The Assembly of the Indian state of Sikkim, in a move that may help safeguard minority rights and prevent violence, has granted the Lepchas the status of a “Scheduled Tribe.” According to a February 26th news report in New Kerala.com, the state assembly unanimously passed the measure, which had been approved by the State Cabinet on January 29th. A lot of tensions and political maneuverings have led up to this action, which should be framed within the history of the Lepcha people.
The Lepchas are the original inhabitants of what is now known as Sikkim, according to Gorer (1967), though they were overwhelmed, in numbers, by the Bhutia (or Bhotia) people, ethnic Tibetans who migrated south into Sikkim at least 400 years ago. The Bhutias established the Kingdom of Sikkim and the Lepchas became a minority society. Immigration of other groups, mostly from Nepal, into the high, Himalayan valleys of Sikkim have continued over the centuries, which has produced the tensions of today. While most Lepchas no longer speak their original language, they still seek their minority rights.
While categorizing human beings as members of a “Scheduled Tribe” may strike outsiders as so much racism, it is important to understand such a definition within the context of Indian society and its approach to preserving minority rights. Until last week, the Social Welfare Department of the State of Sikkim, according to Indian law, listed just two scheduled tribes in the state, the Lepcha and the Bhutia. However, eight other groups were lumped together with the Bhutia, all of which are the more recent immigrant peoples from Nepal who now considerably outnumber the original Lepcha and Bhutia inhabitants.
The contemporary problem began in 1973 when the Cogyal (the ruler) of the independent principality of Sikkim signed an agreement with the government of India and the representatives of the three population groups in his country—the Lepchas, the Bhutias, and the Nepalese—to merge with India. In 1974, elections were held for a new Legislative Assembly in Sikkim, and the Indian parliament passed the Government of Sikkim Act. That law provided for a state legislature that would guarantee the voting rights for the minority, the original inhabitants of the country, with 15 seats reserved for the Bhutia-Lepcha peoples, 15 seats for the Nepalese immigrants, one seat for the Sanghas (the monks in the monasteries), and one seat for members of other castes.
An act of the Indian parliament in 1975 accepted Sikkim into the union and kept the proportional representation in the state legislature. Another national law in 1979 modified the proportions in the state legislature to 12 seats for the Bhutia-Lepcha peoples, 17 seats to be elected in general, two seats for members of the scheduled castes, and one seat for the Sanghas. Challenged in the Indian Supreme Court as contrary to the Indian traditions of democracy, the court upheld the law since it was based on the historical situation of Sikkim.
In other words, the problems for the Lepchas have been twofold. For one thing, demographic changes in Sikkim have made the Lepchas a minority population, widely dispersed throughout the state, but a minority almost everywhere. The other problem is their being linked with the Bhutia and, even more to the point, the fact that eight other immigrant groups from Nepal are also defined as Bhutia. As a consequence, the 12 legislative seats reserved for the Lepcha-Bhutia inhabitants have been mostly held by the various Nepalese immigrant peoples, along with the other 17 general seats. Thus, their legal definition as a “Scheduled Tribe,” which until last month also included so many of the recent Nepalese immigrant peoples, has virtually denied the Lepchas of any representation in the legislature.
The Lepchas and the Bhutias formed an organization in 1999 to challenge the definition of the Scheduled Tribes in the state and to advocate their rights. They formed the Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SBLCA), to represent the two groups in their efforts to bring the situation back to the intent, as they saw it, of the original agreement of 1974.
The other eight groups included within the purview of the Bhutia have not been happy with the growing political power of the SBLCA. The Sherpas residing in Sikkim, one of the eight immigrant groups, have been heatedly opposed to any changes in the 1978 Scheduled Tribe Order. Their umbrella group, the Sikkim Sherpa Association, has opposed the demands of the Lepcha-Bhutia, and has made its feelings known to the Indian central government. The interests of the Nepali immigrant groups in general have been represented in this struggle by the Gorkha Apex Committee (GAC).
While it is difficult to figure out from afar all the political maneuverings over the recent weeks to produce the victory two weeks ago for the Lepchas, an Indian analyst writing for the South Asia Intelligence Review speculated that the situation could well have led to violence on the part of the disenfranchised, whose fears should not be minimized.
One might also suspect that the Maoist guerrilla violence that has destabilized Nepal in recent years, and the growing Naxalite problem in India, may have something to do with the recent resolution. India has become highly concerned about guerilla violence, and one might speculate that high-level concerns about the possibility of violence in Sikkim prompted this sudden resolution of the Lepcha complaints. Unfortunately, it is not clear from reports available to date if the Bhutia have also been granted their own Scheduled Tribe status separately from the Nepalese peoples.
Next week, Part 3, The Roots of Conflict in Ladakh, will conclude the series.