Since India’s independence, the Sikkim royals had been uncomfortable about the role the Indian government played in their state. Now the war of 1965 and the arrival of Hope Cooke, the new queen of Sikkim, had thrown the relationship between India and Sikkim into a flux, and China was waiting to exploit the weaknesses.
In 1964, Palden Thondup, the Chogyal, had married Hope Cooke in a glamorous royal wedding in the Himalayas. The western world was enamoured by the fairy-tale romance between Hope, a young all-American girl from Brooklyn, and the royal from Sikkim. Their wedding had all the ingredients of a Hollywood romance. Hope was compared to Grace Kelly, the film actress who had married the king of Monaco.
The wedding was a high-profile event that drew ambassadors from nine nations, including the newly appointed US ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith. The list of dignitaries was long and included Indian leaders, bureaucrats and key socialites of Sikkim. Indira Gandhi was one of the attendees. Hope Cooke had put the obscure, tiny Buddhist kingdom on the world map. But Hope would also cause the unsettling of India–Sikkim relations, perhaps instigated in no small measure by China.
In 1962, when China and India were at war, Hope, whom Palden Thondup was then courting, had written a cheque to the Indian Prime Minister’s Defence Fund.
The war of 1962 was an outcome of differences between India and China over the boundary they shared, which excluded the border involving Sikkim. At that time, the war completely bypassed Sikkim since China was also consciously cultivating support amongst the Sikkim royals.
India did not take kindly to China’s interactions with the royals. An increasingly aggressive and expansionist China, which had taken over Tibet, was suspected to have its sight on Sikkim and there were concerns that a military thrust could follow a brief diplomatic parry. When Tashi Namgyal, Palden’s reclusive father, passed away in December 1963, an official note of condolence arrived for Palden Thondup from Peking. Similarly, when Palden was crowned as the king in 1965, Zhou Enlai was among the first leaders to congratulate him. On both occasions, India did not take to the gestures kindly.
In 1965, the stand-off between the Chinese and Indians at the Sikkim-Tibet border had ironically resulted in increasing tensions between India and Sikkim. As India’s protectorate, Sikkim’s defence was in Delhi’s hands. But Delhi’s statement saying that it would not allow China to violate “India’s border” had bothered the Chogyal. On the advice of Nari Rustomji, the Indian political officer and his dewan, the king issued a statement reiterating Sikkim’s independent identity in the dispute between India and China.
Hope did not believe in shrouding her opinions in diplomatic tact and publicly aired her disenchantment about the treatment Sikkim got from the Indian government. She felt India’s statement was typical of the arrogance that India had shown towards Sikkim until then.
The princess attracted ire from the Indian establishment as she rapidly grew into an advocate of greater autonomy for Sikkim. While China and India traded accusations, Hope Cooke and her sister-in-law, Coocoola, decided to vent to the media in the UK. While the two women had their personal differences, they bonded over their dislike for India and the way it had undermined Sikkim’s identity during the 1965 war.
Coocoola would tell Hope, “They [Indians] are calling Sikkim an area of India and talking about the border as the India-China border. The nerve. We’ve got to stop this. We’ve got to remind people of Sikkim’s identity before it gets lost.” But unable to garner support for her cause in London, Hope returned to Sikkim disillusioned.
Politics and war weren’t the only things getting her down. Her life in the kingdom was unhappy and friendless. Her marriage was a strained mess as a result of her husband’s philandering ways which left Hope depressed and lonely.
As the distance between the Gyalmo and the Chogyal widened, the one person in Gangtok who was a bright spot for Hope was their friend Sagat Singh.
The royal couple had grown close to the general since he was posted in the kingdom and would meet him often in the evenings. Hope found solace in Sagat’s company and occasionally found herself flirting with him. Interestingly, though Hope and Sagat shared vastly divergent views on the India-China-Sikkim situation, the friendship between the general and the royals continued to grow despite the stand-off with China at the Sikkim border during the 1965 war.
Hope and Sagat had divergent views on the India-China-Sikkim situation. Hope believed that the Indian government overplayed the Chinese threat, using it as a pretext to deny Sikkim its political freedom and true identity. Sagat, who headed the Indian state’s military forces deployed in Sikkim, felt that the Chinese presence across the border was an imminent threat to Sikkim and the surrounding Indian territory, which needed to be countered militarily. Their differing perceptions, however, did not affect their friendship.
Hope found the general to be wickedly charming. Sagat’s phone calls announcing his return to Gangtok from the field posts were a “source of happiness” for her. “Our general”, as she referred to him, was always around to help the couple. Once, when in Delhi, Hope received a desperate call from the Chogyal. Their son Palden was terribly ill. Within an hour, the general helped arrange a plane for Hope from Delhi to Siliguri, from where the Chogyal’s car took her to Gangtok.
When Hope finally arrived at the palace, the general was around with the Chogyal. Sagat remained a family friend: a military mate to Chogyal and a close companion to Hope. Sagat would invite her to the parties held by the local infantry battalions and the two would often spend quite a bit of time together.
The Chogyal was an honorary major general of 8 Gorkha Rifles, the regiment to which Sagat belonged, and had always felt at home with his officer mates from the Indian army such as Sagat and his senior, General Sam Manekshaw, who commanded the Eastern Command of the army.
Interestingly, one day during the war, while his wife was expressing her unequivocal disapproval of the Indian government, the Chogyal, attired in his Indian army uniform, with the emblem of crossed Gorkha khukris pinned on the epaulettes on his shoulders, decided to appear for a media interview. “One’s really not quite sure what they [China] want to do...I don’t think they meant an all-out war, so one assumes it was really to tie down Indian troops in this part of the world from maybe going across to the Pakistani side.”
The bonhomie that the royal couple shared with the military in Sikkim was in stark contrast to the bitterness with the civil administration. One of the reasons for the disenchantment of the royal couple with the Indian government – and the opening this created for China – was the lack of chemistry between the couple and the appointed civil services administrators sent to Sikkim. On the other hand, Hope and Thondup’s relations with the army in Sikkim remained those of mutual respect. Hope later wrote in her autobiography that the Indian army was largely respectful towards the people of Sikkim, which endeared the locals towards them.
Excerpted with permission from Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China, Probal Dasgupta, Juggernaut Books.