Sikkim: a tale of love, intrigue and the Cold War in Asia

Indian and Chinese soldiers in Sikkim in 1967. Credit: Collection of Brig Rai Singh, courtesy of Squadron Leader Rana T.S. Chhina (Retd)

Indian and Chinese soldiers in Sikkim in 1967. Credit: Collection of Brig Rai Singh, courtesy of Squadron Leader Rana T.S. Chhina (Retd)

Sikkim: a tale of love, intrigue and the Cold War in Asia

04 June 2015

By Jemimah Steinfeld

In April 1975, exactly 40 years ago, Sikkim, a tiny Buddhist kingdom perched between Nepal and Bhutan, was incorporated into the Republic of India as its 22nd state, an act commonly referred to in Sikkim as an “annexation”.

With the help of UK and US intelligence files, Andrew Duff’s new book, Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom (Birlinn, May 2015), explores the Sikkim story in detail for the first time. Duff describes the book as a tale of ‘love, intrigue and the Cold War in Asia’. At the centre of the story are Thondup Namgyal, the last King of Sikkim, and his American wife, Hope Cooke, thrust unwittingly into the spotlight as they sought support for Sikkim’s independence after their ‘fairy tale’ wedding in 1963. But when tensions between neighbouring India and China spilled over into war in the Himalayas, Sikkim became a pawn on the international chessboard during the 1960s and 1970s. As Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi became increasingly paranoid about the US’s rapprochement with China, Sikkim’s story reached its climax in 1975.

Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld caught up with Duff to ask him about the book and how he came to write it.

What led you to be interested in this topic?

Four amazing people: my grandfather, a Buddhist monk, and a couple of Scottish missionary teachers!

My grandfather made a journey into the Sikkim Himalayas in 1922. As a child, I used to love looking through an album of his photographs and notes. I eventually retraced his footsteps in 2009. It was a magical journey; perched between Nepal and Bhutan, Sikkim is exquisitely beautiful.

But I got more than I bargained for! In a remote hilltop monastery, a Buddhist monk gave me a book, which told the story of India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975. It was a tale which shed light on the relationship between India and China in the 1960s and 1970s. There was also a love story at the heart of it – between King Thondup and Hope, known as ‘Grace Kelly of the East’ (who the Indians accused of being a CIA plant). When it turned out the monk himself had been the Sikkimese king’s personal bodyguard, I was hooked.

Thondup Namgyal and Hope Cooke on their wedding day in 1963. Credit: Collection of Tenzin C Tashi (from the original collection of Renchin D Renchung)

Thondup Namgyal and Hope Cooke on their wedding day in 1963. Credit: Collection of Tenzin C Tashi (from the original collection of Renchin D Renchung)

Watch the video of Hope Cooke marrying the last King of Sikkim Thondup Namgyal below:-

On my return to the UK, I found two Scottish missionary teachers, both in their 80s, who had lived in Sikkim for years and had been close to the palace. Both gave me the weekly letters they had sent home from Sikkim which provided a remarkable perspective on events.

I realised this was a story waiting to be told.

Who is this book aimed at?

Anyone who enjoys a good yarn with great characters and a fascinating love story. It will particularly appeal to anyone who wants to understand the complex history of the relationship between Asia’s new superpowers India and China.

I hope the book will also inspire people to visit Sikkim and enjoy the stunning beauty of the Himalayan landscape for themselves.

If you were to pitch the book in one sentence, how would you summarise it?

The story of India’s 1975 annexation of Sikkim is a tale of love, intrigue and the Cold War in Asia.

Why should we be interested in Sikkim?

Sikkim’s story has great relevance today. It’s a classic tale of big global powers and small countries and touches on the complex question of identity. There are parallels with the situation in Tibet, and with Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea (where a very similar ‘referendum’ mechanic was used).

It also helps to understand the history of the India-China relationship.

Tell us a little bit more about how you did the research?

I realised early on that I would have to piece together diverse sources, so I had to trust my instincts. I returned to Sikkim to interview some of the key protagonists who had supported the annexation. Most are now in their 70s and 80s and were extraordinarily frank about the role of India’s intelligence services. The letters of the two missionary teachers also provided valuable insight, bringing a contemporaneous account of what happened (one of the teachers evaded the Indian censors by writing in Scottish!)

Two years into my research, I found secret UK Foreign Office files which showed that Sikkim had been a matter of some concern for the UK Government. Then in April 2013, Wikileaks released the ‘Kissinger Cables’ detailing secret communications between the US embassies in Beijing and New Delhi and Washington in the 1970s, giving real insight into the Cold War in Asia. I had to rethink the entire book.

It says you retraced the journey your grandfather made in 1922. What did that entail?

I followed his exact 10-day 120-mile route on foot from Darjeeling into Sikkim and back. My grandfather’s typed notes were limited and, because of Sikkim’s continued military importance, detailed maps of Sikkim are hard to find.

1959 map showing Sikkhim

1959 map showing Sikkhim

So I had great fun involving local people in interpreting his notes and photographs. He’d stayed in the network of wonderful ‘Dak Bungalows’ [inns or houses for travellers in India] which are dotted across Sikkim and the rest of the Himalayas. As these are now owned by the Indian Government they were out of bounds to me, so I ended up sleeping in some fairly random places: above a remote community bank, in a postmaster’s home, in a monastery and in local houses. He’d been 22 when he did it and had mentioned ‘the odd tiring day’. He was right!

What surprised you most about your findings?

When I first looked at the Wikileaks ‘Kissinger cables’ in April 2013 I thought I’d check if there were any mentions of Sikkim. When I entered the name into the search box, 1,500 pages of cables popped up. There were conversations between Henry Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, President Bhutto of Pakistan, Chairman Mao, Richard Nixon – all of whom had roles to play in tiny Sikkim’s story. The most astonishing discovery was a record of a secret conversation (included in the book) between Henry Kissinger and the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in which they jovially mocked Indira Gandhi’s obsession with taking over Sikkim.

What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?

An earlier book on the annexation, written in 1982, was cleverly suppressed by the Indian authorities and the truth about what happened in Sikkim has been carefully airbrushed out of the Indian history books. So I had to be fairly careful when talking to people in India. That being said, most people were incredibly open about what happened. Sometimes I had to dig deep to try and reconcile conflicting accounts, but having access to the newly released UK and US intelligence records helped establish the facts.

1893 map showing Sikkim

1893 map showing Sikkim

Tell us a bit more about your background – why did you make the move away from consulting into writing?

I’ve always loved telling stories. By 2008 I had been consulting full time for a number of years, so I thought I’d give writing a go. My timing was fortuitous. I left my job and bought a one way ticket to India weeks before the Global Financial Crisis. I blogged about the changes I saw as I travelled overland from Bombay, through Tibet and Xinjiang, across China and down to Singapore, before driving coast to coast across America to put it all in context. The blog was written up in The Times.

When I got back I knew I wanted to write books and decided to start with the Sikkim story. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.


Andrew Duff can be found tweeting at twittertiny @_andyduff

He can be found on Facebook here.

Duff appeared at the Hay Festival 2015 and will be appearing at the following events:

Blackwell’s Oxford, June 4: ‘The story of Sikkim’ at 19.00

Chalke Valley History Festival, June 27: ‘The story of the contest for the Himalayas

Edinburgh Book Festival, August 26 (with Piers Moore Ede): ‘India’s contradictions: Old Cities, New States’


Andrew Duff

To watch more videos about Sikkim’s tensions with China in the 1960s and to see an interview with the last King of Sikkim Thondup Namgyal click here and here.