Bergdorf Goodman on New York’s Fifth Avenue is one of the most exclusive luxury goods stores in the world. On 11th November 1971, the crème de la crème of fashionable New York society trooped in, to attend a very special fashion show and dinner in honour of ‘Their Majesties, the King and Queen of Sikkim’. Outside, the Sikkimese flag flew on both sides of Fifth Avenue. The New York Times reported:
“As the formally clad guests arrived, they were handed white chiffon scarves to unfold, place over their own two outstretched hands and then hand over (while bowing, of course) to the monarchs who then handed them back again. The king explained the ceremony. ‘The white scarf signifies purity,’ he said, ‘so when you give the scarves, you come with a pure heart’.”
The guests sipped champagne while Sikkimese music played in the background. Over the next two days, similar galas were held at the Colony Club and Waldorf Astoria in New York. The NYT gushed: “She's [The Queen] using fashion to bring her country attention.”
Ironically, King Palden Thondup Namgyal (1923-1982) and his American Queen, Hope Cooke, did not need fashion to draw attention to their kingdom, for, as Sikkimese gowns glided through New York ballrooms, Sikkim was at the epicentre of what many believed would be the start of a “Third World War”.
General Yahya Khan of Pakistan had launched a genocide in East Pakistan and millions of East Bengali refugees had flooded India. Both China and the United States, allies of Pakistan, made threatening moves, with China even moving some troops to the Chumbi Valley, just north of Sikkim. less than a month later, in December 1971, the Bangladesh Liberation War would begin.
‘Himalayan Marie Antoinette’, the headlines of the news journal Himalayan Observer screamed, referring to Sikkim’s Queen. The comparison with the deposed French monarch on the eve of the French Revolution was perhaps apt, for within four years, the monarchy would be abolished in Sikkim and the kingdom would merge with India.
The backstory of Sikkim’s accession to India on 16th May 1975, involving ancient curses, tribal rivalries, foreign consorts, spy agencies and Indian backroom politics, makes it as riveting as a fictional novel. Strangely, few in India are aware of it.
The Curse of the Namgyals
Sikkim’s last ruler, Palden Thondup Namgyal, would not have become King had it not been for an accident at the western end of the Himalayan range. On 20th December 1941, his elder brother, Crown Prince Paljor, a Royal Air Force pilot, was killed in a plane crash in Peshawar. Many in Sikkim believed it was the result of an ancient ‘curse’ on the Namgyal family, according to which the firstborn rarely succeeded to the throne.
The ‘curse’ as well as the events leading to Sikkim’s merger with India, trace their origins to the bitter rivalry between Sikkim’s three main communities – the Lepchas, the Bhutias and the ethnic Nepalis.
Far back in antiquity, the mountainous region of Sikkim was inhabited by the Lepcha tribe. Then, in the 17th century CE, immigrants from Tibet known as the ‘Bhutias’ settled in the region. The Buddhist lamas wanted to convert the region into a Buddhist kingdom, and as a result in 1642 CE, Phutsong Namgyal was appointed as the first King or ‘Chogyal’ of Sikkim. A few years later, the Lepchas and Bhutias sealed a pact at a place called ‘Krabi Lungstock’, where they agreed to coexist in peace. The Lepchas claimed that the Namgyals had promised in the agreement that they would renounce Buddhism and worship the Animist Lepcha gods. Their failure to do so had cursed the family.
For centuries, the Buddhist Namgyal kingdom accepted the religious jurisdiction of Tibet, very similar to the authority of the Vatican over Roman Catholic churches in different countries. The Sikkimese court also had very close matrimonial and cultural ties with Tibetan aristocrats. These medieval links were the genesis of China’s claim over Sikkim as an extension of Tibet.
The traditional Tibetan name for the region was ‘Denjong’ or the ‘Valley of Rice’. The name ‘Sikkim’ is derived from ‘Su Khyim’ or the ‘New Palace’ of the Namgyals in the language of the Limbu tribe. Over time, the entire kingdom became known as Sikkim. The Sikkimese had two very powerful and expansionist neighbour’s – Bhutan to the east and Nepal to its west. This explains the peculiar, elongated shape of the kingdom’s territories.
In the 19th century, Sikkim had to deal with a new power, the British East India Company, which had established its rule in India. The British were interested in Sikkim because of its strategic importance, because through the region lay the easiest route to the heart of Tibet. An opportunity arose during the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16, when the Sikkimese approached the British for help against the Nepalese. In exchange, the British and the Sikkimese signed the Treaty of Titalia in 1817, which made the transit of British goods duty-free in Sikkim.
