The Pain of Losing a Nation. Story of Lhendup Dorji and Sikkim
By Sudheer Sharma
(September 2007) The last Prime Minister of the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, Kazi Lhendup Dorji, met an ignominious Death.
On the northern corner of West Bengal state of India, there is a hill station – Kalimpong, which once hosted celebrities from all over the world. The hill town, where most of the settlers are of Nepali origin, no longer retains its old charm. But until a few weeks ago the last prime minister of a country – that has lost its independence – used to live here. Kazi Lhendup Dorji, who died on 28 July this year  at the ripe old age of 103, had played a pivotal role in the merger of Sikkim into India.
Dorji is seen as a ‘traitor’ in the contemporary history. He lived, and died, with the same ignominy. “Everybody accuses me of selling the country. Even if it is true, should I alone be blamed?” he asked me, when I met him in Kalimpong in November 1996. But the allegation of ‘betrayal’ towards one’s own motherland was so powerful that Dorji could no more lead an active political life. He spent his solitary life at the ‘Chakung House’ in Kalimpong for several decades. Few people chose to remember Kazi when he passed away nor took pain to recall his life and times.
So much so that the Kazi was ignored even by Delhi. “I went out of my way to ensure the merger of Sikkim into India but after the work was done, the Indians just ignored me”, Kazi told me during an interview for Jana Astha weekly, nearly 11 years ago. “Earlier, I used to be given a ‘Red Carpet’ welcome. Now I have to wait for weeks even to meet second grade leaders.”
When I visited Kalimpong for the second time in 2000, Lhendup’s anger towards Delhi had reached new heights. At one time, he was received warmly by Indian leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mrs Indira Gandhi. But later he became a political actor whose utility had been finished and thrown away into the dustbin.
The Origin of Crisis
After India got independence in 1947, the Sikkim State Congress, which was established as per the advice of Nehru, launched anti-King movement. Sikkim managed to overcome the crisis then but after Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India, the tiny Himalayan kingdom found itself in a crisis from which it could never escape. The anti-King movement, launched by the Sikkim National Congress (SNC) under the leadership of Lhendup Dorji in 1973, led to the demise of a sovereign nation.
India openly supported the movement against King (Chogyal) Palden Thondup Namgyal. The then ADC to the King, Captain Sonam Yongda, claimed that soldiers of Indian Army in civil dress used to take part in the protests. Some of the protesters were brought from Darjeeling and the surrounding areas. The number of Sikkimese who took part in the protest was quite small. But that was enough.
Lhendup’s protest movement depended mainly on Indian financial assistance. The money was made available through Intelligence Bureau (IB). “The people from IB used to visit me twice or thrice a year. An IB agent, Tejpal Sen, used to handover money to me personally”, Dorji had told me in a recorded interview.
In fact, the main actor behind the ‘Mission Sikkim’ was India’s external intelligence agency, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). Set up in 1968, RAW was able to disintegrate Pakistan (and form Bangladesh) within three years. The annexation of Sikkim was their other ‘historic’ success. The strategists of RAW didn’t want to repeat a Bhutan in Sikkim. Bhutan managed to acquire the membership of the United Nations in 1968. So, they launched a movement under the leadership of Lhendup, which is described at great length by Ashok Raina in his book Inside RAW: The Story of India’s Secret Service.
Raina writes that New Delhi had taken the decision to annex Sikkim in 1971, and that the RAW used the next two years to create the right conditions within Sikkim to make that happen. The key here was to use the predominantly-Hindu Sikkimese of Nepali origin who complained of discrimination from the Buddhist king and the elite to rise up. “What we felt then was that the Chogyal was unjust to us”, said CD Rai, editor of Gangtok Times and ex-minister. “We thought it may be better to be Indian than to be oppressed by the king.”
Lhendup – who belonged to the Kazi family – had a historic enmity with Sikkim’s ruling Chogyals. He said he wanted to pressurise the King through public protests but lamented that the King never came forward for reconciliation.
Under pressure from Delhi, the Sikkimese King was forced to hold tripartite talks with SNC and India. The talks not only curtailed royal powers, it also turned Sikkim into an Indian ‘protectorate’. In the elections held in 1974, Lhendup’s SNC got overwhelming majority in the parliament. The government and the king saw each other as enemies. Ultimately, the cabinet meeting, on 27th March 1975, decided to abolish monarchy. The Sikkimese parliament endorsed it and decided to hold a referendum on the future of monarchy. Four days later, the outcome of the poll in 57 stations across the country was: ‘Abolition of the monarchy’.
In an interview, then Agriculture Minister of Sikkim KC Pradhan recalled that the referendum was nothing but a charade. “Indian soldiers rigged the polls by pointing rifles at the hapless voters”, he said. Immediately after the referendum, Kazi Lhendup moved a motion in the parliament proposing that Sikkim be annexed to India. The 32-member parliament, which had 31 members from Lhendup’s SNC – passed the motion without a blink. Needless to say that the entire episode was being orchestrated by India. The then Indian envoy to Sikkim (known as ‘political officer’) BS Das wrote in his book The Sikkim Saga, “Sikkim’s merger was necessary for Indian national interest. And we worked to that end. Maybe if the Chogyal had been smarter, and played his cards better, it wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.”
But Chogyal didn’t play his cards well. When Sikkim was undergoing turmoil, the Chogyal visited Kathmandu in 1974 to attend the coronation ceremony of King Birendra. According to insiders, King Birendra, Chinese deputy premier Chen Li Yan and Pakistan’s envoy advised Chogyal not to return to Sikkim. “They narrated a ‘master plan’ to save Sikkim from Indian hands but the King didn’t accept”, said Captain Yongda. “It was because the King couldn’t think even in his dreams that India could use force to annex Sikkim.”
