The Pang Lhabsol, the thanksgiving festival to the guardian deity Kanchenjunga protecting and blessing the people of Sikkim, will not be the same this year. Celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month of the Tibetan calendar in all the monasteries and the most famous one being on the grounds of Tsuklakhang Monastery close to the palace, in Gangtok, Pang Lhabsol falls on September 13, 2019; a month after the gratuitous notification of the Ministry of Home Affairs (on August 13, 2019) permitting foreign nationals, with a mountaineering visa from the Indian Mountaineering Association, access to 137 peaks including the Kanchenjunga.
This decision, indeed, has irked the people of Sikkim. A protest is on and will intensify after September 13 if the ministry does not rescind its decision and exclude the Kanchenjunga from the permits for mountaineers; in other words, to restore status quo as before August 13, 2019.
The unrest, which could snowball into protests on the streets, is not just because the said notification will disturb the sanctity of their age-old belief but it is also seen as an unwelcome interference from the central government without considering the concerns around the Sikkimese identity.
Sikkim is otherwise known as a politically sterile state. The last major political activity recorded was in the early 1970s just before Sikkim became a unit of the Indian Union in May 1975 and a month before the notorious National Emergency was declared on June 25, 1975. In the last 44 years, Sikkim saw six Chief Ministers including BB Gurung, the Chief Minister for fourteen days as well as Pawan Kumar Chamling, who remained in office the longest anywhere in India; for 25 years (1994-2019).
The transitions were smooth; Sikkim has hardly had any strong opposition party in the 32 member Legislative Assembly. For long, people did not protest against the poor health care system which invariably made them to travel to the South of India; those who were rich went to the Appolo hospital or such other super-speciality ones while the middle class and the poor chose the CMC in Vellore or the one run by the Sathya Sai-Baba trust in Whitefield, Karnataka.
It is only recently that we find students from the colleges and Sikkim University protesting against poor health care facilities in the state under the banner of the Sikkim Progressive Youth Forum. Though a section of the population protested against the large dam construction and were led by various organisations like the Affected Citizens of Teesta, most sections of the Sikkim people remained quiescent when the river banks were leased out to pharmaceutical companies which disturbed the biodiversity by constructing massive infrastructure.
In 2017, students from Sikkim Government College, the oldest college in Sikkim that came up as a night college as recently as in 1977, blocked the arterial highway (the NH 31A then and NH10 now), connecting Silliguri with our borders with China at Nathu la, over fee hike; life stood still in the capital for a few hours until the police managed to disburse the students using force. It left a huge impact.
The knee jerk reaction of the government was startling; rather than reversing the hiked fees, the state government declared fee waiver to all the students. Mission was accomplished. No more strikes were expected.
A point about the developments involving damage to the river beds by the pharma companies and the larger ecological threat from the hydel projects was that the campaign or the debate did not raise that issue of any outside interference into the life and culture of the Sikkimese people. It is another matter that these two involved importing a development paradigm from elsewhere but this aspect was not pronounced in Sikkim hitherto.
The fact is the regional Sikkimese identity exerts a role in the life and the affairs of the people in Sikkim and assumes various socio-cultural-political spheres in the state. This is why Government of India allowed Sikkim to have special status through Article 371 (f) after it was merged into the Union in 1975. And this is also the reason why none of the national political parties has ever gained power in the state despite their attempts.
Two events in tandem contributed to the recent resurgence of regional Sikkimese identity. First, was the abrogation of Article 370 and the second was the joining of 10 MLAs from the Sikkim Democratic Front, the party that dominated Sikkimâs political sphere since 1994, in the BJP.
When Home Minister Amit Shah announced the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35-A in Parliament, earlier this month, it had indirect effect on the Sikkimese psyche. The Sikkimese people, till then confident about the permanence of their special status, guaranteed by the constitution through Article 371 (f), did apprehend a loss of this. This was evident when Rajya Sabha MP Hissey Lachungpa held out during his speech in the Upper House seeking an assurance that 371 (f) will remain even while he supported the move on Article 370 and 35-A.
Though the government promptly neutralised this fear of losing special protection it left many individuals questioning about the Sikkimese identity.
Moreover, the Sikkimese people, by and large, have shown their intentions for preserving Sikkimese identity by keeping national political parties at bay in all elections since 1979. In the new context, where 10 MLAs of SDF joined the BJP, there has been a change in the composition of the state assembly where a national party has âemergedâ as the main opposition. This had, even otherwise, thrown up talks about the Sikkimese identity.
The Sikkimese always guarded their identity preciously. That was the reason none of the national parties could park themselves here despite the fact that in 1976, the ruling party joined the INC under pressure and also later on Janata party had a stake. But the act did not sustain.
In the political climate of the immediate present, it looks like once the Pang Lhabsol is over people will definitely react to the intervention of the Centre opening the Kanchenjunga for mountaineers. The unrest is building and simmering now.
Ugen Bhutia is an assistant professor at SRM University in Amaravati. EK Santha is an independent researcher living in Gangtok.