In 1835, the British secured the cession of Darjeeling from Sikkim as a ‘sanitorium’ for British officers. Following further disturbances in 1861, the British seized southern Sikkim, comprising the Morung and Terai regions, and made Sikkim a ‘British Protectorate’. It is this Treaty of Tumlong (1861) that would govern relations between Sikkim and India till 1975.
Disturbance in the Himalayas
In 1947, when India’s Princely States were asked to merge with either India or Pakistan, the two Himalayan kingdoms of Sikkim and Bhutan remained exceptions. Although they were slightly different from the others, Sikkim was considered an Indian Princely State with membership of the ‘Chamber of Princes’. Bhutan, on the other hand, was a ‘Protectorate’. But unlike other rulers, Sir Tashi Namgyal , Thondup’s father, was never asked to sign the merger agreement.
– In early 1947, Nehru pushed through a resolution in the Indian Constituent Assembly, agreeing that Sikkim and Bhutan were “not Indian States” and acknowledging that, since they constituted a “special problem”, their future should be negotiated separately.
Ironically, the Namgyals’ bid for separation suffered from the same obstacle as the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maharaja of Kashmir – the support of the majority of the population. According to the 1941 Census, Sikkim’s population comprised 15,000 Lepchas, 17,000 Bhutias and 1,05,000 ethnic Nepalese. While the Bhutia-Lepcha aristocracy dominated the administration and land ownership, the ethnic Nepalese, who were almost 75-77 per cent of the population, had little or no rights.
These ethnic Nepalese (not just Gorkhas and belonging to different tribes from Nepal) had been settled here as a part of a British policy from the 1860s onwards, to protect and ring-fence Sikkim against a potential Tibetan invasion. Over time, mass migration and settlement turned them into a majority.
The majority of the ethnic Nepalese were poor peasants and labourers toiling under the Lepcha-Bhutia zamindars. Sikkim was ruled by the Chogyal with the help of his councillors. In December 1947, Tashi Tshering, a former clerk in the Political Office, launched an agitation for democratic rule. The main demands of this movement were the abolition of the Zamindari, establishment of democratic rule and the merger with India.
For the next two years, the agitation continued and the situation began to deteriorate in Sikkim. Finally, buckling under pressure, a democratic government was set up on 9th May 1948, with Tashi Tshering being appointed Chief Minister. But after just 28 days, the government was dismissed by the Chogyal with the support of the Indian government. The Sikkimese people felt betrayed by the Indian government, which they felt had used them as pawns in its power game with the Chogyal.
What had happened was that the Indian government had become uncomfortable with the empowering of the ethnic Nepalese. Just south of Sikkim, around Darjeeling, there was a demand for ‘Gorkhaland’ among the ethnic Nepalese settled there. India feared that this could lead to a demand for a ‘Greater Nepal’. For the next two decades, the official Indian policy was to support and empower the Chogyal at the cost of democratic parties.
– By 1950, momentous changes were taking place around Sikkim. The Chinese had taken over Tibet and Sikkim’s northern border was threatened. The Chogyal signed the Indo-Sikkimese treaty of 1950, which underlined its status as an ‘Indian Protectorate’.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama and lakhs of Tibetans left communist-occupied Tibet and arrived in India as refugees. Among them were Crown Prince Thondup’s two sisters, who were married to Tibetan aristocrats. Thondup’s first wife, Crown Princess Sangey Deki, too was Tibetan.
During the Indo-China War of 1962, while Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh saw fierce fighting, the Sikkim border was relatively calm. The Chinese had always claimed Sikkim as a part of Tibet and any cross-border action would have called them into question. But tensions with China also meant that Sikkim was strategically important to India like never before.
An American ‘Gyalmo’ and a British ‘Kazini’
In the 17th century CE, when the first Chogyal had established his kingdom, he had divided Sikkim into 12 units called ‘Dzongs’, each headed by a ‘Kazi’, the Sikkimese equivalent of ‘Jagirs’ and ‘Jagirdars’. Among the most prominent among them was the old Lepcha family of Khangsarpas, who were the Kazis of Chukang in South Sikkim.