A “Double Game”
In fact, India was playing a “double game”. On one hand, it was supporting Lhendup in whatever way possible against the King. On the other hand, it was assuring the king that monarchy would survive in Sikkim. The Chogyal was also an honorary Major General of the Indian Army. He never thought that his ‘own army’ would act against him. It was only an illusion.
The Chogyal of Sikkim was in his palace on the morning of 6 April 1975 when the roar of army trucks climbing the steep streets of Gangtok brought him running to the window. There were Indian soldiers everywhere, they had surrounded the palace, and short rapid bursts of machine gun fire could be heard. Basanta Kumar Chhetri, a 19-year-old guard at the palace’s main gate, was struck by a bullet and killed – the first casualty of the takeover. The 5,000-strong Indian force didn’t take more than 30 minutes to subdue the palace guards who numbered only 243. By 12:45 pm it was all over, Sikkim ceased to exist as an independent kingdom.
The Chogyal also lost the second opportunity. The Sikkim Guards had the capacity to stop the Indian Army for two hours. If the Chogyal had informed Beijing and Islamabad about the Indian invasion from the transmitter set up at his palace, both the countries had assured him – during the Kathmandu meeting – that they would instruct their security forces to open fire along the borders with India. Chinese army could even travel to Gangtok to rescue the Chogyal.
Captured palace guards, hands raised high, were packed into trucks and taken away, singing: “Dela sil, li gi, gang changka chibso” (May my country keep blooming like a flower). But by then, the Indian tri-colour had replaced the Sikkimese flag at the palace where the 12th king of the Namgyal dynasty was held prisoner. “The Chogyal was a great believer in India. He had huge respect for Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Not in his wildest dreams did he think India would ever gobble up his kingdom”, recalls Captain Sonam Yongda, the Chogyal’s aide-de-camp. Nehru himself had told journalist Kuldip Nayar in 1960: “Taking a small country like Sikkim by force would be like shooting a fly with a rifle.” Ironically it was Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi who cited ‘national interest’ to make Sikkim the 22nd state of the Indian union.
During a meeting, former Chief Minister of Sikkim BB Gurung told me that the King and Lhendup were just fighting a proxy war. “The real battle was between an American and a Belgian lady.” If that was true, the real victor was the third lady – Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Two foreign Ladies
Chogyal Palden met the 24-year-old New Yorker, Hope Cooke, in Darjeeling in 1963 and married her. For Cooke, this was a dream come true: to become the queen of an independent kingdom in Shangri-la. She started taking the message of Sikkimese independence to the youth, and the allegations started flying thick and fast that she was a CIA agent. These were the coldest years of the Cold War, and there was a tendency in India to see a ‘foreign hand’ behind everything so it was not unusual for the American queen to be labelled a CIA agent. However, as Hope Cooke’s relations with Delhi deteriorated, so did her marriage with the Chogyal. In 1973, she took her two children and went back to New York. She hasn’t returned to Sikkim since.
Then there was Elisa-Maria, daughter of a Belgian father and German mother who left her Scottish husband in Burma and married Kazi Lhendup Dorji in Delhi in 1957. The two couldn’t have been more different. Elisa-Maria wanted to be Sikkim’s First Lady, but Hope Cooke stood in the way. “She didn’t just want to be the wife of an Indian chief minister; she wanted to be the wife of the prime minister of an independent Sikkim.” With that kind of an ambition, it was not surprising that with annexation, neither Hope Cooke nor Elisa-Maria got what they wanted.
Meanwhile, in New Delhi Indira Gandhi was going from strength to strength, and India was flexing its muscles. The 1971 Bangladesh war and the atomic test in 1974 gave Delhi the confidence to take care of Sikkim once and for all. Indira Gandhi was concerned that Sikkim may show independent tendencies and become a UN member like Bhutan did in 1971, and she also didn’t take kindly to the three Himalayan kingdoms, Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal, getting too cosy with each other.
When the Indian troops moved in there was general jubilation on the streets of Gangtok. It was in fact in faraway Kathmandu that there were reverberations. Beijing expressed grave concern. But in the absence of popular protests against the Indian move, there was only muted reaction at the United Nations in New York. It was only later that there were contrary opinions within India – (Former Indian Prime Minister) Morarji Desai said in 1978 that the merger was a mistake. Even Sikkimese political leaders who fought for the merger said it was a blunder and worked to roll it back.* But by then, it was already too late.
Lhendup Dorji became the first chief minister of the Indian state of Sikkim and retained the post until 1979. The Indian government conferred on him ‘Padma Bhusan’ in 2002 and he was also awarded the ‘Sikkim Ratna’ by the state government in 2004.
Despite such ‘rewards’, Lhendup and his wife Elisa spent their last years in Kalimpong repenting their past deeds. After the death of his wife in 1990, Lhendup was forced to lead a solitary life. He neither had any children nor relatives to take care of him. He cut himself off from his own people to avoid their wrath and hatred.
In the elections held in 1979, Lhendup’s SNC failed to bag even a single seat in the Sikkim’s legislature. This effectively brought to an end to his political career. At one time, when he had gone to file his nomination, his name was missing from the electoral roll. In his resolve to dethrone the Chogyal dynasty that had 400-year-old history in Sikkim, Lhendup ended up delivering his motherland into the lap of India. In return, all he got was a life haunted from the shadow of the past and an ignominious death.
Sudheer Sharma, currently the editor-in-chief of ‘Kantipur’, wrote this article in September 2007 in Nepal Magazine. He was the editor of Nepal Magazine then.