Kingdom

Aristocrats, enigmatic wives, and spymasters in the drama of Sikkim’s merger with India

In the days leading up to 9 April 1975, the sedate capital of an autonomous Himalayan kingdom became a fortress. In and around Gangtok, troops belonging to neighbouring India were mobilised on a large scale. In the market squares, people gathered over chhang and chhurpi[1] and wondered if there was going to be another clash with China.

In his hilltop palace, Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Chogyal of Sikkim,[2] sensed a trap. The Indian Army claimed to be carrying out a routine exercise, but his guards were not convinced. They pleaded with him to escape to Nepal disguised as a monk. They were thinking, perhaps, of a day in 1959 when a 24-year-old from Tibet, anointed the Dalai Lama of his people, had made the opposite journey, fleeing the Chinese regime in soldier’s disguise.

The Chogyal rejected the plan, but his worst fears were confirmed. At 12.45pm on 9 April, a platoon of jeeps full of soldiers armed for battle surrounded the palace. A guard in the sentry box was shot dead after he raised his rifle. Inside the palace, the Chogyal called up Gurbachan Singh, the political officer who represented the Indian administration.

“What the hell are you doing?” he exploded. The line went dead. Indian soldiers had jammed the radio communication, and the palace had been cut off from the outside world.[3]

The coup was over in twenty minutes. At the end of it, the Chogyal was placed under house arrest, bringing about the end of a regime that had ruled Sikkim for 333 years. Just over a month later, on 16 May 1975, Sikkim joined the union of India as its twenty-second state.

“What is the Indian obsession with annexing Sikkim?”

Henry Kissinger

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his year, the forty-fifth anniversary of Sikkim’s statehood passed unremarked. For a generation of young Sikkimese, 16 May is just another public holiday. But recent border clashes between India and China have re-established India’s eastern boundary as one of the world’s great fault lines, and also highlighted Sikkim’s historical role as a centrepiece of the dispute.

The last time lives were lost in the conflict between India and China was in 1967, the second and “forgotten” war[4] along the border between Sikkim and Tibet.

Depending on which side is telling the story, the “Sikkim affair” is variously referred to as an ‘integration’, an ‘annexation’ or a ‘merger’. What we know about it is largely down to three books that differ in the detail about what transpired and why.

The first was actively suppressed by the Indian state for nearly three decades. Journalist Sunanda Datta-Ray’s book Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkim was published in 1984, but was kept out of circulation with the aid of a defamation suit filed by the government. It was republished in 2014. The book, engrossing in its detail, paints a picture of the Chogyal—a close friend of Dutta-Ray’s—as a lonely bastion, valiantly resisting an expansionist India.

The Scottish journalist Andrew Duff was initially drawn to Sikkim by reading his grandfather’s account of a trek from Darjeeling to Pemayangtse Monastery in 1922. Duff’s book, Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom, is largely based on the letters written home by two Scottish principals of a girls’ school in Gangtok.

In 2018, GBS Sidhu, a retired officer from India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), published Sikkim: Dawn of Democracy (sub-titled “The Truth Behind The Merger With India”). Finally, it publicly owned up to the role played by the agency in Sikkim’s accession to India.

“What is the Indian obsession with annexing Sikkim?” asked US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in bewilderment in a staff meeting in Washington when news of the coup reached the world.[5] It was a naïve question. The answer is inextricably tied to the tumultuous decade of the 1970s when Indira’s India (or India’s Indira) was consolidating its power within and around its borders in the near neighbourhood. It is also tied to the events of the 1960s, particularly the lingering effects of the 1962 war, which in turn was partly triggered by the Dalai Lama’s escape to India. It stretches further back in history to a century of colonial expansionism under British rule that had left Sikkim vulnerable in the first place.

Sikkim is a tiny, thumb-shaped state wedged between Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. For centuries, it was the primary route into the two Buddhist kingdoms. When Tibet was occupied in 1950, the expansion of China was brought “almost up to our gates”, as a deeply-worried Sardar Patel wrote to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.[6]

The British had made Sikkim a protectorate in 1861, according it the same status as other princely states on the subcontinent. In 1950, three years after independence, Sikkim became a protectorate of the new republic. The kingdom had autonomy in domestic matters but India was responsible for defence, external affairs and communications. For Nehru, Sikkim’s autonomy was nearly sacred. “If we bring a small country like Sikkim within our fold by using force,” he said, “it would be like killing a fly with a bullet.”