In 1933, when Crown Prince Thondup had come of age, he was made the head of the prestigious Rumtek monastery. The existing head, who had been set aside for the Prince, was a 29-year-old scion of the Khangsarpa family – Kazi Lendup Dorjee (1904-2007), who would be famous in history as ‘LD Kazi’. Kazi would resent this for the rest of his life. The rivalry between Kazi and Thondup was to shape the destiny of Sikkim.
Unlike the Namgyals, the Kazis of Chukang had encouraged Nepali settlers on their estates. As a result, LD Kazi was not just popular among the Lepchas, but even the ethnic Nepalese. Active in state politics, Kazi had established the Sikkim Praja Mandal in 1945, Sikkim State Congress in 1953 and Sikkim National Congress Party in 1962.
With the support of the ethnic Nepalese, who made up 75 per cent of the population, he was the tallest and most powerful among Sikkim leaders. But Crown Prince Thondup had a visceral hatred for Kazi (which was reciprocated) and made every attempt to keep him out of power.
Kazi’s chief ally was his British wife Elisa Marie, the ‘Kazini of Chukang’. Smart, intelligent and extremely ambitious, she dreamt of a day when she would be the First Lady of Sikkim. Living in Kalimpong, just beyond Sikkim’s borders, she wrote scathing articles against the Chogyal, the Crown Prince, and the Sikkim Durbar. It was her articles that shaped public opinion in India against the Sikkim Durbar.
Kazini’s favourite target was the 22-year-old American Hope Cooke, whom Crown Prince Thondup had married in 1963. Thondup’s first wife had died in 1957. Two years later, while staying at the Himalayan Hotel in Darjeeling, Thondup met a 19-year-old American student, Hope Cooke, the scion of a wealthy New York family, who was travelling through the Himalayas on a study trip. Thondup and Hope fell in love, and with Jawaharlal Nehru’s approval, got married.
Shortly after this marriage, Thondup’s father Sir Tashi Namgyal died and Thondup succeeded to the throne as the ‘Chogyal of Sikkim’ and Hope became the Gyalmo (Queen). The American Queen brought with her international media attention, because the press was fascinated by her.
Meanwhile, the American Gyalmo soon raised eyebrows in India. A large section of Indians believed that she was a CIA spy or an American ‘agent’, although this was not true. A number of senior Indian officials such as former Indian intelligence officer GBS Sidhu and Indira Gandhi’s secretary P N Dhar wrote in their books that the Indian government found no links between Hope and the CIA.
But this was the height of the cold war, when the paranoia over ‘Videshi Taakat’ (Foreign Power) and ‘Videshi Haath’ (Foreign Hand) seeking to destabilize India, was being fuelled by Indian politicians and the Indian press. Sadly, the presence of a young American girl served as a lightning rod for these theories.
– The ambitious new Chogyal Thondup wanted to turn Sikkim into an independent state like Bhutan and he began to press the Indian government for Sikkim’s membership into the United Nations.
Chogyal Thondup and Hope Cook also went on an international public relations campaign - of which the fashion show in New York was a part. They hoped that with this, the world would recognize Sikkim as an independent nation.
Strangely, while the Chogyal wined and dined with the Who’s Who on the international stage, he made no attempt to reach out to the majority of Sikkim’s population – the ethnic Nepalese. Most of them favoured equal rights and a merger with India.
In 1966, Hope Cook wrote an article in the Bulletin of Tibetology demanding that India give Darjeeling back to Sikkim, and creating an uproar in the Indian Parliament. The following year, the Chogyal set up a committee of Sikkimese Intellectuals called the ‘Study Forum’, who worked towards creating an independent Sikkim.
Matters finally came to an head on 15th August 1968, India’s Independence Day, when a group of schoolchildren walked through the streets of Gangtok carrying banners - ‘Indians Get Out Of Sikkim’ read one; ‘We are a buffer, not a duffer’ read another; ‘We want Independence’ proclaimed a third. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had been preoccupied with other matters, finally had to take notice of the matter and the Indian government informed Chogyal in no uncertain terms that a demand for independence would not be tolerated.
‘Can you do something about Sikkim?’
Since the merger of Sikkim with India in 1975, there has been a lot of discussion about the alleged involvement of the Indian intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), in the events. In 2018, the former head of RAW operations in Sikkim, G B S Sidhu wrote a book titled Sikkim - Dawn of Democracy: The Truth Behind The Merger With India (2018), in which he revealed in great detail the extent of the RAW operations. Sidhu only confirmed what had been suspected for a while.
