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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Tribal communities keep their options open

Marcus Dam

The Bhutias and Lepchas of Sikkim, who claim to be the original inhabitants of this Himalayan State have been, over the decades, reduced to a minority in most of the constituencies reserved for them; but their support is critical to any contender for power in the coming seventh Assembly polls. Ever since the State's merger with India in May 1975, it is the elected representatives of these ethnic groupings who have determined the formation of governments here. It is expected to be no different this time around too.

Twelve of the 32 seats in the State Assembly are reserved for those of Bhutia-Lepcha origin. But a steady change in the demographic pattern has meant that though they comprise 21 per cent of the total electorate in the State, they are predominant in only three of the reserved constituencies — all of them in the North Sikkim district.

"Our very existence is at stake," says Chetan Tashi Bhutia, convener of the Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee [SIBLAC], formed five years ago. The committee which today claims to be `the true' representative forum of the two communities, has emerged as a potent force in the State. "We will once again prove to be the deciding factor in the polls; our concerns are such that we have to be increasingly politically assertive. We have approached both the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front [SDF] and the main Opposition party, the Congress, the two main players in the coming elections, for support to our cause. Who we will align with depends on how they respond", Mr. Bhutia adds.

SIBLAC leaders point out that Article 371 F, which had been incorporated into the Constitution at the time of Sikkim's merger, was designed to safeguard the political rights of the people of Bhutia-Lepcha origin through seat reservation. "But the Article has, subsequently, been violated. The reserved seats exist only in name and there have been an increasing number of settlements of alien people in our constituencies. The Constitution [Sikkim] Scheduled Tribe Order, 1978, has further distorted the identity of the Bhutias by bringing non-Bhutias within the definition of [who is a] Bhutia," says Tenzin C'wang, spokesperson of SIBLAC.

The SIBLAC, which is struggling to translate the Constitutional guarantees under Article 371 F into reality, sees the electoral process as part of a wider struggle, according to Mr. C'wang. The two indigenous communities, with a population of nearly one lakh, backed the SDF in the last polls.

A switch seems to be on the cards this time. The move is expected to spawn a new set of political equations and could result in an electoral pact with the Congress even though the SDF camp does not appear to be unduly concerned.

The SDF leaders are hopeful of retaining the allegiance of most of the tribal leaders who helped the party return to power in the 1999 Assembly elections. The Congress, on the other hand, is confident of getting the support of the Bhutia-Lepcha communities with its leader and former Chief Minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, having already responded positively to the SIBLAC's political programme.

In a State where caste and ethnic loyalties determine political alignments, the leaders of both the SDF and the Congress are vying for the SIBLAC's support which will be crucial to the electoral prospects of both the parties.

The SIBLAC's criticism of the SDF, which has been in power for the past two terms, has sharpened over the years, particularly since the formation of the Gorkha Apex Committee [GAC] last year. The GAC espouses the cause of the non-tribal Nepali population and is widely seen as a threat to the interests of the tribal communities. Mr. C'wang goes by the adage `the enemy's enemy is a friend', though he is not quite ready to officially admit that this implies support to the Congress. "Maybe we will be left with no other alternative", he, however, hastens to add.

While its political detractors believe that the SIBLAC is no more than a casteist formation of disparate tribal groups having conflicting interests, its supporters view it as an alternative force in Sikkim politics that "is no longer going to take lying down years of political and social marginalisation in the very land of their origin." Its leaders point out that 30 years of change and development have distorted the identity of the indigenous people of Sikkim. They say they are waiting to see whether the new political order fulfils the urges and aspirations of the Bhutia-Lepchas.

How they choose to define and shape the agenda of `the new political order' will be evident in their choice of electoral partners for the coming polls.

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