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‘Gandhi Pokhrel’, The Unsung Freedom Fighter Who Pioneered ‘Swadeshi’ In Sikkim

While official records of his life remain sparse for the most part, the Sikkimese government recognised Trilochan Pokhrel’s contributions with the LD Kazi Award for Democratic Movement in 2018.

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In 1861, the erstwhile Kingdom of Sikkim and the British Empire signed the Treaty of Tumlong. This treaty effectively made the present-day Northeastern state a de facto protectorate of the British Indian government.

(Image above: Trilochan Pokhrel courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Their objective in bringing Sikkim under their purview was to establish a trade route into Tibet. Within the context of The Great Game against the Russian Empire, the British colonialists sought to increase their influence in the region.

Nearly three decades later, however, the British established a formal protectorate over Sikkim, which the Chinese recognised in the Anglo-Chinese Treaty of 1890. As a consequence of these events, the British assumed responsibility of the Sikkimese kingdom’s defence and external affairs, while its subjects were subject to the same protections as Indians travelling abroad and restrictions when it came to dealing in foreign exchange.

It’s within this context of growing British influence on Sikkimese affairs that Trilochan Pokhrel, a forgotten freedom fighter from the state, was born sometime in the last decade of the 19th century, according to scholars Dr. Binod Bhattarai, an Assistant Professor of sociology at Sikkim University, and his senior colleague Dr. Rajen Upadhyay.

Emulating Gandhi

Popularly known as ‘Gandhi Pokhrel’, stemming from his love of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence and Satyagraha, he was born and raised in Tareythang region of Pakyong subdivision, East Sikkim. Growing up in a rural area, Trilochen was heavily influenced by Gandhi’s actions, particularly during the Non Cooperation and Civil Disobedience movements through the early 1920s and 1930s.

However, there are no concrete historical records to ascertain his participation in these movements. His participation in the freedom struggle kicked off during the Quit India Movement of 1942, when he lived with Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat and Sarvodaya Ashram in Bihar, and learned his philosophy from close quarters.

“During his stay there, Pokhrel is known to have spent his time spinning the charkha (spinning wheel) and rendering his services for the ashrams along with assisting Gandhi in his daily affairs. He had immense faith in the teachings of the simple life led by Mahatma Gandhi. It is acknowledged that late Pokhrel was highly influenced by Gandhi Ji’s teaching and his lifestyle. His contemporaries in Tareythang village inform us that he used to visit his native village donning similar clothing as the naked fakir — Gandhi,” notes Binod and Rajen in this article.

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Pokhrel
Influence of MK Gandhi can also be seen in his attire.

‘Bande Pokhrel’

There are various accounts of how during his regular visits back home, Pokhrel began propagating the boycott of British-made goods and promoting the concept of Swadeshi or indigenously made goods among the Sikkimese peasantry.

As Dr. Binod notes for East Mojo, during his leisure time Pokhrel, “used to visit local hatt-bazar (such as Rongli, Rhenock, Pakyong, Rangpo etc) and sit there with his charkha to make cotton threads”. In fact, he would even dress up as Gandhi wearing a piece of cotton dhoti and wooden slippers, and would often greet elders in his village with the ‘Bande Mataram’ salutations. This is what also got him the ‘Bande Pokhrel’ moniker.

“He used to convey the message of Vande Mataram and inculcate the spirit of Swadeshi Movement i.e. to spin and wear swadeshi cloths, to establish Khadi and village industries etc. so that the villages could be developed and income generation for the poor,” he adds.

Following Independence on 15 August 1947, Sikkim retained some semblance of its independence as India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, agreed to maintain the erstwhile kingdom’s special protectorate status. While the Sikkimese kingdom maintained internal autonomy, it let the Indian Union handle external affairs. However, things came to a head with the Chinese crackdown in the late 1950s and heavy immigration from Nepal.

Meanwhile, Pokhrel continued on his travels across India with his last visit home happening in 1957 when Nehru visited the erstwhile kingdom. As per official records, he passed away on 27 January 1969 in Purnia district, Bihar, while his descendents migrated to Assam. Only six years after his demise later did Sikkim become an official state of the Indian Union.

While official records of his life remain sparse for the most part, the Sikkimese government recognised his contributions to the Indian freedom struggle when it conferred the LD Kazi [first chief minister of Sikkim] Award for Democratic Movement during the 43rd State Celebration in May 2018. There is evidently a lot we don’t know about his life, but recognitions like these do offer hope that one day it will inspire more scholars from Sikkim to learn more about this forgotten figure of the Indian freedom struggle.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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