The untold story of Sikkim

Print edition : March 15, 2019


This book is by an intelligence officer who was closely involved with the manoeuvres that led to the merger of Sikkim with India. It explains why the move was crucial to India’s security.

AUTHOR G.B.S. Sidhu promises the truth and has delivered it, a rather rare feat these days, as the rewriting of history has emerged as one of the few flourishing industries in India, partly because the establishment of the day has a stake in such rewriting. It has been said that the historian is mightier than even the Almighty. The Almighty cannot change the past, but the historian, if he is ready to part with honesty, can do that. Sidhu has been scrupulously honest and has told us almost the whole truth about what happened.

He was head of the Sikkim office of the curiously named Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). Other countries call a spade, a spade. Germany has the Federal Intelligence Agency and Russia has the Foreign Intelligence Agency. Sidhu went to Gangtok in 1973 and left after the merger in 1975. He was a key actor in the carefully choreographed drama directed by R&AW’s legendary head, R.N. Kao, in close collaboration with Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh. It was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to start the project.

The genesis of this book is fascinating. Kao, who left the R&AW in 1977, asked Sidhu in 1988 to write a book on Sikkim’s merger. Sidhu was then Joint Secretary at R&AW headquarters. Kao told him that his agency, bifurcated from the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) in 1968, had mounted two major operations in a span of five years—Bangladesh and Sikkim. While much has been written about Bangladesh, Sikkim had remained “a close secret”. Only “three or four persons”, including Sidhu and his boss, P.N. Banerjee (based in Kolkata), were in the loop. Banerjee passed away in 1974. Kao had not kept even his deputy and eventual successor, K. Sankaran Nair, in the loop. Sidhu promised Kao that he would write the book after retirement. He retired in 1998, but some family matters needed attention. Later, his wife, Iqbal, former Foreign Minister Swaran Singh’s daughter, fell ill. Suffering from leiomyosarcoma, Iqbal passed away in 2017. Sidhu started writing the book only in 2017 to fulfil a promise made some 20 years earlier.

Fortunately, Sidhu had meticulously kept a diary. He consulted available documents from the External Affairs Ministry and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and he also reached out to prominent officials who were on the scene. Sidhu should be complimented for not falling into the temptation of being egocentric, and he takes scrupulous care in recording the roles of others.

There are 14 chapters in all. The reader is given a sound but succinct account of the relations between the Namgyal dynasty that ruled Sikkim and the British government in India. In 1947, Sardar Patel and B.N. Rao (Constitutional Adviser to the Constituent Assembly) were for including Sikkim among the princely states to be integrated with India. But Nehru “due to his idealism, Pan-Asia vision and sensitivity to the Chinese concerns in this region wanted Sikkim to be treated as a special case”. Nehru’s view prevailed and India supported the Chogyal when he resisted democratic reforms.

Indira Gandhi never asked her father for his reasoning, but she did tell P.N. Dhar, her close aide, that perhaps Nehru did not want to do anything that China might see as a provocation and had some hope that China might respect the autonomy of Tibet if India did not absorb Sikkim. She herself was in full agreement with Patel’s approach. Incidentally, 15 days before the transfer of power in 1947, Sikkim tried in vain to get back Darjeeling, ceded in 1835.

‘Standstill agreement’

Naturally, the ruler of Sikkim was pleased that Nehru had successfully opposed any move to integrate Sikkim with India. However, the Sikkim State Congress, led by Tashi Tshering, and two other political parties wanted democracy in Sikkim and accession to India. The government of India decided to ignore the popular demand and lent support to the Chogyal as he asserted his authority. In February 1948, New Delhi signed a “standstill” agreement with Sikkim that specified that the existing administrative arrangements for 11 subjects, including External Affairs and Defence, would hold until a new treaty was signed in 1950.

Tshering died in 1954 with his dream unfulfilled, and Lhendup Dorji Kazi succeeded him as the head of the party. Kazi played a crucial and unique role by mobilising public opinion in Sikkim for replacing the Chogyal’s rule with democracy and for merger with India. Without him, the merger would not have happened in the smooth way that it did.

