On Monday and Tuesday, several political parties in Sikkim organised widespread rallies to protest a Supreme Court verdict from January 13. The court, while deciding on a petition relating to tax exemptions for residents of Sikkim, referred to Sikkimese Nepalis as people who were of “foreign origin” who had “migrated to and settled in Sikkim”. At the same time, it described ethnic Sikkimese communities sch as the Bhutias and the Lepchas as “original inhabitants of Sikkim”.

This observation has sparked off a deep-rooted identity conflict in Sikkim regarding the ethnicity of three of its main groups: Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis. Sikkimese Nepalis have asked for these observations to be expunged from the record.

What was the court deciding on?

The Supreme Court judgement that is being contested had been filed by the Association of Old Settlers of Sikkim and Others, comprising mainly of trader communities such as Marwaris. They had challenged a tax exemption for those who were Sikkimese nationals before the state became a part of India in 1975.

Under this, certain Sikkimese residents were exempted from paying income tax on any income arising from Sikkim and on dividends or interest from securities. This exemption, introduced in 2008, excluded Indian nationals residing in Sikkim before 1975 and also excluded Sikkimese women who marry a non-Sikkimese man.

The petitioners argued that these two exclusions were discriminatory and contravened the fundamental right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution. The court held that the benefit of the tax exemption should be extended to all Indian citizens domiciled in Sikkim. It further struck down the exclusion of Sikkimese women who marry a non-Sikkimese man for violating fundamental rights.

In the judgement, one of the judges, Justice BV Nagarathna, while talking about history of Sikkim noted that the Sikkim Income Tax Manual from 1948 treated everyone alike “irrespective of their origin”. There was “no difference” between “original inhabitants of Sikkim, namely, the Bhutia-Lepchas and the persons of foreign origin settled in Sikkim like the Nepalis or persons of Indian origin who had settled down in Sikkim generations back”.

She also noted that the petitioners have argued that “migrants from other countries/erstwhile kingdoms such as Nepalese migrants, who had migrated to and settled in Sikkim at the same time or even after migrants/settlers of Indian origin” were given the benefits of the tax exemption, “while arbitrarily excluding settlers of Indian origin”.

Sikkim Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang. Credit: Prem Singh Tamang via Facebook

What is the aftermath?

While the judgement has been welcomed, these observations have attracted widespread criticism. On Monday, the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha called for a protest. The next day, Opposition parties called for a statewide protest.

Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang has welcomed the judgement, but has expressed “deep concern on the mention of Sikkimese Nepali community as foreigners”.

The petitioners have also highlighted the fact that they filed an application in 2013, soon after the case was admitted, asking for all references to Sikkimese Nepalis being of “foreign origin” to be deleted. However, they say that the final judgement did not take this application into account.

The protests have also resulted in the resignation of the state’s Additional Advocate General Sudesh Joshi, who had been a lawyer for the petitioners. Sikkim’s health minister MK Sharma has also resigned and has accused the ruling party of not taking the “sentiments of the Sikkimese people seriously”.

“The recent judgment has created fear among the majority of people of Sikkim,” said Rupen Karki, general secretary, Sikkim Progressive Youth Forum. “The people who are living here for ages have been tagged as having a foreign origin. It has created insecurity which helps the government to suppress the people to raise serious issues.”

He added: “For a long time Nepali people are tagged as immigrants or foreign nationals.”

The government has decided to file a review petition to get this reference expunged. “From government’s side, we have called for a legislator’s meeting and a [party] high-level meeting,” Bikash Basnett, press and media secretary to Chief Minister Tamang told Scroll. “The honorable chief minister has spoken to [Union] Law Minister Kiren Rijiju and the Union government has assured help for this review petition to expunge the ‘foreigner’ tag for Sikkimese Nepalis.”

Why has it become controversial?

Ethnicity in Sikkim has been a delicate issue. There are three main groups residing in the state: Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis. According to an article in the Economic and Political Weekly by Vibha Arora, a professor of Sociology at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and an expert in Himalayan studies, the Lepchas and Bhutias, who mainly comprise the 27% Buddhist population in the state, “are united in their opposition towards” Nepalis, who constitute a majority of the 58% Hindus in the state. The Lepchas and Bhutias describe the Nepalis as “migrants”.

Nepalis, on the other hand, say that they have contributed to Sikkim’s economy for the last 150 years to bolster their claim that they also belong to the land.

Arora writes that Lepchas and Bhutias, the ruling elite in the former Buddhist kingdom, blame Nepalis for “causing civil unrest” that led to Sikkim joining India in 1975. These two groups became a political minority after 1975, she writes.

KB Rai, president of the Sikkim Republican Party, said that the Sikkimese Nepali community has been facing an identity crisis for a long time. The Sikkimese Nepali community should actually be referred to as Gorkhas, since that describes their ethnicity better than “Nepali” which people confuse with nationality, he said.

Rai said that the Sikkimese Nepali community still faces a lot of discrimination. “They are the most targeted. Gorkhalis do not have land, as compared to Bhutias and Lepchas,” he said. “They also do not get any reservation in the Assembly.”

Even if the remarks in the court’s order are expunged, Rai said, the Sikkimese Nepali community will still face a long battle to achieve equality in the state.