On 27 January 2015 the State Cabinet decided to make it mandatory for all married daughters of the old settlers of the state to furnish their own, their father’s and their husband’s residential certificates when applying for trade licenses, contract works, driving licenses and other benefits and services. Less than a month later, on 23 February, the Cabinet approved partial modification to Notification No. 66/Home/95 dated 22 November 1995 as amended pertaining to issue of Certificate of Identification and with it denied the provision of CoI to nonlocal women married to Sikkimese. Certificates of Identification, everyone knows, are essential for just about everything in Sikkim, from being able to conduct business to applying for government employment to receiving State benefits. For old settlers, this role is played by the residential certificates they will be issued in keeping with the 26 April 1975 cut-off date announced recently by the Chief Minister.Daughters-in-law, who had been included into the Sikkimese fold with the 1995 amendment, have now been denied again as the protection of local status gets further reinforced, but Sikkimese daughters who found spouses outside were cast away much earlier. On 15 March 1969, the Sikkim Durbar had initiated a proclamation stripping Sikkimese women of their citizenship if they married someone not belonging to Sikkim which was then a separate kingdom. More than half a century later, this law continues to be in practice.
Social and political discourse on identity in Sikkim is mostly dominated by the “local” and “nonlocal” issue where the woman finds little or no space at all. The identity issue is undeniably a complex one and with much at stake, governments have forever struggled to keep everyone happy.
While the problems with rules such as those mentioned above run deep and wide, even on the surface it sounds obnoxious for a woman's identity to be based on the identity of not one, but two men – her father’s and her husband’s – at all times! A Sikkimese woman will be considered Sikkimese only if both, her father and husband are also Sikkimese. In the case of non-local women marrying Sikkimese men, it is again the woman who is made to bear the brunt, being refused acceptance as a local and thereby denied economic or professional prospects in the State.
Whether women are willing to bear this burden or not, is a question that is not asked often and even if it is, the answers come in a coagulated mix made mostly of the local-nonlocal positions and peppered lightly with that of gender equality and hence end up making no sense at all.
The question of Sikkimese identity versus women’s identity is not a subject that can be easily broached in Sikkim due to the fear of stepping on too many toes. What or who is Sikkimese is in itself a problematic question that we have never got around to answering. But who is a Sikkimese woman is a question that is asked every six months.
Advocate Dr Doma Bhutia, one of the few vocal about the issue, says that the recent decisions passed by the Cabinet go against Article 15 (1) of the Constitution which observes that “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” It can hence be challenged in the court of law, she believes.
“It is a form of violence against women. Violence need not be only physical but it can also be mental or psychological,” says Dr. Doma. “Through such decisions, the state is perpetuating violence against women in the state. It can also be called sex selection in a way where a woman in Sikkim may not be killed in the womb but she is cast out if she chooses to marry a non-local,” she argues.
Speaking to NOW!, a senior officer with the State government who is married to a non-local says, “I am very happy with the government's decision but if the law is applicable to Sikkimese women married to non-locals then it should also apply to Sikkimese men married to non-locals”.
This is another common view that is probably expressed by many in the state. However she also says that women’s empowerment in Sikkim is a vague term that is mouthed very often but does not really exist in reality. Actual empowerment is still a far cry, she contends. “Women are very good decision makers but sadly we are not allowed to make any decisions,” she says.
Her Sikkimese status taken away because of her marriage to a nonlocal, she cannot pass on her inheritance to her children. This forced cutting-off from her roots rankles her, but not enough to obsess her. On a more practical level, she has therefore not developed property in Sikkim. “I will sell off the property I have here and probably move out of the state later. It is sad that I will not be able to leave anything for my children here in Sikkim,” she adds.
For women who remain “pure” Sikkimese, in 2008, the Sikkim Succession Bill became an Act that allowed equal rights over property to daughters in the State. It was hailed as a major milestone in women’s empowerment in the state. The same year the state also put in place 40% reservation for women in the Panchayats [since increased to 50%]. It was definitely a huge step forward for women in the state but written in fine print were the words stating that rights under the new Act did not extend to women married to non-locals.
The rules are also incomplete because they remain silent on whether a woman reclaims her Sikkimese status if she divorces her nonlocal husband or what identity status extends to children born out of wedlock to Sikkimese women. This is not nitpicking, but sharing of real-life situations which remain unaddressed. No thought has clearly been spared to wonder what would happen to Sikkimese women married into equally “protective” regimes like, say J&K, or for that matter daughters from such societies married into Sikkim – they will end up belonging to neither place and would have no career or livelihood prospects at either address.
Adopted by the United Nations on 18 December 1979, the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women [CEDAW] entered into force on 03 September 1981. It was ratified by India in 1993. The Convention defines discrimination against women as “...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”
Figure out for yourself how Sikkim’s conditional acceptance of its daughters compares against CEDAW.
While the rest of the country and the world are questioning and deconstructing gender, Sikkim asks a woman to prove that she is unmarried every six months [unmarried certificates have a 6-month validity] or marry a Sikkimese man to earn a living or even drive a car.
As we celebrate the protection of Sikkimese identity, must we moan the loss of women’s identity? That is a question all of Sikkim must answer.