Understanding 'The 8th May Agreement' : A Perspective

Understanding 'The 8th May Agreement' : A Perspective
Historic 8th May Agreement being signed. Photo shows Kewal Singh, India's Foreign Secretary, Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, KS Bajpai, Indian Political Officer and Karma Topden, Deputy Secretary to Chogyal

By Shanker Sharma. The author can be contacted at sharmashanker721@yahoo.in

Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer and not of the Sikkim Chronicle. For any queries or contradictions, the author can be contacted in his/her email id.

THE 8TH MAY AGREEMENT

 8th May Agreement is considered very important in the history of Sikkim. It lays the foundation for the ultimate merger of Sikkim into the Indian union.  Unfortunately, the majority of the people today have no idea about this important agreement, the circumstances surrounding which this agreement was signed, the imbroglio that ended with the signing of this agreement. This agreement was signed by the then India’s foreign secretary Kewal Singh, the Chogyal of Sikkim Palden Thondup Namgyal and the representatives from the main political parties of Sikkim viz Sikkim Janta Congress (SJC), Sikkim National Congress (SNC) and Sikkim National Party (SNP).

The 8th May agreement was signed in the backdrop of a people's eruption in 1973. The law and order situation in Sikkim had completely collapsed thereby forcing the Chogyal to hand over the administration to the Govt of India. This agreement had to restore normalcy in the kingdom, fulfil the aspirations of the people for democratic reforms like one man one vote, a written constitution, abolition of parity and at the same time the interest of the Chogyal had to safeguarded. However, it proved to be a bond for the ultimate merger of the country.

 Vulnerable Kingdom

Tashi Namgyal ruled Sikkim from 1914 till his death in 1963. However, after the death of the crown prince Paljor Namgyal in an accident in Punjab in 1942, Tashi Namgyal virtually took retirement and the state of affairs was handed over to Palden Thondup Namgyal. It was Palden Thondup who was ruling Sikkim on his father’s behalf from the 1940s though he became Chogyal formally in 1965.

Sikkim had become a protectorate of British India after the Anglo-Chinese Convention 1890. Although at the time of framing this convention Sikkim was not present, it directed the future for Sikkim. When the British left India in 1947, independent India took the shoes of its formal colonial master in Sikkim. By the Indo-Sikkim treaty of 1950, Sikkim continued to be a protectorate of Independent India. By this treaty, Sikkim’s defence, External Affairs and Communication went into the hands of India and the Chogyal had his complete control in the internal affairs in the state. Like in the British period, an Indian Political officer was continue to be stationed in Gangtok. Being located in a strategically important position surrounded by four countries namely India, China(Tibet), Nepal and Bhutan, although negligibly small in size, India’s huge security interest lied on it.

Aspirations for democracy

Inspired by the independence of India, democratic consciousness among the Sikkimese was on the rise. Nepalese, although the majority in number, were treated as a second class citizen by the ruling class. People were subjected to exploitations by the ruling class in the countryside. The landlords had control of the land and a hefty portion from the harvest was taken by them as revenue. The peasants were forced to do several kinds of unpaid labours by the landlords and aristocrats. The resentment was simmering among the people. The common people were under abject poverty. Roads, schools, hospitals were minuscule in number. Education was a privilege for the handful of families close to the monarch.

Protectorate Kingdom

India, having just got independence from British imperialism did not want an imperialist tag on itself by incorporating a small independent kingdom. Many leaders from Indian National Congress including Sardar Patel were in the favour of making Sikkim a part of India. Sikkim being a member of the Chamber of Princes along with around 600 princely states in India would have given a justification for Sardar Patel for a forceful annexation. However, Nehru was against it. It was largely because of Nehru that Sikkim could maintain Independence after 1947. India decided to keep Sikkim along with Bhutan independent keeping the subjects of its interest with itself.

However, India did not afford any laxity in handling a vulnerable kingdom like Sikkim. India’s alarm grew after China occupying Tibet, which India ideally would have wanted to act as a buffer state between itself and China.

To protect its interest India played with Chogyal and the section of the people of Sikkim who were pro-democracy and anti-feudal. Generally, India followed the policy of pleasing and appeasing Chogyal but whenever it wanted Chogyal to submit at its whim India used the anti-feudal, pro-democracy elements to create unrest in the kingdom.

 Reformations

Chogyal introduced several reformations to keep the pro-democracy elements under control, which were the potential fifth column. Probably his efforts were bearing fruits too. We can understand this from the fact that in the late 1940s there was a popular demand for Sikkim’s merger with India among the political parties, which was not there in the subsequent elections held afterwards. In fact, by 1970, the revision of the 1950 treaty and maintaining independent status of the kingdom had become the demand of the political parties. This change in stance in political parties could be viewed in two ways, either it was because the political parties started reconciling with the Chogyal satisfied with his reformative steps or it was the result of the lack of cooperation from India in their demand that they felt it futile. The Chogyal started holding elections regularly, introduced the five-year plan, primary schools were opened even in villages, roads were constructed to connect the major towns of Sikkim, PHCs were opened, attempts were made to modernise agriculture, the administration was reformed etc. In short, there were attempts from the Chogyal towards reformation to meet the demand of the time.

