North Sikkim’s idyllic villages, Lachen and Lachung, have a highly sophisticated governance system since 1642
Sitting in his office, a new Director General of Police of the Government of Sikkim, first heard the word “Jomsa” from one of his juniors.
The inherently peaceful and practically crimeless state does have some incidents, once in a long while, and one such was the murder of an Islampuria, a Bihari Muslim scrap trader. He had been murdered, but as the official informed his boss, the DGP, nothing could be done about it.
“Why?” asked the DG.
“Because of the Jomsa, Sir,” the officer said. “No one tinkers with the Jomsa, and they have settled the matter. It was the Islampuria’s fault that he teased some pretty girl in Lachung, the Jomsa has held. They have levied a fine on the killer because Buddhists are not supposed to kill, and he has been ordered to undergo penance at the local monastery, but that is all. We cannot do anything.”
Sikkim has a long history of egalitarian governance from the level of the former kings, or Chogyals, of the Namgyal dynasty. In fact, the term Chogyal itself means “Dharma Raja” and from the start, the rule has been going by scriptures.
The word Jomsa means ‘meeting at a place’. It is a traditional administrative institution of the North Sikkim villages of Lachen and Lachung who speak Lhokey (Sikkimese language). This system of self- governance became necessary because Lachen and Lachung are very far and tough to access from the once capital of the kingdom.
The first Chogyal had been consecrated in 1642 at a place called Yuksum, “Meeting Place of Three Lamas”, in West Sikkim. Later, the third palace of the Chogyal was set up at Rabdentse, also in West Sikkim.
The people of North Sikkim are closer to Tibetans and have some sense of independence that often makes them difficult to handle. Due to the distance from Rabdentse, the Chogyals traditionally granted them this kind of autonomy.
A Jomsa is headed by Pi Poen, who would, apart from running the Jomsa, act as a bridge between the local people and the Chogyal’s Central Government in the land earlier known as Bayul Demajong in Bhutia and Muyal Liyang in Lepcha, the two original communities of what later came to be named as Sikkim.
Jomsa is the apex unit of governance at their respective areas of jurisdiction. It is the responsibilities of the Jomsas to ensure law and order. It meets regularly and discusses measures to be proposed for the general welfare.
“The date for the regular meetings are fixed in advance, and just before the morning the local monastery sounds a drum beat, so people know the meeting is about to start and reach the community hall,” Anil Lachenpa told SSB.
In fact, Jomsa is the general council elected or nominated by villagers for a certain period. This council of representatives, or ‘Lena’, is composed of two Pipoens, six Genbos, two Chipos and two Gyapons. The Lena is changed ever year or depending upon the decisions and wishes of the general public.
The two Pi Poens, originally called Chipoens or ‘master of the public’, are the village chiefs and the bridge to the outside world. . Until about 30 years ago, the Pi Poens were not elected as is the case today, but were nominated by the group of people called Theumee who were seen as decent, respected, honest and experienced community members. However, since 1978-79, they are no longer nominated but are elected by the general village council.
The Genbos, ‘elders’ who have knowledge and experience guide the Pi Poens. Initially, Genbos who were nominated by the Pipoens are now also elected by the public. The Chipos are accountants of the Jomsa as well as collectors of the various taxes and revenues to be ultimately transferred to the Chogyal, both in cash and kind.
“Nowadays, there is no Chogyal after the annexation of Sikkim in 1975, but the Jomsa still has the rights to raise taxes. Around 2003, the Jomsas said that taxies from other districts would not be allowed to bring in tourists, because North Sikkim boys were losing out on employment. We had to plead with them and pay huge taxes in cash as well as ghee, rice and kerosene for the monasteries before they allowed us again,” Palzor Lachungpa, a major tour operator, says.
The Gyapoens are designated by Pi Poens as their assistants and are responsible for calling the community members to assemble for Jomsa by announcing the traditional ‘Jom Nya!’ – To Meet. The Lena takes place every year at the start of the Buddhist lunar New Year just after the monastic mask dances
After the ‘Jom Nya’ is announced, all the community members have to assemble at Jomsa within next half – an –hour. They sit in a circular manner. Apart from the Lena, one can sit anywhere without any sense of hierarchy. However, if a lama (priest) attends the Jomsa for certain matters, he sits in the centre, facing the Lena. It is essential that the members record their presence with one of the Genbos. If some miscreant is fined, the amount is distributed equally to all the community members during the Jomsa.
Similarly, if the Jomsa receives some largesse from somewhere, the same would also be equally distributed amongst the members. It is in the Jomsa that all the disputes are settled in a democratic manner. It performs all the developmental functions that are assigned to the panchayats in other areas and also have customary judicial power for trial of cases in their respective villages.
Today, the Jomsa provides more participation of the community members in its functioning. All the community members are now necessarily required in choosing new Pi Poens.
The Chipos, or accountants have to submit their accounts annually. Interestingly, after closing the accounts for the outgoing committee, and all pending cases or affairs if any, the ‘Lena’ is officially dissolved with offering of the ‘Drolten’ the last common meal. This is followed by handing over of the ‘Chyandi’ – keys of the Jomsa to the public.
Poll for Pi Poens
Elections are held in the next couple of days by the transitional group designated by the general council of villagers. In order to give more legitimacy to the new Lena and channel the votes, a list is compiled which consists of those considered to be eligible for the status of the Pi Poen. Elections begin once the general council of villagers and the lamas (who have been participating in elections since the early 1990s) agree on who should be included in the list.
Everyone receiving two voting ballots (with the seal of the Pi Poen on the reverse in order to avoid fraud) and writes on these the names of the candidates. Once the voting is completed, the ballots are sorted by the name and counted. The candidate with the most votes becomes the first Pi Poen, and the runner-up becomes the second Pi Poen. Those from the third to the eighth place are elected as gembos and those in the ninth and tenth position are elected Chipos.
Once the elections are over and the new lheyna is the place, the public shares the meal offered by the departing Lena.
In Lachen, the general village council is composed of heads of the Lachenpa households. Women are not entitled to become members; however, a widow can act in her departed husband’s place till such time their male heir is old enough to assume membership or if they had no son, until she adopts one.
“This is a solid institution,” Lachenpa says. “It is vibrant and important because law and order cannot be maintained
by police sitting in Mangan, the
North Sikkim district HQ. And it is
free of corruption because everyone knows each other and systems are transparent.
(With inputs from Chewang Pintso)
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