To my people in Sikkim,

This has been a difficult note for me to write. I urge everyone to read it with an open heart. Please read it in its entirety. I request you not pick, choose, or quote parts of it that can easily be misconstrued. If you disagree with anything I say, please disregard it and throw it. If I make any mistake, please forgive me as one of your own. I considered whether to post it or not, but felt I should share my thoughts. It is my individual opinion. I do not represent anyone. If you need to be angry, please be angry only with me. If you feel the love, please share it amongst yourselves. 

I was too disturbed and too shocked during the past week or two to write – both at an event that happened in Sikkim which anguished its people and the intense othering and hate for a community that followed that event. I have cried several times, and I know many of you would have.

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Those who want to know what happened can read this:

Following this event, among all the hate against old settlers that I read on social media (sometimes by people who I know, love, or have grown up with; there were some balanced voices as well), I read a seemingly harmless comment, “Are they [the old settlers community] this voiceless?” I wondered how 2% of the population – some less than 3,000 people – was to have a voice when a vast majority of the population was anguished and angry (and rightly so) and emotionally charged.

Yet, it was not the word ‘voiceless’ which affected me as much. It was the words, ‘they’ or ‘ta haru’ [‘you’ people]. For me, it’s always, ‘we’ and ‘hami haru’ [we all]. And the othering of ‘a part of my heart I was born into’ by ‘a part of my heart I was shaped by’ hurt me.

I belong to the Marwari ‘Old settler’ community of Sikkim. My forefathers had moved from the Churu district of Rajasthan to Sikkim. I’ve heard accounts going back to the late 1800s. Currently, in its sixth generation, my extended family – including the families of my grandfather’s brothers and those of my great-grandfather’s brothers – live in Sikkim. 

I was born in Sir Thutob Namgyal Memorial hospital in the late 1970s. My father was born in Mangan, North Sikkim on New Year’s Day in 1937. My grandfather died in Gangtok 40 years ago in 1982, when I was in Lower KG at Tashi Namgyal Academy (TNA). One of his brothers had died young – in the 1940s or 1950s – in Mangan. He had a very close Lepcha friend. His ‘chihan’ is still there in Mangan. My father died in Gangtok in September 2020 at the age of 83 – the 8th person in Sikkim to die of COVID. Their ashes, and those of the extended family who have deceased, have mixed with the soil of Sikkim and the waters of the Teesta. It’s painful to have to explain this to my own people. 

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My story “Synthesizing Contradictions” in my 2021 book, “Engineering to Ikigai” describes my identities as including Indian “with large bits from Singapore and the US”, Marwari from Sikkim “with a large part Nepali”, and Hindu “with major influences of the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhist principles of dukkha and non-permanence, Kabir’s poems, Yin and Yang, and the common essence of all religions.” I grew up speaking in Marwari with my grandparents and parents and in Nepali with my siblings. Some of my family members of the previous generation could converse in Marwari, Nepali, and also the languages of Rong and Lhopo. 

The value system that I imbibed about my family since my grandfather’s time was “jabaan ko pakka.” [keeping one’s word] When doing business, if they said they would buy something at a certain price and if the market prices fell drastically, they would still buy it as they had given their word and suffer a huge loss. No written documentation or contract was required. When I topped TNA in the ICSE exams in 1992, my great-grandfather’s nephew called me to tell me how everyone was congratulating him and he said, “Ho, mero naati ho.” [Yes, he’s my grandson] He was known to say, it doesn’t matter if you are of any “jaat” [ethnicity], “chimatyo bhani sabai lai dukcha.” [if you pinch, everyone feels the pain]

When Sikkim went into a state of turmoil following the news of the Indian Supreme Court observation, people started calling the entire old settlers, “gaddar” [traitor], “backstabber”, “sauda garnu aayo, sauda garyo” [came to trade, traded] and “ jun thaal ma khayo tyasai ma…” [….in the plate one ate in], etc., I cried thinking of my old grandfather who lived harmoniously among all people of Sikkim and worked selflessly and tirelessly until his death, and what had he done to have his kin face this disrepute and otherization. Without a Sikkim Subject or Certificate of Identification (COI), the pride of my family used to be, “Sikkim ma purano aako” [we are old settlers in Sikkim; here since long], and now the “purano” [old] itself had suddenly become a curse.

I have been loved, supported, and celebrated throughout by countless people in TNA and the rest of Sikkim. I am “naani” [child] or “chora” [son] to some and “bhai” [‘younger’ brother], “saathi” [friend], “da” [‘older’ brother], or “daju” [‘older’ brother] to many. My family is not confined to the family I was born into. You all live in my heart. 

