Interview with G.B.S. Sidhu - India, China, Sikkim, Punjab, and Canada

G.B.S. Sidhu has served as the Special Secretary of India's Research and Analysis Wing. In 1976, Sidhu was assigned to India's High Commission in Canada. Sidhu played a key role in merger of Sikkim.

G.B.S. Sidhu is the author of the books: Sikkim - Dawn of Democracy: The Truth Behind the Merger and The Khalistan Conspiracy.

G.B.S Sidhu, who had been in the news lately due to the release of his book The Khalistan Conspiracy, published by HarperCollins India, retired in April 1998 as Special Secretary from India’s external intelligence service the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). He served in R&AW for twenty-six years, in various capacities, both in India and abroad. Before his posting as First Secretary in the High Commission of India Ottawa, Canada for three years (September 1 976 to September 1979), he was posted as head of R&AW’s station at Gangtok (Sikkim). During that period, he was entrusted with a landmark top-secret operation, relating to the merger of Sikkim with India. He completed this job in twenty-seven months when Sikkim became the 22nd state of India in May 1975 through the 36th Amendment to the Constitution of India. The details of that operation have been described by Sidhu in his book Sikkim Dawn of Democracy published by Penguin Random House (2018). 

First, a quote from Sidhu’s latest book, The Khalistan Conspiracy:

“The falsehood I refer to was designed to make the people of India believe that a fairly large number of Sikh diaspora from Canada, the US, the UK nursed Khalistan sentiments.”

1)  Do you think the support for reforming the monarchy in Sikkim would have been the same if you had not helped L.D. Kazi and some of the other anti-Chogyal political leader? 

Reforming the monarchy wasn’t possible. On the eve of India’s independence in August 1947, there was a popular pro-merger and the pro-independence movement led by Tashi Tshering (a Bhutia) head of Sikkim State Congress. A full chapter has been devoted to him and his activities in my book. But as desired by Prime Minister Nehru, unlike 565 other princely states in India, Sikkim was granted the status of a protectorate through the December 1950 treaty. Government of India – especially the Ministry of External Affairs – took a conscious decision to suppress the pro-merger movement and lend support the Chogyal (ruler of Sikkim) to ensure stability in Sikkim. As I have written in the book Tashi Tshering, LD Kazi and couple of other pro-merger leaders met Nehru in 1948 and pleaded for the accession of Sikkim to India. In 1949, with the support of couple of otherpolitical parties, to force the Maharaja to agree to their demands including accession of Sikkim to India, laid a siege of the palace with 5000 strong demonstrators. This means that 10 percent of the able-bodied Sikkimese  population had converged to Gangtok to force Maharaja to agree to their demands. Unfortunately, that was cleverly neutralised by India following a policy that has been described by me a ‘an apparent appeasement (of the Chogyal) and cautious containment (of the pro-democracy parties)’ to ensure Maharaja’s complete control over this strategically located state. Taking advantage of India’s policy of appeasement, Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal started nursing ambitions of securing an independent status for Sikkim like that of Bhutan, which India could hardly afford to grant due to Sikkim’s strategic location.  As Chogyal persisted with his demand, in December 1972 PM Indira Gandhi asked R&AW chief R.N Kao “to do something about Sikkim.” 

Consequently, we revived the demoralized pro-merger political parties, especially Sikkim National Congress led by Kazi Lhendup Dorji. In view of India’s past pro-Chogyal policy, initially these parties didn’t believe that India seriously wanted to support a pro-merger movement. They thought that India was using them to gain concessions from Chogyal. It took some time to convince them of our bona fides. But finally, we were able to convince them about our sincerity. 

2)  In your book, you have described Chogyal’s regime as an “autocratic and self-serving regime.” I have had the opportunity to speak to some of the Newar families in Sikkim, and they did not entirely agree with that assessment. What do you have to say about that?

Sikkim’s population comprised 12 percent Bhutia (ruling class of Tibetan origin) 13 percent Lepchas (original inhabitants) and 75 percent were Nepalese of various hues. Numbers wise Bhutia Lepcha combine of 25% fell too short of the Nepalese population. The Nepalese were the most neglected. Even though Lepchas generally sided with the Bhutias, their socio-economic condition was also not very good. To keep control over various segments of the society, Chogyal used to dole out favours to selected Nepalese families. Your Newari contacts must be from this segment of the favored ones. When a certain political party won the elections, it was not entitled on its own to form the government or get a ministerial berth. It was all at the discretion of the Chogyal. Once Kazi Lhendup Dorjee’s party had won the most seats but he wasn’t even included in the cabinet. Chogyal’s Intelligence Chief Karma Topden told me that his father - Martem Topden, as a cabinet minister used to share a jeep with another minister. Car or Jeep of a cabinet minster was not entitled to fly a flag but cars or jeeps of secretary rank officers could. As a result, at major government functions the cars flying flags could go right up to the entry of the venue, but ministers had to park their cars at a distance and walk to the entrance.  