From 1967 onwards, the Chogyal started asking for a revision of the 1950 treaty. Under the treaty, Sikkim was a protectorate. The Chogyal’s main demand was that Sikkim should have a status similar to Bhutan’s. It seems that he did not want to raise such a demand with Nehru and waited for Indira Gandhi to take over as Prime Minister. He prepared the ground by raising the profile of Sikkim in the West, cultivating senior Indian officials, civil and military, who would advocate his cause, and promoting in Sikkim the idea of revision of the treaty. He came to Delhi in September 1967 and met the Prime Minister. By that time, T.N. Kaul had returned to Delhi from abroad and taken over as Secretary (East), responsible for Sikkim. Kaul later took over as Foreign Secretary.

Kaul was sympathetic to the Chogyal’s aspirations, partly, it has been suggested, because of some romantic encounters that the palace provided. By 1970, Kaul as Foreign Secretary drafted a treaty that offered Sikkim “permanent association”. When the draft was discussed at an inter-ministerial meeting, nobody spoke except the Army chief, General Sam Manekshaw, who said: “You do whatever you like, but I must have full freedom over deployment and operation of my troops in Sikkim.” These words uttered in 1970 assume much significance in the context of the ongoing Doklam standoff between India and China.

Despite the claim by the Ministry of External Affairs that the standoff had ended after the summit at Wuhan in April 2018, the facts are different, and the Chinese military has gone ahead with its plans for fortifying its position by building facilities in the area under dispute. Doklam is at the trijunction between Bhutan, India (Sikkim) and China (Tibet). In short, if Sikkim had not been merged in 1975 and if the Chogyal had been given more powers, the Indian military would have found itself in an even more disadvantageous position vis-a-vis its Chinese counterpart.

The ostensible reason for keeping an office of R&AW in Sikkim was to keep an eye on China’s moves in Tibet and to brief the Chogyal. Sidhu did monitor Tibet/China and brief the Chogyal from time to time. Little did the Chogyal know that Sidhu was spending more time trying to undermine his rule and encourage and hasten Sikkim’s merger with India. The media in India and Sikkim never carried stories about Sidhu’s activities. He obviously acted with utmost discretion, and it is difficult to find another instance of such an operation carried out so smoothly by India or any other country. Sidhu received the Indian Police Medal from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in August 1976. It was not annexation but a case of India’s responding to a genuine demand from the people of Sikkim, as convincingly demonstrated by Sidhu.

The Officer on Special Duty’s office was separate from that of the Political Officer (P.O.). Obviously, that was an excellent cover. Even the residence-cum-office of the OSD was rather off the road, and he could go to the Political Office to meet the P.O. “through a short and winding path” without being noticed. Too frequent meetings with the P.O. might have blown his cover. The OSD headed a three-member cell, including himself. The OSD’s assistants met their political contacts in the night “when most of Gangtok was sleeping”.

Apart from the P.O., there was the Chief Executive Officer from India in charge of administration. Sidhu was instructed by Kao not to share the intelligence relating to China and Tibet with the CEO as the Chogyal might have taken it amiss. B.S. Das, who was the CEO, has complained in his book The Sikkim Saga that he was not briefed by the Indian intelligence.

Though the R&AW had its office in the north, the I.B. continued to be active in the rest of Sikkim. It kept an eye on the Chogyal and his agents. The Chogyal or his politically important sister, Coo Coo La, never complained to the government of India about the special operations of Sidhu in encouraging and facilitating the pro-democracy agitation directed against his rule. But, they did complain about the I.B.’s activities.

Let us briefly narrate how Sidhu carried out his delicate mission. It was not a classic intelligence operation where the agent pays out money to a client and gets information in return or gets some job done. “They were more of a collaborative effort between the R&AW and the pro-democracy and pro-reform forces in Sikkim, who were previously repeatedly let down by India due to its policy of appeasement of the maharaja/Chogyal at the cost of their democratic aspirations. The R&AW was assigned the task of undoing that historical damage by providing these democratic forces a level playing field against the all-powerful and manipulating Chogyal, at a time when diplomacy had ceased yielding the desired results.”

