Sixty-year-old S K Sarda’s ancestors migrated from Rajasthan to Sikkim 150 years ago. In the course of time, the family learnt the local language, developed links with Sikkimese society, set up businesses — and made Gangtok their home.
But today, Sarda alleges, the Sikkim Democratic Front-led state government’s parochial politics and central tax laws have made them “second-class citizens.”
“The Nepalis, also migrants, control Sikkim politics. They see us as outsiders and want to throw us out,” said R K Agarwal, 55, who owns a Tibetan jewellery shop in Gangtok. Out of Sikkim’s 6 lakh people, 70 per cent are Nepalese, 20.64 per cent are Bhutia-Lepchas (said to be the original people of Sikkim) and old settlers such as Sarda make up 3.4 per cent.
At the heart of the controversy is the question: who is a Sikkimese?
In 1961, the king of Sikkim — the state became a part of India in 1975 — passed the Sikkim Subjects Regulation (SSR). The Regulation defined a Sikkimese as one who was born within its territory and similarly situated person. Settlers from India were not included in the SSR registry because they did not want to give up their Indian citizenship.
When Sikkim joined India, the SSR was repealed and everyone became an Indian citizen. In 1991, New Delhi granted citizenship to all those who lived in Sikkim between 1946 and 1975 but did not figure in the SSR registry.
“Votebank politics was behind this demand,” said Sarda. “In 1991, 73,431 people, mainly Nepalese, got Indian citizenship.”
In what people such as Sarda would call the latest in a string of discriminatory practices, the Sikkim government persuaded the Centre to amend the income tax laws in 2008 and provide exemption to all residents of the state except the old settlers.
According to legal and constitution expert K K Venugopal, the exclusion is “unconstitutional” and “discriminatory.” The Association of Old Settlers of Sikkim, of which Sarda the president, wants this anomaly to be redressed.
P D Rai, Sikkim’s lone member in Lok Sabha, said Chief Minister Pawan Chamling has taken up the issue with the prime minister.
“But, I don’t see any reason why people earning profits will not pay taxes according to Central rates”, Rai said.
But this is not Sarda’s only worry.
In the last 18 months, Sikkim’s assembly has passed several legislations that old settlers find discriminatory.
One such law requires a company, in order to get registered in the state, to have at least half of its board of directors with a Sikkim Subject Certificate or Certificate of Identification
The move underscores the changing political economy of the state. The Nepalese want to extend their influence from politics to business, which has been dominated by old settlers — mostly trading families from northern India.
Rai defends the change: “They have been passed to safeguard the Sikkimese people from being over-run by outsiders.”