Thursday, July 20, 2017

Caught Between India and China

Recently, thousands of soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army held live fire war games in Tibet, taking part in a simulated invasion of India. As most are aware, India and China have had a less than friendly relationship ever since Indian independence. In 1959 Indian and Chinese forces clashed when the Chinese suppressed an uprising in occupied Tibet, at the same time as India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The Himalayan border region between India and China was in dispute between the two countries, just as China has had border and territorial disputes with practically every neighboring country with some (Vietnam and Russia for example) simply conceding territory in order to improve relations with China. India, however, was less sanguine about doing so and was feeling particularly assertive after gaining independence. After many years of championing non-violent resistance and the peaceful resolution of disputes, in 1961 the Indian government demonstrated that it would resort to military force to solve such problems when India invaded and annexed the Portuguese coastal enclaves (principally Goa).

Communist China, while likewise viewing Portugal as an enemy and cheering the downfall of European colonial empires, was nonetheless quick to point to this expansion by India as proof that their territorial dispute was unlikely to be settled peacefully. The following year, in October of 1962, Chinese military forces launched a two-pronged offensive into the disputed territory. The Chinese overran the Indian border posts, inflicted heavy losses on the Indians and generally gained what they wanted. Their objectives having been achieved, in November the Chinese announced a cease-fire and the war ended with China retaining control of Aksai Chin which remains part of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China to this day. Later, in 1967, there were two minor skirmishes between Indian and Chinese forces in the Indian state of Sikkim and it was with an eye to Sikkim that the latest Chinese war games were held; a possible dress-rehearsal for war with India over this obscure province. Keep that in mind.

Indian monument to pro-Axis leader Bose
Tensions between India and China have also continued on numerous fronts. In economic terms, the two countries have for some time competed as the primary source of cheap labor for Western Europe and North America. India has been increasingly alarmed at Chinese naval expansion into the Indian Ocean and India is friendly with countries China is not very friendly with, particularly Japan. Famously, it was an Indian judge who was the sole dissenting vote in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials after World War II, basically agreeing that the Japanese were their would-be liberators from British rule and taking up, along with the right-wing in Japan, the vision of “Asia for the Asians” and cheering on the pledged Japanese war aim to eradicate the European presence in Asia. China, of course, takes an extremely different view of the war and probably despises Japan more than any other country on earth. Also, thanks to all the years of the “One Child” policy in China, India is set to soon overtake China as the most populous nation in the world which will undoubtedly help keep labor cheap in India and thus make India an increasingly more lucrative source of exports than China with its growing middle class.

Sikkim's last King & Queen
Because of all of this, conflict may be unavoidable, however, there is something that can be done to at least make such a thing more difficult or delay it and that involves the area under dispute itself. Some readers here may be aware but the general public is certainly not that Sikkim was, not so long ago, an independent country, it was the Kingdom of Sikkim. Like the nearby Kingdom of Bhutan, it was largely unknown to the outside world for most of history and it probably only briefly became known to the west in 1963 when the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Palden Thondup Namgyal, married a young American girl named Hope Cooke. She was his second wife, his first wife (a Tibetan) having died in 1957. This briefly made the Kingdom of Sikkim the talk of the town, at least in the United States, to see a young, well-to-do American girl from New York City becoming the Queen consort of this remote, hitherto unknown Himalayan kingdom. Her husband became the King (or Chogyal) of Sikkim shortly after their marriage upon the death of his father in 1963 and his coronation in 1965 attracted quite a bit of attention.

The Kingdom of Sikkim was also no backward state living in primitive isolation. Although very small and having few resources, King Namgyal was actually quite successful at improving his tiny country. During his rather brief reign, while most people still lived very modestly by western standards, Sikkim became relatively better off than its neighbors. The literacy rate and per capita income in the Kingdom of Sikkim was double that in India, Bhutan and Nepal. Things were improving, Sikkim was doing well and becoming more educated and more productive under its new monarch. King Namgyal had been the leader of those who negotiated the normalization of relations between India and Sikkim when India became independent. Previously, the British Empire had maintained the same sort of relationship it had with most of the other numerous kings, princes, rajas and so forth of the region. He knew that things would be different after Indian independence and he was not wrong about that.

King Palden Thondup Namgyal & Queen Hope
The Kingdom of Sikkim, of course, knew it could not defy India alone and so, in 1950, agreed to maintain essentially the same relationship with India as it had done with the British, in other words, Sikkim was officially independent but a protectorate of India. However, there was a pro-Indian faction in the country, backed by India of course, which sought to imitate India to the point of establishing a political movement known as the Sikkim National Congress (in imitation of the Indian National Congress). This Indian-backed movement gained power in the 1974 elections (something which may explain why Bhutan would have nothing to do with democracy until recently) and immediately began trying to liberalize the country. The King blocked them, and rightly so, after which this group drew up a new constitution which India all but forced the King to accept. Naturally, the next step was annexation. The King, powerless to resist, could only try to beat his enemies at their own game so he called for a referendum to settle the issue on September 8, 1974. He would get his referendum and in the usual way such referendums are traditionally held, which is to say unfairly.

