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Lessons of democracy from Sikkim

Leaders in Nepal and Bhutan looking for ways to promote democracy and peace in their lands can find a role model in the former kingdom sandwiched in between them: the Indian state of Sikkim.



Like a broken string of pearls, the kingdom of Bhutan, the former kingdoms of Sikkim and Ladakh, and the possibly soon-to-be republic of Nepal encompass large swathes of the Himalayas, its foothills and valleys, as buffer states between India and Tibet.

After India's independence in 1947, many of the subcontinent's princely states quietly joined the new country, shedding their monarchies. But Ladakh, located on the eastern end of India's far northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, maintained a ceremonial monarchy until the death of the last king in 1974. And, digging in, Bhutan and Sikkim held out for agreements with India in 1949 and 1950, respectively, which effectively made them protectorates of India. While Bhutan managed to break free of India's close embrace, joining the UN in 1971, a majority in tiny Sikkim was hankering to join its enormous southern neighbour.

In the early 1970s in Sikkim, the majority ethnic Nepalese chaffed at the autocratic control of the minority Bhutia, a Tibetan people who had ruled the state as a majority from the founding of the kingdom of Sikkim in 1642 until the mid-1800s, when Nepali farmers swarmed into the tiny kingdom. In April 1973, after making allegations that a round of elections had been rigged in favour of the Bhutia, ethnic Nepali Sikkimese protested en masse in front of the king's palace, demanding civil rights and the sidelining or even removal of what they called the "feudal" monarchy. Having isolated himself by stubbornly refusing to compromise, Palden Thondup Namgyal, the last king of Sikkim, ultimately caved in and signed the May 8 (1973) Agreement.

The document called on India to provide a chief executive, and to hold elections for an assembly under the "one man, one vote" system, but with the condition that no one party dominate. Essentially this meant enfranchising the Nepali majority, latecomers to Sikkim that they were, while protecting classical Sikkimese (Bhutia) and native traditions of the Lepcha people. The agreement was the first step in a process that would lead to the Sikkimese populace voting overwhelmingly in favour of union with India in a 1975 referendum.

While the peoples of Sikkim have had a relatively successful experience living in a peaceful democracy ever since, in 1982 Namgyal died a heartbroken man who had lost his kingdom and whose wife divorced him.

Today, Nepal's embattled monarch would have had a much easier time of attempting to salvage the reigning Shah Dynasty had he looked at what happened in Sikkim, where the monarchy was toppled a generation ago.

Nepal's King Gyanendra, who became monarch after a tragic palace massacre in 2001, has had his back up against the wall ever since taking control of the government in a royal coup in 2005. He was forced into relinquishing his power by reinstating parliament after bloody street protests in April 2006 which saw the main political parties form a common position with the country's Maoist insurgents. The latest attempt at democratisation has seen parliament flounder once again, due to the prickly parliamentarians who belong to the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which insists that the monarchy be overthrown without further delay.

In December 2007, the Nepali parliament voted that Nepal would no longer be an officially Hindu kingdom, but rather a secular republic. The actual dethronement of the king and the designation of the country as a republic is expected to be enacted by the Constituent Assembly (CA), which is supposed to be voted on by April. The CA's seats will be filled by a fully proportional system.

In a recent interview with the Sikkim Times, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling said Nepal should learn from Sikkim if it wants to become a mature democracy. That would be no small task for Nepal, which witnessed failed attempts at achieving lasting democracy in the 1950s and 1990s. Worse, endemic poverty during the late 1900s was so severe it led to a civil war from 1996 to 2006 between the government and the Maoists, which left more than 12,700 people dead.

Today the Nepalese monarchy and its beleaguered supporters are being outmanoeuvred by the leftist coalition. While peace may prevail, it may have to be at the cost of the monarchy itself.

In Bhutan, ethnic Nepalis are struggling to retain their culture against the majority Druk population, which doesn't want the kingdom to become another Sikkim in terms of relinquishing power to the ethnic Nepali, who began populating southern Bhutan around the same time as they were spreading into Sikkim.

Yet even a chic, quirky Buddhist kingdom proud of its "Gross National Happiness" cannot disguise the fact that some 100,000 noticeably less than gleeful ethnic Nepali-Bhutanese were forced to leave their homes in southern Bhutan under government pressure almost two decades ago. They have been languishing in refugee camps in southeastern Nepal ever since.

While Bhutan's government is understandably worried about a Sikkimese-style ending to its 101-year old Wangchuk Dynasty, because of the country's ethnic Nepali, who have a higher birth-rate than the majority Druk, the country could learn how to share power peaceably, albeit grudgingly, as the three major ethnic groups do in Sikkim. The country should also be in a better position to avoid future agitation by remaking their absolute monarchy a constitutional one.

Bhutan's young King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, in what can be thought of as a pre-emptive strike against Sikkim-style agitation, is staying one step ahead of what may have become a democracy-demanding population, and is introducing democracy in the first half of this year like manna trickling down from above. On January 1, in the first elections of their kind, the Bhutanese went to the polls to vote for a National Council. Elections for Bhutan's parliament are expected to take place in February and March.

Time will tell if Nepal's forces battling for democracy from the bottom up as well as Bhutanese democracy passed down from a king will lead to peaceful enfranchisement in these mysterious, timeless lands in the Himalayas.

Carleton Cole

The Nation


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