Book Review

Book Review: On Sikkim, India’s 22nd State

Print edition : October 22, 2021

The Nathula pass on the India-China Border in East Sikkim on December 24, 2015. The building with the red roof is in China. Photo: Vijay Soneji

November 25, 1956: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with the Maharaja of Sikkim after the latter’s arrival at the Palam airport in New Delhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

April 16 1975: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Kazi Lhendup Dorji (right), the first Chief Minister of Sikkim, and other leaders at Parliament House in New Delhi one month before Sikkim became the 22nd State of India. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The book, which brings out many little-known facts, is a valuable addition to the rather small number of books on Sikkim’s history and how it became an Indian State.

Ambassador Preet Mohan Singh Malik is, no doubt, eminently qualified to write on Sikkim, its history and its integration into the Union of India in 1975, when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. He served in Gangtok from 1967 to 1970.

Preet Mohan Singh delves deep into history and has a deep interest in historical reasoning. Even before listing the contents, he quotes K.M. Panikkar: “But a nation can neglect geography only at its peril.” The thesis advanced in the book is that India under Jawaharlal Nehru neglected “geography”.

The book is structured well. The 18 chapters are divided into three parts: 1) Britain, Tibet and Sikkim; 2) Britain and its perfidious dealings with Tibet; and 3) India, Tibet and Sikkim.

Wang Jingze’s stratagems

The first chapter, “Sikkim and the Chumbi Valley”, gives us interesting and little-known historical facts. Preet Mohan Singh went to Gangtok as First Secretary in the political office, not an embassy. The office was established in 1861.

Most of us have heard of the Chinese strategic thinker Sun Tzu. Preet Mohan Singh draws our attention to an earlier thinker, Wang Jingze, who enunciated 36 stratagems. He lists five of them with an explanatory note:

Cross the sea under camouflage.

Create something out of nothing.

Conceal a dagger in a smile.

Lead away a goat in passing: pick up something on the sly.

Toss out a glazed tile to draw a jade/Cast a brick to attract a gem.

The reader might hope that the Indian delegation negotiating the border matter with China would take note of these 36 stratagems.

The second chapter, “Lessons of history”, starts with an account of an invasion of India by a joint Sino-Tibetan force in 649 C.E. “Clearly, it was a myth that China attacked India for the first time in 1962….”

Darjeeling, was earlier a Sikkimese village called “Dorje Ling”. The East India Company exploited the Sikkim Raja’s predicament as he faced a tussle for power between two factions in his court to compel him to part with Darjeeling. The Company wanted Darjeeling for two reasons: Its agreeable climate and the access it provided for trade with Tibet and through Tibet with China.

The reader gets a lucid account of the Lepcha-Bhutia rivalry. The singular virtue of this book is that it explains matters, especially matters that young readers are not familiar with.

The discussion on the Chumbi Valley, which is spread over a few chapters, is insightful. The author has explained in a convincing manner the strategic importance of the valley. He has pointed out that the Chumbi Valley was important for the British not in the context of the territorial security of their Indian empire but for the convenient access it provided to Tibet for trade purposes.

Britain’s mistakes

Preet Mohan Singh has pointed out some of the mistakes Britain made. For example, after signing the 1904 Anglo-Tibetan Convention that allowed the British to retain the Chumbi Valley for 70 years by paying an annual rent of Rs.1 lakh, London had second thoughts.

Britain was worried that Imperial Russian might see the agreement as a violation of a previous agreement between the two powers that stated that neither country would annex or claim any part of Tibetan territory. London revised the 1904 agreement by reducing the period of retention of the Chumbi Valley to three years, which reduced the indemnity to Rs.3 lakh.

But the bigger mistake was to ask China to formally agree to the 1904 agreement. “This was a step that granted the Chinese a status in Tibet that they had never really exercised.” In short, Britain retreated from “Tibetan affairs”.

Ambassador K.P.S. Menon had detailed discussions with Dr George Yeh, the Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs in October 1947. We should bear in mind that the talks were with the government of Chiang Kai-shek, destined to be replaced by the People’s Republic of China headed by Mao Zedong in October 1949. Yeh claimed that during the Asian Relations Conference, Nehru had mentioned that Government of India would be glad to enter into a conversation with the Chinese government regarding the status of Tibet “without the intervention of any third party”.

