The tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim has been simmering with hope, and engaged in intense political lobbying since 4 January 2016, when the Supreme Court of India disposed of a writ petition filed by Hari Ram Pradhan, former Sikkim BJP state unit president. The apex court in its order directed the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to find a permanent solution to the long pending issue of Limbu-Tamang tribal seat reservation in the Sikkim legislative assembly within four months.

This particular issue goes back a long way. The Limbu-Tamang (LT) communities of Sikkim were included in the union list of Scheduled Tribes under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Orders (Amendment) Act 2002, (No.10 of 2003) published on 8 January 2003.

Under Article 332 of the Constitution of India, the Scheduled Tribes are entitled to a political right to contest state assembly elections from their allotted reserved seats. However, despite their inclusion, the Limbu-Tamang communities have been denied this right by the Sikkim government till date.

Sikkim has seen three elections since the above amendment: in 2004, 2009 and 2014. The issue was raised in assembly on several occasions and the Chamling government passed assembly resolutions to reserve seats for the LT tribe, but passed the onus of taking the final call to the MHA on each occasion, presumably upon vote bank considerations in the non-LT community areas.

According to legal experts, the reason that seat reservation was denied to the communities is because of a certain required amendment to sub-section 1A of Section 7 of the Representation of the People Act 1950, pertaining to Sikkim. For seat reservation to be made, an insertion of a sub-clause (d) under the sub-section 1A was required that would specifically provide for inclusion of LT communities along with the Bhutia and Lepcha, who enjoy 12 reserved seats in the assembly. Sikkim so far has 12 seats for the Bhutia-Lepcha (BL), 1 seat for the Sangha and two seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SC) in the 32 member assembly.

Meanwhile, the Pawan Chamling-led SDF government in Sikkim went ahead with the delimitation of assembly constituencies in 2006 without resolving the LT seat issue. However, it appointed a commission under Professor B.K Roy Burman (the Burman Commission) and asked it to submit a report on social sector policies in Sikkim in 2008.

Among other things, the said commission in its report submitted in 2008 suggested an increase in the number of assembly seats from 32 to 40 and inclusion of other communities not in the union list of SC or ST from Sikkim. It further suggested that the LT reserved seats be provided from the so-formulated reserved seat quota.

Historical perspective and socio-economic status

The historical origins and place of the LT community in the socio-politics of Sikkim is worth noting in this context. The word Sikkim, in fact, is derived from the Limbu word new home. Before the Namgyal dynasty originating in Tibet (Bhutia) came to the region, the Lepcha kings and Limbu kings were living in harmony here. 

Map of Sikkim. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

In the year 1642 AD, an agreement called the Lho-Men-Tsong-Sum inked between the then Lepcha, Tsong (Limbu) and the Bhutias paved the way for a Buddhist kingdom, with the coronation of the first Namgyal dynasty king or Chogyal. The Limbus emerged as king makers in Sikkim in the process.

On 5 February 1974, then King Palden Thondup Namgyal, issued a notification which had a clear mention of seat reservation in the Sikkim assembly. Subsequently, in the correspondence after the merger of Sikkim and India, the MHA sought information about the Limbus to include them in the list of scheduled tribes. But unfortunately, the erstwhile political powers in Sikkim in 1976 did not include the Limbus or the Tamangs in the list of scheduled tribes.

This political sidelining meant that the community continued to lag in socio-economic indicators. Even today, statistical data of the LT communities paint a picture of stark backwardness.

According to the state socio-economic census 2006, out of 10672 Limbu households, only 3981 have land for construction of dwelling houses and only 4.79 percent have pucca houses, whereas 6691 Limbus don’t have land for construction of dwelling houses.

Limbu households having orchards are only 152 and 54 households are engaged in floriculture.

Out of 7718 Tamang households, only 1859 households have land for house construction, while 5859 households don’t have land for house construction. Only 6.47 percent have pucca houses, 38 have orchards, and 20 households are engaged in floriculture.

According to the report of the Burman commission, submitted on 30 September 2008 to the Sikkim government, 10.29 percent among Bhutias fall in the income range of INR 25,001 per month while the corresponding percentage for the Lepcha community is 3.79 percent, for the Tamang 3.21 percent and for the Limbu 2.09 percent. The average for all the communities is 4.78 percent. The literacy rate of Limbus is pegged at a low 9.82 percent.

Controversies over the Burman commission

Even as the Burman Commission critically identifies the social conditions of the LT community, its recommendations regarding political representation and rights is not beyond scrutiny. Chief Minister Chamling had constituted the commission under Professors B.K.Roy Burman and Ajit Danda for review of the social and environmental sector policies plans and programmes (CRESP).

Chief Minister Pawan Chamling. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

While both professors are eminent scholars in their respective fields, none are experts on matters of constitutional law and parliamentary affairs. However, the Sikkim government had also included the issue of seat reservation in the terms of reference of the commission vide notification No.945/Home dated 27.3.2005.

Their report suggested 12 seats for the Bhutia Lepcha (BL), 2 seats for the SCs, 20 seats for ST, 2 seats for Sangha and 4 general seats in a 40-member assembly. It may be added here that the BL and Sangha seats reservation are enshrined in Article 371 F with a 32-member assembly.

According to Gorkha Apex Committee chief convenor Passang Sherpa, however, the Burman Commission recommendations on seat reservation violates Article 371 F of the Constitution. “Article 371 F has a non-obstante clause, hence the commission’s recommendations are not constitutionally tenable,” he said.

It is interesting that in its correspondence with the MHA between 2005 till about 2008, the Sikkim government  kept on harping over the increase in assembly size to 40, but could not justify why it was required; nor could it answer whether in the enhanced assembly  the BL seat would be proportionately increased or not.

