On May 16, 1975, Sikkim’s last hereditary ruler, Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, was a broken man. A couple of days earlier, he saw his kingdom slip away in a referendum which made the tiny Buddhist kingdom tucked away in the eastern Himalayas the 22nd state of India.
Saddened by what he perceived as the intrigue and deceit of a section of his erstwhile subjects, the Chogyal became a recluse. As if losing his kingdom was not enough, he lost his eldest son Tenzing in a car accident in 1978. The Chogyal died of cancer in New York in 1984.
My first visit to Sikkim, then a protectorate of India, was as the guest of a classmate in the summer of 1974. I went to spend my vacation at the home of the classmate, who belonged to a prominent Sikkimese family.
The political turmoil engulfing the kingdom was palpable. Not that I really understood what it meant at that time.
The conversations in Gangtok usually veered round to the future of Sikkim and its ruler. “What will become of Sikkim and the Chogyal?” was the question I kept hearing in the capital.
I was to realise the significance of those hushed conversations the next summer when Sikkim became India’s 22nd state with presidential assent.
I recall classmates from Sikkim distributing sweets to celebrate “Sikkim’s independence”, as they described it. Another section, mostly belonging to Sikkim’s ruling aristocracy, called it a “betrayal” by the 32 political leaders who were signatories to the merger agreement with India.
Over the years, I kept visiting Sikkim and witnessed a sea of development. The sense of betrayal and bitterness among old-timers was more covert.
Sikkimese bureaucrats – a majority of them former officials in the Chogyal’s regime – whom I met during my six-year-long stint as a correspondent in the state would often talk in private about how the kingdom was “grabbed” by India.
“There are some people who still may be sentimental about the Chogyal,” BB Gurung, the only living signatory to the merger and a former Sikkim chief minister, told me.
But many youngsters whom I met in Sikkim in the late 1990s had scant knowledge of the merger.
To a majority of them, the Chogyal was merely somebody who once lived in the Victorian style palace atop the ridge in Gangtok.
“Was he a king or something? Did he not live at Mintogang (the chief minister’s residence)?” was what a young Sikkimese journalist once asked me.
After taking over as Sikkim’s chief minister for a second term in 1999, Pawan Chamling told me: “People have moved on, the merger is history now. What we need is integration with the rest of the country.”
But there are sections of Sikkimese who still see the merger as a betrayal.
“The people of Sikkim never wanted the merger. There should have been two referendums on the merger,” said Sonam Wangdi, a former chief secretary of Sikkim.
Wangdi, who has always been vociferous in opposing the merger, said if the Sikkimese people wanted the merger, they would not have asked for Constitutional safeguards protecting their properties and land under Article 371(F).
“Indira Gandhi did not want Sikkim with the Chogyal. She wanted a Sikkim without the Chogyal, so she abolished the institution of the Chogyal,” he said.
The institution of the Chogyals may have been abolished with the merger but in Sikkim’s fragmented politics, the monarchists still reminisce about the glory days, albeit behind closed doors.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @probirp)