Delicate mission

The above quotation brings out the logic and passion that informed Sidhu’s mission, not to speak of the lucidity of style. He considered himself to be a “political assistant” to Kazi sent by India. It is true that some money was given to the democratic forces by India through Sidhu. But he points out that compared with the huge amounts that New Delhi was giving the Chogyal, who spent a part of it to promote his political agenda, what was given through Sidhu was peanuts. To cite an example, the Chogyal took Rs.20 lakh for the repair of the palace and then demanded another Rs.35 lakh. The CEO went to the palace and found out that no repair work had been carried out. Sidhu concludes that the Chogyal had spent the money for other purposes.

Months before Sidhu started his mission, the Chogyal, facing a growing popular agitation, had to sign a letter drafted by the Political Officer, K.S. Bajpai, asking the P.O. to take over the administration; and B.S. Das was sent to take over as Chief Administrator, a title changed, at the Chogyal's instance, to Chief Executive Officer. This was in April 1973. Das, before he left Delhi, was told by Kewal Singh to encourage the democratic forces, but he was not told about the merger project. In May 1973, Kewal Singh went to Sikkim and made the Chogyal agree to the election of a Legislative Assembly based on universal franchise and the appointment of a Cabinet responsible to the Assembly. The CEO would function as Speaker of the Assembly.

Sidhu went to Kolkata in July 1973 and worked out a seven-point plan of action in consultation with P.N. Banerjee. The goal was to isolate the Chogyal, fortify the democratic forces, and create the pre-conditions for a merger in response to people’s demand. The elections were held in April 1974, and Sidhu was overjoyed to learn that Kazi’s party got 31 out of the 32 seats. Obviously, Kazi’s “political assistant” had worked hard behind the scenes. In May 1974, the Assembly passed a resolution asking India to take measures for “further strengthening Indo-Sikkim relationship and for Sikkim’s participation in the political and economic institutions of India, as defined by this Resolution”. In short, the Assembly wanted a merger. The Chogyal resisted; Sikkim became an “associate state”. A referendum held in April 1975 showed 97 per cent support for the merger. The merger took place in May 1975 when the President gave his assent. Sidhu has narrated a complicated story with commendable lucidity.

The last chapter, “The Aftermath”, recounts how India failed to follow up a brilliantly successful operation. In fact, India messed it up. Sidhu left Gangtok in February 1976. K.S. Bajpai and B.S. Das had left in September 1974. Indira Gandhi put pressure on Kazi to join her party; Kazi obliged. In November 1976, Sanjay Gandhi, with his mother celebrating her birthday in Sikkim, elevated Khatiwada, a known opponent of Chief Minister Kazi, as chief of the Youth Congress, against the I.B.’s advice. Indira Gandhi lost the 1977 election. The next Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, wanted Kazi to join his party. In March 1978, Prime Minister Morarji Desai declared that the merger was a mistake that could not be undone. Kazi’s party was wiped out in the 1979 election. In May 1995, at a function to mark the 20th anniversary of the merger, Kazi came out with a statement asking India to undo the merger. In 2002, Kazi, 98, was awarded the Padma Bhushan. Five years later, he died. India could have and should have treated him better.

It was the mismanagement, to put it mildly, by the successors of Sidhu, K.S. Bajpai, and B.S. Das, combined with the short-sighted and partisan policies of the political leaders that accounts for the sad aftermath. The seamless coordination between the Ministry of External Affairs and the R&AW that delivered the merger got watered down with one too many agencies entering the field.

The photographs are well chosen and more would have been welcome. A timeline and a map would have added value. The author is transparent enough to tell us that he approached Foreign Minister Sardar Swaran Singh, his father-in-law, to get the job in Sikkim.

The curious reader should look at the map to understand the argument of the author about the location of Doklam and the importance of the merger for India’s security.

The book is of enduring value and will be read by the general public as well as students and practitioners of diplomacy and espionage.

K.P. Fabian is the author of Diplomacy: Indian Style.

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