I was promoted Brigadier by the end of 1971 and was commanding a Mountain Brigade in Sikkim. It was during my tenure that I noticed some sort of an upheaval and tension building up between the then Political Officer Shankar Bajpai (later Ambassador to Pakistan and then to the USA) and the Chogyal, the ruler of Sikkim. A love-hate relationship was on between the Chogyal and India House. The Armed Forces were very friendly with the Chogyal, who threw frequent parties at his palace in Gangtok. The Army reciprocated by hosting Chogyal and his American wife, Hope Namgyal. The Chogyal was a keen bridge player and Shankar Bajpai and I often played bridge with him along with others.
There was a good deal of friendship between us but it was a love-hate one. I found that this relationship was souring, though I was not aware of the reasons at the time, but it appeared to be because of the attitude of the Chogyal’s wife. It was felt that she was being guided by outsiders and she was influencing the Chogyal for a total independent Sikkim, with Chogyal as the King, and she gets the status of the Queen of Sikkim.
Sikkim was then a Protectorate of India and India’s military presence was essential, firstly because the Chogyal did not have any military strength of his own, and secondly because of Nathula Pass having a border with China, which was a flash point of many skirmishes. The Indian and Chinese troops at this pass stood face to face only a bayonet away. There is an exellent road on the Chinese side right upto Nathula Pass and they could bring in large forces into Sikkim from across the Border at any time of their choosing not only through Nathula/Yakla but also through North Sikkim. The status of Sikkim by the Indo-Sikkim Treaty of 1950 was that it was Independent for most purposes except for their Defence and Currency which was the responsibility of the Indian Union. Sikkim’s population constituted of a large number of Gorkhas who were a part of the mainstream of Sikkim. The Bhutias (original settlers) were backward and they lived in inhospitable terrain, while the Gorkhas controlled the economy. Any independence for Sikkim would mean that men from one community would be thrown out of the State. This could create problems for India. The Chogyal was denying the Gorkhas their rights. The Gorkhas started an agitation to pressurize the Chogyal to accept them as Citizens of the State, since most of them were carrying out their trade/ business for many years while having their permanent homes outside the State.
I remember, it was on the Chogyal’s birthday when I was driving back by road from Darjeeling after a few days leave, when I saw hundreds of Gorkhas marching on the road leading towards Gangtok. They were carrying sticks and they were in a highly agitated mood.
It would take a few hours for them to reach Gangtok. I drove past them and reached Gangtok and tried to find out what was happening. I was told that the crowds were agitating and demanding their rights in Sikkim which the Chogyal was denying them.
I met the Political Officer, Mr. Bajpai. It was an explosive situation and Bajpai had requested the Indian Army through my General Officer Commanding and the Corps Commander to allocate troops in case the situation took an ugly turn and that the Army may be required to defend Chogyal. It was feared that the crowds who were rowdy and in an agitated mood could storm the Palace and bring physical harm to the Chogyal. The situation could get out of control for the Sikkim Police and the Army may have to step in for Internal Security duties to protect him. The Indian Army had already given an officer by the name of Colonel Gurung who was the Commandant of the Sikkim Guards. The Sikkim Guards were directly under the orders of the Chogyal. When this situation developed it struck me that since the troops are under the command of the Chogyal, if he ordered his Guards to protect him from the crowds there would be a blood bath. Due to this it was required that the Indian Army would have to protect the Chogyal before such a need arose, and he could even be lynched by the Gorkhas.
The situation worsened during the next few days and began getting out of control. I was given orders by my General Officer Commanding that any troops that are to be deployed or utilized by me will be done directly under the orders of the Political Officer. Once these orders were given to me, I was literally taken away from the chain of military command, which is normally followed in the Army. I started meeting Shankar Bajpai at India House. I was getting to grips with the situation when I found that Mr. Kewal Singh, then Foreign Secretary, had also arrived at India House. A police officer, by the name of Mr. Dass, was also moved to Sikkim as the Chief Executive Officer. It was in the evening that I found crowds which had reached Gangtok were readying to attack the Palace. The crowds were agitating and desired to surround and break into the gates of Chogyal’s Palace. It was expected that by night they would surround the Palace and by daybreak they would have attacked it.
During the early parts of the evening, a Press Conference had been called at India House where I was present, and it was stated that the situation for the Chogyal was desperate and that the Indian Army was being requisitioned to protect him. Immediately, I went to see for myself what the ground reality was. I drove on the road that went around the Palace. The Gorkha crowds had come right upto the palace gates. I met the Chogyal who was deploying the Sikkim Guards around the fortified area of the Palace and was manning a machine gun himself.