Twenty-five years later, that was no longer the republic’s position. How the change came about is a story with multiple plots involving India’s greatest spymaster, a defiant king, his ambitious political rival, and two enigmatic foreign women.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

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n December 1972, Indira Gandhi, fresh from victory in the 1971 war for Bangladesh’s liberation, summoned Rameshwar Nath Kao to her office. In 1968, she had handpicked this tall Kashmiri with a formidable intellect to set up the R&AW. In three years’ time, Kao had delivered the agency’s first significant success, providing critical support for the covert training of the guerrilla army Mukti Bahini in what was then East Pakistan.

“Can you do something about Sikkim?” she asked him.

Relations between the Indian state and the kingdom had reached a stalemate. India wanted to create a treaty of Permanent Association, even dangling the carrot of sponsoring Sikkim’s membership to UN organisations in return. But over the 1960s, the Chogyal had been demanding full independence with increasing vigour. 

In the Chogyal’s backyard, the demand for merger with India had originated from the first leader of the Sikkim State Congress,[7] Tashi Tshering, who had even gone to Delhi in 1948 to negotiate it. Patel, the man in charge of India’s integration, was keen on bringing Sikkim into the fold. Nehru chose to overrule him and sent Tshering back.[8]

But Nehru’s India kept more than a watchful eye over Sikkim, much like the British had. “The Sikkimese kingdom became highly dependent on the political officers from the time that the British established direct control of Sikkim,” Saul Mullard, a researcher at Oxford University and author of a book of Sikkimese history, explained. “Indians took over the role of political officers in Sikkim. They inherited the authority of the British and it weakened the ability of the king to set his own agenda.”

After Indira Gandhi asked him to “do something” about Sikkim, Kao concocted a plan with PN Banerjee, the joint secretary of the R&AW’s eastern division and a fellow mastermind of the Bangladesh operation. He assured the prime minister that the R&AW could handle Sikkim’s merger.[9] A three-member special ops team was dispatched to Gangtok.

One of these men was GBS Sidhu, who maintained a meticulous diary of his time in Gangtok. He wrote his book at the prodding of his former boss, who had always been keen for the story of the R&AW’s role in Sikkim to be made public someday. On his passing in 2002, Kao’s own notes on the operations in Sikkim and Bangladesh were handed over to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. These will be made public in 2027, according to his will.

To preserve its reputation as a country that respected the sovereignty of its smaller neighbours, India was keen to legitimize its takeover of Sikkim. It made common cause with the political movement started by Tashi Tshering. India would maintain that the merger was a natural consequence of the peoples’ desire for a democratic form of government. The denouement that came with the coup took more than two years of meticulous planning on the part of the Indian state.

Like its neighbours Tibet and Bhutan, Sikkim was a conservative Buddhist theocracy. The ruling elite came from two communities: the Bhutia, who migrated from Tibet in the thirteenth century, and the Lepcha, indigenous to Sikkim. The royal family of Namgyals were Bhutia who’d come from Tibet in the sixteenth century. The demographic dynamic of Sikkim started shifting in the late nineteenth century, when Jean Claude White, the first British political officer of Sikkim, began to bring in labour from Nepal to build roads and cultivate land.

There was another reason why the British encouraged Nepali immigration—to counteract Tibetan influence in Sikkim. There were close religious, cultural and political ties between the two kingdoms. White’s successors tried to undo the policy, but by the early twentieth century, the native population of Bhutia and Lepcha people was already a minority.

From the 1940s onwards, this, then, was the defining divide in Sikkim’s politics: the tension between its powerful minority and the landless and disenfranchised Nepalis, who had grown to 75 percent of the population by the 1970s. The Chogyal’s inability to provide political representation for the majority of his subjects became his Achilles heel. The R&AW recognized this and surreptitiously worked to exploit it.

The Sikkim operation helped Kao cement his legacy and strengthen India’s position in relation to China. “It is a fantastic piece of work, handled in a way that it took place under the cover of democracy in process,” the former R&AW officer Rana Banerji, who’s studied the Sikkim papers in the archives of the R&AW’s Kolkata office, told me in a phone interview. “It showed a lot of derring-do and vision, and gave tremendous impetus to the newly-formed agency.”