Conflict of Interests

In 1965, Palden Thondup became the Chogyal of Sikkim formally. In 1963,40 years old Palden Thondup married Hope Cook, a 23-year-old American woman. Palden Thondup was an ambitious ruler. He was not satisfied with Sikkim being a protectorate. He was determined to safeguard the independence of Sikkim. He started the demand of the revision of the treaty of 1950. He wanted India to look after Sikkim’s defence only and communication and external affairs returned to him. To strengthened Sikkim’s position as an independent country, he was demanding Sikkim’s membership in the UNO or at least in other organisations of UNO like WHO or ILO. With an American becoming a queen of a small Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, Sikkim started drawing the attention of international media. Many foreign citizens would visit the palace regularly. The visit of the Chogyal and Gyalmu to western countries would attract the attention of the media, Chogyal would address the press there. India being the country responsible for the external affairs of Sikkim was not happy with the Chogyal speaking about Sikkim with the foreign press in a foreign land. The Chogyal was purposefully doing this to assert the independence of his country. India was not at all pleased with such developments in its protectorate kingdom.

 Efforts to assert Independence

To create a suitable environment in the kingdom to claim his demand that Sikkim had a distinct identity, the Chogyal formed a committee called Study Forum comprising of young officials and intelligentsia of Sikkim. Study Forum stood clearly for the revision of the 1950 treaty to enhance Sikkim’s credential as a separate nation. Study Forum advocated that Sikkim should join Colombo Plan (seen as a natural step on the way to UN recognition), should begin to print its stamps and earn foreign exchange and retain control of the Inner Line Permit. During the coronation of Chogyal in 1965, the Sikkimese national anthem was played for the first time instead of the usual Indian national anthem on such occasions. In the same year, the Gyalmo Hope Cook, in an article in the Bulletin of the Institute of Tibetology, challenged the validity of the Indo-Sikkim treaty of 1950 and demanded the merger of Darjeeling to Sikkim based on historical grounds. India’s worries were growing with such activities in the kingdom. The fierce clashes between Indian and Chinese troops at the Nathu La in September 1967 only compounded India’s worries. On 6th Aug 1968, in one of the fortnightly newspapers Sikkim, its editor Kaiser Bahadur Thapa wrote a very provoking editorial , where he demanded not only the revision of the treaty of 1950 but the registration of treaty with the UNO as well. He further wrote “if our rights are not given to us gracefully, we are prepared to get it anyhow. But in doing so let us hope that we will not be driven to the extreme so that we are compelled to repeat the underground Naga Story”. A few days later on the day of India’s Independence Day, a group of school children walked through the street of Gangtok carrying anti-India banners like ‘India go back’. Indira Gandhi had to face some serious questions in the parliament of this growing anti-India tendency in its protectorate kingdom. India worries were only growing with all these happenings in its protectorate.

 Revenge and the feeling of being alienated

Nursing his old wound of family enmity with the Chogyal, Kazi Lhendup Dorjee Khangsarpa(LD Kazi) was doing everything in his armour to show the Chogyal and Gyalmo in the bad light. His second marriage with the European Elisa-Maria had helped him greatly to further his anti-Chogyal and pro-democratic propaganda. There always was clandestine support from India. Elisa Maria had a good education, good contacts with influential people in India, which helped Kazi greatly in furthering anti-Chogyal rhetoric. Anti-chogyal articles calling him autocratic and oppressive were featured regularly in Indian newspapers. Many people had genuine aspirations for democracy and better life. Educated young people especially in the Nepalese community felt being alienated by the monarchy system, which favoured only the handful of privileged aristocrats. In the rural Sikkim, the land was controlled by minuscule aristocrats and monasteries. Peasants were exploited by the landlords. The uneducated lot were under severe oppression and exploitation of the ruling class. Kazi exploited such resentments of the people and united especially the people of the majority Nepalese community of South, West and East Sikkim and the poor Lepcha and Bhutia minorities.  

