Gangtok: A little over 48 hours before Sikkim simultaneously votes for 32 Assembly seats and the lone Lok Sabha constituency in the first of the seven-phase parliamentary polls this year, an abnormal rise of over 16 percent 'outsider' voters since 2014 holds the key in the erstwhile tiny Himalayan kingdom, strategically wedged between India and China.
Opponents of Pawan Kumar Chamling — the country's longest-serving chief minister who is seeking a record sixth term in office — are accusing him of encouraging the "ever-growing and uncontrolled influx" from the neighbouring Darjeeling hills, other parts of India, as well as eastern Nepal, queering the political pitch for the hill state's 4,23,325 voters, who enjoy special status under Article 371F of the Indian Constitution.
"Usually, the rise in new voters is around five to six percent over five years. However, Sikkim's voter list has seen an unprecedented 16 percent rise. Does Chamling have an answer to this?" asks Tseten Tashi-Bhutia, the convener of the Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), who is waging an uphill battle for indigenous people's rights since 1993.
Prem Singh Tamang, 51, better known as PS Golay, Chamling’s trusted aide-turned-arch-rival and the founder of the principal Opposition party Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), also finds the trend alarming. "Chamling has had a stranglehold over power for the last 25 years, thanks to bogus voters, money and muscle power," he says.
Chamling, Golay says, may claim that Sikkim tops the list as the most prosperous state on the back of the highest per capita income — Rs 2,33,954 against the national average of Rs 94,731 as of April 2018 — but "the impressive figure is nothing but the Centre's handout to the border state and not accrued from hard work and productive labour. Chamling is controlling the state's youth by handing out ill-gotten wealth. But, this time around, his bluff will be called."
Golay, who sounded upbeat about his electoral prospects till last week, appears to be shaken hours before the campaigning officially ended on Tuesday evening. This is when "Chamling's parallel election machinery kicks in, luring voters with cash, alcohol and all kinds of goodies," he alleges.
Chamling's clever ploy to get the hotline going with New Delhi irrespective of who is in power — the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front has been in alliance with successive Central governments since 1994 — has made him an uncrowned king in a virtually independent republic aided and abetted by his children, family retainers and hangers-on. The chief minister is seldom seen and heard on the national stage. He grabs national attention by grabbing international headlines.
Last October, he was in the news, when Sikkim received the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Future Policy Gold Award in Rome for becoming a 100 percent organic state. Although Sikkim pipped 51 other global nominations, including Brazil and Denmark, to win the coveted award, Sonam Wangdi, the former chief secretary of Sikkim, has exposed Chamling's "organic fraud".
Wangdi, who retired as the chief secretary in 2004 after cooling his heels for three-and-a-half years because of a bitter fallout with Chamling over the chief minister's 'autocratic ways', found out through an RTI that his fallow agricultural land in Simiklizey in East Sikkim district is shown on official records as known for "100 percent organic produce".
“Chamling’s claim of turning Sikkim into a '100 per cent organic state' is a hoax," says Wangdi, who released his second book titled, Pawan Kumar Rai Chamling: The Greatest Fraud in History, in Gangtok on 28 March. The book exposes the myths about the strongman of Sikkim politics.
Dil Kumari Bhandari, the former Lok Sabha MP and the widow of the second longest-serving chief minister of Sikkim, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, too, says that Chamling’s “claim to champion the state’s organic cause is far from truth. He is on record to credit my late husband way back in 1991, when he used to be a minister in the ruling Sikkim Sangram Parishad cabinet.”
Chamling's global honour, amplified by a frenetic publicity machinery working overtime, appears to have few takers among the young — half of the state's voters are in the 18-45 group, who are restless for a change.
Many, especially the 20 percent indigenous Bhutia-Lepcha community, have been demanding that a National Register of Citizens, or NRC, exercise should be carried out in Sikkim — on the lines of Assam — as thousands of people are overstaying their welcome in the strategic border state with a "dodgy citizenship record".
Tashi Lhamu-Lepcha, the general secretary of the Sikkim Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association (SILTA), says, "India's national security is under serious threat. China has been provoking us since the Doklam standoff to take up cudgels against India on Beijing's behalf. But, we’ve been loyal border guards since Sikkim's merger with India in 1975. But, Chamling wants to change the demographic profile of our homeland. We've been overrun by Nepalis, many of whom are rank outsiders and not of Sikkimese origin. We’ve been reduced to an insignificant minority in our own homeland."
Tshering Wangchuk Lepcha, the general secretary of Nationalist Sikkim United Organisation (NSUO), agrees with Lhamu-Lepcha as the Lepchas, known as the vanishing tribe, struggle for survival in their own homeland in North Sikkim district. Although the Kanchenjunga Biosphere Reserve in North Sikkim district found a pride of place in UNESCO's global heritage list in 2016, Chamling's "wanton greed" has opened up the pristine Eastern Himalayan belt to hydropower fortune hunters.
"Our ancestors' homeland is being desecrated because of Chamling's greed for money and power. Sikkim needs only 150 megawatts of electricity, yet Chamling has opened up the sacred area for the 520-MW Teesta Stage IV hydropower project, the fifth one in quick succession. We'll thwart 'dictator' Chamling's bid to turn our sacred rivers into 'white gold'. The biosphere is home to at least 130 endemic species of eastern Himalayas and over 212 bird species, including seven globally threatened species," says Lhamu-Lepcha as the "particularly vulnerable tribal group", whose population in Sikkim is estimated to be less than 60,000, tries to assert its rights in the face of Chamling's distinct numerical strength.
Of the over-75 percent Nepali majority, the ethnic group of the Rai, to which Chamling belongs, are a dominant force as they make up 30 percent of Sikkimese society. As Citadel Chamling appears to crumble under the historic smash-and-grab of Sikkim politics, the demand for an inner line permit, or ILP, to keep the 'outsiders' at bay, is gathering momentum.
The ILP is an official document issued by the Centre to allow inward travel of a citizen into certain areas for a limited period. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram are the three states in the North East, where the ILP is in force.
Will the Centre accede to Sikkim's dwindling indigenous people's groups' requests to safeguard their socioeconomic and political rights as successive governments have been under Chamling's magic spell for over 25 years? New Delhi's change of heart may determine the fate of Sikkimese people, who have little cultural connect with the rest of India.
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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2019 07:53:52 IST