I asked the Chogyal what he was up to, and he told me, “Well, these people have come and I will shoot each one of them, if they attack me. I have to defend myself”.
I immediately got some troops deployed outside the gate. A warning was given to the agitators not to cross the rope cordon that had been placed outside. The crowds were surging forward, and I personally went into the crowds and said that if anyone broke the cordon I would take action. Certain people in the crowd even questioned me as to who I was?
By the time I returned to India House, the media briefing was over. The Army had to be deployed. I was asked how long it would take me to position troops in the main bazaars and lanes, as also protect the Palace. I was sure that by 2 a.m troops would be deployed where ever required as also will be positioned on strategic bridges on the roads leading to Gangtok including the one on the Singtham. I felt that if we held these bridges enroute from Siliguri and Darjeeling then we could prevent more agitators from pouring into Gangtok. This would enable me to deal with the agitators who were already there.
Late evening and at night, I went on rounds of Gangtok town to make sure that there were no clashes between the Bhutias and the Gorkhas. I arrived to find that fighting had already broken out. I took action, dispersed them and told them to live together in peace. I asked them not to create a scene in the bazaars. I actually separated two groups of Bhutias and Gorkhas who were at each others throats.
I returned to India House and briefed. Shankar Bajpai and Kewal Singh. After I had briefed them, I was told that the Army can go a little soft and that we need not deploy as per the immediate plans. They told me that they would inform me when such a deployment would be required again. After the world had been briefed through the media that the Army was in control of the situation, I was being asked to go slow. I immediately reacted. “I would be happy if the Foreign Secretary gave his orders in writing”.
Mr. Kewal Singh asked his Staff to give it in writing.
I informed them that if the Army deployment does not take place immediately, then Gorkhas would enter Gangtok in larger numbers thereby making my task even more difficult. I was told not to worry about it. The Army was not deployed that night.
An interesting event took place next morning. The Chief of Army Staff at that time was General Bewoor, while the Vice- Chief of Army Staff was Lt. Gen. Harprasad. They were very friendly with the Chogyal. Chogyal might have spoken to them in Delhi and told them his woes. In the morning, I received a telephone call from Army HQrs that the COAS wanted to know why the Army had not been deployed by me when orders to such effect had been issued. Since all military operations were controlled by the VCOAS, Harprasad also spoke to me as to the reasons for non-deployment. I informed him that I had been asked to take orders directly from the Foreign Secretary and the Political Officer and if they wanted to know anything they should ask them as to what had happened.
In the meantime, New Delhi had flown the Deputy Director of Military Operations, Brigadier Harish Dutta, for a personal meeting with me to find out why the deployments had not taken place. He met me by noon the next day, and I told him, “If Chief of Army Staff is being made a Monkey by the Powers that be in Delhi, then it is his fault that he has not been kept in the picture about the operations here. Certainly, I am not going to be made a monkey by anyone”. Here was a case where the COAS was not kept in the picture by civil authorities for internal security duties being carried out by one of our Brigade Commanders in the field.
My General Officer Commanding, Major General Harminder Singh Kochhar, shared with me that he was also asked by the Political Officer and the Foreign Secretary to deliver a letter to the Chogyal that the situation had gone out of control and the Chogyal must sign a letter that he agrees to hand over the Administration to the Indian Army.
My GOC later told me that he had driven into the Palace with escort jeeps in a convoy and regalia of Military Police pilot jeeps and had an audience with the Chogyal to deliver the letter. The Chogyal after reading it, I believe, crumbled the same in his hand tore it and threw it on the ground and angrily said, “Over my dead body will I sign this letter for surrender”.
After the situation had cooled down I was sure that some sort of an agreement would have been reached as, I was posted /moved out to command a Brigade in Ferozepur in Punjab in 1972-73. Harminder Kochhar the GOC was also posted out. A new GOC was positioned at Sikkim. I handed over my Command to Brigadier Depinder Singh, who later became the GOC-in-C of the Southern Command in Pune and was in charge of Operations in Sri Lanka. Before my departure, I had gone to call on the Chogyal when I noticed that he seemed disturbed, and he confirmed to me what my GOC had already told me. He was sad and upset at the manner in which things had been handled. I assured him that whatever I had done was in the best traditions of the Army and that I held no personal grudge against him or anyone else.