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Coming to the recent incident, I am not involved in the Association of Old Settlers (AOSS) petition. I have been away from Sikkim since 1995, except for occasional visits back home. I work in the US and pay taxes here. However, the outcry was against the entire old settlers and not just those from AOSS who submitted the petition (as often happens if you’re a minority anywhere), I feel the need to explain – at least my point of view. In a way, an outcry against everyone is perhaps fair as the people who got the petition drafted were petitioning for something whose outcome would benefit not just themselves but all old settlers in Sikkim (even if they made thoughtless mistakes in their initial petition) and also all Sikkimese women married to non-Sikkimese. 

Initially, I wondered why people were mentioning the word ‘foreigner’ to express their anguish when the observation had used ‘foreign origin’ (while the latter term is also offensive). While both terms would be offensive, there is a difference between the two. In the US where I am now, many people talk about their ancestry from different countries, including the ancestry of most US Presidents from Western European countries. I moved from Sikkim to Singapore on scholarship in 1995 and have been teaching as a Professor in Boston since 2009. 

However, the context would be very different for Sikkim where being called of foreign origin would be hugely offensive and striking at the root of one’s identity when one’s forefathers across generations have toiled to shape modern Sikkim. Also, many people across India confuse Nepali-speaking Indians with people from Nepal which can be offensive and tiring to explain. I have tried to correct this perception on several occasions including at a talk given to a Singapore audience in 2008 while doing my PhD at the National University of Singapore

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As it came to light that such references might have been in the original petition filed by AOSS in 2013 (with all offensive references removed in the amendments filed the same year), I thought it was childish to include references to other ethnicities in the first place when fighting for your rights. It was like a child going to a teacher and saying that my friend got so many marks for the same question and why did I get less. You could simply argue your case on its own merits.

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The observation rightly angered the people of Sikkim and galvanized everyone like never before and at the highest levels to have the offensive sentences removed. Multiple review petitions were filed, including one by AOSS, and to everyone’s relief, including mine, the offensive sentences were removed from the Indian Supreme Court observation

These were the nuances that, I think, were lost in the events that shaped up:

The Supreme Court observation of 2023 that anguished Sikkim and which led to the ire against old settlers seems to have happened because of an inadvertent error of the amended petition not being placed before the bench when the observation was being read out.

I believe that during the final hearing in August 2022, the petitioners’ council informed the court a few times that the petition had been amended.

From what I learned from watching recent news/interviews, I believe an uproar happened in 2013 after AOSS’s original petition. The people who had it drafted had been reprimanded (and rightly so), and they had filed amendments without the offensive references. Thus, it was a case of some people who had made a mistake, got scolded for it, apologized, and corrected it, and ten years later, unfortunately, the old mistake showed up again leading to all that happened and the entire old settlers getting a bad name. 

So now a question that might be in people’s minds: Why did the AOSS include such references in the first place in 2013? Were they not “gaddar”, “backstabber”, “sauda garnu aayo, sauda garyo” and “ jun thaal ma khayo tyasai ma…” in doing so? Rather than backstabbing, I think it was a childish and thoughtless way of simply trying to compare, not realizing the ramifications of including those references and how much they would anger and hurt their fellow Sikkimese Nepali community. They should have put forward their case on its merit. It could have also arisen due to misplaced narratives. In the aftermath of these events, when I did an online search, I found a lot of conflicting information online. We need to educate our people on the correct history. Thankfully, one outcome of these current events is that the offensive tags, which I learned that the Sikkimese Nepali people had to hear previously too, are now expunged by the highest court.

One of the things to realize from all this is how incensed an attack on our identity and dignity made us. Yet, the old settlers are a community that has been seeking acknowledgement and dignity for a long time, which had been happening with various stakeholders realizing this and the slogan “Bhutia-Lepcha-Nepali” also including “ani Purano Byapari” [business people of old times] since the past 2-3 decades or more. These current events would have, unfortunately, further marginalized this community. 

In one of the interviews that I watched this past week, the panellists discussed that when the Sikkim Subject was offered to everyone, without discrimination, in 1961, why did the old settlers not take it then (a few old settler families did)? The condition mentioned was that they needed to have been residing in Sikkim 15 years prior to that year (since 1946) and would need to give up their Indian citizenship. Growing up in the 1980s, I heard about how not taking the Sikkim Subject then was a mistake. I guess it must have been hard for them to give up Indian citizenship, primarily because they still had family ties in Rajasthan then. One of the requirements of Sikkim Subject was a declaration of parting with property in your country of origin and having no live interest there. They couldn’t make any incorrect declarations. Another discussion in the panel was that the COI was subsequently offered in the late 1980s and early 1990s to people who were left out, and why didn’t the old settlers take it then? I believe the old settlers were turned away saying that they already had Indian citizenship and that the COI was only being given to certain people who were left out. Here in the US, a child is given complete rights as soon as one is born here. Even though Sikkim has unique guarantees which you rightly need to safeguard, I fail to see why some 400-odd families need to struggle to be recognized as equals after more than a century in a place. Give them the rights that you would have wanted if you would have been in their place, even as you strive against any dilution of the Sikkimese identity. You, as the future of Sikkim, need to find these answers yourselves. All I would say is that any definition of Sikkimese, if not on paper, then in our hearts and minds, should include people that have lived with us for more than a century and made Sikkim home. This will only strengthen Sikkim further.

