Satyajit Ray’s documentary on Sikkim shows the master at his decadent best. Every frame is voluptuous, Ray shows us sweeping landscapes otherwise only found in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the cacophony of children going to school, impossibly quaint market squares, the mesmeric whirling of prayer bells.
It was intended to be a propaganda film. However Ray’s depiction of abject poverty that existed didn’t sit well with the monarchs. And after India’s annexation of Sikkim, the film got banned. It eventually got its second screening decades later in 2010.
Read this book instead
A similar fate would befall another Bengali author who operated from Sikkim around the same time Ray shot his documentary. His book Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkim is a richly detailed account of every conceivable factor that led to the Kingdom Of Sikkim being martially co-opted into the Indian republic, which was published a decade after the incident in 1984. The book wasn’t exactly banned; however a defamation suit was slapped to clamp down on its distribution and sales.
It was eventually republished in 2013 by Tranquebar Press. At its core, the book eviscerates the formerly prevalent, mainstream notion that the incorporation of Sikkim as India’s 22nd state was all hunky dory. Dutta Ray draws an intricate tapestry of characters – a benign, trusting monarch in the Chogyal, a partisan politician and his opportunistic wife with Kazi Lhendup Dorjee and Kazini Elisa Maria, a flip-flopping political officer in Gurbachan Singh, and a shrewd, merciless tactician in Indira Gandhi.
The book also delves deeply into the historicity of the event, right from a primordial moment, through the British skirmishes in the area, the Nepalese migration, the ambivalent Nehruvian years, the mounting geopolitical tensions with China, the anti-royalist protests staged outside the palace, right down to a dubious referendum that officially sealed the deal.
But why must Dutta-Ray’s book be read today?
To most people, almost all modern day notions of imperialism often only evoke a colonial past or the post-war American enterprise in the minds of most. What we fail to see is the subterfuge on our own soil, the history of betrayals and the political doublespeak of the Indian state.
While the state of Sikkim does well on most indicators, and was historically ‘funded’ by India even when it was an autonomous kingdom, does this necessarily make for a ‘successful’ expansionist tale? Most of all, the book shines a light on one of the lesser known imperialist overtures of Indira Gandhi. The next time she felt emboldened enough to send her hordes to a sacred place it would cost her her life, and she even bequeathed this talent for misjudgement to her son Rajiv.