Himalayan Strivings: Bhutan, Sikkim, and Tibet at the Twilight of Empire

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-7480-6563
Chawla, Swati, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bishara, Fahad, History, University of Virginia
Barnett, Richard, History, University of Virginia
Liu, Xiaoyuan, AS-History, University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, Religious Studies, University of Virginia

The years leading up to and soon after India’s Independence from colonial rule involved territorial consolidation through the merger of 500-odd princely states into the Union. Additionally, along its long northern and eastern borders, India re-negotiated colonial treaties with neighboring governments, including the Himalayan nations of Bhutan, Sikkim, and Tibet. Closely tied together by language and faith, as well as networks of trade, intermarriage, and monastic patronage, all three were apprehensive about what the transfer of power would mean for their relations with India. All three made territorial claims. With simultaneous political upheavals in both India and China, intelligence reports at the time mentioned talks about the Governments of Bhutan, Sikkim, and Tibet forming a federation of Tibetan- speaking countries, to resist incorporation into the two newly emerging states north and south of the Himalayan mountain range. This conception of a federation was not confined to existing national borders— it was pan-religious, territorially fluid, and rooted in an assertion of difference from the rest of India. Such assertions of religious and cultural identity and transnational allegiance among Tibet, Bhutan, and Sikkim questioned three of the most cherished nationalistic myths in newly independent India. The first was the narrative of national integration and “unity in diversity” rolled out in the decades immediately after Independence, involving the hitherto unfinished cartographic project of delineating borders, and the consolidation of territory by the integration of the princely states. The second was the assumed translatability of the Himalaya from “natural barriers” into “national borders,” betraying an ignorance of the lives of borderland populations who customarily traversed these barriers. Finally, there was the emphasis on a shared history among the Himalaya and the rest of North India. The belief that the regions in the eastern Himalaya belonged with India informed all three assertions. Taking a Himalayan view of nationalism, boundary- and citizenship-making in the final years of the Raj and the first few years of the Indian Republic, this dissertation casts a different light on the protracted process of nation-building in India, and resuscitates the prospect of plural, alternative Himalayan nationalisms.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Himalaya, Tibet, Citizenship, Migration, Nationalism, South Asia
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