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Slurs such as “dhoti” which I had hardly heard since I was a kid resurfaced during these current events. For times of disagreement (hopefully, we don’t have any more turbulent times in the normally peaceful Sikkim), new terms will need to be invented 🙂 My grandfather wore a dhoti. My father switched from a dhoti to a kurta shirt/pyjama after he got a stroke ten years before his death. With most of the older generation gone, I don’t see any of the old settlers wearing dhoti anymore. The younger ones wear jeans and t-shirts. I am comfortable both in formal, t-shirts and jeans and in kurta-pyjamas. I also love wearing the Dhaka topi [Nepali hat].  

Here in the US, the trees around me remind me of Sikkim and Darjeeling, where my “sasurali” [inlaws’ place] is. Along with Diwali and Holi, we celebrate Dasain/Teeka and bhai teeka, and try to grow “saipatri” [marigold] to remind us of home. In many of my keynote and invited talks around the world, and at the beginning of each of my classes, I have talked about Sikkim and shared pictures of its beauty. When a person from Sikkim becomes an acclaimed author or wins a medal for India at an international competition or makes a beautiful film, I celebrate along with all of Sikkim. When I became the President of a prestigious International Association (or when my books came out), the whole of Sikkim celebrated me. Regularly on social media, I revel in the daily triumphs of the people I love. 

When my father died 2 years ago, one of my Bhutia bhais [brothers] from Gangtok, on his own accord, went to the Dubdi Monastery Yuksam, the oldest monastery in Sikkim, and lit 108 lamps for my deceased father. He said he did this because he respected me a lot. Last year, when I needed a translation done for a page about an association, my retired Tibetan teacher from school got it done right away, spending nine hours non-stop with a limited supply of power. In 1994, when I was the School Captain of TNA, little boys and girls would come and give me flowers. Sikkimese of all ethnicities have always supported me and cheered me daily. How do I ever pay back this kind of love?

In the aftermath of the recent events, all I would say is this. Let us like or dislike people as individuals and not dehumanize each other by making humans an abstraction based on the circles we put them into. At every juncture in life, we need to create a circle that unites us with the next person – even with the person we might disagree with or who might have caused us hurt. Love them or hate them – the old settlers are a part of you as much as you are a part of them. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thick Nhat Hanh always said, “We inter-are” (as opposed to “we are”). Compassion is the value system given to us by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As the Bible also says, let us forgive one another for our mistakes and trespasses, so that we are forgiven for our own mistakes when the time comes for us to leave this world. 

We don’t need to be similar to love one another. People look different, are different, and we need to not just tolerate, but celebrate our differences. The human struggle is all about trying to fit in and trying to stand out. That is what makes us similar. Such an event would take time to heal from. Give yourselves as much time as you need, but embrace one another, for the sake of yourselves, and for the sake of Sikkim.

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These events provide us with a greater opportunity to understand each other’s fears and sensitivities. A good way to be secure is to remove the insecurities of those around us. Even as we strive for “ekta” [unity] and “jagrukta” [awareness], a true ekta is achieved when we take even the smallest among our population along. Let us not create a society of “us” versus “them”. Let us strive for an inclusive society, while still protecting our rights.  

To all my Sikkimese Nepali friends, if you need to hear an apology from someone born into an old settler family of Sikkim (though my community includes all of you reading this), take it from me. I’m deeply sorry for all the anguish and deep hurt that the actions of AOSS petitioners – even if done by ignorance or negligence – caused you. To all members of the old settler community who don’t know or understand what hit them and are unsure how to deal with this disrepute, I apologise to you too – for my heart is formed from the love of Sikkimese of all ethnicities.

I’m far away in the US and could choose to look away but I cannot. When you all are hurt, I get hurt too. Sikkim is not just its sacred mountains, beautiful hills, valleys, and waters for me. It is all its people of all ethnicities who have played a huge part in shaping me into the person I am. I live outside of Sikkim but Sikkim lives on in me and always will. If you’re reading this, you live on in me. Take Sikkim out of me and I don’t know what remains.

Timro jasto mutu mero pani [Like you, I have a heart]
Timro jasto maya mero pani [Like you, I feel love]
Na bolau malai nithuri bhani [Please don’t call me inhuman]
Timro jasto badha mero pani [Like you, I have my hardships]

Lots of love,

Naresh Agarwal

The author was born and brought up in Gangtok, Sikkim and is currently a Full Professor in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He tweets @nareshag and can be reached by email at Views expressed are personal.

Also Read | Sikkim ‘immigrant’ row: High time Chamling, Golay accept their mistakes

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