Himalayan kingdoms and India’s foreign policy
India’s pursuance of the democracy factor in Bhutan and Sikkim was different from the Nepalese case. Though the security concern emanating out of the communist victory in China was the same, but the pressure of democratic forces was much weaker in Bhutan and Sikkim. The other pressing consideration of the Western intervention, present in Nepal, was almost completely absent in Bhutan and Sikkim. Nepal’s Rana rulers had an active relationship with the UK, US and France, and were keen to exploit that relationship for their political survival as already noted. In view of the absence of the Western concerns and the presence of weak democratic movements, India found it advisable to support and sustain feudal regimes in these two Himalayan countries in the interest of stability.
India’s policy towards all the Himalayan kingdoms had a similar thrust of retaining the core British strategic framework of keeping these kingdoms as an integral art of India’s defence structure, while shedding off its imperial and colonial façade. Emerging aspirations of people in these countries for democratization were responded to within this framework, i.e., without sacrificing the security interests. This was evident in Nepal as this was also evident in Bhutan and Sikkim.
There were also the nuanced differences in the legal status of sovereignty and degree of independence to be exercised by each of them. Nepal was considered a fully sovereign country. Sikkim was treated as a protectorate, slightly higher than the Indian princely states, but lower than Bhutan which gradually evolved into a full sovereign, independent state. Sikkim was eventually incorporated as an integral part of the Indian Union in 1975. These differences in legal status of the three Himalayan kingdoms were clearly reflected in the Treaties signed with Bhutan in 1948 and with Nepal and Sikkim (separately) in 1950. The Treaties laid down that while Bhutan was free in its internal affairs, its foreign relations were to be ‘guided’ by India’s advice.
Being an Indian protectorate, Sikkim’s foreign affairs were India’s responsibility and its internal autonomy was conditioned on ‘good governance’ to be overlooked by India. Yet another factor that accounted for a more accommodative Treaty with Bhutan as compared to Sikkim as that India’s treaty with Bhutan was concluded in 1949, before the victory of communist forces in China and the Chinese assertion in Tibet.
The demand for political liberalization in Sikkim dates back to the victory of India’s struggle for independence. Inspired by the Indian example, and with the support and encouragement from the Indian leadership, political parties were organized both in Bhutan and Sikkim.
The Sikkim State Congress (SSC) was formed in 1947. It demanded abolition of feudal land holdings, an interim government having representation of popular leaders and eventual merger of Sikkim into India. The Government of India forded the Sikkim princely ruler (the Maharaja) to introduce land reforms and install a government of popular representatives – two to be the Maharaja’s representatives and three nominees of the SSC. India at that time refused to discuss the proposal of Sikkim’s merger into India. This is an example of New Delhi siding with the feudal system in the interest of stability and order in Sikkim. Any support to change, if at all, had to be gradual.
The Sikkim ruler promptly introduced some reforms in the legal system and judicial procedures. But he was not forthcoming on the popular representation in the government. The Sikkim Maharaja virtually handed over his power to his son, Palden Thondup who floated a royalist political organization called Sikkim National Party (SNP), on April 30, 1948 with the objective of opposing the SSC. With the help of this party, the feudal ruler of Sikkim tried to consolidate his power provoking the SSC to agitate in 1949eir demands. The agitators marched to the palace in support of their demands. Under the pressure of the agitators and the Indian Political Officer in Gantok, Mr. Harishwar Dayal, the Maharaja was forced to constitute a new Ministry with popular representation from the SSC.
The inherent political contradictions between the Maharaja and the popular representatives, with Crown Prince working the popular ministry all the time, did not allow the compromise devised by India to function. The popular representatives threatened to resign from the government and to resume their agitation for democratization. The Indian Political Officer interviewed in favour of the Maharaja by dismissing all the popular representatives. To access the situation created by the agitation, Nehru had sent his Deputy Minister of External Affaires to Sikkim. He, it seems, went back with the impression that the Maharaja would be a better ally in strengthening India’s security interests in Sikkim than the democratic leaders. That is why, soon after the Minister’s departure, the Indian representative in Gantok dismissed the popular government and took the administration in his own hands. That was the end of struggle for democracy in Sikkim. Subsequently, India continued to strengthen Sikkim Monarchy in the interest of stability until the beginning of the seventies, when again, the larger interests of India’s perceived security, democratic movement was encouraged and Sikkim was eventually integrated into the Indian Union.
On the lines of Sikkim, Bhutanese expatriates of Nepali origin inspired by India’s independence and struggle of democratization in Sikkim and Nepal, also organized a political party called Bhutan State Congress (BSC) in 1952. This party called for the grant of citizenship rights and political representation to all the Nepalese settled in Bhutan. Inherent in the party’s demands was also the issue of democratization of Bhutan’s Monarchical system. In support of these demands, the BSC launched a Satyagraha (non violence residence) in 1954. This political movement was quickly suppressed by the Bhutan government by mobilizing their militia. There were sections in Indian civil society that lead support to the movement because of the expatriate Nepali population but the Government of India backed the Monarchy and did not let the resistance movement gather any political strength. The Bhutanese government was advised to sort out the citizenship issue which was done in 1958. Subsequently, the Advisory assembly was also setup to perform legislative functions.
An important aspect behind India’s support to Monarchies in Sikkim and Bhutan, related to its security interests has been that the resistance movements and forces of democratization in both of these countries had a strong ethnic character. In both Bhutan and Sikkim, democratization demand was raised by the Nepali groups and the Monarchies have been Bhotias and Lepchas in Sikkim and Drukpas in Bhutan; having closer cultural and religious linkages with Tibet. As a result, supporting democratic movement would have amounted to favoring one side in the ethnic divide and as a consequence, alienating the other one. Indian policy makers did take into account the possibility, howsoever remote, of the ruling Mongoloid ethnic groups in Bhutan and Sikkim seeking China’s support in case of India leading its weight with their Nepali protesters. Political instability precipitated in the process would surely have been exploited by China.
(Extracted from his book Foreign Policy of India, the democracy dimension)