On April 9, 1975 the Indian army, which was supposed to “protect” the tiny country, instead invaded Sikkim, which was powerless to resist them, and after his guard was overpowered and disarmed, the King was arrested and confined to his palace. The local pro-Indian government, backed by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, unanimously voted to abolish the monarchy and for Sikkim to be annexed by India. It was only then, after the occupation of Sikkim by the Indian military, that a referendum was held the following month, at a time and with voting locations that would mean many locals would be unable to reach them. The result was a forgone conclusion, returning a result of over 97% in favor of annexation to the Indian republic. Bitter locals reported that the vast majority of those voting had been Indians and not natives of Sikkim at all. Within a matter of days Gandhi and the Indian government passed the appropriate measures to make Sikkim a state in India and abolishing the monarchy.

In happier days
China and Pakistan, no friends of India, criticized the move, the Soviet Union praised it and the United States did little more than shrug. King Namgyal rightly denounced the referendum as “illegal and unconstitutional”. The King had a sad life from then on, as tends to happen in such cases. He went into exile, was divorced from Queen Hope in 1980 and in 1982 died of cancer in New York. His son and heir, Prince Tobgyal Wangchuk Tenzing Namgyal, was allowed to use the title of king but, obviously, it is purely honorary and he has no official position or actual authority. Educated in England, he is now in his 60’s and is largely forgotten by the rest of the world though the loyal locals in Sikkim still know him as the man who should be king. I know nothing else about the man but what he represents does present at least a partial solution to the current problem. Rather than a war between India and China over Sikkim, which both claim they wish to avoid, surely a better answer, fair to both sides, would be to say that neither are entitled to the area and for it to be restored as the sovereign Kingdom of Sikkim under its rightful heir.

The last King of Sikkim
Personally, I do not think that the republicanization of the Himalayan region has been an accident, yet, at every step the rest of the world has looked the other way as the local monarchies have been overthrown and India and China have inched ever closer to each other and ever closer to confrontation. Simply look at the historical timeline: in 1950 the Chinese occupied Tibet, in 1959 the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India. In 1975 the Kingdom of Sikkim was invaded and annexed by India. In 1996 a Maoist Communist insurgency began in the Kingdom of Nepal. In 2005 the King of Bhutan made his country a constitutional monarchy, embraced multi-party democracy and ended its policy of isolation, hoping, I think to strengthen itself through ties with major foreign powers. Finally, in 2008 the Nepalese monarchy was overthrown and Nepal became a republic with a Maoist becoming the first republican Prime Minister. This has left only little Bhutan as the last monarchial holdout in the entire Himalayan region. It broke my heart when Bhutan shifted to openness and democracy and, though it is only an opinion, the only reason I have been able to come up with to explain this change, which the people had not wanted or asked for, was because the King hoped to gain greater security from the international community.

As such, I would propose that the Kingdom of Sikkim should be restored. I would want the same for Nepal and even for Tibet though that is surely expecting too much. Let these places be restored and make them absolutely “hands off” to the military forces of China and India alike. A monarchical buffer to keep India and China at a distance might be of benefit, not only to those involved, but to the wider world, including those countries which might be drawn in to another, even more serious, Sino-Indian conflict.


  1. Unfortunately, the monarchist political parties of Nepal are linked to the rabidly anti-Christian Hindu supremacists. Like in Sikkim, the political parties are copied from their Indian counterparts. Modi's time has only emboldened these types.

    Interesting history there, with Chandra Bose and the Indian political parties' continuing desire to copy the Nazis. As for the Maoists, most Nepalese don't even know who Mao Zhedong was. Even fewer, if any know about the great leap forward or the cultural revolution.

    No amount of corruption can shock the people here. It is expected. Politicians are derided as a class, but accepted as part of the status quo. Apathy runs almost as high as the piles of refuse lining the streets of Kathmandu.

  2. You know what would be very "Chinese" of the Chinese people here? Coming to the conclusion that they don't need Western ideology to be relevant in the world in going back to the Imperial system, and the Tributary System. And having (at least nominal) Tributary states would be better for everyone involved because they don't need to worry about opposition in say Tibet if Tibet is basically independent anyway.

  3. Very correct words are told at the very finale of this small article: it is the monarchic buffer between China and India: the Kingdom of Bhutan, the Principality of Sikkim, the Kingdom of Nepal and the Kingdom of Tibet. It should be so.

    But you forgot one more small mountain kingdom in this region. It was like "Kingdom inside the Kingdom", and now there is as "Kingdom inside the republic". This is the Kingdom of Luo, or the Kingdom of the Mustang in the territory of Nepal. The Maoists were afraid to destroy it. His Majesty the King still rules there.


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