The storm generated by the Supreme Court of India’s description of Sikkimese Nepalis as “foreigners” and “migrants” snowballed into mass protests on Tuesday with people in their thousands taking to the streets in different parts of the Himalayan state, including Gangtok.
Apart from the Sikkim capital, rallies were taken out in four of the five other district headquarters in the state at the call of the apolitical Joint Action Committee (JAC). Unlike the thinly-attended peace rally organised by the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) on the same issue in Gangtok on Monday, people from a cross-section of the society cutting across party lines thronged Tuesday’s rallies at all the protest sites.
The JAC, which was formed recently in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict, said the three main demands of the people to the government were to immediately file a review petition in the Supreme Court to get the allegedly offensive expressions on Sikkimese Nepalis removed, call a special session of the Assembly and pass a resolution to voice the protest of the people on the issue, and immediately sack Sudesh Joshi as the additional advocate general of Sikkim.
“We will again take to the streets if all these demands are not met within a week,” said Keshav Sapkota, secretary of JAC.
Even though SKM leaders also joined Tuesday’s rally in Gangtok, their government was caught napping on the issue which was flagged by the Sikkim Republican Party and the Hamro Sikkim Party on Friday, almost two weeks after the Supreme Court had on January 13 made those remarks while delivering its verdict granting Income Tax exemption to the old settlers of Indian origin in Sikkim.
On Saturday, the SKM had said its government was seized of the matter and was looking at filing a review petition. Party president and Sikkim chief minister P. S. Tamang (Golay) on Tuesday went further and said his government had already initiated steps for filing the review petition. “No injustice will be meted out to anyone with regard to the inadvertent mention of the Sikkimese Nepali Community as Foreigners in the observation part, not in the judgment part of the verdict…,” he said in a statement.
Golay also said that he had personally spoken to Union law minister Kiren Rijiju who had not only promised to support the state’s review petition but also if required, would get the Centre to file a review petition on its own. “I appeal to all to have patience, and faith in the judiciary. It is just a matter of time that this issue will be addressed for the good,” he added.
In the same verdict, the Supreme Court had also provided IT exemption to the Sikkimese women marrying non-Sikkimese men after April 1, 2008, the day when an overwhelming majority of 94 per cent other Sikkimese people were granted the IT consolation.
While the exemption granted to both the old settlers and a section of the married Sikkimese women has been generally welcomed, questions have been raised on the very basis on which the Supreme Court had arrived at the decision by changing the definition of Sikkimese in the first instance by including Indian citizens who had settled in Sikkim prior to its merger with India in 1975.
“The exclusion of Old Indian settlers, who have permanently settled in Sikkim prior to merger of Sikkim with India on 26.04.1975 from the definition of “Sikkimese” in Section 10(26AAA) is hereby held to be ultra vires to Article 14 of the Constitution of India and is hereby struck down,” the court had ruled.
Tseten Tashi Bhutia, the convenor of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (Siblac), has said striking down the original definition of Sikkimese does not potent well for the state, which enjoys privileges under Article 371F of the Constitution. “Only when the Sikkimese Nepalis are safe, Bhutias and Lepchas will feel safe…. If today, Nepalis are being called foreigners, it won’t be long before Bhutias and Lepchas are also called foreigners tomorrow,” said Bhutia, while participating in the Gangtok rally.
Another participant in the Gangtok rally said: “With the old settlers being included within the definition of Sikkimese, they will not just settle for IT exemption. They will now demand other privileges like access to government jobs and the right to buy land in rural areas which were only enjoyed by those of us registered under the Sikkim Subjects Regulations, 1961.”