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Game of dethrone: how India got hold of Sikkim

Despite its shortcomings, Sunanda K DattaRay's Smash and Grab remains the best-written book on Sikkim's merger with India.

books Updated: May 07, 2014 18:33 IST
Prajwal Parajuly

Despite its shortcomings, Sunanda K DattaRay's Smash and Grab remains the best-written book on Sikkim's merger with India.

The first edition of Sunanda K DattaRay's Smash & Grab; Annexation of Sikkim, published by Vikas in 1984, was poorly packaged and shoddily edited. The deluge of typographical errors and an obvious absence of efficient editors did no favours to the writer’s wellresearched account, so a new edition, such as the sleek Tranquebar-published one, was long due. The book couldn’t have been re-released at a better time, what with the Russian possession of Crimea drawing interesting comparisons with India’s taking over of Sikkim.

Given the dearth of quality reading material on the process by which Sikkim became the 22nd state of the union, Smash & Grab — its most recent edition at least — is still the best-written, bestresearched tome on the subject. The book shatters the myth that India was fair in incorporating the tiny Himalayan kingdom and also does away with the widely perceived notion that the ethnic Nepali population, the majority in Sikkim, was wholly responsible for its annexation.

In Datta-Ray’s version, India is the biggest villain, which has long been the consensus among the Sikkimese, now well placated by the central government’s pampering. The other important villains are Kazi Lhendup Dorji, the first chief minister of Sikkim; his wife Kazini Elisa Maria, both dead; and Hope Cooke of New York, the former queen of Sikkim, who is alive.

Where there are villains, there is also a long-suffering hero, the last king or Chogyal of Sikkim, for whom the author’s fondness is palpable. One wonders if this affection clouds Datta-Ray’s opinions of those who he thinks wronged his beloved king. According to the writer, Kazi Lhendup Dorji is a hen-pecked bumbling idiot, his wife a teller of tall tales (DattaRay delightfully--and spitefully--caricatures her), and Hope Cooke’s ‘dreams of queening it in the Himalayas cut off the Chogyal from his throne’s traditional supporters and isolated him from Sikkimese society.’ At least some of the author’s accusations come across as biased. The American queen’s presence, for example, may have made India nervous, but it did not, as the book insinuates, alienate the king from his subjects--if anything, Cooke’s not being a Tibetan aristocrat helped endear the royal couple to the masses, chief among them the ethnic Nepali population. To this day, Cooke is remembered with fondness in Sikkim.

One would also think that a new edition would have given the author the opportunity to do so much more. In his introduction, for instance, Datta-Ray mentions that Hope Cooke contacted him in 1997 with ‘a closely typed seven-page note’ that detailed her ‘complaints’ with Smash & Grab. The author dismisses the note as ‘personal trivia’ while missing no opportunity to familiarise the reader with all the praise David Astor, the then editor at The Observer, bestowed on him for his ‘magnificent reporting’ from Sikkim. How much fairer to one of its key subjects--and more interesting to its readers--the book would have been if this self-aggrandizement were usurped by the contents of Hope Cooke’s note and the author’s reaction to it.

Despite errant notes passim, Smash & Grab is a riveting read. Datta-Ray has interestingly recounted New Delhi’s game of intrigue and deceit, as he has the early history of the state. Also, by virtue of there being little else to read on Sikkim’s merger with India, Smash & Grab will continue being an important book at least until alternative narratives come along.

(Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, Sunanda K Datta-Ray, Tranquebar Press, Rs 795, PP94)

(Prajwal Parajuly is the author of the novel, Land Where I Flee)