India-China border row: Forget the Dragon, Sikkim is worried about being cut off from the mainland

While China may be breathing down Sikkim's neck, the bone of contention that needs to be resolved as quickly as possible is the Siliguri Corridor, also known as the chicken's neck.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

The 27-kilometre wide business township connects India with eight northeastern states. Sikkim, a border state, is being threatened on two frontiers. It requires special attention and we must quickly clear its only road link with the rest of country by resolving the dispute in Siliguri.

Sikkim lends support for Gorkhaland

In March 2011, the Sikkim Assembly passed a resolution supporting the demand for a separate Gorkhaland. In the recent Darjeeling unrest, Sikkim chief minister Pawan Chamling voiced his support for Gorkhaland, which brought Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal into turmoil.

Siliguri's call for a united Bengal and its largely anti-Sikkim stand for supporting Gorkhaland has choked off the state's supply of essential commodities. The vandalism of Sikkim-registered vehicles at Siliguri has resulted in the state being deprived of resources.

And, amidst such animosity with Siliguri, Sikkim is seeking to resolve the issue in two ways: From an economic point of view and to maintain contact with the mainland. The people are more worried about the Siliguri blockade than the rising tension on the Chinese frontier.

Despite the face-off with China, Sikkim went ahead with its stance on clearing the National Highway 10 first. When the chief minister seeks 'urgent intervention' from the Union government to resolve the 'chaotic law and order situation in Siliguri', one observes the fear of China writ large.

Chief Minister Pawan Chamling's stance

Chamling, in his first public address on 6 July, said about the border standoff: "Sikkim did not merge with the Union to become sandwiched between China and Bengal. A fight may break out on Nathu La border. The area is tense. The people of Sikkim showed their patriotism by joining India." He has since reiterated his stance.

The Opposition's stance

The Sikkim Krantikari Morcha has slammed the chief minister use of words such as 'sandwiched' and 'merger' are anti-national rhetoric. MLA Kunga Nima Lepcha said on 10 July, "Chief minister cannot use words such as 'merger' after 42 years. We have adopted the Indian flag as our own since 1975. The conflict at hand is international in nature. His stance has emboldened China and given them an opportunity to rethink their stance and call for Sikkim independence."

Rajnath Singh calls Pawan Chamling

On 9 July, Union home minister Rajnath Singh spoke to Chamling and assured him of the government's support to ensure the safety and security of National Highway 10. Singh tweeted:

Army at Nathu La pass

According to reports, over the last few weeks, the Indian Army has deployed an increasing number of soldiers and machinery at the border with China. Media coverage at the border has been restricted and locals in east Sikkim are unwilling to speak on the sensitive issue.

Trade with China continues

Trade on the ancient Silk Route between India and China has been taking place since 2006. Despite the border row, trade continues through Nathu La, however, a drop in volume has been evident.

Sikkim recognises the Karmapa

Sikkim has recognised Orgyen Trinley Dorje, born in the Tibetan Autonomous Region as the 17th Karmapa. He will take over the disputed Rumtek Monastery throne in east Sikkim. At least 250 monasteries across the world come under the Karmapa.

Sikkim denied Dorje's claim in the early 1990s, but changed their stance after the Dalai Lama gave his blessing in 1999 (despite China backing Dorje). Since then, the Karmapa has been embroiled in controversy. In 2011, he was accused of possessing large sums of Chinese currency in Dharamsala.

However, India has made amends with Karmapa and the Tibetan government in exile by allowing him to travel to Arunachal Pradesh in December 2016, a move which China viewed suspiciously. In early 2017, the home ministry's Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) proposed that the Karmapa be allowed to travel to any part of the country, except the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim.

The sentiment in Sikkim is different. Denzong Lhadey Tsogpa, an organisation of monks and monasteries in Sikkim, has been on a hunger strike since 11 July, 2016. Over a year, they organised three rallies demanding that the Karmapa be allowed to visit Sikkim if not the Rumtek Monastery.

The Buddhist community in Sikkim has been echoing this demand with the home ministry repeatedly during the same period. Singh and Union minister Kiren Rijiju have assured Denzong Lhadey Tsogpa that they are considering this demand, a move which could further inflame China.

Kailash Mansarovar Yatra

China and India may be at loggerheads at the tri-junction but it was the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Nathu La which brought the dispute between the countries into the limelight. The first batch of 47 pilgrims were denied entry via Nathu La on 20 June.

The issue didn't come to light for a few days neither side gave it much play. Organisers in Sikkim were left scrambling for answers. The yatra, which had well over 400 pilgrims coming for the year was stalled. Initially, a landslide on the Chinese side was cited as the reason for denying the pilgrims entry, but the public knew better.

Sikkim MP Prem Das Rai's response

China's nefarious designs to stoke unrest came to light after a leading Chinese daily, in an editorial, questioned Sikkim's merger with India. Prem Das Rai, Sikkim's representative in Parliament, responded to the editorial thus: "Sikkim's merger with India is a settled issue. China de facto recognised it in 2003-2004 and de jure the next year. Even the maps have been redrawn. So why is China raking up this issue again?"

Rai said, “Three weeks into the standoff, we want our domestic issues, many of them near the chicken’s neck to be resolved expeditiously. The Chinese are aware of the strategic importance of moving the tri-junction further south towards this region. This cannot be allowed at any cost. Maintaining domestic peace is of the utmost importance. It is very clear what the Chinese are doing. They are hoping to fan anti-India sentiments in the region by readjusting lines on the map and disrupting settled geopolitical thinking. The danger is that the Chinese statements are aimed at finding resonance among radical elements in Sikkim".

Kiren Rijiju's Sikkim visit

Union minister Kiren Rijiju was in Sikkim the day after Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims were denied entry to China via Nathu La. Rijiju was instrumental in organising Dorje's visit to Arunachal Pradesh in 2016. Since then, Denzong Lhadey Tsogpa monks have met Rijiju in Sikkim and New Delhi on multiple occasions.

Rijiju's timely 21 June visit was seen by the people of Sikkim as a way to counter the border dispute with China. Public thinking went thus: The chief minister went to Delhi to discuss the Darjeeling unrest as well as the border issue with China. However, the reason for the CM's visit has not yet been made public.

Sikkim's bond with India

Sikkim, which has been part of the Union for 42 years, and despite having only two representatives in Parliament, has given the country its longest serving chief minister. India on the other hand, recognises Sikkim's special status under Article 371F of the Constitution which provides the people of Sikkim special rights and privileges. Even Opposition parties have, time and again, emphasised that Sikkim's special status must be kept intact.

Sikkim has been 'Indianised' in education, culture and heritage. All government schools are under the Central Board of Secondary Education. Dussehra remains the biggest festival. Each morning, students begin their day with the National Anthem and the National Pledge. Sikkim's history and politics is taught in schools and colleges across the nation.

The Indian government has invested in projects that have helped Sikkim flourish. In January 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognised Sikkim as the first fully organic state.

Despite a diverse populace, there has been no communal violence. Gangtok has even provided reservation in its urban body for Tibetans as well as businessmen from the mainland.


Updated Date: Jul 14, 2017 07:45 AM

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