For more than two years India’s foreign intelligence agency led a top-secret campaign to draw in the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim as the 22nd state of the Indian Union. In April 1975, after a contentious referendum rejected by neighbouring China, that covert operation achieved its mission.
A new book titled Sikkim Dawn of Democracy: The Truth Behind the Merger with India has provided the first detailed account by an intelligence insider of how India moved quietly to secure its interests along the Sino-Indian border during those tumultuous years. It gives graphic details about the operation initiated in February 1973 by Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) founder and chief Rameshwar Nath Kao after then prime minister Indira Gandhi asked him to bring Sikkim into the fold.
In his book, author G. B. S Sidhu, a former special secretary of the R&AW and station chief in the Sikkim capital Gangtok during the early 1970s, recalls in week-to-week detail the operation spearheaded by a secret three-member team in the Himalayan kingdom under the guidance of the chief Kao and its eastern regional director P.N. Banerjee.
“The operation was so secret that its ultimate objective of merging Sikkim with India was known only to three officials – Kao, Banerjee and myself,” Sidhu writes.
“The two other R&AW officers in the special team in Gangtok – Padam Bahadur Pradhan and Myngma Tshering – were only briefed about the next phase of the operation when one phase was over,” Sidhu told This Week in Asia.
Until the 1975 merger, Sikkim, an Indian protectorate, was a kingdom ruled by the Chogyal (God King) Palden Thondhup Namgyal, whose assertion for greater independence – ostensibly under the influence of his American second wife Hope Cooke – upset the Indian prime minister.
India had overlooked Sikkim’s pro-democracy movement and allowed the monarchy to carry on until late 1972, when, according to Sidhu’s book, prime minister Gandhi called Kao and her principal secretary P.N Haksar “to discuss Sikkim”.
“She mentioned the Chogyal was being difficult, as he wanted to accept the offer of Permanent Association with India [with the possibility of India sponsoring Sikkim’s membership of some UN organisations], only if he was allowed to enter into this arrangement with the full sovereign rights of his state.”
But due to India’s strategic interests in the kingdom to the north, it could not have agreed to allow “full sovereign rights”, so the prime minister asked the foreign intelligence chief to “do something about Sikkim”.
It was in September 1972, after India presented its offer to the Sikkim leader one last time, that Sidhu says there was a “180-degree turnaround in India’s policy towards the Chogyal”.
By February 1973, when Sidhu took up his post in Gangtok, the secret plan to end the Chogyal’s rule and bring the kingdom into the Indian Union was already afoot.
Sidhu writes about how the pro-democracy political parties, particularly the Sikkim National Congress (SNC), were funded to bolster their campaigns against the monarchy, and how they were being secretly advised by R&AW officials without being told about India’s ultimate objective.
“Only SNC chief Kazi Lhendhup Dorji was taken into confidence because we trusted he would not spill the beans,” says Sidhu. “The other politicians, many of whom were manipulated by the Chogyal, were slowly won over to the cause.”
Sidhu says India used the momentum of the political parties’ anti-monarchy campaign to slowly weaken the Chogyal until the state assembly acquired enough power and the kingdom’s administration was finally taken over by Indian officials.
“In July 1973, we had already launched the operation to lend support to anti-Chogyal and pro-democracy political parties and their leaders in Sikkim, especially Kazi Lhendhup Dorji, to fulfil their long-cherished desire for political, economic and administrative reforms. The operation was to culminate in the merger of Sikkim with India. The last objective was to be achieved in stages and through constitutional means and as far as possible, through public support for elected leaders,” Sidhu writes.
Wedged between Nepal, Bhutan, China and the rest of India, Sikkim has for decades been the site of territorial disputes. While the 1975 referendum saw a reduction in China’s claims over the area, diplomatic entanglements in surrounding areas have carried on.
Sidhu says the only time the Indian army had to disarm the pro-monarchy Sikkim Guards was in April 1975 just before the state assembly was to move the final resolution for merger with India.
That was because, he says, “we were told they would intervene to block the resolution and could even assassinate some pro-democracy leaders on orders from the Chogyal”.
Sidhu’s is not the only book on the contentious merger of Sikkim with India. Others have suggested the process was merely the inevitable result of Sikkim’s then insurgent pro-democracy movement, or accused India of outright annexation, which Sidhu disputes.
He says that the Sikkim operation was marked by an absence of force, which usually accompanies such takeovers of smaller nations by bigger ones.
“So it would be unfair to call it annexation as some authors and foreign observers have. We just used popular feelings to achieve our objective. This was a political operation in which the military option was hardly exercised,” Sidhu said.
Commenting on Sidhu’s book, former Indian intelligence official Subir Dutta, said: “Rarely has there been a more successful Indian intelligence operation than the merger of Sikkim.”
“That the merger was achieved in the face of much hostility from China and the US, both having opposed India’s military intervention in East Pakistan in December 1971, makes the operation rather special because it was low key and achieved the objective without any major international furore.”