From confidently predicting that India would not incorporate Sikkim to reporting on its merger in 1975, the U.S. watched events closely but adopted a hands-off approach
When protests first broke out in Sikkim in 1973, India stepped in and took over the internal administration of the then kingdom. This went beyond the 1950 India-Sikkim treaty, which had given Delhi control only over Gangtok’s external affairs, defence and communication.
Many saw it as an instance of Indian “expansionism,” but the United States believed that the protests were “spontaneous,” and India had not engineered the troubles but only “taken advantage of it.” It predicted Sikkim would remain an Indian protectorate. A year-and-a-half later, when India first made Sikkim an associate state, the Americans were taken aback. By the middle of 1975, the U.S. had come around to accepting Sikkim’s integration into India as “natural.”
In those two years, U.S. representatives in New Delhi, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Kathmandu, London, Washington and New York exchanged over 250 diplomatic cables on Sikkim. These are as a part of the “Kissinger Cables,” now made available by WikiLeaks. From these cables, The Hindu has pieced together the fascinating picture of the troubles in Sikkim, as seen through American eyes.
The 1973 spring
On April 9, 1973, the Government told the Lok Sabha that a polarisation had developed between “the Maharaja of Sikkim on one side and the popularly elected political leaders and masses on the other.” The Chogyal, as the monarch was known, had then requested India “to take over the administration of the whole of Sikkim.”
The next day, Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a cable (1973NEWDE04127_b, confidential) that “basic elements for discontent” were already there. The Indians, he said, were unlikely to allow the Chogyal to “take back even the limited internal administrative responsibility.” But the long-term problem for India would be to devise a “representational system that will satisfy the 75 percent Nepali majority, protect rights of indigenous minority, and preserve Chogyal as titular chief of state.” The Ambassador predicted India would “prefer to preserve” the existing treaty relationship rather than incorporate Sikkim, as it provides them “ample defense and administrative flexibility,” while avoiding adding “new troubled tribal/linguistic element” to the polity. In another cable, two days later, (1973NEWDE04291_b, confidential), the Ambassador argued that Indian action may have “saved the position of the Chogyal,” and urged that charges against India not be taken “at face value.”
But others were sceptical. A Sikkimese princess blamed “low-level Indian intelligence agents” for stirring up trouble (1973HONGK03595_b, limited official use). An Indian journalist said he had heard from a West Bengal MP, who was told by an MEA official, that Indian action was also a “deliberate message to Nepal and Bhutan” (1973NEWDE04833_b, limited official use).
An agreement in May between India, the Chogyal, and Sikkim parties committed to a “fully responsible government in Sikkim with a more democratic constitution...elections based on adult suffrage which will give equitable representation to all sections.” In January 1974, India’s Election Commission proposed a 32-member Assembly for Sikkim. Elections in April resulted in an overwhelming mandate for the pro-India Sikkim Congress, led by Kazi Lhendup Dorji. In June, the elected Assembly passed a new constitution and a resolution on economic integration with India.
In a cable on June 21, 1974 (1974NEWDE08298_b, confidential), U.S. diplomats noted that the constitution reduced the Chogyal to a titular role, and endorsed India’s “extensive authority” in internal Sikkim affairs. The Chogyal now had few options left — to abdicate, to leave the country without formally abdicating, to remain a constitutional monarch, or organise clandestine opposition from among minorities. “Prospects for the long-term survival of the Royal House do not look good.”
The Chogyal rejected the constitution, sparking protests from both sides. The U.S. now felt India would not hesitate to “invoke power” to declare the constitution if the Chogyal did not consent (1974NEWDE08366_b, confidential). U.S. diplomats in India, in communication with the State Department, hoped the “U.S. government can avoid any official comment” since Sikkim had “no international status,” and elections reflected the will of the Nepali-majority. These developments, it noted, would have taken place 25 years ago “had Nehru, in a fit of sentiment, not decided against Vallabhai Patel’s advice to provide a special status for the mountain kingdom.”
After failed attempts to stall the constitution, and a strong message by India to pay heed to the majority wishes, the Chogyal signed on to the new arrangement.
From associate ...
The next twist in the Sikkim saga happened in September. The government introduced a Constitution Amendment Bill in the Parliament which declared Sikkim shall be “associated with India”; and give the State two seats in Parliament.
This marked a rupture. In a cable on September 4 (1974NEWDE11760_b, secret), the Embassy in New Delhi said it shared the “general uncertainty” about why India was moving so “swiftly”, given that an MEA official had told the U.S. they had no intention of “altering the protectorate relationship with Sikkim”, and Chogyal had done little to prompt India to “degrade his status” further. Perhaps, the cable speculated, India had come across “less conspicuous evidence that Chogyal and his supporters are secretly plotting against Indian authorities, perhaps with Chinese encouragement”.
The next day, on September 5 (1974NEWDE11835_b, confidential), the U.S. said that while Indian motivations were “murky”, “Sikkim was now a part of India”.
The State Department chose not to publicly comment when asked about developments in Sikkim the following week. This was noted by the MEA, which appreciated that the U.S. had been sensitive to “GOI concerns on the issue” (1974NEWDE12115_b, confidential).
…to India’s 22nd state
On April 10, 1975, the U.S. Embassy in Delhi reported that India had “disbanded” the Chogyal’s palace guard in Gangtok, and he was under “house arrest” (1975NEWDE04815_b, confidential). The Sikkim Congress had “proposed what appeared to be full integration of Sikkim into the Indian Union of States” and called for abolition of the “oppresive and undemocratic institution of the Chogyal for all times”.
In a cable the next day (1975NEWDE04921_b, confidential), U.S. diplomats reported that the Sikkim Assembly had now abolished the institution of the Chogyal and declared itself to be a “constituent unit” of India. The U.S. continued to feel that India “was being forced into taking actions it would rather not take”, but if it had to choose between the Kazi and Chogyal, it would “opt for the people”. A referendum on April 14 supported the Sikkim Congress stand.
Through the endgame, the U.S. stuck to its “hands-off” approach. On April 16, 1975, a signed cable from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, reiterated the position (1975STATE086460_b, confidential), explaining that criticism of India may be welcomed in “Nepal, Pakistan or China” but would not be “productive” and only create “new and serious bilateral problems” and potentially heighten “tensions in the Himalayas”.
On May 16, with presidential assent, Sikkim became India’s 22nd State. In a thoughtful cable the same day (1975NEWDE06554_b, confidential), U.S. diplomats noted the immediate factors that had led to the merger, but emphasised that it was the outcome of a “century-long historical process” and had an element of “geographic inevitability”.