Negotiating Gurung Identity with and against the State in Sikkim

Dr. Mélanie Vandenhelsken, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna

The All Sikkim Gurung (Tamu) Buddhist Association of Gangtok has been founded in 1994, when a large majority of the Gurungs of Sikkim was Hindu. One of the objectives of the association was to obtain Scheduled Tribe status for the Sikkimese Gurungs. As part of the Indian state welfare system, this status guarantees the most benefits, like quotas in public employment, etc. Cultural criteria are central to this system, and the Sikkim state supports the display of cultural differences, as the reclassification of Sikkim ‘ethnic’ categories has become a part of its political programme. But since the foundation of the Gurung association, its members have been divided over the question of religion, one faction arguing that Gurungs should “go back” to Buddhism, as Hinduism poses a hindrance to the acquisition of Scheduled Tribe status, and the other that Gurungs should remain Hindu.

This paper addresses the role of the state in the construction of ethnicity in Sikkim. Among the various interacting political fields producing ethnicitylike trans-border networks, globalization, etc.the relation of mutual influence between the Sikkimese state’s various agencies and the Gurungs is at the core of my analysis. The Gurung association, as an interpreter of the state policy, is a key actor in this process, and will be given particular attention.