Sikkim's model of stability
Over the years, Sikkim has not only housed India's critical border with China – it has also grown as the most sustainable, balanced state of our country
In the summer of 2017, the Doklam incident could have taken a dramatic turn for India (and China too); fortunately, it ended well with the withdrawal of both Chinese and Indian armies from the trijunction between Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan. However, in early 2018, several media reports mentioned fast-paced road construction activities in the area, particularly a 12-km-long stretch from Yatung, in Chumbi Valley, to Doklam, being built by China.
A crucial factor in India's favour has been the strategic and political stability of the border state of Sikkim. For several reasons, it is vital for India's security that it remains so. First, Denjong or the Valley of Rice, as Sikkim is traditionally known, is a prosperous state; that the charismatic CM Pawan Kumar Chamling has become the longest-serving Indian CM in 2018 is a clear sign of its stability.
Sikkim is also India's first organic state, showing the way to other progressive states in the country. On October 12, 2018, Sikkim won the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Future Policy Award 2018 for being the world's first 100 per cent organic state. The citation said, "Sikkim is the first organic state in the world. All of its farmland is certified organic. Embedded in its design are socioeconomic aspects such as consumption and market expansion, cultural aspects as well as health, education, rural development and sustainable tourism." This makes Sikkim particularly special.
In terms of India's security, Sikkim remains a trendsetter and a model; India can't afford to have insecure and unhappy borders, especially when the northern neighbour is always ready to change the status quo.
On September 24, 2018, PM inaugurated an aerodrome at Pakyong, near Gangtok, Sikkim's capital. The airport has been constructed at a cost of nearly Rs 600 crore. The first commercial flight from Pakyong took off on October 4 with SpiceJet operating 78-seater Bombardier Q400 flights to and from Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati. Recently, an Antonov AN-32 transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force landed for the first time at Pakyong. This airstrip will be a game-changer for the Indian Army.
The way ahead for India to strengthen its Himalayan boundary lies perhaps in Sikkim. When one reaches Gangtok, the first thing one realises is that Sikkim is spotlessly clean and the environment is well-protected. This is particularly striking when coming from a state where plastic and garbage litters every public place. It is a truly refreshing and uplifting experience to see clean forests, streams and villages. Driving up from West Bengal, Sikkim is a breath of paradise.
This brings the possibility of developing eco-tourism, which could, in turn, bring rich dividends. But that is probably not enough. It is also necessary to empower the local population. Chamling has recently decided to institute a universal basic income for each of Sikkim's 6,10,577 citizens. If the scheme is successful, Sikkim will become India's most progressive state.
Though Sikkim is today stable, large sections of Sikkimese society feel that they have been victims of past historical injustices. After the merger with India in 1975, some communities were excluded from achieving their due tribal status. A two-day summit, organised by EIECOS (Eleven Indigenous Ethnic Communities of Sikkim), in May 2018, in Gangtok, demanded that all communities with a Sikkim Subjects Card should be given tribal status and Sikkim should be declared a tribal state, like other northeastern states of India. Three years after Sikkim joined India in a quasi-unanimous referendum, some communities were unfortunately left out, while a Scheduled Tribe recognition was granted to others.
While inaugurating the Sikkim Summit for Tribal Status 2018, Chamling said: "We embraced India as a country on the condition of never compromising our uniqueness as Sikkimese people, protected by the Indian Constitution."
With fast-paced development taking place across India's borders, the pressure is going to greatly increase. For the local population to remain steadfast, a small gesture such as granting tribal status to Sikkim would go a long way in making the people of Sikkim happier and, therefore, more prepared to support the defence of India's borders.
A visit to Nathu La, the border pass between India and China, makes one realise the strategic importance of Sikkim which has the potential to maintain peace between the two Asian giants despite recurrent tensions. It witnesses BPMs (Border Personnel Meetings) between the Indian and Chinese Army, in a hut built for the purpose, several times a year. It symbolises the decision taken at the highest levels in India and China to resolve localised border issues around a table.
The Himalayan people may not represent a large or politically influential section of the Indian population, but the country's security depends on them. Let us hope that Sikkim can remain a model of stability and clean environment as
well as a beacon for other Indian states. It is the need of the hour.
(The author is a French-born author, journalist, historian and Tibetologist. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor. The views expressed are strictly personal)