RAW coming to the picture

A book written by the then RAW’s(Research and Analysis Wing) chief in Sikkim GBS Sidhu, who was a principal architect behind the merger of Sikkim, gives a clear picture of the policies India followed before and after 1972. According to him, till the end of May 1972, India’s policy toward Sikkim revolved around one ‘cornerstone and three fundamental beliefs’. The cornerstone was that if India wanted to protect its strategic interests in Sikkim, the maharaja had to be supported under all circumstances to allow him to maintain a firm hold over the administration. The three fundamental beliefs were: (i) anti-durbar agitations had to be curbed, contained and controlled to a certain extent so as to preclude any possibility of the so-called instability spreading in this strategically located state (ii) the efforts of the Nepalese-dominated parties, even though led by enlightened Bhutia and Lepcha leaders, to bring about significant changes in the political and administrative system of Sikkim should not be allowed to succeed beyond a point, as that could lead to similar political demands from the Nepalese of neighbouring Darjeeling and Siliguri. That, in turn, could also generate feelings of pan-Nepalism in this sensitive region and (iii) if Bhutia–Lepcha interests were ignored, and they felt threatened by the success of the Nepalese-dominated parties, they could look towards Tibet or China for help. Following this policy, India did use the pro-democracy faction to force the chogyal to submit in India whim at times but never supported this faction beyond a point. In RAW’s Sikkim chief own words ‘ in curbing, controlling and containing the anti-durbar activities of these parties, the Ministry of External Affairs(MEA) and its PO in Gangtok took care that these parties did not get totally marginalized. A somewhat healthy existence of anti-durbar parties was essential to contain the growing ambitions of Palden Thondup Namgyal and the pro-independence charter of Thondup’s creation, the Sikkim National Party (SNP)’.

 India After successful Bangladesh Mission

However, in 1972, the recently formed India’s external intelligence agency RAW was brimming with confidence after its successful formation of Bangladesh from East Pakistan. Indira Gandhi too was in a very strong position after her resounding victory in the election of 1972. India reversed its policy of ‘apparent appeasement and cautious containment’ and decided to support the pro-democracy political parties to ultimately merge the kingdom to Indian Union. The idea of the merger of Sikkim was conceived by the founder and the then chief of RAW RN Kao at the end of 1972. Indira Gandhi gave her clearance to it and the operation was launched in early 1973. Only 3 persons, the RAW chief RN Kao, the RAW’s Zonal(east) PN Banerjee and the RAW’s head in Sikkim, were aware of this secret operation. Even Political Officer stationed at Gangtok KS Bajpayee and Indian Dewan BS Das were not informed about the ultimate goal of the merger. LD Kazi in Sikkim was also informed about India’s intention of ultimately merging Sikkim to India. The politicians in Sikkim were assured that India would no longer support the chogyal and instead they would back them in their demand for democratic and economic reformation. 

 The Early 1970s

In the election held in 1973, Sikkim National Party, the party close to the palace won 11 seats out of 18. Sikkim National Congress and Sikkim Janta Congress won 5 seats and 2 seats respectively. The defeated parties alleged polling in Rabong in South Sikkim was rigged in the favour of the SNP candidate.

 The Chogyal decided to leave the post of dewan (Sidlon) vacant after the retirement of IS Chopra in 1972. This post was the ex-officio president of the executive council. Now all power was in the hand of the Chogyal. It helped the anti-Chogyal faction more to convince people that the Chogyal was autocratic.

 Building up the stir

The RAW was already active. It had taken several leaders of SJP and SJC into confidence. On the behest of the RAW, SNC and SJC boycotted the inauguration of the new council. The RAW had a clear plan of creating a stir on 4th April, the 50th birthday of the Chogyal. Keeping this in mind, the RAW network suggested the leaders of two parties to form a single Joint Action Committee (JAC), to force their demands unitedly. Condemning Chogyal for rigging the election, with the demand of fresh election based on ‘one man one vote’ and democratic and economic reforms the leaders of the two parties started visiting the Nepalese dominated places of East, south and West Sikkim to build anti-durbar mood among the people.

 On 26th March 1973, Sikkim Government arrested the SJC president KC Pradhan for ‘unnecessary’ criticism of the Government. It added fuel to the fire. The arrest galvanised more people. On 27th March, about 1000 people gathered in front of the council house, where the Chogyal had to address the councillors. Later during the day, the same crowd gathered around the palace, where the Chogyal addressed the crowd. As the target date of 4th April was 9 days away, as per the plan of the RAW, the crowd did not force the issue further and the crowd slowly dispersed. However, RC Paudel and KN Upreti started hunger strike till their demands were met. They were taken to the hospital on April 1. 

More people started to pour in. Many among them were brought from the Darjeeling district from West Bengal. Some authors have written that the Indian army personals were also part of the crowd in civilian dress. As the event had the backing of the RAW it was exceptionally well coordinated. Despite the involvement and interference of the RAW and Indian house, no one can deny the fact that some people demanding for the reformations genuinely were also there.

