Foreign Affairs: Ghost of Sikkim, Nepal's Foreign Policy and National Integrity

>> Saturday, August 23, 2008

By Ajay Pradhan | August 23, 2008

I hear angry and frustrated clamours, some stifled and some full-throttled, among the concerned and sensitive Nepalis that Nepal is on the way to being "Sikkimized" by India. It seems the anger and frustrations have been fanned by several recent events. First, the new republic's first Vice President, who was a member of the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), used Hindi language to take the oath of office, angering the general public and giving rise to the suspicion that India has a grand design in the making. Second, the emergence of MJF as a credible political force and power-broker and king-maker appears to have unsettled some sections of Nepali general public, who suspect MJF as a pawn of India. Third, many Nepali politicians and the media see thinly disguised political power-peddling and political consultations with Nepali political parties by the Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood not only as a simple breach of diplomatic norms but also as an open meddling by India in Nepal's internal affairs.

I understand the reasons for the anger and frustrations against India, but I don't share the pessimism that India will "Sikkimize" Nepal, mainly for two reasons. First, Nepal's modern foreign policy history is starkly different from what Sikkim ever had. Second, Nepal's strategic geopolitical situation has much stronger stock value than Sikkim ever did. It shares substantially longer border with India and Tibetan Autonomous Region and provides both neighbouring countries to the north and the south a strategic geopolitical buffer. Sikkim's small size wasn't enough to be in that enviable strategic position.

When it comes to India, the suspicion and paranoia of Nepali people north of the Chure-Bhavar range take flights of fancy. To some extent, the suspicion is justified, but for the most part, the unfettered paranoia is an unfortunate departure from the real dangers that India poses to Nepal. I think the real danger is India's unspoken expectation of subservience from the land-locked Nepal in return for some favors in transit of goods that Nepal needs. I think our single-minded obsession with the unsubstantiated notion that India is deceptively working to "Sikkimize" Nepal is not only a little too far-fetched but also unfortunate and misdirected.

India annexed Sikkim, a tiny Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan along the Himalayan range, and declared it India's 22nd state in April 1975. Although a sovereign country, Sikkim had already ceded to India after India's independence in 1947 sovereign authority in three important state affairs--defence, foreign relations, and communication. After the British left India in 1947, under a treaty signed on December 12, 1950, Jawaharlal Nehru had given Sikkim a special protectorate status, still maintaining Sikkim's independent status under the Chogyal, the monarch of Sikkim.

The Chogyal began to show increasing desire to chart an independent course of foreign relations for Sikkim. When Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1966, she showed little patience for the Chogyal's authority and even less tolerance for Sikkim's desire for independence. Internal political turmoil in Sikkim eventually gave India the pretext to wrest power from the Chogyal and install its own administrative head to rule the country in 1973. The Chogyal wanted to renegotiate the 1950 Treaty between Sikkim and India and made attempts to establish independent foreign relations.

As an act of his desire to establish independent foreign relations, the Chogyal and his American-born socialite wife, Hope Cooke, traveled to Kathmandu in March 1975 to attend King Birendra's coronation and met with Chinese and Pakistani representatives. Moreover, while in Kathmandu, the Chogyal gave a press conference all but denouncing India as a hurdle in Sikkim's attempts to attaining international stature. The Chogyal instantly became India's bête noire.

The Chogyal's desire to break out of India's influence was commendable. But, he wasn't smart enough of a statesman or a politician. At a time when he needed much public support to stand up to India, he made no effort to end his political discrimination against the Sikkimese of ethnic Nepali origin. His political alienation of the ethnic Nepalis, who formed 75% of the population, proved fatally costly not only for this throne but also for the country.

The Chogyal had internal political problem to deal with. The public clamour for political freedom was rising. Several political organizations, especially Sikkim National Congress led by Kazi Lhendup Dorji and Sikkim Janata Congress, both favored by Sikkimese of ethnic Nepali origin, demanded political freedom and preferred to put emphasis on development within the country first, in contrast to the Chogyal's desire to break out of India's traditional role as Sikkim's master in the affairs of international relations. In the eyes of the Sikkimese of ethnic Nepali origin, the Chogyal was an unpopular autocratic ruler who ruled the country by sidelining them.

When the Chogyal returned to Sikkim from Kathmandu after attending King Birendra's coronation, Indian Army surrounded his palace on April 6, 1975. India stage-managed a referendum in Sikkim to decide whether Sikkimese wanted an independent Sikkim or favored assimilation into India. Ironically, the ethnic Nepali majority in Sikkim voted in favor of Sikkim's assimilation with India rather than endure the Chogyal's ethnic discrimination. The reign of King Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Chogyal of Sikkim came to an end and Sikkim became India's 22nd state on April 26, 1975, with Kazi Lhendup Dorji as the first Chief Minister of the new Indian state of Sikkim. Calling the referendum a charade, Nepalis in Kathmandu staged a massive demonstration against India.