Sidhu drove the operation for 26 months from February 1973 to April 1975. He was flattered to be a ‘Kaoboy’, the moniker given to the spies who were personally mentored by Kao. His book is littered with references to clandestine meetings, secured phone calls and secret memos. But Sikkim was not a regular intelligence operation. Sidhu called it a “collaborative effort” between the R&AW and the political parties. “While merger was the ultimate goal, this had to be achieved in stages and through constitutional means,” he wrote.

First, Sidhu had to reassure pro-democracy leaders that India was changing its policy towards the Chogyal—it was now inclined to support their agitation with logistical and financial assistance. On the ground, the R&AW worked to encourage popular support and escalate protests against the monarchy. All anti-Chogyal political parties were merged under the leadership of Kazi Lhendup Dorji’s Sikkim National Congress. The aim was to compel the Chogyal to seek India’s assistance in restoring law and order.

On 4 April 1973, the Chogyal's birthday, thousands of protestors gathered outside the palace in Gangtok. It was the culmination of weeks of planning. The protests turned violent and raged for days. On 6 April, when Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary PN Dhar and foreign secretary Kewal Singh met her to apprise her of the situation in Gangtok, they found that she was in the know and was waiting for the Chogyal’s request for help. Dhar guessed that she had already been briefed by the R&AW.[10]

Two days later, India took administrative control of Sikkim. It was the beginning of the end. In May 1973, a tripartite agreement was signed between the government of India, the Chogyal and the political parties representing the people of Sikkim. Elections were held in 1974, and Kazi Lhendup Dorji became the kingdom’s first chief minister. A cable from the US Consulate in Delhi noted, “Prospects for the long-term survival of the Royal House do not look good.”[11]

However, at the beginning of 1975, the Chogyal remained to be toppled—and in him, Gandhi unexpectedly had a worthy opponent.

The Prince and the Debutante

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hey first met in the summer of 1959 at the Windamere, a cosy, chintzy hotel in Darjeeling. She was an attractive 19-year-old American student, drawn to the ‘mysterious East’. He was heir to the throne of Sikkim, intelligent and handsome, with a slight stammer[12] said to have added to his charm. A 36-year-old father-of-three, his first wife, a Tibetan princess, had died young. “The second time we met ... he proposed to me ... I said ‘yes yes yes’…. I just fell in love with his sad sad eyes,” she later wrote.[13]

Back home in Sikkim, neither the Buddhist clergy nor his political opponents welcomed the romance between Thondup Namgyal and Hope Cooke. But the prince would not be gainsaid. Their wedding ceremony in 1963 brought the global jet set to Gangtok. The American press took to referring to Hope as the Grace Kelly of the East. Video footage[14] from the wedding shows the couple decked in traditional silk and brocade as lamas preside over the rituals. A banquet is laid out in the palace gardens, with prayer flags and the Kanchenjunga in the background.

That year, Hope’s husband became the king of Sikkim after the death of his father. Sir Tashi Namgyal had never run afoul of the Indian regime. He “lived in a private dream world of the clouds and colours he so loved to capture on canvas”.[15] Thondup Namgyal, in contrast, was dynamic and ambitious.

The new Chogyal began to take a fresh look at India’s relationship with Bhutan.[16] As with Sikkim, India had inherited a treaty from the British that granted Bhutan a degree of autonomy that the Chogyal did not have. “The behaviour of Bhutanese monarchs was guided to reassure India that their concerns were important,” the foreign policy researcher Deep Pal told me, but “the Chogyal gave the impression that he was less dependable, and could tilt towards China at the most inopportune moment.”

“There was little choice in 1950,” the Chogyal himself lamented in an interview with the journalist Ved Mehta in 1966. “At the time, there was quite a lot of popular agitation in Sikkim for merging with India.” Times had changed, he insisted to Mehta, a writer for The New Yorker. “Now there is no popular agitation for merging with India. Now we want to be a separate country.”[17] Hope Cooke would help her husband take Sikkim to the world. From the mid-1960s, Sikkim would enjoy a burst of international attention and turn into an unlikely glamour capital.

An article in Newsweek called her “a Himalayan Marie Antoinette”.

The Gyalmo—Hope’s title as the queen consort—brought a buzz to palace life, with a constant stream of dignitaries and guests dropping in. Her uncle Selden Chapin, the US ambassador to Iran, had opened doors for them in diplomatic circles. The couple travelled to New York and London, building connections and sympathy for the Sikkim cause.