 Attempt for Compromise

As the Chogyal had become too stubborn for India to handle. India's plan was to force the Chogyal to fall in line by intensifying the agitation in a manner such that the Chogyal would be forced to hand over the administration to tthe Govt of India(GOI). The Kazi and JAC, fully aware of India’s backing through RAW, were in a strong position. Even the release of KC Pradhan on April 2 was not enough to stop the steady flow of demonstrators. The Chogyal reluctantly agreed to invoke section 144 of CrPC(curfew) on 3rd April. Alarmed by the intensity of the agitation and to avoid violent confrontation, the senior bureaucrats and councillors held a meeting with the JAC. The meeting led by Jigdal Densapa, chogyal’s right hand man, was attended by the members of JAC including the Kazi. By the evening they had reached an agreement. KC Pradhan was already released. Densapa agreed on the demand of ‘one man one vote’ and he also acknowledged that a new constitution was required. However, when everything was about to settle, Kazi left the room to make a telephone call, saying he had to confirm his party’s position. Within minutes, to everyone’s surprise, he returned to tell that the deal was off. In all likelihood, the Indian house directed him to call off the deal and continue the movement on the telephone.

 The Chogyal’s 50th Birthday and Indian Takeover

The 4th April was the Chogyal’s 50th  birthday. Gangtok’s streets were filled with agitators. Early in the morning, the Chogyal’s intelligence chief informed him that the small Sikkim police force was struggling to maintain order in the bazaar below the palace. The police had to use tear gas, lathis and even live fire to prevent the crowd of ‘five to six thousands’ from ascending towards the palace. Few were injured. Thondup was determined to carry on his birthday as planned. The Indian Political Officer KS Bajpai was there in the palace waiting expectantly for the Chogyal to request Indian support to prevent himself from the mob below. The Chogyal knew accepting India’s support meant leading to his country's downfall. He allowed the organisers of his birthday to cancel the afternoon sporting events but did not cancel the birthday dinner that evening. That night the chogyal received the news of loot of the police stations and violence in the west and south Sikkim. The events were now out of his control. An incident on 5th April allowed the JAC leaders to paint the Namgyal family as an oppressive force. The crown prince Tenzing decided to leave the palace to assess the situation. Nothing untoward happened on his way to Singtam but on his return, they were stopped by a group of youth of JAC at Ranipool. Panicking, one of Tenzing’s companions shot his pistol into the air. It gave the JAC leaders much-needed issue to dramatize. The Kazi and other leaders sent a plea to Indira Gandhi asking her to ‘intervene quickly and fully before we are massacred’. 

Delhi responded immediately. A senior secretary the MEA was sent to Gangtok to assist the PO there to persuade the Chogyal to hand over the administration to India. On 7th the Chogyal agreed to allow CRPF to protect threatened police stations in the south and west Sikkim. On the 8th he finally gave in. He formally requested the Indian government to assume control of his country. The Kazi and the JAC immediately suspended the agitation.

India immediately sent a strong administrator BS Das to run the kingdom in place of the Chogyal as an administrator. Three OSDs were appointed in three Nepalese majority districts. CRPF jawans were deployed throughout the country. Das was categorically instructed to support the anti-Chogyal movement. The foreign secretary Kewal Singh made it clear that if Chogyal did not concede their demands Delhi was prepared for a showdown. While Das, in consultation with PO Bajpai, was working out a plan of action on the lines indicated by Kewal Singh, he arrived in Gangtok on 15th April. Kewal Singh explained that his sudden dash to Gangtok resulted from adverse reactions over the recent developments in Sikkim ‘in some friendly and not so friendly countries’. This forced India to change its approach.

 8th May 1973

On 23rd April Kewal Singh met the Chogyal and a secret agreement was signed between the two which assured that the institution of Chogyal would be protected. The chogyal was also assured that the administrator would be withdrawn as soon as normalcy returns. He met the leaders of the political parties and left Sikkim. Kewal Singh returned in the early week of May. This time he brought a different agreement to the one he had signed with the chogyal on 23rd April. This new agreement was called the Tripartite agreement. It had the provision to pass some power to the politicians and instituted one man one vote. However, it did not include the guarantee about the Chogyal position. The Chogyal was not ready to sign this new agreement. He wanted the 23rd agreement to be operative. However, Singh assured him that the new agreement is just a public relation document, a sop to Kazi and his colleagues and the April 23rd agreement will be implemented. The Chogyal before signing the agreement reluctantly gave a dressing-down to the JAC leaders and accused them of ‘betrayal and sell out to India’ and they were ‘not worthy of being called Sikkimese’. On 8th May 1973, at 9 pm the agreement was signed at the Palace.

 

References:

  1. Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, Sunanda K Datta Rau
  2. Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom
  3. Sikkim: Dawn of Democracy, GBS Sidhu
  4. Sikkim and Bhutan, VH Coelho
  5. Sons of Sikkim: The Rise and Fall of the Namgyal Dynasty of Sikkim, Jigme N. Kazi