Behind the Ongoing Protests in Sikkim Are Worries Over Who Gets to Be 'Sikkimese'

Sonam Gyatso Sherpa of the Joint Action Committee in Sikkim talks about why people believe protections of their local identity, protected under Article 371F of the Constitution, are under threat.

New Delhi: Far away from New Delhi, the streets of Sikkim have been noting public protests for some months now.

The trigger for the street protests was the January 13 verdict of the Supreme Court whereby it extended the income tax exemption enjoyed by the Sikkimese families who became part of India by dint of the merger agreement of 1973, to include those who were Indian citizens then but resided in the Himalayan kingdom mainly due to trade interests.

The Sikkimese indigenous groups view the expansion of the term ‘Sikkimese’ to include persons who were not in the citizens’ register during the Chogyal era (they were ‘foreigners’ then) as a veritable threat to their identity which was promised by the union of India to be protected under Article 371F of the Constitution. The Article was inserted into the Indian Constitution to merge the kingdom to the Indian union in 1975 and was the result of the Tripartite Agreement signed between Indian government, the last king of Sikkim Chogyal Palden Thongdup Namgyal, and the political parties of Sikkim on May 8, 1973.

Sonam Gyatso Sherpa. Photo: Special arrangement

Several civil society groups have come together to express their concern on the issue under the umbrella of the Joint Action Committee (JAC). The Wire caught up with JAC spokesperson Sonam Gyatso Sherpa, who is in Delhi to apprise the Union finance ministry about the apprehension of the civil society group about inserting a few clauses based on the Supreme Court order in the Finance Act, 2023.

Below are excerpts from the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

What is this JAC and when and why was it formed?

The JAC was formed after the Supreme Court verdict of January 13, 2023, whereby the apex court erroneously labelled the Sikkimese Nepali community as ‘foreigners’ and also gave a nod to expand the definition of who is a Sikkimese under Section 10 (26AAA) of the Income Tax Act, 1961. As per that clause, Sikkim residents who were registered as subjects at the time of merger were to be exempted of income tax. After the SC order, those residents who had settled in the state prior to the merger but were not counted as subjects as they were from India would now be availing the exemption too.

However, ‘Sikkimese’ is already a protected term by the May 8, 1973 Tripartite Agreement based on which Sikkim merged with the Union of India. It is also defined in the Government of Sikkim Act 1974 and also Article 371F of the Constitution of India.

Therefore, several civil society organisations and individuals have come together to state their concern and apprehension about this expansion of the term, as the indigenous people of Sikkim are very few in number; we are not even six lakhs. What awaits the future of the small Sikkim ethnic groups? What is left of Article 371F now? It seems to us a dilution of the Article which was inserted into the Constitution to protect Sikkimese subjects by the Chogyals.

The SC order is based on Article 14 of the Constitution.

Yes. But Article 14 of the Constitution is not applicable to Sikkim due to the non obstante clause of Article 371F of the Constitution which defines very clearly who is a Sikkimese. It was further cemented by the judgement in R.C. Poudyal vs Union of India.

JAC members met Union home minister Amit Shah at his Delhi residence in February to express their apprehension on the matter. What happened in that meeting?

Yes we met the Union home minister along with members of Sikkim Nagarik Samaj and state BJP leaders on February 6. He assured us that the rights of the indigenous people will be protected and [there will be] no dilution of Article 371F and even refused to accept our memorandum. We also met finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman during her visit to Sikkim who too assured us that we have nothing to fear and yet after the SC order, the Union finance ministry inserted two clauses into the Finance Act 2023 which to our mind would open floodgates for not just Indians but others too to set up shop in our small state. We felt betrayed by both these leaders.

Amit Shah meeting representatives from Sikkim at his Delhi residence in February. Photo: Special arrangement

What are these clauses in the Finance Act 2023?

The SC had clearly stated that the I-T exemption should be granted to only those who resided in Sikkim prior to its merger (they were Indian subjects at that time) and their descendants, and a clause can be added to that effect in the Finance Act. But the Finance Act 2023 doesn’t explicitly mention that the expansion of the term was only for a certain group of Indian citizens; in fact it doesn’t include the term ‘Indian’. It has also provisions for individuals who may not reside in Sikkim today but can be exempted of income tax if somehow they can establish that their forefathers resided in Sikkim prior to April 26, 1975 (at the time of the merger).

Sikkim is surrounded by foreign countries; we apprehend that such clauses might be misused. This can change the demography of Sikkim; it has possible impact on national security too.

Therefore, JAC members (D.N. Nepal, Passang Sherpa, Pempo Lepcha and Sonam Sherpa) are in Delhi to express our concern at the finance ministry.

Whom have you expressed your concern to at the finance ministry?

We have been called for a meeting with secretary, revenue, to discuss the matter on May 3 at 11 am. We hope our apprehensions are heard and addressed.

Protests in Sikkim. Photo: Special arrangement

Since the SC judgement, there have also been street protests in Sikkim. We saw the opposition Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) also raising the issue and holding a protest. Are these protests turning out to be against the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM)?

Street protests began soon after the SC order, and have been continuing. These protests are not against the ruling SKM; they are against the dilution of the term ‘Sikkimese’ and thereby the dilution of Article 371F of the Constitution.

In response to those protests, chief minister Prem Singh Tamang was screaming his heart out in public speeches to tell the people that there was no dilution of Article 371F and the ‘Sikkimese’ term, but his government brought in a resolution on April 10, 2023 whereby it admitted the dilution, and requested the Government of India to rectify it.

On May 8, the tripartite agreement of 1973 will complete 50 years. As per news reports, the JAC is marking the day with a lot of celebrations.

Yes we are. The celebrations will be held at Singtam, the place were the agreement was signed with Government of India, the last king of Sikkim Chogyal Palden Thongdup Namgyal and representatives of the political parties of Sikkim. That agreement laid the way for Sikkim to embrace democracy and be part of the Union of India. The celebration is to remind people about the significance of Article 371F which also protects the original Sikkimese subjects as mentioned in the citizens register.

We have invited the Sikkim governor to the commemoration event, we shall invite political parties too but on the condition that they should come there only as Sikkimese.

The event is also to remind the 140 crore Indians a solemn promise made by India to the people of Sikkim to protect their identity as per Article 371F which followed the signing of the tripartite agreement.

Sikkim is going to polls next year. Is there any possibility of the issue snowballing into an election issue considering we see not just SDF but other regional entities like Hamro Sikkim Party also raising it?

If not resolved, this will be a major election issue in the next assembly polls.

Update: A press statement issued by JAC vice president Passang Sherpa after the meeting with Union Finance Ministry officials in New Delhi on May 3, said, “It is held that insufficient and incorrect representation by the state government of Sikkim in the Supreme Court is the root cause of distortion of ‘Sikkimese’ definition vis a vis dilution of Article 371F.”

The press note further said that the delegation “learnt that the errors arising out of Finance Act 2023 can be corrected by adopting political and judicial approach”. The delegation met the joint secretary and director (TPL-I) department of Revenue, CBDT.