Chamling in his earlier correspondence with former prime minister Manmohan Singh had said that he was willing to comply with the existing 32 seats and still provide for LT seats. Surprisingly, in what may be termed as double speak, Chamling reiterated a solution to the issue in the ongoing assembly session but contingent on the implementation of the Burman commission recommendations. He assured to resolve the issue by 2019.

The next delimitation of assembly constituencies and parliamentary segments across India is scheduled only in 2026 after the next census (last census was of 2011), but Chamling went on record stating that according to a letter sought by the MHA from the Solicitor General’s office, the increase in the assembly seats from 32 to 40 would not have to wait for the next re-delimitation of 2026, as is the law for other states in India. This, he said, is because Sikkim is a special status state under the provisions of Article 371F of the Constitution of India.

Responding to questions of opposition MLA’s Prem Singh Tamang, Kunga Nima Lepcha and Sonam Lama accused the SDF government of deliberately delaying the seat reservation issue. The Chief Minister also informed the house that a high powered committee constituted by him in the wake of the Supreme Court order on the LT seat issue would also submit its report to the government by 31st March.

The community, though, is not convinced as can be seen from the mobilisations in the state.

The LT movement

Encouraged by the Supreme Court order of January 2016, Limbu-Tamang youth formed the LT Voluntary Committee (LTVC) an apolitical organization to pursue the matter and press for their demands. Talking to this correspondent, LTVC president Yohang Subba (Limbu) said, “We have been deprived of our constitutional rights for so long, now we want our rights; we want compliance of the SC order at any cost, failing which we will take up state wide agitation peacefully, until our demands for seat reservation are met.”

Suncha Subba, the general secretary of the outfit added that LTVC has a simple formula to issue for the government, “They just need to amend the RP Act and carve out five seats for the LT community from within the unreserved seats in the Sikkim assembly; that way there would be no need for increasing the assembly strength“.

“We don’t think that the Burman commission report does justice to the LTs of Sikkim, hence we oppose it and request the Chamling government  not  to pursue the LT seat reservation issue based on the recommendations of this report,” added Purna Hung Subba, the treasurer of the LTVC.

Phurba Tamang, a representative of the Sikkim Tamang Buddhist Association (STBA) and a constituent of the movement says that the STBA has given full support to the LTVC and the Joint Action Committee (JAC) for the LTs in pursuing the seat reservation issue. STBA president M. K. Yonzon reiterated the same by saying that the seats should be specified from within the existing 32-seat assembly.

Veteran politician (former MP) and advisor to the LTVC, Pahal Man Subba said that seat reservation would happen at any cost, even though he felt that the Chamling government was not sincere and transparent to the cause. However, he felt that exercising caution in the movement was necessary and that communities might have to wait for some more time to achieve their goals.

An interesting feature in this seat reservation issue so far has been the involvement of the student community and highly educated youth from both the Limbu and Tamang communities. Indra Hung Subba, a research scholar in Physics from the Sikkim University and also president of the Limbu Tamang Yuva Samity (LTYS), said “For the first time in Sikkim, educated youth from the LT communities have taken to the streets in pursuit of their deprived political right; this is a positive sign and the government should take note”.

Various apolitical associations belonging to the LT community from across Sikkim also came under the banner of a Joint Action Committee (JAC) to better coordinate their movement for the seat reservation issue. JAC has appointed S.P Subba, a former bureaucrat of the Sikkim government as its president.

The LTYS also operates under the banner of the Joint Action Committee. The youth and students are toeing the line of the JAC in pursuing our demands, added Gulshan, a Master’s degree student of law and the general secretary of the outfit.

Even as the SDF government is continuously pointing to the report of the Burman commission as the solution to the LT seat issue, JAC president S. P .Subba told this correspondent, “The Burman commission report is barred by Article 170 of the Constitution of India and the delimitation Act 2002 passed by both houses of parliament and the state assemblies. We don’t understand the veracity of the claims being made by the SDF government in terms of seat reservation for the LT communities based on the recommendations of this report”.

The JAC has submitted its recommendations to the high powered committee of the state government created for resolving the LT seat reservation issue.

“The JAC after carefully studying the historical, political and legal aspects associated with the LT seat reservation issue, feels that the SDF government needs to be transparent and sincere in resolving this issue made complicated by vested political interests ever since the historic tripartite agreement of Lho-Men-Tsong-Sum was signed in 1642 AD,” said Subba.

But what would the JAC do if the SC order is not complied with by 4 May 2016?  Subba says that it would wait and watch and the legal cell of the JAC would be moving ahead after the decision on that date in accordance with the law.

Fault lines within the movement

Not everybody in Sikkim is happy with the JAC recommendations either. Some associations of the other left out minority communities of Sikkim, who have not been accorded SC or ST status by the union government, are rejecting the JAC proposal and have submitted memorandums to the high powered committee and the Sikkim governor Shriniwas Patil.

In a recent meeting organized by the representatives of the other non-SC or ST communities held in Gangtok, there was strong objection to the JAC suggestion of carving out 5 seats for the LT communities from the existing 32 member assembly.

Former minister from Sikkim, K.N.Upreti says, ” If LT seats are carved out of the existing 32 then a situation arises where the minority communities may rule the majority. This is unconstitutional and not acceptable.” He has written to the high powered committee suggesting either to include all left out communities among tribals, or increase the assembly size from 32 to 40.

To conclude, whatever may be the outcome on 4 May, the political scenario in Sikkim is likely to witness some vibrancy in the days to come on the LT seat reservation issue.

The massive apolitical rally to press for the demand of seat reservation taken out on 15 March 2016 by the JAC and its constituents had a turnout of about six thousand people, the largest such rally by any community in Sikkim asking for a deprived political right. This could just be the harbinger of times to come.