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Smash & Grab: Annexation of Sikkim By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, Tranquebar, Rs 795

Sikkim’s “peaceful merger” with India is as much a lie as China’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet. One could even argue that the lie about Sikkim is worse than the one about Tibet. After all, there is some truth in China’s claim that it had historically enjoyed ‘suzerainty’ over Tibet. India never had any such claim on Sikkim.

No book nailed the Indian State’s lie about Sikkim’s 1975 merger with India as powerfully as Sunanda K. Datta-Ray’s did when it first appeared in 1984. Official propaganda, the connivance of most of the Indian media and the apathy of the political class and of the public in India all conspired to make Sikkim’s tragedy a forgotten chapter of the sub-continent’s recent political history.

The publication of a revised edition of the book nearly three decades later, therefore, serves a very useful purpose. It reminds us once again of a national shame and forces us to face the treachery that our leaders perpetrated in order to grab a tiny kingdom on India’s Himalayan borders.

The broad outline of Datta-Ray’s story is simple. The monarch of the small Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim tries to assert his authority. He wants to free his kingdom from India’s stifling control. He also wants to protect the political, economic and cultural interests of the original settlers of the land from the threats posed by an ever-increasing immigrant population.

All this is seen by New Delhi as a dangerous ploy to undermine India’s power and influence in a sensitive area bordering China. So an elaborate plan is drawn up to invent charges against the Chogyal of Sikkim and to prop up a political movement against him. He was accused of conspiring with the Chinese. His American wife added another conspiracy angle — she was rumoured to have had CIA links.

The Chogyal’s power and authority is, therefore, ruthlessly destroyed before the kingdom is snatched away from him with the help of a mix of military might and stage-managed shows of democratic politics.

This basic argument of Datta-Ray’s story, which naturally upset New Delhi at the time of the book’s first publication, was later substantiated by scores of other material, most conclusively by memoirs of Indian intelligence and administrative officers who played their part in Sikkim’s annexation.

One of these, which the author quotes in his new Introduction to this edition, is the memoir of P.N. Dhar, then principal secretary to the prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Dhar records that the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) team helped the pro-democracy leaders “under [RAW chief R.N.] Kao’s overall guidance”. There have been several other memoirs, notably Asoka Raina’s Inside RAW: The Story of India’s Secret Service and B.S. Das’s The Sikkim Saga, which later corroborated Datta-Ray’s version of how Sikkim was swallowed up by India.

The narrative, though, is much more than a political argument. It is a rich mixture of political history and personal tragedy. The dramatis personae include not just native and Indian political and bureaucratic players but also mysterious foreign ones such as Hope Cooke, the Chogyal’s American wife (picture), and Elisa Maria Langford-Rae, the European wife of Kazi Lendhup Dorji, the leader of the democracy movement. The presence of the two women and the curious roles played by the Kazini before and after Sikkim’s merger with India lend the story its dramatic — and human — character.

But it is, first and last, the Chogyal’s story. Datta-Ray digs deep into Sikkim’s — and the region’s — history and politics, especially from the times Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal came under British influence. The book details moves, mostly fraudulent, by British and Indian governments to dupe the kingdoms into surrendering part of their authority. But the picture that dominates is of the Chogyal who is humiliated and hounded all over the places — in New Delhi, in his flat in Calcutta and even in his own palace in Gangtok — by Indian officials and their agents among Sikkim’s politicians. It is not a portrait of a saint battling demons; it is rather a very humane picture of a defenceless ruler driven to his ruin by circumstances he cannot control.

But, could the Chogyal have done things to prevent or even delay the end of his kingdom? Did he do enough and at the right moment to respond to the rising democratic aspirations of the Sikkimese people? Critics of Datta-Ray’s narrative could argue that it glosses over the Chogyal’s mistakes and weaknesses. Probably, the Chogyal was wrong in trying to deny some rights to the Nepali community. He was most certainly wrong in not conceding the “one-man-one-vote” demand at the right moment. They could also say that the book does not do justice to the democratic movement.

Some security analysts today argue that the annexation of Sikkim was a smart move by Indira Gandhi to ward off future Chinese challenges in the region. These analysts saw a triumph of India’s strategy when, in 2003, China signed a border trade agreement with India to reopen the old trade route to and from Tibet at Nathu-la. Datta-Ray is not alone in doubting if the border trade pact should be seen as a final proof of China accepting Sikkim as part of India.

At home in Sikkim, though, many of the major players responsible for the fall of the kingdom rued their actions soon after the merger. Most prominent among them was Nar Bahadur Khatiawara, the firebrand leader who spewed venom at the palace and led violent mobs in the run-up to the merger. In 1977, he wrote a memorandum to the then prime minister, Morarji Desai, complaining that the pro-democracy leaders had been duped. “We had certainly not asked for a merger with India which was imposed on us as a political trickery and debauchery,” he wrote.

Morarji Desai saw the immorality — and the illegality — of the annexation of Sikkim. But he would not undo a thing that had been done.