Thondup Namgyal, Hope Cooke and their daughter Hope Leezum at the birthday celebrations of the Chogyal in 1971. Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thondup Namgyal, Hope Cooke and their daughter Hope Leezum at the birthday celebrations of the Chogyal in 1971. Picture credit - Wikimedia Commons

The international press could not get enough of Queen Hope’s exotic life in a remote Himalayan realm bordering communist China. Vogue asked about her beauty secrets. LIFE visited her in Gangtok and marvelled at how striking she appeared in her ankle-length Sikkimese kho. Quirks like her habit of repeating a phrase four times (“I see, I see, I see, I see”) and her staged whispers were made to look endearing. Abstract utterances (“We’re not just another hill station—we’re a nuance”) and observations on her husband’s chief adversary (“Mrs Gandhi is very feminine in a Renaissance way, not a Victorian way”) got a lot of playtime in splashy lifestyle magazines.

Time described “America’s only working queen“, as having taken up causes with a do-gooder energy, supporting local handicrafts and school education. Clothes she designed with the help of a tailor in Gangtok were displayed at Bergdorf Goodman in downtown New York. In every press interaction, the couple made a concerted effort to talk about Sikkim as separate from India. 

All this roiled the Indian establishment. Matters reached a head when Hope wrote a bulletin for Gangtok’s Institute of Tibetology, making a case for Darjeeling to be returned to Sikkim. The hill station, now part of the state of West Bengal, had originally been leased to the British by Sikkim in 1835.[18] The Indian press hounded Cooke for meddling in state affairs. Prime Minister Gandhi had to issue a clarification in Parliament.

At the height of the Cold War, unsurprisingly, the rumour about Hope Cooke being a mole for American intelligence took on a life of its own. Her Darjeeling article did the work of converting those who might have dismissed Indian press headlines like “CIA agent in borrowed plumage” and “American wife plans missile base”.

As it happened, the storybook romance did not last. Hope Cooke left for New York with their two children after ten years of marriage. In her autobiography, she wrote that the Chogyal’s heavy drinking and affairs took a toll on their relationship. The press was quick to turn on her. An article in Newsweek called her “a Himalayan Marie Antoinette”. The papers of record, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, examined how the fairy tale turned into a nightmare. 

In the years since, Hope Cooke’s role in the rift between India and Sikkim has perhaps been overstated. While she may have contributed in accelerating certain events, there is more than a hint of sexism in the way the Chogyal and Gyalmo were written about and, subsequently, remembered. One is a lonely, tragic figure who lost his family and kingdom, the other is a fickle and interfering opportunist.

The Chogyal had been so preoccupied with showing Sikkim off to the world that he had misjudged the extent of the discontent brewing among his subjects. What he told Ved Mehta with utter confidence didn’t quite pan out the way he would have liked: “My friends in the Indian government are always telling me that monarchy is on its way out, that I have to change my government, and I’m always saying to them that people will like monarchy as long as monarchy continues to prove useful.”

The Chogyal’s “friends in the Indian government” had cultivated other friendships in the hills of North Bengal. The town of Kalimpong, perched on a ridge above the river Teesta, was about three hours from Gangtok. Here, another power couple rose—also a foreign woman and her Sikkimese husband—to challenge the Chogyal and the Gyalmo.

The Khangsarpas of Kalimpong

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he opposition to the monarchy in Sikkim coalesced around Kazi Lhendup Dorji of the Sikkim National Congress. His second wife, the enigmatic Elisa-Maria Dorji Khangsarpa, could have been a character in a Shakespearean drama.

By many accounts, she combined the sharp-tongued quick-wittedness of Katherina the “shrew” and the political ambition of Lady Macbeth. She was the perfect foil for the young and inexperienced Hope Cooke.

She had carefully cultivated an aura of mystery around herself. We do know for sure that she was Scottish, had married twice before, and had lived in Belgium and Burma before she immersed herself in Delhi’s socialist circles in the 1950s. It is there that she first met the Kazi through a common friend, a story which she didn’t tire of recounting. The Kazi, her “mountain friend”, sat dumbstruck in her living room, uttering not a word, before he grabbed her hand in a fit of passion at the end of the evening and asked “You marry me, yes?”