I remember that later when my daughter was getting married, I had sent him an invitation from Ferozpur which he was very kind to respond to and sent his blessings, with a Sikkimese prayer carpet as a gift for her. I later learnt that his wife Hope had left him.
I subsequenently came to know that Major Gerenal Harbhajan Singh Khullar, had replaced Maj. Gen. Harminder Kochhar, and he had been given the task of disarming the Sikkim Guards and was ordered to take the Chogyal into custody. Harbhajan was an ambitious person but extremely cautious and I learn that he got very jittery with the thought as to what would happen if the Chogyal got killed during this process of taking him into protective custody?
I was aware that the Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Jaswant Singh was also camping in Sikkim at the time and so Harbhajan asked him what would happen if the Chogyal was killed in the disarming process. Singh replied, “You’ve been given a task just do it. Don’t ask such academic questions”.
Here it is important to bring out the fact that civilian authority has always been and will always be supreme and never has there been any confusion in my mind on this aspect. Any orders given by the Government and discussed with the Army once finalized must be carried out as all soldiers do in a Democratic set up.
Quote “If we bring a small country like Sikkim within our fold by using force, it would be like killing a fly with a bullet”, Unquote Jawaharlal Nehru, The Statesman, 3 June, 1960.
Gangtok was not a safe place to holiday in April 1975. There were rumours that China, guarding the Nathula Pass into Tibet 45 miles to the North East was about to attack. Others felt that India which was Sikkim’s Protector was determined to teach the Himalayan Kingdom a lesson. Relations between the protector and the Protectorate was strained for more than two years by now. Everyone knew that the 52-year-old Palden Thondup Namgiyal, the 12th consecrated Chogyal of Sikkim had incurred the wrath of India because of the attitude of Hope Gyalmo, the wife of the Chogyal who always wanted Sikkim to separate from India. Tension reached a high pitch when once again Gangtok a sleepy town at 6000 feet, woke up to an unaccustomed Military Frenzy.
Gangtok may have been preparing for war. Indian soldiers in full battle order maneuvered trucks, jeeps, radio cars with tags on their aerials, and ambulances through the winding roads of the Capital.
Assault ladders were dragged down the hill –top where in, all it’s doll’s house serenity stood the Royal Palace- a cream stone bungalow encrusted with scarlet and mythological beasts, with a painted tin roof and ornately framed windows, set in a gravel surround among three acres of terraced gardens.
The Chogyal was sipping tea under a blue and white appliqué tent by the vegetable patch when he was told of the troop movements. When he called up Sardar Gurbachan Singh, the new PO, he was told, “It’s only a Military Exercise, Your Highness. A dry run without ammunition”. Within 48 hours- by 12.45 p.m. on Wednesday April 9- an entire Indian brigade swung into action. The meticulously planned offensive included simultaneous assaults from three directions. The PARA, J&K Militia, and JAT battalions attacked the Palace (with Artillery on standby support and a Mountain Division on alert). Some 5,000 men had been mobilized, but before that an attempt was made to lure away the Chogyal. Gurbachan Singh telephoned him, apologizing profusely, that he’d forgotten to communicate an important telex message for him from the PM that they were waiting to meet Chogyal in New Delhi and that he was to set off immediately.
The Chogyal requested two helicopters from the PO, since he wanted to carry his trusted Secretary Jigdal Densapa and his Legal Adviser, Yale-trained Princess Bhuvanesh Kumari of Patiala, but the PO could provide only one. This meant that the Chogyal would have to travel alone. He agreed to this, but two hours later he was told by the PO that the appointment had been cancelled. The reason given was that the flight from Calcutta to New Delhi had been totally booked and there was no seat available. This surprised the Chogyal since it had always been possible to get a seat on the flight even at the last minute. The flights had a VIP quota.
The truth as it would be to my mind was that the PO was certainly wanting to get the Chogyal out of the way, in order that he should not be there to order his Guards to get into the deteriorating situation where both the Indian Army, and his Guards would face each other. The PO must have realized that the Sikkim Guards were unprepared and therefore the Chogyal’s presence would not matter.
The Sikkim Guards were at that time a tough little fighting force, recruited form sturdy Peasant lads, mainly Nepalese Magars, in their late teens or early twenties. They were dedicated to their Monarch and proud to wear his uniform, worthy descendants of the Soldiers who had brought Glory to the British Raj during World War II. They were proud Cousins too, of some 2,000 Sikkimese Volunteers in the Indian Army.
