When Sikkim was a bargaining chip in south Asian geopolitics

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 06, 2015 15:03 IST

To persuade India to give up her claims to Aksai Chin, the US suggested it might overlook the sovereignty issue of Sikkim. A new book shines light on a time when the small north-eastern state had become a bargaining chip in south Asian geopolitics. An excerpt.

Despite the press being kept out of Gangtok, US Ambassador Moynihan in Delhi had managed to stay on top of events in Sikkim. From his desk in Delhi, he and his team catalogued in meticulous detail what they could glean from their network of agents about events, recording the international reaction for digestion by Kissinger and the State Department in Washington. Since the nuclear test in May,

Moynihan had redoubled his efforts to repair relations between the two countries, efforts that were to culminate in a visit by Kissinger himself to Delhi at the end of October. An ugly dispute over tiny Sikkim, Moynihan and Washington agreed, was in nobody's interest.


Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom by Andrew Duff (Random House India, Rs 599; PP380)

In case of awkward press enquiries, on 11 September, Washington sent out to its embassies across South Asia a set of prepared questions and evasive answers. The Q&A demonstrated the extreme sensitivity that Washington attached to the matter - particularly the possibility of criticisms of double standards through comparisons with the American involvement in Vietnam:

Do you have anything to say about India taking over Sikkim, which is, apparently, a sovereign state of its own?

No, I don't have anything to say. That is one problem that we are not involved in.

What about the principle, though, of a larger country taking over a smaller one?

I don't wish to comment on the affair between Sikkim and India here.

Are you saying in effect we are not concerned when a large country takes over a small one?

This is a very complicated parliamentary question that is being taken up in New Delhi, and I don't wish to comment on the merits of it - nor on the deliberations of the National Assembly of Sikkim. I think you can read some of the details of that yourself.

If it was a calculated move to improve relations between the US and India, it had the desired effect. Two days later NB Menon from External Affairs wrote to the embassy 'to express appreciation of the sensitivity of the US Government to Government of India concerns on this issue'.

Washington had also realised that their implicit recognition of India's rights to control Sikkim's affairs might be a useful bargaining chip in their broader relations with the Government of India. For some time, the Chinese had been pressurising the US to recognise their de facto control in the Himalayan border area of Aksai Chin, to the west of Nepal (that had been fought over in 1962), which, they noted, US government maps still showed as disputed territory, with competing Indian and Chinese claims. Given that it was, in fact, standard US government policy to show 'de facto lines of control' rather than

competing claims, Washington spotted an opportunity for some diplomatic manoeuvring.


Left to right: Kazi Lhendup Dorjee, the first chief minister of Sikkim, the 16th Karmapa Lama, BB Lal, the first governor of Sikkim and Kazini Elisa Maria in the late 1970s outside the Raj Bhawan. (Photo: Collection of SEM T.O.TASHI)

They flew a kite past the embassies in Delhi, Kathmandu and Dhaka. To persuade the Indians to give up their notional claims to Aksai Chin (and thus allow the map change that the Chinese were seeking), Washington suggested it might be willing to consider that the 'dotted border and separate identification of Sikkim might also be eliminated'. The changes could be made after Kissinger's proposed visit. How did the embassies think their host countries might react?

Moynihan was cautious - the Aksai Chin change would 'annoy the Government of India and generate a continuing hum in our dealings', although he acknowledged that the Sikkim trade-off 'should help'. The Nepali ambassador's reply was quite different - and illustrated the competing agendas in the region. The Government of Nepal, he reported back, would have 'no problem' with US recognition of Aksai Chin per se; but they felt that 'US Government acknowledgement of the new Indo-Sikkimese relationship' would not only be 'unnecessary', but would also be 'likely to add to Nepali apprehensions and could resurrect past concerns, which over the years we have tried to dispel, that we see India's relations with its neighbours through Indian eyes'.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Indian action in Sikkim, recognition of the country's right to exist had now become a commodity to be traded within the larger context of Asian politics.

The years when Thondup assisted the CIA in the 1950s by running their messages to Lhasa counted for nothing.

also read

Pick, hoard, read: Books for Rs. 25 at Harper Collins Faridabad sale
Show comments