Literary Review

Drama in the hills

Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom by Andrew Duff.

Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom by Andrew Duff.

Four decades after the messy end of the lovely little kingdom of Sikkim (literally, ‘happy home’), Requiem… adds value to scholarship on the subject by its felicitous access to Foreign Office records of the U.K. government that became available under the so-called ‘30-year rule’ and secret U.S. government cables released recently through WikiLeaks. This new material brings to life, in the author’s words, “the extraordinary Cold War background to Sikkim’s demise….the last piece of a complex puzzle.”

The story has its origins in ‘the Great Game’ played out in the 19th century by the erstwhile great powers sparring for geo-political influence in Central Asia and Tibet. Beginning with a toe-hold in the Himalayan kingdom in 1817 — gained on the pretext of backing the ruling Sikkimese Namgyals against depredations of neighbouring Gurkhas — the British later annexed a slice of Sikkimese land – the strategic Darjeeling ridge through what can only be described as a shady deal, and then proceeded to consolidate their position by declaring Sikkim (without its consent) a protectorate of the British government. Gangtok, thus, became the base for extension of British influence into Tibet and a bulwark against the Russians and, later, the Chinese. In the 20th century, shadow-boxing of the Cold War’s protagonists became the revised version of the Great Game.

Sikkim’s sensitive geo-political location, observes Duff, dealt its rulers “an almost unplayable hand”. Its socio-cultural connections with Tibet, including the Tibetan ancestry of the ruling Namgyal family, made Sikkim a perfect staging post for intelligence operations in the light of Maoist China’s inroads into Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India. The CIA was quick to take advantage of the situation and Indian intelligence agencies followed suit, making the area a hotbed of espionage and intrigue.

The Sino-Indian war added to Sikkim’s significance in the eyes of the political establishment and the army, and India’s two wars with Pakistan and China’s unambiguous hostility underscored the vulnerability of the Himalayan border. By the early 1970s, new power equations — a ‘friendship treaty’ between India and the Soviet Union on the one hand, and rapprochement between the United States and China, and their tilt toward Pakistan, on the other — were bound to impact political developments in Sikkim, which was in the nebulous position of being neither a state of India nor a nation state in its own right.

After India’s Independence, reluctant to address the complexities of Sikkim’s status as the lone Buddhist princely state, Nehru was content to continue with the arrangement that existed under the British. Even as Sardar Patel advocated a clear assertion of Indian control, Nehru pontificated that the Himalayan states “should grow according to their own genius”. In December 1950, a treaty confirmed Sikkim as a protectorate of India with full autonomy in regard to its internal affairs; but the Government of India was made responsible for Sikkim’s external relations and communications, and would exercise its authority through a political officer and dewan, who had the delegated power to run the state ostensibly on behalf of the Chogyal. Successive representatives of Delhi ensured a progressive dilution of the Chogyal’s authority, reducing him to little more than a figurehead. Indira Gandhi’s attitude to Sikkim was one of unsentimental realpolitik, built on perceptions of the Chinese threat and apprehensions of the CIA’s “foreign hand”.

Chafing at the domineering presence of Delhi’s functionaries in Gangtok, who he saw as imposing on the autonomy guaranteed by the 1950 treaty, Chogyal Palden Thondup instigated ineffectual attempts at resistance, hoping to resurrect an independent Buddhist kingdom. Encouraged by his debutante American wife, who brought Sikkim into the international limelight, and forced into compromising political situations by Kazi Llendup Dorji, the wily leader of the majority Nepali community of Sikkim, the Chogyal earned not only the ire and suspicion of Indira Gandhi and the political establishment but the displeasure of his own people. Inexorably, events took Sikkim on a trajectory to its demise.

In Requiem… , Andrew Duff masterfully weaves together the many strands of the unfolding drama to produce a gripping page-turner. Besides the use of existing resource materials, revelations from newly-released secret documents and interviews with some still-living players, his account is enhanced by a hitherto-unknown source: weekly letters home (which sometimes had to be camouflaged from Indian censors) of two British ladies who served as principals of a Gangtok school.

Their observations on palace life and notes on quotidian matters and political developments provide a unique perspective of the world of Sikkim during the crucial years of flux. Duff deftly details the wrangling surrounding Sikkim’s constitutional status, the machinations of the government of India and its agents, the sordid politics of Sikkim and the bemused actions of the palace. Notably, he brings to life the interplay of a cast of remarkable characters.

All the personalities, however, come out rather the worse for Duff’s treatment: Nehru for his woolly sentimentality for the Himalayas; Indira Gandhi for her duplicity and paranoia about lurking dangers; the long procession of Indian officials — with some exceptions — for their foibles and high-handedness; Thondup’s father, Tashi, for his self-defeating submissiveness; the colourful Namgyal sisters for their dubious role in palace affairs; local Sikkimese politicians for their self-seeking narrow-mindedness; and, the Kazi, the principal political leader, for his often unreasonable competition with the palace, and his intellectual dependence on his formidable Scottish wife with her visceral dislike for the Chogyal and his queen. The main characters, the star-crossed Thondup and the puerile Hope Cooke, appear as obtuse and floundering naifs woefully ill-equipped to withstand the forces ranged against them.

While the scholar would gain from Requiem useful insights into contemporary history, there also lies in it a poignant love story of an introverted Buddhist prince and an adolescent beauty from a distant land who dreamed, through personal travails and public challenges, of conjuring up a sovereign modern-day kingdom. Sadly, their enterprise was doomed from the start.

Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom;Andrew Duff, Random House, Rs.599.


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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 6:56:52 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/govindan-nair-reviews-sikkim/article7378787.ece