They were in their fifties when they married and moved to Kalimpong. Their residence‚ Chakung House, would become a base for political activity. Everyone who met her seemed to have an amusing story about her. The first time that the R&AW’s Sidhu had to meet the Kazi, he took his wife and children along, to allay any suspicions that he was anything more than a regular civil servant. The Kazini dominated the conversation while the Kazi sat quietly and smiled. When she left the room, he told Sidhu to not take her words seriously—she was in the habit of dramatizing everything.

In the years after Indian independence, Kalimpong was a centre for international intrigue. Nehru had called it “a nest of spies”. There were American agents, British adventurers, Tibetan rebel fighters, Buddhist pilgrims and Chinese merchants. But it lost its allure in 1962 after the war closed the border and caused trade to cease. The Kazini took to Kalimpong naturally and infused the Kazi’s political campaign with new life. She had a special talent for firing barbs at the durbar—her articles in local newspapers contrasted the opulence of the palace with the destitution of the common Sikkimese.

Datta-Ray, describing the Kazini’s penchant for witty, poisonous darts, wrote: “The language of the kitchen, in which memsahibs give household instructions to the bearers, was her only means of communicating with her husband, an appropriate one as it happened. She was an accomplished woman of the world, wrapped in the air of rococo intrigue.” For a woman who single-handedly reinvigorated a movement and took on the palace elite, books and oral histories now satirise the Kazini to the extent it is difficult to separate fact from myth.

After Hope’s wedding to the Chogyal, the foreign press had been quick to dub Sikkim a Shangri-La, but it wasn’t a paradise for all. Sikkim was, in essence, a feudal state controlled by the palace, landowners and the monastic order. All land in Sikkim belonged to the Chogyal, who leased it to the Bhutia and Lepcha noblemen who formed the aristocracy. The Nepali settlers worked on the land without the right to own it. Sikkim’s community-based voting system gave weightage to Bhutias and Lepchas at the cost of Nepali representation.[19]

In an article that appeared in The Statesman, the Kazi, or more likely the Kazini wielding her pen behind the scenes, wrote that the Chogyal’s demand for revision of the 1950 treaty was irrelevant, “in view of the all-important fact that Sikkim has no written constitution, that the people of Sikkim have no fundamental rights, no codified laws, a High Court without a Charter, and are ruled by ‘proclamations’.”

The Kazi was labelled “desh bechoa” for colluding with the Indian state.

The monarchy was sensitive to criticism. Hope commissioned her friend Satyajit Ray to make a documentary on Sikkim, which he finished in 1971.[20] In hindsight, it’s tempting to watch Ray’s work as an elegy to the last days of the kingdom. The filmmaker casts a clearly sympathetic eye on the landscape, the populace and the quaintness of palace life.

The documentary concludes with a showcase of a grand New Year ceremony on the palace grounds. Yet, typically, Ray couldn’t resist documenting the stark contrast with the poor folk who were desperately scrambling for food outside. The Chogyal was supposedly furious with the depiction of poverty and asked for those scenes to be cut. By the time the film was re-edited, the merger had taken place and the Indian government decided to ban what it considered a propaganda piece.

After the ban was lifted in 2010, the film was screened in Sikkim amidst great fanfare. But for some it was a reminder of how nostalgia for old times may have been overstated. “I cringed when I saw it, it brought home the stark contrasts of the times. It made me thankful we’re a democracy now. How can people be happier as subjects than citizens?” asked Pema Wangchuk. He is an editor at an English daily and the co-author of a book on Kanchenjunga.

For all their glamour and machinations, the Kazi and Kazini did not rule Sikkim for long. Soon after 1975, there was a backlash against them, fuelled by political opponents and supporters of the king. The merger was accepted by the Sikkimese people as an inevitable consequence of being squeezed between two great powers, but there was less sympathy for the Kazi. He was labelled “desh bechoa” for colluding with the Indian state. When elections were held in 1979, his party did not win a single seat.[21]

The Royal Inheritance

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he 333-year-old dynasty’s coat of arms is now the official emblem of Sikkim state. But apart from that, and a token statue of the last Chogyal in a public park, it is hard even for accustomed eyes to spot traces of the dynasty in Gangtok. Occasionally, there are articles in the press about the last Chogyal’s son.

In the late 1980s, Wangchuk Namgyal, the second son of the Chogyal from his first wife and the scion of the dynasty, headed deep into a forest in the mountains of Nepal. He stayed there for three years and three months.

