More than 2900 monks from over 100 monasteries all over the hilly state will choose one among three Lamas who are contesting for 'Sangha' seat in the Sikkim Assembly, unique to the state. Interestingly, like other candidates these monks are also affiliated to different political parties and run campaigns soliciting votes in mountainside monasteries.
Draped in maroon robes, the candidates don't shout political slogans, put up posters or raise flags but opt for quiet meetings with monk voters. Only monks can vote and contest in the reserved 'Sangha' seat. "My first priority after winning the election would be to make Sikkim an international centre for Buddhist learning," Palden Lachungpa, who is fighting on a ticket by the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), told PTI.
The state goes to poll on April 12. The monastic order also wants the 17th Karmapa, spiritual leader of Kagyu order of Tibet Buddhism, to stay in Rumtek monastery, the largest and most important seat of Buddhism in Sikkim. Citing security concerns, the union Home Ministry has restricted Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Karmapa, to travel to Sikkim.
SDF has promised to pursue the issue with the Centre and bring the monks their guru. As most monasteries are nestled in peaceful hill forests with rivers flowing nearby, hydropower projects are also an issue with the monks. Dechen Lama, a senior monk, complains that a power project in West Sikkim is disturbing spiritual activities in Tashiding monastery.
"Below the hill they are drilling to make a tunnel for hydropower project. As the monastry is on the top of that hill, our peace and tranquility gets disturbed. We want our representative to raise this issue," he told PTI.
To oversee affairs related to religious institutions like monasteries, Sikkim has a special department - Ecclesiastical Affairs Department. Monks complain that the SDF failed to appoint any minister to the unique department.
The monk winning from the Sangha seat is traditionally made the minister of the ecclesiastical department. "SDF has ignored this department for long time. We need to protect our Dharma and that is why I have joined politics," says Sonam Lama fighting on a ticket by Sikkim Krantikari Morcha.
The Congress has put up Tshering Lama from Simik Duduling Gompa in East Sikkim as their candidate. The 'Sangha' seat is the only of its kind in India which was created under Article 371 (F) of the Indian Constitution to give monks representation in governance as was done during the rule of the Chogyal kings.
The Himalayan kingdom had merged into India in 1975. SDF leaders say they never interfere in monastic affairs as they don't want to mix politics with religion. Sonam Bhutia, a young monk in Gangtok, says he votes each year but stays away from politics. "We are only continuing the tradition of being present in a small way in politics," he says.