Tensions Mount in Sikkim over ‘judicial dilution’ of identity

The Centre assures support to the state’s Nepali-speaking people, but protests likely to continue

A woman protester with her child in Gangtok, Sikkim

Tensions continue to simmer in the otherwise peaceful North-eastern state of Sikkim over a recent Supreme Court judgement that described Nepali-speaking residents there as “persons of foreign origin” even as most political parties, including the ruling NDA in the state, called for a review of such a remark. For its part, the Union home ministry filed a petition in the court for a review of parts of the judgement.

Nepali-speaking people, who account of nearly 5 lakh of the close to 7 lakh population in the state – which is called the “only brother of the Seven Sisters” in India’s northeast — claim that they were around in the state, a kingdom prior to 1975, even before the formation of the kingdom of Nepal in 1768 and therefore describing them as people of foreign-origin is historically inaccurate and politically mischievous. Unlike Sikkim, the Seven Sisters — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura – had had a long history of violence and insurgencies.

The Supreme Court made such a reference in a judgement delivered on January 13 extending tax exemptions to the so-called business community in the state comprising people who are originally from other states and make up around 3% of the state’s population. They were earlier denied any tax concessions.

It is noteworthy that Nepali-speaking people have spearheaded many movements in India, starting with West Bengal in the 1980s where Subash Ghisingh launched the Gorkha National Liberation Front demanding a separate region. But such identity-focused agitations have never had any traction in Sikkim. It is therefore disturbing that such sentiments are surfacing in the state this time around.

Nepali-speaking academics and politicians state that the Sikkimese , who include Nepali speakers as well as Lepchas and Bhutias and who account for 94.6% of the population, were never against the extension of IT exemption to the business community of Sikkim. Notes Dr CB Chhetri, audit officer at Sikkim University: “The objection we have is with calling a Sikkimese Nepali an immigrant which effectively alters the definition of word ‘Sikkimese’ in clause 26AAA of Section 10 of IT Act 1961.” While business communities, who are mostly from Bihar, Punjab, and western India, say that they, too, are entitled to be categorised as native Sikkimese because their ancestors were based in the state for decades, the Sikkimese have a problem with the former questioning diluting their identity.

Rakesh Basnet, Assistant Professor, Commerce Department, Sikkim University, says that nobody grudges the business community obtaining tax exemption. “But they have insinuated in their original petition in 2013 which was later revised that Nepali-speaking people of Sikkim are, like them, people who came from elsewhere. That is not true. We are Sikkimese who speak Nepali,” he states, emphasising that “after the merger of Sikkim with India, the benefit of tax exemption was given to Sikkimese subjects who became Indian. Only a minority of the business community from elsewhere chose to be Sikkim subjects under the Chogyal dynasty. And those who were Sikkim subjects from the business community enjoyed those benefits”.

Meanwhile, more protests have been announced by both political and apolitical organisations in the state, besides a bandh on February 8, against dilution of Sikkimese identity.

The Union ministry of home affairs, for their part, tweeted on February 6 that it has filed a review petition in the Supreme Court against some of the observations and directions in the judgement, which was given over two petitions filed in 2013 and 2021 filed by the Association of Old Settlers of Sikkim and others.

Dr Chhetri says that although the judgement had come on January 13, people of the state were unaware of it until last week. Street protests and online debates started soon after that. A 48-hour bandh was called on February 4 by the main opposition Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) of which former chief minister Pawan Chamling is the president. Prior to that on February 2, the state’s health minister Mani Kumar Sharma resigned in protest over what he termed as failure on the part of the ruling state government to respond to the court’s observation. Chief minister Prem Singh Tamang, who was earlier a minister in the SDF government led by Chamling, is the founder of the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha, which is aligned with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP. On February 1, Sikkim’s Additional Advocate General Sudesh Joshi resigned after he came under sharp attack for not rising to the occasion and informing the court about the Sikkimese Nepali population and how ‘distinct’ they are from ‘old settlers’.

Dr C B Chhetri, Audit Officer, Sikkim University

Tax laws in Sikkim remained unchanged until 2008 when the Sikkim Income Tax Manual 1948 was repealed and the state’s residents were exempted from paying taxes through insertion of a section to the Income Tax Act of 1961 (called 26AAA). They did not have to pay tax for any income earned inside the state.

The Centre has also tweeted: “GoI reiterated its position about the sanctity of Article 371F of the Constitution that safeguards the Sikkimese identity, which should not be diluted…. Further, the observation in the said order about persons of foreign origin settled in Sikkim like Nepalis should be reviewed as the said persons are Sikkimese of Nepali origin.”

The state chief minister thanked union home minister Amit Shah “for considering the sentiments of the Sikkimese people and supporting the state government by filing a review petition before the Supreme Court of India”. The court, meanwhile, said that since there is no disqualification for a Sikkim man who marries a non-Sikkimese from exemption from paying tax, there cannot be discrimination based on gender – meaning Sikkimese women can’t be denied tax exemption merely for marrying non-Sikkimese men.

“We are not against tax exemption to the so-called business communities in the state, but against efforts to dilute the Sikkimese identity,” says Dr C B Chhetri, Audit Officer, Sikkim University

Nepali-speaking Sikkimese say that they are crestfallen because they were at the forefront, in support of the decision to accede to India. They are also upset that the business community has launched a campaign after the verdict, targeting some communities who were given the Scheduled Tribe status in 2002. The business community there are against the decision of 2003 when the Nepali-speaking Limbu and Tamang communities got recognised and notified as Scheduled Tribes by the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Orders (Amendment) Act 2002. Various campaigns by the business community on social media claim that they are being discriminated against. Dr Chhetri says, “Basically the Sikkimese feel cheated by the business community whom they treated as their brothers.”

Chamling had expressed fears early last year in an interview that misuse of the tax-exemption might lead to scrapping of the benefit. In the 1980s, traders used to resort to what was then called the “gift racket” by taking advantage of inadequate tax laws until the federal government decided to crack the whip. Others, including two government officials, argue that tax exemption for ‘these business communities’ will result in scams of the past making a comeback. “More irregularities similar to the ‘gift racket’, money laundering and cases like the Sikkim MCX Fraud case and others may reappear,” avers Dr Chhetri.

Despite strong assurances from the Centre, the Supreme Court verdict has led to fears among Lepchas and Bhutias, besides, of course, the Nepali-speaking people in Sikkim, that the sanctity of Article 371F of the Constitution, which safeguards the Sikkimese identity, may come under attack. Sikkimese scholars like Balaram Pandey and two state government officials state that Nepali-speaking people were a majority in the erstwhile kingdom of Sikkim even in the 1891 status. Basnet points out, “Passions are high among Lepchas, Butias, and all Nepali-speaking communities about the efforts to dilute their identities.”

First published in Open

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