Sikkim Annexation Day on May 16: How the Himalayan Kingdom became part of the Union of India

Sikkim's strategic importance cannot be overstated - it lies very close to the Siliguri corridor (also called the 'Chicken's neck), which, if cut in the case of war would sever the connection between mainland of India and the Northeastern states

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Sunday, May 15, 2022, 05:34 PM IST
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The Buddha Park of Ravangla, also known as Tathagata Tsal, is situated near Rabong (Ravangla) in South Sikkim district | Wikimedia Commons

It was on 16 May 1975 that Sikkim, India’s least populous state officially became a part of India. It is for this cause that this day is celebrated as the Sikkim Day.

Sikkim had been a protectorate of India during the British colonial rule since the 19th century. The arrangement was continued after India's independence through a treaty in 1950, by which India assumed responsibility for communications, defence and foreign affairs, as well as the "territorial integrity" of Sikkim.

Sikkim had autonomy in internal affairs. The April 1974 general elections resulted in a victory for the India-friendly Sikkim National Congress. The new government sought an increase in civil and political liberties, but was suppressed by the Chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal.

Timeline

In May it passed the Government of Sikkim Act, which provided for responsible government and furthering relations with India, and on 4 July 1974 the Parliament adopted a new constitution that provided for the country becoming a state of India, which the Chogyal signed under pressure from India.

On 4 September 1974, the Indian Lok Sabha voted in favour of making Sikkim an "associate" state, with the Rajya Sabha voting for an amendment on 8 September, giving it a status equal to that of other Indian states and absorbing it in the Indian Union.

On 8 September 1974 the Chogyal called for a free and fair referendum.

On 5 March 1975 the National Congress repeated its calls for integration into India, whilst the Chogyal again called for a referendum.

On 9 April Indian troops entered the country, disarmed the palace guard (killing one of them and injuring four others) and surrounded the palace, putting the king under house-arrest.

On 10 April 1975 the Sikkim State Council, with the support of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, unanimously voted to abolish the monarchy and merge with India in order to obtain full Indian statehood. A referendum on this issue was set for 14 April.

Referendum

The results of the plebiscite is questioned by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray who argued that "it took at least two days by jeep, the fastest mode of transport, to reach some of these inaccessible habitations, and it just would not have been physically possible to complete arrangements, hold the polls and count votes between 11 and 15 April."

Supporters of the Chogyal maintain that 70 to 80% of voters were outsiders from India.

After the declaration of the results, Sikkim's chief minister Kazi Lhendup Dorji cabled the results of the referendum to Indira Gandhi and asked her "to make an immediate response and accept the decision" to which she responded by saying that the Indian government would introduce a constitutional amendment in Parliament that would allow the kingdom to become part of India constitutionally.

The Indian Parliament gave its final approval to the constitutional amendment making Sikkim a state on 26 April 1975.

On 15 May 1975 Indian President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed ratified a constitutional amendment that made Sikkim the 22nd state of India and abolished the position of the Chogyal.

Foreign Reactions

China and Pakistan called the referendum a farce and a disguise for the forced annexation of the principality, to which Indira Gandhi replied by reminding them of their takeover of Tibet and the issue of Azad Kashmir, which she believed was Indian territory. The Chogyal called the referendum "illegal and unconstitutional".

The U.S. government viewed the merging of Sikkim into India as a historic and practical inevitability, given the state's location on important trade routes. The Soviet Union responded positively, though with a muted response.

Strategic Importance of Sikkim

The strategic importance of Sikkim was realized in 1960s during the 1962 Indo-China war and subsequent clashes at Nathu La and Chola in 1967. Sikkim is a strategic territory for both India and China. Sikkim borders countries such as Nepal and Bhutan, in which India and China are competing to have influence.

Sikkim also lies very close to the Siliguri corridor (also called the 'Chicken's neck), which, if cut in the case of war would sever the connection between mainland of India and the Northeastern states

Chumbi Valley is located at the tri –junction of India-China-Bhutan. The region is close to India’s Siliguri Corridor (chicken neck corridor). The Siliguri Corridor connects the rest of India with the Northeast, and Nepal with Bhutan. Chumbi Valley is also of equal strategic significance to China because of the valley’s shared border with Tibet and Sikkim.

Any development in the Chumbi Valley that alters the status quo in Beijing’s favour will have serious implications for India. It is to be noted that China wants to widen the Chumbi valley by claiming areas in the west and north of Bhutan. History of Bhutan-China border dispute starts from 1950 and bilateral talks to resolve the issue started from 1984. In the event of a war, China could seek to cut off the Siliguri corridor.

It is also contested by some scholars that Chumbi valley has restricted deployment space. They further state that there is no other place in India’s northern borders which has severe limitation for military maneuvers as the Chumbi valley has.

This is the reason why the 2017 Doklam standoff occurred between Indian and Chinese forces.

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