But, the Guards were not at their best in 1974-75. Constantly attacked by the Chief Minister, Kazi Lendhup Dorji Khangsarpa, who accused the Chogyal of all kinds of murderous conspiracies, which were resented by the PO and criticized by New Delhi, though they had provided invaluable support to the Indian Army during its conflict with China but had never been used in any civil disturbances so indeed they were a feudal ruler’s private army.
It’s total strength in 1975 was 272 men; of them, the Commandant Lieutenant- Colonel Kishen Singh Gurung, the Adjutant, Major R.K. Jagota, another officer, four JCOs and 61 men were Indians. 25 per cent of his Force had already reported sick, and 10 per cent were on leave, while 10 per cent were non-combatants. There were not more than 130 Sikkimese fighting men left with the Chogyal. But these 130 were ready to lay down their lives for the King, providing the throne an effective shield which was superior than any of the pacts and treaties to which Sikkim was a party.
The Guards were under the exclusive command of the Chogyal. The Chogyal, himself held the honorary rank of an Indian Major- General; The Police first arrested Captain Sonam Yongda, and charged him that under the orders of the Chogyal the Captain had hired a man, Sonam Tsering to kill and assassinate Kazi. He was, however, never questioned, nor formally charged. His imprisonment was carefully timed. With Yongda behind bars, the Sikkim Guards were now deprived of the only officer who could have organized a coordinated resistance. Failing him, the burden fell on Chhetri, who could not match the former. Captain Chhetri was overseeing the Chogyal’s journey details, till it was cancelled, while Colonel Gurung was called-off to the Indian Army’s Divisional Headquarters. Later the Police surrounded the Palace while the Chogyal conferred with his 25-year old heir, Crown Prince Tenzing, who was educated at Cambridge. The Chogyal began seeking his advice on crucial matters. He had the qualities to unite Sikkim’s disgruntled Politicians with his Father.
During the conference in the 20-room palace, there were two young civilian ADCs, about 16 servants, including three ageing women. No house could have been less prepared for a siege. The Guards did not have live ammunition. Trenches dug during the 1973 riots had long ago been filled in. The sandbags that then lined the drive had been kicked aside. There should have been two non-commissioned officers and six men at the gates. Instead, just an NCO and a guardsman kept casual watch. The Chogyal and Crown Prince Tenzing were aghast when they took turns peering through their binoculars. Guns pointed directly at the Palace from only 600 yards away. When they saw the Chogyal, the guns would turn away. It had still not occurred to the Chogyal that the palace was under attack, though he did feel apprehensive.
A sudden burst of machine-gun fire broke the tense silence. The column on the North under a Sikh NCO had reached the gates and fired at the Palace. One column opened fire on the quarter guard. The attack was brisk, bloody and one-sided. One of the two sentries, Basant Kumar Chettri, leveled his rifle at the attackers but did not live to pull the trigger. He was shot in the chest and killed. His 18-year old partner Nima Sherpa stumbled out of the guardroom in surprise and was shot in the arm. It had to be later amputated. It was all over in less than three minutes.
The Chogyal was too dazed to understand what was happening. There had been no ultimatum to lay down arms. No formal surrender was asked for either.
He ran into the ADCs room and called up India House. “What the hell are you doing”?
The PO was at a loss of words and passed the telephone to General Khullar, who demanded with respect, “Sir, your men must lay down their arms and surrender”?
Captain Chhetri informed the Chogyal that the Quarter Guard was under fire. Indian soldiers were searching every house in the nearby Tatangchen bustee where Palace servants, and the married guardsmen’s families lived. Most of the men had been rounded up at lunch in the canteen and placed under close guard. It was left to the young Nepalese officer to defend the land of his adoption. Chettri had his plan, but even before he could discuss it with the Chogyal, the line went dead at the Palace.Gangtok’s telephone exchange had intervened. Chettri tried to make his way to Colonel Gurung’s house but it was closely guarded by the Army.
