The story of Sikkim’s royalty is a most interesting one. The erstwhile kingdom’s first king–or chogyal as he was termed–was coronated by lamas who were long searching for the “chosen one”. Phuntsog Namgyal was the first chogyal and his coronation took place in Yuksom in 1642. This marked the start of a dynasty that would rule Sikkim for the next 333 years.
At its height, the Sikkim kingdom included Darjeeling (in present day West Bengal) and even Chumbi Valley, which now lies in China.
When India became an independent nation in 1947, Sardar Patel was tasked with unifying the country. At the time, there were over 500 princely states across the country. Sardar Patel would ensure they all acceded to India by choice but, in a few rare cases, even by force. The princely state of Kashmir became mired in confusion–to put it mildly–and it continues to be an unresolved predicament.
Meanwhile, Sikkim enjoyed protectorate status since its monarch had aligned with the British Crown in the 19th century itself. And at the dawn of India’s independence, it was left an independent kingdom. India would, however, administer its external affairs, communication and defence. Its ruler then was the 11th dynast — Chogyal Tashi Namgyal.
Sikkim’s geo-strategic location
India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru reportedly said, “If we bring a small country like Sikkim within our fold by using force, it would be like killing a fly with a bullet.” Nehru desired to leave Sikkim the way it was.
However, the Indian administration at the time was first alarmed when China annexed Tibet in 1950. Then in 1962, during the Sino-Indian conflict, the border with Sikkim–Nathu La–became a strategic battlefront. Perhaps this geo-strategic location was one consideration that became critical to India.
The chogyal had, otherwise, maintained cordial relations with New Delhi. Following his demise in 1963, the 11th chogyal was succeeded by his second son, Palden Thondup Namgyal. He became the 12th chogyal and as fate would have it, he would be the last de facto ruler of the Himalayan kingdom.
The beginning of the end
Chogyal Thondup Namgyal married a lady of Tibetan origin, who came from an aristocratic background. She bore him three children but unfortunately, she passed on at an early age. In the summer of 1959, the chogyal was staying at the Windermere Hotel in Darjeeling when he met a young American student called Hope Cooke. The chogyal was smitten and it is said he proposed to Cooke on their second meeting itself. She was only 19 at the time.
The couple married amid great fanfare in 1963 in the presence of several other members of Indian royalty. Even the US ambassador to India was in attendance.
Cooke seemed to quickly adopt to her new role as queen and to life in the tiny kingdom. Her US citizenship was renounced as per Sikkim’s laws. Soon after, the new queen hogged the limelight; she brought international attention to Sikkim. Well known publications interviewed her, they wrote about her beauty regimen and everything seemed to look up for the ruling administration. In fact, diplomatic doors were also opened for them in the international arena, thanks to Cooke’s connections.
However, there were feathers being ruffled in New Delhi. The Indian government began to keep a closer watch. And it did not take lightly when Hope Cooke published a piece that sought restoration of Sikkim’s former territories. Cooke was implying that Darjeeling be restored to Sikkim’s fold.
Sometime at this juncture, Indira Gandhi called on the RAW chief and asked him to do “something about Sikkim”. It did not take long for India’s spymaster, Rameshwar Nath Kao, to begin covert operations. Decades later, a naïve me thought that covert operations were indeed a smart move played by the likes of Uncle Sam on unsuspecting Middle Eastern states. In fact, the Arab Spring of 2011 was perhaps ‘covertness’ at its very best. But here was India’s Iron Lady plotting covert schemes against a tiny kingdom that her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted to leave alone. However, Nehru probably wasn’t expecting a suspected ‘American agent’ to be based in a sensitive area. Cooke, many felt, was a CIA operative.
The RAW coordinated with the kazi or Sikkim’s Prime Minister. There was already rivalry brewing between the kazi and the chogyal and India’s agents simply leveraged the cracks in their relatioship. Popular citizen uprisings against the monarchy were encouraged, making it seem as though the eventual accession to India was a ‘constitutional’ one. But in all fairness, the monarch was losing popularity fast. There were glaring contrasts in what existed within the royal estate and the grim reality that lay without.
The inevitable happens
On the fateful day of 09 April, 1975, Indian army soldiers encircled the royal palace. A palace guard who’d raised his rifle was promptly neutralised. The chogyal was placed under house arrest and in only a month, Sikkim joined India as its 22nd state. His marriage with Cooke was also falling apart and not too long after, she left with her children for New York. Her daughter, Hope Leezum, currently resides in Gangtok.
The final years of the 12th chogyal’s life were spent in bitterness, pain and even humiliation; he was, after all, a king without a kingdom. He was also suffering from the onset of cancer and underwent treatment in the US. He breathed his last there in January 1982. His mortal remains were then flown back to Gangtok and following the cremation, his son from his first marriage–Wangchuk Namgyal–was crowned as the 13th chogyal. India never recognised this coronation formally.
Wangchuk Namgyal is known to lead an austere life. He spends considerable time in meditation and is said to visit the family palace in Gangtok occasionally. As one report puts it, “The chogyal visits Sikkim quietly and leaves the same way.” The only remnants of the monarchy are certain pre-1975 laws that only apply to Sikkim subjects and possibly their public transport system, whose buses still bear the term ‘Sikkim Nationalised Transport’.