The historical and contemporary significance of the Dzumsa system

The historical and contemporary significance of the Dzumsa system

Political institutions have existed in human society since it's creation and continue to exist in various forms all over the world. Before democracy, the monarchy held all the powers of the government even while some areas had a unique system of governance. People began demanding political institutions after realizing that one ruler and their family gave way to a lopsided system which dominated people's dissent and looked for a way of governing that was flexible enough to give them all the rights and equality in society.

Soon, traditional institutions and local government were decentralized, modern democratic institutions replaced them. Recently, traditional institutions and local self-governing institutions have been threatened by national governments and their decentralization politics. Still, there are some older forms of traditional institutions who managed to adapt themselves with the changing nature of modern, national government. 

History of Sikkim's Dzumsa

The Dzumsa system of self-governing is one of the survivors of a traditional local government which is practised in two villages of Sikkim, namely Lachen and Lachung. These two villages are in the northern part of Sikkim located at about fifty kilometres away from the Chinese international border.

The word Dzumsa means 'a gathering place'. It was established in the late 19th century by the then Chogyal of Sikkim. Dzumsa was a means through which the Chogyals used to delegate their authority in the village of Lachen and Lachung. In the 1970s the Indian government introduced the panchayati system of local government but this was not imposed in the villages of Lachen and Lachung.

The Sikkim Panchayat Act which was passed in conformity with the 73rd Constitution Amendment, in April 1993 recognized these bodies as part of local body arrangements and till date functions as a traditional local governing body in Lachen and Lachung. 

The Dzumsa's Functions 

The Dzumsa has no written book of functions; it was established to facilitate relationships with all the people of the area by organizing activities shared by the whole social group. However, in recent times, they have started keeping records in forms of minutes of a meeting which is commonly referred to as Tapchen

The Dzumsa has a large number of functions and responsibilities in Lachen. The judicial law is strict- before a police station was set up in Lachen, this body had the power to arrest any offenders and give them punishment for crimes like murder or domestic violence. Now they only intervene in minor offences such as composing fines for not attending a dzumsa meeting, not contributing in monastic functions, attending chaam inebriated and so on.

At the end of every year, the collected fines are summed up by the Tsipos, the accountants, and are kept as the common fund. Dzumsa is also commonly known for the medium through which the locals are connected to the monastic affairs and rituals. During the time of any functions or religious event, the Dzumsa takes the full responsibility to organize it including making of butter lamps and feeding the monks. 

They also play a vital role during major emergency events such as death or natural disasters. During the monarchical era, all households needed to bring a bundle of wood to the house of a deceased person, the size of the wood logs checked by the Gyapons with a bamboo ring. However, after Sikkim's merger with India, a new set of rules were implemented and the older ones were abolished.

For instance, it was decided that only 15 people would accompany the deceased's family to help for the cremation, but every household still continues to contribute a suitable amount of money to help the deceased's family. In 2002, it was also decided that no meat and alcohol would be consumed at the funerals.

The Dzumsa, Pandemic and Tourism 

Dzumsa is the sole responsible local body for the people of Lachen and the decisions taken up by them are followed by all residents. The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for the Lachen Dzumsa.

Since Sikkim had to stop the movement of people from one place to another, a statewide lockdown was implemented. Lachen suffered as its main source of income is generated from the tourism sector. Hotels, homestays, taxi vehicles were shut, effectively rendering many households jobless.

While all the focus went on to stop the spread of coronavirus the economy took its turn to the other side and there was a massive downfall in the income of Lachen. However, to revive Sikkim's economy the government took its decision to lift the ban on movement of vehicles and people while still strictly following the COVID-19 protocols. But the Dzumsa of Lachen took its stand - they stated that no tourists were allowed to enter Lachen.

Lachen Dzumsa and the ban on tourists

Lachen is a small village located at the northern part of Sikkim (altitude of 2700m above sea level), with a stunning landscapes and sacred places, known as one of the most sought after places by tourists sho visit Sikkim. 90% of people are highly dependent on the tourism sector as there are 100+ hotels and homestays and the rest of the 10% are in the agricultural sector. 

Pipon Gyatso from Lachen states, “After the notification of state on lifting the ban on movement of tourists, we had a joint meeting at Lachen with the hotel association of Lachen, driver association and the area MLA Shri Sangdup Lepcha in which we took a collective decision not to lift the ban on tourists visiting Lachen”. He said that as most of the employees of the hotels are from outside Sikkim, allowing them to enter would be a threat to the residents of Lachen. Still, he assures that soon they will try to find a safer solution and lift the ban on the movement of tourists.

He adds, “Since Lachen has no COVID-19 cases till date, to prevent contracting the virus, safety measures are being taken such as routine sanitization, social distancing, wearing of mask and awareness camps are also organized”. After all the safety measures are analysed we will resume the movement of tourists in Lachen.

By Sherab Palden Bhutia. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at paldenborges015@gmail.com.

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