Gangtok: During the ongoing controversy surrounding the labelling of Sikkimese Nepali as “immigrants” and the striking down of the term “Sikkimese,” the Sikkim Assembly held a special session and passed a government resolution.

The resolution calls for the Indian government to protect and maintain the distinct identity of the Sikkimese people, as outlined in Article 371F and the special status granted to Sikkim at the time of its merger.

During the Assembly discussion, Sikkim Chief Minister Prem Singh Golay stated that the “old settlers” (people who settled in Sikkim on or before April 26, 1975) were only granted IT exemption and are not equal to Sikkim Subjects. He explained that when the IT exemption was granted in 2008 to other inhabitants of Sikkim who were Sikkim Subjects, the old settlers’ were denied the exemption because they had declined the opportunity to become Sikkim Subject holders on April 26, 1974, and had kept their Indian identity.

Golay further stated that the former government was responsible for not granting the old settlers the IT exemption in 2008 and for pushing the issue to the Supreme Court in 2013, where the wrongful mention of Sikkimese people as immigrants was made.

He also mentioned that when the Supreme Court asked the state government about who should receive the IT exemption in July 2018, the then government issued a public notice inviting people other than old settlers to apply. Those who had lands in rural areas and those who were government employees working in Sikkim prior to December 31, 1969, were allowed to apply.

The Chief Minister also noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when his government was formed, they had virtual hearings and were not aware of the wrongful mention of Sikkimese people as immigrants, nor did they have the opportunity to discuss it in the Supreme Court.

Golay pointed out that the final hearing for the IT exemption case was conducted on August 11, 2022, without a proper hearing. According to him, “In the last hearing, we were unable to present our argument due to the IT exemption being a concern for the Union government. We do not disapprove of the IT exemption for old settlers, but we suggest that it should not affect the status of Sikkim Subjects.”

Golay highlighted his trust in the independence of the judiciary and stated that there was no way to lobby for the IT exemption case.

He said, “Since the last hearing in the IT exemption case was in August 2022, the verdict came after five months and we were unable to intervene during that time. The court’s decision cannot be influenced. We trusted the apex court and I was equally worried about the immigrant tag.”

He added, “On February 5, we went to Delhi, met with legal experts, and talked with Law Minister Kiren Rijiju and Home Minister Amit Shah, and were satisfied with the assurance given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, we declined to make the Sikkimese issue public and our discussions with central leaders were part of a strategy to put the central government ahead. We had a senior advocate, famous for the Babri Masjid case, in our defence for the writ petition and our own Advocate General, Dr Doma Tshering Bhutia, representing us. Our counsellor also emphasized the May 8 agreement during the writ petition hearing. Despite the fact that the May 8 agreement mentions ‘Sikkimese of Nepali origin’, our defence was based on ‘Nepalis of Sikkimese origin’, keeping the May 8 agreement and 371F untouched from the changes made by the January 13 verdict.”

Highlighting the review petition filed by the State Government in the Supreme Court, Golay shared, “We filed our review petition on February 2 against the striking down of the word “Sikkimese” and the “immigrant” tag on Sikkimese Nepali in the Supreme Court. Bharat Basnet and Ram Bahadur Subba filed a miscellaneous application on February 3, and the Association of Old Settlers of Sikkim also filed a miscellaneous application on February 4. The Union government filed its own review petition on February 6, and our own legislator MK Sharma, who criticized our government for not being serious about the immigrant issue, filed his miscellaneous application on February 7.”

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Countering accusations of dilution of Article 371F by the IT exemption case by bringing in Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law, in the state, and the striking down of the word ‘Sikkimese’, Golay stated, “Our writ petition was the only one that kept the May 8 agreement, Article 371F, and the meaning of Sikkimese prior to the May 8 agreement as part of our review petition. The miscellaneous applications filed by others did not mention anything related to the May 8 agreement or Article 371F. Bharat Basnet did not bring up Article 371F in his appeal to the Supreme Court. Despite all his accusations against us for not working sincerely on the immigrant issue, MK Sharma should have come to the assembly to pass a resolution instead of trying to be a hero in Delhi.”

Golay accused “political opportunist” leaders of misusing the immigrant issue, stating, “On February 10, 1993, when Sikkimese Nepali received the immigrant tag in a case by RC Poudyal, the former Chief Minister saw a political opportunity to overthrow the government. For the next 25 years, he did not address the issue but divided the Sikkimese community along communal lines. This issue has dragged on for 29 years, but if the government had been serious and conscious, it could have been resolved by now. Former CM Pawan Chamling never went to the Supreme Court to raise this issue or to rectify it, and he never listened to the pleas made by RC Poudyal. Now, in 2023, when this issue has come up again, he has politicized it and even left the Assembly before the resolution was passed.”

Also Read | SLA adopts govt resolution on special status and distinct identity of Sikkimese

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