Sikkim was a Himalayan kingdom a third of the size of Wales squeezed between China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. I was there once in April, when the sky was cornflower blue. When Britain withdrew from India the last ‘Chogyal’, or king, battled for his country’s independence, but Mrs Ghandi won the war, and Sikkim is an Indian state now. It’s a sad story, as Andrew Duff’s subtitle suggests, but one representative of 20th-century geopolitics.
This dense book — Duff’s first — places Chogyal Thondup Namgyal at the centre of the story and focuses exclusively on the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. Sikkim’s strategic position is crucial, particularly as the Cold War hots up, and spies from Peking, Delhi and Washington sidle on and off the pages. Everyone gets particularly worked up about Tibet (Sikkim, unlike most of the other princely states, was and is Buddhist, and had strong ties with the Lhasa theocracy). The Chogyal’s sister Coocoola, an important figure, was passionate about the Tibetan cause and rode the trade route over to Gyantse with a rifle over her shoulder and a revolver in her pocket.
There is, too, a touch of Grace Kelly glamour, as in the lounge of the Windermere Hotel in Darjeeling Thondup met a 20-year-old American beauty called Hope Cooke. They married in 1963, ‘in the shadow of the Sino-Indian conflict’. A scarlet-robed lama officiated, and the Maharaja of Jaipur brought his own champagne. Cooke embraced her new country, but noted astutely: ‘I can just see them using me as a wedge to help destroy his [Thondup’s] rule.’ And they did. The tide turned against her almost everywhere, as tides always do. Newsweek called her ‘a Himalayan Marie-Antoinette’, and Henry Kissinger (who pops up frequently) wrote, with characteristic sensitivity: ‘She has become more Buddhist than the population.’
Duff has undertaken diligent research in diplomatic archives across the world and it is hard to imagine there is much information about this small place in those decades that has escaped his attention. Just as he finished his first draft, Wikileaks released 500 secret cables revealing fresh information about US involvement in Sikkim. As Duff writes: ‘The patchwork of alliances and enmities surrounding and within Sikkim had the characteristics of a fiendishly complex multi-player game of chess.’ China did not recognise Sikkim as part of India until 2005.
I would have liked more background information on the topography and customs of thin-aired Sikkim, and in particular on the various ethnic groups (they barely get a mention). Duff mentions ‘Sikkim’s separate identity’, but one never gets a clear sense of what it is. Equally, while I admire the author’s refusal to indulge in speculation, he remarks often that the relationship between Cooke and Thondup was ‘never simple’, yet these pages offer the reader little insight on how.
As is often the case with nationalist causes, Sikkim wanted to be free of India but was heavily reliant on the aid flowing from Delhi. Inevitably, Mrs Gandhi got her way and annexed the kingdom in 1975. Duff is sympathetic to Thondup and instinctively on his side, but he makes it clear that the man was not an adept politician. Emotion ruled the day — when his minders in Calcutta refused to let him fly the Sikkim flag on his car, he let the vehicle proceed without him and walked with an assistant holding the flag.
In short, he was not up to his job. One wonders who would have been, with almost every superpower on the case. ‘Everyone agrees,’ writes Duff, ‘that Sikkim’s sensitive geopolitical position dealt Thondup an almost unplayable hand.’ At least the state enjoys relative peace now, living off hydroelectricity and tourism — unlike Tibet. But one has ample evidence that Beijing will not rest until cultural annihilation on the plateau is complete.
As a result of a referendum, the monarchy was abolished in 1975, and the marriage crumbled under the strain of events. Cooke left the modest palace in Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, and returned to America with her two children. Thondup died in 1982, and Cooke lives on in New York, though she refused to meet Duff. He quotes judiciously from her autobiography Time Change.
This a wonderful story, expertly told, and, given the Everest of books on India,
Duff was clever to spot it. What a film it would make!