikkim during those days, bringing to life a wide range of characters: the autocratic, out-of-touch, yet fundamentally decent Chogyal; his plotting sister, Coocoola, who German explorer Heinrich Harrer considered “the most beautiful woman in the world”; the young, confused Gyalmo Hope Cooke; and an array of Indian officials, many still alive, who played key roles in Gangtok during that time. Notwithstanding his sympathy for the Chogyal, Duff acknowledges his alcoholism and many political blunders.
An Indian diplomat who was a key protagonist in Gangtok through that period points out that, notwithstanding Duff’s conviction that India did not play fair by Sikkim, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Sikkim is today one of India’s most developed, progressive and integrated states and its people far happier than they were under the Chogyal. He wonders: “Did India, the world’s biggest democracy, have any choice but to back democratic forces in Sikkim? And ‘smash and grab’ is certainly not an accurate description of New Delhi’s actions in Sikkim. Our moves during that time would be far better described as ‘dither and fumble’.”