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Sikkim - 1950s

The kingdom's strategic location astride the Tibetan border made it a vital link in India's border defense against China. Bounded by foreign countries on three sides, surrounded by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan on three sides, it shares its boundary with the sister state of West Bengal.

Shortly after regaining independence in 1947, India assumed the responsibility for the defense of Sikkim that had previously been a British prerogative. It was not until mid-1949, however, that a small Indian army detachment was finally stationed in Sikkim on a continuing basis, and this was in response to internal disorders within the State rather than to an external threat.

In an address to the Indian Parliament on 06 December 1950, i.e., shortly after the Communist regime in China had commenced a military campaign against TibetPrime Minister Nehru stated unequivocably that India would regard an attack on Nepal, Sikkim or Bhutan as an attack against India and would come to the defense of these states. Similar statements had been repeated periodically by high Indian officials.

According to the 1950 Indo-Sikkimese Treaty, responsibility for the defense and security of Sikkim is vested in the Government of India. Since 1959, however, the Sikkim Government had been attempting to expand its capacity to contribute to the defense of the State, with at best the reluctant cooperation of New Delhi.

Despite assurances from New Delhi, the Chinese Communist occupation of Tibet in 1951 and the establishment later of a substantial military encapment at Phari, in the immediate vicinity of the Sikkim border, did not engender much of a response from India.

Very little was done between 1950 and 1959 to enhance India's defense capacity in Sikkim, The few significant exceptions, such as the road construction projects to the Nathu La and the Jelep La on the border, only got underway toward the latter part of the decade. Moreover, these were given a relatively low priority in the first two Five-Year Plansand this in the face of intensive Chinese road construction programs to the north of the Himalaya. No attempt was even made to establish check posts near the border passes except at the two major access routes from Tibet through which most of the trade and traffic passed. The only police checkpost for northern Sikkim, for instance, was at Chungthang, which is clonr to Gangtok than to the border in the Lachen and Lachung valley areas.

The unexpected and sudden deterioration in Sino-Indian relations in 1959, therefore, found India in a comparatively disadvantageous position vis-a-vis China, in Sikkim as elsewhere along the Himalayan border. The Indian and Sikkiraese governments moved as rapidly as possible thereafter to improve the situation OL this vulnerable section of the frontier, and with considerable success. Primary emphasis was placed on the development of coinmunic&tions, and the tempo of the road construction program was greatly accelerated.

The then Crown Prince of Siitkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, visited New Delhi in October 1959 to discuss defense questions with the Indian government. One result of these consultations was the decision to entrust security arrangements along the Sikkim-Tibet border directly to the Indian Army, and to expand the size of the Indian military establishment in Sikkira substantially.

Military encampments and supply bases were soon scattered throughout the country, particularly in the northern and northeastern border areas and along the vital lines of communications up the Tista river valley from Siliguri to Nathu La and from Kalimpong to Jelep La. It is probable that the largest commitment of troops and supplies in the entire hill frontier region is in Sikkim and Darjeeling district, an indication of India's determinatior to defend this area with all the strength at its command.

As of 1959, the only regular Sikkimese military force was the Sikkim Guard, at that time a company-strength unit traditionally recruited from the Bhutia/Lepcha community. The Sikkim State Police, which then numbered slightly under 300 men, was supplemented in the northern Sikkim border area by the small, ill-trained "levy police" in Lachen and Lachung. The Intelligence Branch of the Sikkim police consisted of one Inspector and five Constables, at a time when infiltration by Chinese agents was a chronic problem.

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