Nepal never had the quasi-sovereign status that Sikkim had. Nepal has always vigorously sought to establish independent foreign relations with other countries, establishing foreign missions, embassies and consulates general in many countries. Nepal and China's diplomatic relations go back to the 7th Century, when they first exchanged emissaries with each other. Modern China of the post-1949 Cultural Revolution has never attempted to "Tibetize" Nepal, even though the ancient Chinese imperial regimes sought to bring Nepal under their sphere of influence as a tributary of China.

What ancient Chinese imperial regimes tried to do with Nepal, modern India, both under the British rule and the post-1947 independent one, actively tried, and still continues to do so, to bring and keep Nepal under its sphere of influence. In the modern era, the 1950 Treaty between Nepal and India is an example of India's zeal to keep Nepal under its sphere of influence.

India and Nepal signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship on July 31, 1950. No doubt, the 1950 Treaty was an unequal treaty between the two countries in some respects (e.g., Nepal's requirement to consult with India prior to importation of firearms from other countries); and the Treaty either must be ripped apart or renegotiated. The Treaty was an encroachment upon Nepal's sovereignty in intent than in design. This has been a major reason for great deal of anti-India sentiments in Nepal. To that extent, the resentment and bitter feelings that Nepalis have harbored against India is quite justified.

However, Nepalis have to recognize that the 1950 Treaty gave Nepal what Sikkim never had. Article 1 of the Treaty explicitly provided that "there shall be everlasting peace and friendship between the Government of India and the Government of Nepal. The two Governments agree mutually to acknowledge and respect the complete sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of each other." At least in letters and spirit, if not in action, India was bound by the Treaty to maintain peace with Nepal and not play the role of an aggressor. More importantly, India explicitly acknowledged that Nepal is an independent, sovereign country and India agreed to respect Nepal's territorial integrity.

Unless Nepal attempts to undermine India's territorial integrity on its own or as an abetment to a third country (e.g., China or Pakistan), India cannot dream of invading and annexing Nepal into Indian union.

Nepal has had a distinctly independent foreign relations and policy than Sikkim ever had in the modern times. Regionally, despite the signing of the 1950 Treaty with India, Nepal has strategically charted a diplomacy of equidistance with India and China. King Mahendra's attempt to establish a warm relationship with China is an example of this policy. King Birendra's declaration of Nepal as a Zone of Peace was an attempt to tell the world that Nepal wants to get out of the sphere of influence of India. Over a hundred different countries of the world endorsed Nepal as a ZOP, but because India never recognized the declaration, King Birendra's ZOP declaration didn't much do to keep India off Nepal's back. However, it signaled to the world that Nepal was a sovereign country with its independent foreign policy. That was a time when mutual distrust and animosity between China and India was at its peak.

Prior to the invasion and formal annexation of Tibet by China in 1950, India considered Tibet as a strategic buffer between China and India. When Tibet was annexed by China, India needed Nepal not only as an ally but also as a buffer against China. The Treaty of 1950 was a clear and distinct move by India to transform Nepal into a natural buffer against China along the almost 900 km Himalayan border to protect the most important of India's regions--the Indo Gangetic Plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. What does this mean? This means that if India annexes Nepal, India will be seeing eye to eye with the regional dragon, the People's Republic of China. Why'd India want to do that? Of course, India wants to keep Nepal under its sphere of influence, but I fail to see why India would want to remove a strategic, natural buffer that Nepal provides and be in an uncomfortable position to stare China in its eyes. I don't see a motivation for India to want to do that.

Therefore, it is up to Nepali people and their political leaders to be careful not to provide a motivation to India and rouse whatever interest it has to become an aggressive, expansionist force. Nepal should look both internally and externally. Internally, Nepal should not allow the Madheshi demand for "One Madhesh, One Pradesh" (one Madhesh, one province) to become a pretext for India to meddle in Nepal's internal politics. Nepali government should do all it can to not alienate any segment of Nepali society. Externally, Nepali government should show sensitivity and restraint when ultra nationalist Nepali lobby groups start talking about reclaiming Nepal's historical territory that it ceded to British India through the infamous Sugauli Treaty of December 2, 1815, Nepal must be very careful on this sensitive matter.

As long as Nepal seeks a mutually respectable bilateral relationships with India and China and plays a positive role in international community of nations as a peace-loving country and as a peace-keeper in areas of conflicts, Nepalis need not be scared of the ghost of Sikkim.

The opinion presented is mine. The factual information and dates, particularly those related to Sikkim, are referenced from the following sources:

Garver, John W. 2002. Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.

Gupta, Ranjan. 1975. Sikkim: The Merger with India. Asian Survey, Vol. 15, No. 9, pp. 786-798. University of California Press.
History of Sikkim - Wikipedia (
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Sharma, Sudheer. 2001. 25 Years After Sikkim. Nepali Times, Issue No. 35 (March 23-29, 2001).


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