Karma Tenzing Topden, a trusted friend and an amiable person

Report by: 
Palden Tsering Gyamtso
11 Aug 2018

Karma Tenzing Topden, former senior bureaucrat and Member of Parliament, passed away in Manipal Hospital, Tadong, on August 4, 2018, after a prolonged illness. He was born in Gangtok as the eldest son of the late MartamTopden, former Senior Executive Councillor of the Chogyal of Sikkim and Martam Amla AyiLezey in 1941. Topden did his schooling from St. Joseph’s School, Darjeeling, from where he passed both Senior Cambridge and Higher Senior Cambridge examinations before proceeding to England for his graduation from the Manchester University. Topden was a white jacket holder of St. Joseph’s School for being the best all-rounder in both academics and sports.
After completing a course on policing at Scotland Yard, he joined the Sikkim Government service as Deputy Superintendent of Police in 1967. After a short stint in the Sikkim Police he was promoted as the Deputy Secretary to the Chogyal looking after the intelligence work of State and he was reporting directly to the Chogyal all intelligence matters. After Sikkim became the 22nd State of the Union of India in 1975, he was transferred to the State Trading Corporation of Sikkim in Kolkata as Trade Agent and he spent some time there. In 1979 when the late Nar Bahadur Bhandari took over the Chief Minister of the State, he was appointed as Secretary to the Chief Minister. In between he was absorbed in the Indian Administrative Service. Thereafter he assumed additional charge of Secretary, Tourism and Managing Director, State Trading Corporation of Sikkim. He served the Governemnt till 1988, when he resigned government service and served two terms as Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.
My contact with Karma Tenzing Topden started in 1958 when I joined the Darjeeling Government College. About this time he was doing his higher Senior Cambridge course in St. Joseph’s School in Darjeeling. One day he came to our hostel looking for me and when we met, he talked about forming a Sikkim Student’s Association to look after the welfare of the students studying in St. Joseph’s Collegiate School and Govt. College, Darjeeling. We revived the Sikkim Student’s Association which was functional in the early fifties. I was nominated as the President and Topden assumed the charge of General Secretary of the Association.  The first challenge which the Association had faced was at the time of the death of the late Sonam Gyatso Chungyalpa of Chungyalpa family of M.G. Marg Gangtok. The late Sonam Gyatso, a two year junior to me in school studying in St. Joseph College, died due to haemorrhage in Planter’s Hospital. The communication network during those periods was not as good as today. To get the message passed on to Gangtok and then get people come to Darjeeling to fetch the body was not an easy task. We decided not to leave the body alone in the dormitory of the hospital. Topden knew the family of Chumbay Babu of Bhutia Busti, Darjeeling, from where we carried “Boden” carpets “Choktse” and “Gyamchoi” on our back and brought  them to the hospital along with a lama to recite ‘mantra’ and by the time the team from Gangtok had arrived in Darjeeling, we had lit up the place with “Choemi” and the Lama was reciting “monlam” and had created an environment that there was someone to care of the body. The fact that Topden had carried the Bodens carpets and other materials on his back along with me showed that he was a humble and down to earth person with no pretensions, given the background of his schooling and the environment he was brought up.
When he was first admitted in Apollo Hospital, Delhi, for check-up I went to see him. The late Jaswant Singh, former External Affairs Minister in the Vajpayee government, had come to see him in the Hospital. They were good friends while he was an M.P.  This friendship played a role in his posting as Ambassador to Mongolia when Chief Minister Pawan Chamling had submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee for appointment of persons from Sikkim as governors and ambassadors and in other Constitutional postis. Topden met the Chief Minister and thanked him for supporting his candidature as ambassador.
When I met him in the Apollo hospital he told me in an exciting voice that 17th Karmapa Orgyen Thinlay had come to see him and he seemed to be a satisfied and happy person.  The family of Topden were devout followers of the Karma Kaguet lineage. His maternal grandfather hailing from Rangong, Phodang, North Sikkim, the Gondrung of Sikkim Government, and his father hailing from Martam, East Sikkim, were all Karma Kaguet followers. If I remember correctly, the 16th Karmapa had stayed in Martam House before he moved over to Rumtek. Because of this connection Topden took over the responsibility of looking after the interest of the 17th Karmapa and liaisoned with the Centre over the Karmapa issue religiously. I have seen the message of 17thKarmapa Orgyen Thinlay sent from USA in the facebook where he had talked about the role played by Topden over the Karmapa issue. When I visited him in Manipal Hospital one day before his death, he told me that Gyalchab Rimpochi had also come to see him and gave his blessing.  During my frequent meetings with him in Delhi and Gangtok I had tried to cheer him up and urged him not to give up hope easily.  Quite often he used to say: “I have lived my life on my own terms and I have no regret to leave this world now”.
Minister in L.D. Kazi’s government R.C Powdyal used to tell me that Mr. Karma Topden was the only person in Sikkim from the Bhutia-Lepcha community who knew the real politics of Sikkim and I am inclined to agree with this view. He used to say that he was not to be considered a soft leader of the Bhutia- Lepcha community and he could not be taken for granted on Bhutia-Lepcha community issues. While serving the Chogyal he had once argued with the Chogyal over some of the Chogyal’s decisions and the Chogyal in a fit of anger had called the guard on duty and ordered that Topden be put in the quarter guard of Sikkim Guards. Topden managed to wriggle out of the situation and  pacified the Chogyal. This incident was relayed to me when I had complained to him about the Chogyal being insensitive to my grievance of getting a building plan passed. The message he passed on to me was that such things do happen in life and one must take them in its stride.
Motilal Lakhotia of Gangtok, a friend of the late Topden, got the name TashiDelek from him when he was desperately searching for an appropriate name of his hotel. This happened in Kolkata. I was posted as Resident Commissioner in Kolkata. Topden and Lakhotia had gone to Grand Hotel for a drink session and coming back from the hotel, he told me about the nomenclature.
Topden had married Cherry Topden, a British lady, and qualified person in law. They had three children, one son and two daughters, out of the wedlock. Cherry Topden was appointed the legal advisor to the Chogyal of Sikkim. Today Karma Topden is no more with us. He is remembered fondly by those who knew them closely as an amiable personality always willing to listen to any type of grievances patiently and attempting to solve them with an open and generous mind.  The Bhutia-Lepcha communities in Sikkim have lost a strong votary of their cause and for me it is a loss of a very close and trusted friend. I pray to God that his soul rests in eternal peace.
(The writer is a superannuated bureaucrat and a former Member of Rajya Sabha from Sikkim)