3)  What did you think about Andrew Duff’s take on Sikkim's merger in the book “Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom”? 

Duff’s book is somewhat of a romanticized story of Chogyal , his family and  courtiers. He starts his book with Captain Yongda (head of Chogyal’s security detail) and ends with Yongda. He has quoted papers available in the UK archives but he didn’t care to go to India’s National Archive in New Delhi. He also quotes profusely from the letters written by two Scottish Headmistresses’ to their respective parents, to move his story further. Both these ladies were admirers of the Chogyal. How could their versions of events and developments be considered as objective? Duff has also depended a lot on Sunanda K. Datta-Ray’s book ‘Smash and Grab’ which portrays a one-sided story of the Sikkimese ruling family. Also, neither of these books have presented a coherent picture as to how the events unfolded. 

4)  China had actively highlighted the story of Sikkim’s merger into India through propaganda by its state media during the Doklam military crisis in 2017. How well do you think China understands the unique context of Sikkim’s history? And, has China had any influence over local politics during your time in Sikkim? 

If Sikkim hadn’t been merged with India in 1975, China might have subverted the Sikkimese system as they have done in Nepal and as they unsuccessfully tried to do in Burma in early 1970s. During my posting at Gangotk I did not observe any Chinese influence in Sikkimese politics. But China having some clandestine sources could not be ruled out. I have written in my book that post merger, concerned agencies had to keep a close watch over the people living close to the Chinese border. 

5)  Do you think an independent Sikkim under the rule of the Namgyal family could have survived had there been no merger with India? 

I don’t think so. Sikkim’s survival was totally dependent upon the India’s military support. It was impossible for a small state like Sikkim to maintain three mountain divisions dedicated to defence of Sikkim and the adjacent Doklam area. Without this type of support of the Indian Army, Sikkim would have collapsed. 

6)  What do you think is China's end goal vis-à-vis Bhutan?

Despite persistent efforts, so far China have not been able to establish a foothold in Bhutan. The settlement of the border issue is mainly linked to improvement of bilateral relations and lessening of Bhutan’s dependence upon India. 22 rounds of negotiations had taken place without any results. Earlier the Chinese were willing to settle the issue if Bhutan agreed to surrender its rights over Doklan area in exchange of the disputed area in the Central region, but recently a new area in the east Bhutan (Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary) has been added to the dispute by the Chinese.

7)  In your book Khalistan Conspiracy you have stated that there was very little public support for Khalistan in Canada in the 1970s and your department told you that they were not interested in Gurudwara politics. Do you think the Government of India is making that same mistake once again? And are certain “falsehoods” being repeated?

During my stay in Canada I travelled widely. I found that there was only one person namely Toronto-based Kuldip Singh Sodhi who openly propagated the idea of Khalistan. Sodhi used to call himself Counsel General of Khalistan. It was well known that Sodhi and Jagjit Singh Chauhan were being financed by Pakistan’s ISI. Sodhi was an odd ball and bit of a joke. There was no organized pro-Khalistan movement either in Canada or in Punjab till the end of 1979. There is a certain section in the UK, Canada and the US especially the one called SFJ (Sikhs For Justice) led by US based Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, who were planning to hold 2020 referendum. But they have little support in India. Other than a propaganda stunt, nothing is going to come out of its campaign. India can’t remain quiet, and India isn’t repeating the same mistake again. It is, however, observant of such developments. 

8)  I have observed silence on the part of the generation in Punjab that lived through the difficult year of 1984. Are there other secrets about this particular history of Punjab that are yet to be revealed?

The magnitude of the action taken during operation blue star and the anti-Sikh pogrom of November 1984, was so alarming that people who were in the know of things thought that it was better to remain quiet. Many commissions, committees and SITs that were appointed to dispense justice to the families of victims of the 1984 pogrom. Nothing significant came out of these. Other than Sajjan Kumar who was jailed recently, vast majority of culprits are still roaming free. Thousands were killed during the pogrom, and those families haven’t received justice so far. I attended the meeting of the Sikh Forum at Constitution House New Delhi held in November 2017. One of the founding members of this Forum in his concluding remarks said that the Sikhs were willing to forgive the Congress party for its role in the November 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, if they were willing to apologize for their party’s role in that pogrom. But they wanted a proof for their involvement.  “From where can we produce that evidence” he mused. After that meeting was over, I realized that as I have some information on the subject, I should write this book.  

To bring a closure to whole issue, in the last chapter of my book The Khalistan Conspiracy, I have suggested the appointment a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to go into the whole number of related issues. With the grant of amnesty a large number of people will come forward and reveal what they knew all these years. A number of people have privately commended me for writing this book. Let us hope something good will come out of it. 

If you are interested in learning more about Sidhu’s new book Khalistan Conspiracy, you can watch the recording of the book launch by HarperCollins.

(The interview was updated on December 2nd with updates from the author.)