The genesis of this operation was a meeting between Indira Gandhi and legendary Indian spymaster and RAW founder, Rameshwar Nath Kao, in September 1972. “Can you do something about Sikkim?” Sidhu reveals, was the question Indira Gandhi had put before Kao. And the spymaster got to work.
Corroborating Sidhu’s account is that of P N Dhar, Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary, who in his memoirs Indira Gandhi, The Emergency and Indian Democracy (2000) reveals:
“Under Kao’s overall guidance, the RAW team helped the pro-democracy leaders build up their organisation and make their weight felt in the politics of Sikkim. This process had started several months before the storm broke in April 1973.”
And what a storm it was! The day was meticulously chosen – 4th April 1973, the date of His Majesty Chogyal Thondup Namgyal of Sikkim’s 50th birthday celebrations, as a day of protest by the democratic forces. A year earlier, the Chogyal had appointed himself Prime Minister of Sikkim and concentrated all power in his own hands. The people’s representatives demanded that democratic rule be established in Sikkim.
As the Sikkim Durbar prepared for grand celebrations, under Kazi’s leadership, thousands of ethnic Nepali men, women and children from across Sikkim poured into Gangtok.
On the morning of 4th April, Hope Cooke woke up to the sound of gunshots coming from the bazaars. Sikkimese Intelligence Chief Karma Thopden burst breathlessly into the palace to inform the King that a huge crowd of 5,000-6,000 protestors had gathered in the bazaar and the situation in Gangtok was spinning out of control.
Strangely, the Chogyal decided that the Birthday Durbar should go on as planned. As the sound of demonstrators rose from below, the Chogyal sat in his gold robes for the traditional receiving of silk scarves. While the afternoon’s sporting events were cancelled, the birthday dinner was to go ahead as planned. It was truly like Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution.
Things would have subsided the next day, but Crown Prince Tenzing (Thondup’s eldest son) went out for a drive the next day in their Jonga jeep and got into a skirmish with the crowd, firing a few rounds. The panicked Kazi and the democratic leaders sent a desperate message to Indira Gandhi: “Intervene quickly and fully before we are massacred.”
The Chogyal waited four days before he realized that the situation had spun out of his control. On 8th April 1973, he formally asked the Indian government to take charge. Indian bureaucrat B S Das was sent as the ‘Chief Administrator’. On 8th May 1973, a tripartite agreement was signed between the Chogyal, Kazi and the Indian government, in which Chogyal continued to be the Head of State, while Kazi became the Prime Minister.
But even with this agreement, the situation did not improve and skirmishes continued between loyalists of Kazi and the Chogyal. There was even an attempt on Kazi’s life. In the following year, elections took place in Sikkim, and Kazi’s faction won 31 of the 32 seats. Kazini was finally the First Lady of Sikkim. Amid huge protests from the Chogyal’s loyalists, the elected Sikkim government passed the Government of Sikkim Bill (1974), which made Sikkim a part of India.
In September 1974, the Indian Parliament passed the Thirty-Sixth Amendment, making Sikkim a part of India. The Lok Sabha adopted the bill by 310 votes to seven, and the Rajya Sabha on 7th September by 175 to eight. The Jana Sangh was the only major party to support the move, while the communists and socialists opposed it.
But problems did not end there. Sikkim had still not ‘merged’ with India, and the Chogyal was still officially the ruler. Finally, on 14th April 1975, a referendum was held in Sikkim, which voted with 97 per cent of the vote, to abolish the monarchy and merge with India. On 16th May 1975, Sikkim became a part of India.
On the morning of 11th March 1978, just outside Gangtok, a Mercedes car swerved to avoid an approaching truck and plunged 300 feet down a cliff, into the valley. Its sole occupant, the 26-year-old, Cambridge-educated Crown Prince Tenzing, the eldest son of Chongyal Thondup, was killed instantly. The dynasty, which began with the Curse of the Namgyals, ended with this. The heartbroken Chogyal died in 1982. Hope had already moved to New York with her children, where they live to this day.
LD Kazi went on to become the ‘Grand Old Man of Sikkim’ and passed away in 2007 at the age of 102. He was awarded the ‘Sikkim Ratna’ in 2004.
With Sikkim becoming a part of India, came new opportunities for the Sikkimese people. Today, Sikkim is an inseparable part of India even if the road to getting here was twisted.
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.