Sikkim's Sangha Assembly seat is a perfect example of the state's unique political process to protect minority rights

Gangtok: Why does a secular republic like India need an Assembly seat reserved for Buddhist monks belonging only to registered monasteries in Sikkim?

Well, the 32-member state Assembly is a unique example, where only monks from registered monasteries in Sikkim can contest and vote for the lone reserved Sangha seat. 12 seats are reserved for the Bhutia Lepcha (BL) community of Sikkimese origin after the erstwhile tiny Himalayan kingdom, wedged between India and China, was merged with the Union of India in 1975.

Ram Chandra Poudyal, one of the brains behind the pro-democracy movement in Sikkim in 1974 that led to the protectorate’s merger with India, moved the Supreme Court over 25 years ago in his bid to scrap the reservation for the Sangha seat and the 12 Assembly constituencies for the minority Bhutia-Lepcha (BL) community. The indigenous BL community accounts for less than 20 percent of Sikkim’s population of around seven lakh, making the state the least populous one in the country.

Poudyal, however, lost the case in the apex court in 1993.

 Sikkims Sangha Assembly seat is a perfect example of the states unique political process to protect minority rights

Representational image. Reuters

Tseten Tashi-Bhutia, the convener of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), has been waging a tireless battle for the political rights of ethnic groups of Sikkimese, BL and Nepalis of Sikkimese origin, who had become Indian because of the 36th Amendment of the Constitution. Tashi-Bhutia says Sikkim’s merger was a conditional one based on a tripartite agreement on 8 May, 1973 and the Government of Sikkim Act, 1974, where India was a signatory and witness to all subsequent events in the country's 22nd state.

Tashi-Bhutia refers to the apex court judgment that upheld the significance of Sangha in Sikkim’s unique political process enshrined in Article 371F of the Constitution by the 36th Amendment.

“The Sangha is not merely a religious institution. It has historically been a political and social institution in Sikkim much before its merger with India and during the 333-year-rule of the Namgyal dynasty rule,” says Tashi-Bhutia, quoting the apex court verdict.

Over the last 10 Assembly elections in Sikkim since its merger, the Sangha is a key seat, especially in the case of a dead heat like in 1979, when Nar Bahadur Bhandari became the new-born state's second chief minister by defeating Poudyal’s party by a wafer-thin margin.

This time around, the number of eligible voters for the Sangha seat is 3,293, including 3,224 monks and 69 nuns, respectively, according to R Telang, Sikkim’s chief electoral officer.

Monks from six premier monasteries in Sikkim such as Pemayangtse, Phensang, Tashiding, Ralang, Phodong and Rumtek hold sway over the monks and nuns of the rest of registered monasteries.

Pemayangtse, Phensang, Tashiding monasteries belong to the Nyingma sect and Ralang, Phodong and Rumtek follow the Kagyu sect of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Nyingma sect is considered to be the oldest among the four schools of Mahayana Buddhism. His Holiness the Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelug sect.

Lama Kalzang Wangdi Bhutia of Gangtok’s Enchey monastery, which belongs to the Nyingma sect, says, “The ruling Sikkim Democratic Front has been diluting our religious beliefs and culture in the name of development with big hydro projects in and around Buddhist places of worship protected by UNESCO (as World Heritage Site under 'Culture and Nature' category) and also by our own law of the land, ‘The Places of Worship (Special Provision) Act, 1991’ enacted by Parliament of India.”

"Vote-bank politics is undermining the Bhutia and Lepcha population’s political rights in their own homeland. The ruling SDF’s rampant divisive politics led us to ensure that the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha’s (SKM) Sangha candidate Sonam Lama managed to scrape through in 2014.”

Sonam Lama, who belongs to Simik Duduling monastery in East Sikkim, is a favourite this time as well amid a growing clamour among the state's youth to dislodge the ruling SDF, which has been in power since 1994 under the strongman of Sikkim politics, Pawan Kumar Chamling, who is seeking a record sixth term. Chamling is facing a massive anti-incumbency as Sikkimese voters from all walks of Sikkim’s life are closing ranks to oust him.

In 2014, Sonam Lama, who belongs to the Nyingma sect, entered politics to enthrone the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje in Rumtek monastery — located about 23 km from Gangtok in East Sikkim — and won by a margin of only 126 votes.

The Karmapa, who has been in China’s crosshairs since he fled Tibet Autonomous Region via Nepal to Mcleodgunj on 5 January, 2001, has been living in the United States because the Union home ministry has barred him from travelling to Sikkim, citing security concerns.

The ruling SDF has also pledged to enthrone the Karmapa in Rumtek monastery in its election manifesto.

Whether that promise rings hollow, amid the Sangha’s pet peeve of the consistent erosion of Article 371F, will be answered on 23 May.

Sikkim, which has very little cultural connect with mainland India, votes simultaneously for Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the first phase of the seven-phase parliamentary elections on 11 April.

What is Article 371F?

On 16 May, 1975, Sikkim, the country’s least populous state (6,10,577 people as per the 2011 census), officially became the 22nd state of the Indian union. The Constitution of India’s 36th Amendment provides a special provision for Sikkim under Article 371F.

The provision safeguards all laws of the kingdom of Sikkim prior to its merger. For instance, Sikkim’s citizens enjoy a distinct citizenship status such as Sikkim Subject Certificate, or SSC, (given before the merger in 1975) to Certificate of Identification, or CoI, (given after the merger in 1975) that safeguards their political, economic and social rights.

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Updated Date: Apr 06, 2019 20:31:55 IST

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