"Sikkim was merged but it will not be submerged."
These words uttered by Nar Bahadur Bhandari, the first Sikkimese Nepali to hold the post of Chief Minister of Sikkim, have guided the political narrative in our state ever since it joined the Indian Union in 1975.
After him, five others have held the post of the chief minister – and all of them belong to the community.
I am also a part of the Sikkimese Nepali community. More specifically, I belong to the Newar community among the Sikkimese Nepalis, and I come from a line of Taksaris (a part of the Sikkimese Nepali aristocracy, who were the landed class and ruling elite of the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom).
The Taksari Newars are only a minor faction of the vast Sikkimese Nepali community.
The majority of the Nepali community in Sikkim, however, has never been given full political rights.
A Constant Struggle for Power
Sikkim's political history has been shaped by a constant struggle for power among its three ethnic communities – Lepchas, Bhutias, and Nepalis.
The majority of Nepalis feel disempowered due to a lack of political reservation, while the minority Lepcha-Bhutias (who are the traditional ruling class) feel vulnerable due to the overwhelming Nepali majority of the state.
However, the status quo among all the three ethnicities of Sikkim in today's politics has been challenged with the emergence of a fourth power centre – the business class of Sikkim (or the old settlers) who now handle a majority of business in the state.
The emergence of these new voters has created a new narrative in Sikkim's politics, which has seen increasing conservatism among the Sikkimese in response to the fear of an unregulated 'influx', threatening the demographics, culture, environment, and heritage of Sikkim.
The business class of Sikkim consists of both old settlers (Indians who settled in Sikkim before its merger with India) and new voters (who settled after the merger).
The recent Supreme Court verdict on income tax exemption for the old settlers of Sikkim was welcomed by all political parties.
But once the contents of the top court's observation on Sikkimese Nepalis as "persons of foreign origin" went public, it sparked a row that has brought back bitter memories – and has furthered the hurt the community has been facing for decades.
A Little Bit of History
My great grand uncle Kashiraj Pradhan, who is also known as the father of Sikkimese journalism, and my grandfather Nahakul Pradhan discarded their zamindari titles and privileges to join the democratic movement of Sikkim. It was a period of long struggle that led to the sharing of power between the Sikkimese monarch (the 'Chogyals') and the ruling elites ('Kazis and Thikadars').
The first Sikkimese elections were held in 1953. My grandfather as well as my great grand-uncle were both elected to the Sikkim Council, and for decades, served as executive councillors (which is equivalent to Cabinet-rank ministers).
They could contest and win their seats under a "parity formula," a unique confessional system of dividing political power between the three ethnic groups of Sikkim, which ensured that Sikkimese Nepalis had a close access to power.
Under the "parity formula," the Chogyal gave Sikkimese Nepalis six seats; six seats were given to the Lepcha-Bhutias as well.
Eventually, there was dissatisfaction with the system, and it led to civil unrest from 1973-75.
On 8 May 1973, a historic agreement was signed among the Chogyal, the Government of India, and the political parties of Sikkim, which set up a new Assembly under a "one-man-one-vote" franchise – but with a provision that no single group from the Bhutias, the Lepchas, or the Nepalis will hold a dominant position in power.
First Strike: Scrapping Reservation for Nepalis
The agreement had reserved 15 seats for the Sikkimese Nepalis and 15 for the Sikkimese Bhutia-Lepchas.
After full integration into the Indian Union on 16 May 1975, Sikkim was given special protection under Article 371(f) of the Indian Constitution, which allowed all the old laws of Sikkim to continue.
However, in 1979, the seats reserved for the Nepalis in the state Assembly were abolished abruptly by Parliament.
Ever since what was described as a "black bill," the Sikkimese Nepalis have since been struggling to get themselves organised to restore the lost seats in the Assembly. This was seen as the first strike targeting Nepalis in the state.
As an Indian Sikkimese Nepali, I feel uncomfortable and am hurt to think that after all the struggles that led to Sikkim joining our country, the Union government and Parliament robbed us of our political safeguards in 1979 and have since been silent about restoring the lost seats even after so many representations from subsequent state governments and social groups.
Second Strike: 1994 SC Verdict
In 1994, the apex court judgment on RC Poudyal v/s Union of India case referred to Sikkimese Nepalis as "immigrants." This was just three years after the Nepali language was given constitutional recognition under the eighth schedule of the Indian Constitution.
This also had a wider ramification in the course of Sikkim politics as the Nepali community felt that they were attacked for their identity. This was the second strike.
Sikkimese Nepalis have played a major role in Sikkim's history. As the majority community of the state, they have been used by vested interests in both Delhi and Gangtok to further their political agenda.
Political parties have only done lip service to the causes of Sikkimese Nepalis, which includes the restoration of the lost seats in the Assembly.
With the emergence of a third power centre (the business community) and the recent observation of the Supreme Court terming Sikkimese Nepalis as "persons of foreign origin," the insecurity and feeling of alienation are increasing among the majority community in the Himalayan state.
Third Strike: Recent SC Observation
This third strike from Delhi is being seen not only as an "anti-Nepali" observation but also as a further dilution of the old laws of Sikkim, which are protected under Article 371(f) of the Constitution, as the apex court has directed the Centre to include non-Sikkimese Indians settled in the Himalayan state before its merger with the Indian Union under the definition of Sikkimese.
We, the Sikkimese (Lepcha, Bhutia, Nepalis) people, are good at reconciliation. Yes, we have reconciled, we are peace-loving, we are patriotic, and we have shaped our history. But we cannot compromise on our identity as Indian Sikkimese.
Today, it is the majority, the Sikkimese Nepalis. But tomorrow, it may be our minorities. As peace-loving people, we welcome giving rights to those who have been denied them in the past, but not at the cost of compromising on our own identity.
The need of the hour is:
To expunge all the references made by the Supreme Court on Sikkimese Nepalis (for which the state government has filed a review petition) and;
To restore the lost seats of the Sikkimese Nepalis in the state Assembly to give due social and political justice to a community that has been an equal partner throughout Sikkimese history along with our Lepcha-Bhutia brethren.
(Nitesh R Pradhan is a journalist based in Sikkim. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)