With Protests Elsewhere in India, Peaceful Elections in Sikkim

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[Note: This post was originally written in mid-April. Accompanying photographs could not be uploaded.]

RAVANGLA, Sikkim – Stinging nettle, a wild green used to make soup, is called shishnu in Sikkimese. The leaves have rough, serrated edges covered with very fine hairs that sting if touched, so gloves are used to harvest it.

On a recent afternoon in Ravangla, a small village in South Sikkim, a local English teacher named Tseten Bhutia (pronounced CHI-TIN BOO-TIA) was preparing shishnu for his family’s dinner. “Bhutia” refers to his caste or tribe: the Bhutia people came here from Nepal, and along with the Lepchas (also of Nepali-Tibetan origin) are the two most numerous castes.

India’s Parliamentary elections are happening this month across the country, and the Sikkimese go to the polls on April 30th. Authorities have moved a highly-anticipated cricket tournament to South Africa over concerns about security being stretched too thin during election time.

With unrest in many parts of India, employing adequate security is a serious undertaking and very important to ensure the safety both of poll workers and voters. Already there has been violence in Bihar and West Bengal. Elections bring out many protestors—from quiet boycotts to much worse.  And it’s not solely protests but also strong arm tactics and cronyism: workers from various political parties bully and intimidate polling personnel in order to push the elections in their candidate’s favor.

To ensure any semblance of fair elections, poll workers must be allowed to carry out their jobs without feeling threatened. In Ravangla, however, the mood is much different. People here talk about how calm it is around election time.

Tseten Bhutia moved to Ravangla a few years ago with his wife and their young son. Tseten’s wife grew up here, and while his family is in the capital city, Gangtok, it was important for her to be close to her parents: she is also a teacher, so in Ravangla her mother is available to look after their son during the day.

Mr. Bhutia talked about the elections in Sikkim and why it’s more peaceful here than in other provinces.

“All people in Sikkim have an O.K. life,” Tseten said.  “Overall it’s better than in most other parts of India.”

Sikkim benefits greatly from New Delhi’s financial support but is not plagued by the ethnic unrest common in other northeast states such as Assam and Manipur.

Mr. Bhutia went on, “The Lepchas and Bhutias have been here for centuries, so the way of life is established and not much has changed. People here trust in their religion, but there’s no communalism.”

Communalism is a difficult subject in India these days: it refers to showing greater loyalty to one’s religious group or caste than Indian society as a whole. It is all over the media, and politicians are eager to speak out against it. Along with Hindu nationalism—which has led to such violence as that directed at Christians last year in Orissa—critics of communalism see it as divisive and damaging for a country in which so many different kinds of people have to co-exist.

In Sikkim there’s much less talk of both communalism and unrest related to the elections. In Chumbong, a village about fifty kilometers from Ravangla, I spoke with a government clerk, Pem Dorjee, who explained the province’s higher standard of living.

“The population of Sikkim is very, very low,” he said.  “Maybe four or five lakhs [1 lakh is equal to 100,000]. It’s nothing compared to other states in India. So the money that comes from Delhi can do a lot more because there are so few people.”

With fewer people and decent infrastructure, Sikkim is visibly cleaner than mainland India. Sikkim’s Chief Minister, Dr. Pawang Chamling, has banned plastic bags, and he encourages organic farming and sustainability (although skeptics say this is less for his own people than to court foreign investment from the U.S. and Europe; still, this benefits the Sikkimese).

Dr. Chamling plans to make Sikkim “the clean energy capital of India.” He speaks out for women’s rights and decries discrimination against lower castes. He’s also traveled the world to build interest in Sikkim, and he reopened Nathula pass, the main trade route between India and China, which was closed during Indo-China border friction of the early 1960’s.

Despite Dr. Chamling’s work some people are uncomfortable with the fact that he’s been in power for so long—three consecutive terms of five years each.

“There’s no point in voting,” one man said. “It’s peaceful here, yes, but it’s not a democracy. He’s the king.” In all likelihood, Dr. Chamling will be voted into his fourth term as Chief Minister.

Still, whether it’s a carryover from Sikkim’s time as a small but prosperous monarchy or the policies of Dr. Chamling over the last fifteen years, or both, the standard of living here is noticeably higher than in mainland India.

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