Yeh added that he had conveyed that conversation with Nehru to President Chiang and that it was his (Yeh’s) understanding that by “third party” Nehru had meant the British and not the Tibetans. Menon corrected Yeh by saying that it was “unlikely” that the Indian government “would enter into any formal conversations with the Chinese government to settle the status of Tibet over the head of Tibet itself…. To do so would be to repudiate the autonomy of Tibet which the ‘GOI’ had recognised for the last 33 years.” Preet Mohan Singh points out that Ambassador K.M. Panikkar, Menon’s successor, “would fail to maintain” that position.

On October 20, 1949, political officer Harishwar Dayal sent a top-secret message to the Government of India saying that since the Chinese military was likely to occupy Tibet, India should conduct an urgent military operation to capture the Chumbi Valley. Dayal correctly foresaw that once China occupied Tibet it would press its claim to “a large portion of Assam Tribal Area and also revive pretensions to suzerainty over Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal”.

The author sadly concludes that Delhi failed to “grasp the strategic and security interests that lay behind the Dayal proposal”. In this context, PMS draws attention to Nehru’s note of July 9, 1949, where he said: “I do not think that any question arises, at present at least, of our occupying any part of Tibetan territory. This in itself would be a provocation and it would have bad international relations.” To cut a long story short, Dayal’s proposal to capture the Chumbi Valley was not accepted.

Preet Mohan Singh quotes Nehru’s biographer S. Gopal, who concluded that Nehru’s assessment of China’s attitude towards India was “naïve”. The author argues that Nehru should have approached Britain and the United States to persuade them to establish diplomatic relations with Tibet as an independent nation and should have made a “coordinated attempt” at the United Nations for membership for Tibet.

Preet Mohan Singh further argues: “There is now enough evidence available from declassified documents [that] the Americans were willing to help India if it would agree to take action on securing for Tibet at least the status of a fully autonomous nation.” Let us apply historical reasoning to evaluate the author’s thesis. First, the statement about “evidence available from declassified documents” is without any reference to documents. Can we take it seriously? Until the author gives us the evidence, we cannot say anything further.

We might note that with the U.S. unwisely deciding not to recognise the People’s Republic of China, there was no way it could have exerted any diplomatic pressure on Mao to agree to any autonomy status for Tibet. Essentially, it is not a question of whether the U.S. was willing, the moot question is whether it was able to do what PMS has said about Tibet.

Tibet & the U.N.

Second, the author says that India should have assisted Tibet to join the U.N. as a member-state. The implication is that India did not do anything in the matter. In his book A Life in Diplomacy (pages 6-7), Foreign Secretary M.K. Rasgotra says that immediately after India became independent Nehru sent a personal envoy to Lhasa to persuade Tibet to seek U.N. membership. The Tibetans showed little interest. A year later, Nehru sent another envoy, again in vain. When Nehru sent the two envoys to Lhasa, a British man held the post of political officer as no suitable Indian could be found. The Tibetans woke up too late and only sought Nehru’s assistance to join U.N. after the invasion by China.

Preet Mohan Singh has drawn attention to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s letter of November 7, 1950. Many people, not only Preet Mohan Singh, have adduced that letter to demonstrate that Nehru was starry-eyed about China. This is what Rasgotra had to say about it: “If all of Nehru’s initiatives were known to Secretary General Girija Shankar Bajpai or to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, perhaps the latter’s famous letter of 7 November 1950 to Nehru about the new threat on India’s northern borders because of China’s occupation of Tibet might never have been written.”

The last chapter, “The merger with India”, is lucid and good but could have been more detailed. But we should not blame the author as he left Gangtok in 1970. Young readers interested in the merger should read G.B.S. Siddhu’s book Sikkim: The dawn of Democracy, reviewed in these columns (“The untold story of Sikkim”, Frontline, March 15, 2019, https://frontline.thehindu.com/books/article26375946.ece).

We might apply historical reasoning to the Dayal proposal about capturing the Chumbi Valley. He sent his dispatch on October 20, 1949. Mao had declared on October 1, 1949, that China “stood up”. It would be rather naïve to imagine that the victorious, battle-hardened Chinese military would have accepted India’s taking over of the Chumbi Valley without a fight. Nehru was wise. Just because it was desirable to have the Chumbi Valley under India’s control, it does not follow that one should not think of the full range of the consequences of any action.

The book could have been edited better. For example, a map of the Chumbi Valley would have made it easier for the reader to understand its strategic significance.

In conclusion, the book is a valuable addition to the rather small number of books on the subject, and we the readers are indeed indebted to Preet Mohan Singh for bringing out many little-known facts and putting them all together to give us the big picture.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian’s book The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t is under publication.

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