The Indian Army were everywhere. In the distance he could see his men lined up in a football field. A bullet whistled passed his head and he retreated to the home of Ashoke Tenzing a leading National Party Politician. Just when he thought he could implement his plans he saw people being taken away in Trucks. He had to surrender and in less than 20 minutes the Sikkim Guards were disarmed. Chogyal could not see much of the action meanwhile the Crown Prince went about collecting the families arms. There were 18 guns all left over from The World Wars, several hunting rifles and shot guns, some broken carbines and sub-machine guns which were hurriedly buried in the Court yard of the Palace so that these heir looms are not lost to the Indian Army. The Chogyal realized than Sikkim was lost, and (not to be stopped by anyone) he walked across the gravel path and stood behind a small chorten among the flowering bushes. As he strode down the slope to the gate of the Palace he saw the tarmac streamed with blood and then he entered the Sentry box at the Gate.
He swung the door open stumbled on a rigid corpse, which was draped with the Sikkimese flag stained with blood. Some Nepalease Hindu had given his life to protect a Buddhist Kingdom in full view of the Army. The Chogyal then knelt down to dip his thumb on to the Dead mans congealing blood, which he smeared on to his own Forehead. In one gesture, he had momentarily shed the present to revert to the most valiant of his Legendary Ancestors, the mighty Khye Bhumsa “the superior of ten thousand heroes”. Bhumsa was the first Tibtean Prince to make his way into Sikkim in the 13th century when he swore blood brotherhood and eternal friendship with Thekong-tek, Chief of the indigenous Lepchas. Chogyal’s act was an act of homage. It was a solemn vow to avenge a pointless murder.
When he died the voice of Sikkim said, “Palden Thoundup Namgyal Chogyal of Sikkim died more of a broken heart than of throat cancer”. Tensing could not become the Chogyal since he died in a car accident. It is a fact of History that the Eldest Heir has never ascended the THORNE due to some bad omen, so it was Princess Wanchuk Namgyal who was consecrated Chogyal of Sikkim.
The story of Sikkim is the story of many more Indian States in the country today where militancy and ethnic disputes reign supreme. Sikkim is the story of strong action taken by Indira Gandhi to safegauard India’s interests. It brings out the determination of leaders at that time who must have reluctantly ordered action in the best interest of the Country even if the same may today appear to have been brutal.
The decision was right even if we examine it in today’s context. China so far had refused to accept Sikkim as a part of India (like Pakistan’s attitude to Kashmir) but today China has to live with the actual ground realities and has accepted that SIKKIM IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF INDIA.
Once strong, always strong—such is the strength a Country which derives power by not only flexing its muscles, but also in actual implementation. KASHMIR is now lingering on, far too long. Not everyone recognizes that it is a part of India, but we have to have the courage and strength to protect the State as an integral part of India and never give in.
INDIA has shown that the Indian Army and the People of India are SECOND TO NONE.
Sikkim / Jammu & Kashmir Some Similarities
I remember the days when I was the Corps Commander in J&K located at Srinagar in 1983- What was the mood of the Kashmiri People- Division between Communities – Pandits and Muslims. In Sikkim today everyone lives together peacefully. The Bhutias, Lepchas and the Gorkhas. If we see Kashmir today we have failed to get everyone together. The Pandits stay out of the valley in Transit homes spread also in Delhi, while the other Community in Kashmir stay together in their Homeland whether Srinagar or Jammu and also in the Metropolitan towns of India. Why is this so? We till today however have not been able to get the Pandits to get back to their Homeland in the Valley – Why – Wrong Policies of our Government and not having a clear cut Plan which must be implemented.
I am reminded of an incident when I was out on a Patrol in the forward Area Mountainous terrain of Kashmir in 1983- we were passing through a Village street, when a few children from the village ran up to me and started shouting slogans “Pakistan Zindabad” I spoke with them after offering sweets which I used to carry and queried them as to the slogan. I specifically questioned where is Pakistan located? To my horror, they stated that they were unaware but every day in school they were made to repeat this slogan during their morning Assembly. I pondered upon the reasons for such a situation developing, and I was told that the Schools in the Border areas were being funded through money received from Saudi Arabia.
I had immediately brought this to the notice of the Government and subsequently suggested to them that we needed our own Armed Forces, which were deployed in the inaccessible forward areas to open schools where the children could be taught the values which are dear to us. Nothing substantial has been done. We must realize that the children of the 83’s are the YOUTH of Kashmir. (20 years over) have a mind set of their own which we have to change with giving Kashmir an economic boost which would induct large Corporate houses into the valley for giving jobs to the people. The Industry which is so located can then start exporting material and goods all over the World. Modern machines with latest techniques and high returns would be required. Such a mood to develop must ensure a Peaceful Environment which can and must be put in Place.