Years before, the young man was unexpectedly thrust into the public eye like his father before him. Wangchuk’s elder brother Tenzing had died[22] in an accident three years after the merger. His father, lonely and heartbroken, died of cancer in 1982. There were reports that the Chogyal lived out his last days as an alcoholic recluse. He never agreed to sign the accession agreement with India. Consequently, his government entitlement was cut off. The question of the family’s right to financial compensation was never settled.

The Chogyal’s funeral was the last time that the people of Sikkim poured out into the streets to express their love and grief for the monarch. In an elaborate but ultimately symbolic ceremony, Wangchuk, a studious-looking young man with thick glasses,[23] was proclaimed the new Chogyal on the same day. India was determined to keep the royal family out of Sikkim’s future. In the new Sikkim, the aristocracy was wary of associating with the Namgyals. Wangchuk turned to Buddhism.

In the intervening decades, he has periodically gone back into solitary retreat in Nepal or Bhutan, a traditional practice in Tibetan Buddhism. He has placed the upkeep of the palace with a trust and established a monastic university on the outskirts of Gangtok.

Wangchuk stayed in the forest for three years and three months.

“When he’s not in retreat, he‘ll often return to Sikkim, but he’s very low-key,” his niece Pema Abrahams said. “He’s dedicated to strengthening the spiritual legacy of a lineage which is very specific to Sikkim, and which is dying out. He’s devoted his life to Sikkim in this way, though few are aware of it.” Abrahams is the daughter of Wangchuk’s sister Yangchen, and the granddaughter of the last Chogyal. She grew up in New York, with parents who downplayed any reminder of her royal connection, “as it should be,” she told me from her home in Bangkok.

The family seems to have shrugged off nearly all vestiges of royalty. Wangchuk Namgyal rarely appears in public and is often taken for a monk, though he is not one. He agreed to speak on the phone for this piece after his half-sister Hope Leezum, the daughter of Hope Cooke, connected us. Leezum lives in Gangtok and helps him run the palace trust. When we spoke in July, he was in Gangtok, on a rare hiatus from meditation.

It’s a long story, he said with a laugh, when asked why he chose Buddhism as his life’s work. “It is connected to the history of my ancestors and their journey into Sikkim.” The first Chogyal, Phuntsog Namgyal, left Tibet to settle in Sikkim based on a prophecy of the eighth century Buddhist master Guru Rinpoche, also known to history as Padmasambhava.

Guru Rinpoche declared Sikkim to be bayul demazong—a sacred, hidden land. GK Pillai, former home secretary of India, recalled meeting Wangchuk Namgyal in the late 1990s and being deeply impressed. “He had reconciled himself to what had happened. He was not looking for temporal power, but wanted spiritual power. He wanted to restore Sikkim to the bayul demazong.”

Wangchuk was 22 and studying in London in 1975. “It was a tremendous shock for everyone,” he said. “My father was always honest in his relations with the Indian government. He lived for Sikkim, we could see that even as children. He wanted to establish a modern political system and it would have evolved if we had been left to ourselves, had there been no meddling from India.”

Since the merger, India has made itself indispensable to Sikkim, and bought an arguably happy compliance from its people.

One of the most developed states in the country, its economy, which is dependent on agriculture and tourism, has prospered because of central government largesse. Sikkimese are exempt from paying taxes and outsiders cannot buy land in the state. The Indian Constitution’s Article 371(F) ensures that pre-1975 laws remain in force.[24]

With the passage of time, the number of people who remember Sikkim as an autonomous kingdom has dwindled. Any mention of it has been expunged from textbooks in the state. “The older generation has failed to inform the younger generation of our shared past. We sing the Indian national anthem and speak Hindi. In the last few years, it has become fashionable to put stickers of the Sikkim flag[25] on cars, but I want to ask these people, do you even know our history?” said Joseph Lepcha, a Gangtok-based journalist.

With support from the British Library’s Endangered Archive Programme, Pema Abrahams has been working to preserve photographs and documents from the Sikkim palace archive. Interacting with twenty-somethings from Sikkim for her project, she found most were unaware that the state was an autonomous kingdom until 1975.

“Silence and erasure does our young people a huge disservice. When we wash away these fragments of memory, we weaken elements of identity that help us make sense of our current context,” Abrahams told me. “Historical vacuums are a breeding ground for myths.”

Sunaina Kumar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on issues of social justice and gender, and sometimes on the intersection of culture and history.