Every society requires some kind of political framework to ensure its continued existence. In most regions of the world, today this structure is provided by a strong central government that determines the behaviour of the various populations inhabiting this territory. Indigenous political systems were once numerous and varied allowing social groups isolated from the centre of power to organise themselves according to their own particular needs and circumstances. In recent decades, these local structures have increasingly been threatened by national governments and their decentralisation policies. Many have already disappeared, and it would thus seems interesting to consider the prospect of the surviving ones. Within the Himalayan context, the Dzumsa (dzom sa)of Lachen provides an interesting example of a political institution inherited from the past that has managed to survive and adapt itself to changing circumstances.
Located some fifty kilometres from Chinese border, the village of Lachen falls within a restricted area of Sikkim's North District. Under military surveillance, access to the valley is strictly monitored and few scientific researchers were ever carried out in the region. Only some short terms studies were undertaken usually by government servants for the purpose of the Sikkim administration. From a socioeconomic viewpoint, the valley of Lachen, even more so then that of Lachung, remains relatively unknown. This study is an attempt to throw light on the institution of the dzumsa, the political system of the people of Sikkim's extreme north which today can still be witnessed in Lachen, one of Sikkim's remotest valleys. The case of Lachen appeared interesting for two reasons: 1. This local political system not only seemed robust but seemed to have preserved its status and powers (or part of these) despite the establishment of a strong Indian governing system following Sikkim's integration within the Indian Union in 1975; and 2. The agro-pastoral practices of Lachen are of a particular kind. Like most societies settled at high altitudes, herding is a central economic activity of the valley. Pastoral-nomadism has always been practised by the population, but contrary to usual practise, the entire Lachenpa community moves with the seasons, leaving the rest of the valley, and notably the main village of Lachen, practically empty of inhabitants for most of the year. Even through practices have changed with new economic conditions, all households still gather their members and together migrate with the seasons in search of better pastures for their yaks and sheep.

What is the dzumsa

The dzumsa is the traditional administrative system of the villages of Lachen and Lachung, high communities speaking Tibetan dialect and settle in Sikkim's North District. This system of self- governance was initially established during the first half of the 19th century provides structure and cohesion for these societies and their activities. These communities were too far removed from the central authority to follow rules applicable to other regions of Sikkim. Many similar cases can be found throughout the World, particularly in Nepal and Tibet: the studies of Te in Nepal presented by C.Ramble (1990, 1993) and of Nyi-shang by Ph. Sagant (1990) provide interesting comparative examples. During the time of the Sikkimese kingdom, the dzumsa and the pipons(spyi dpon) or village chiefs were recognised and used by the king (chos rgyal) as a means of delegating his authority. In the 1970s, when the Indian government initiated the reorganization of Sikkim's administration and introduced the 'panchayat 'system of local government, the new system was not imposed in the Valleys of Lachen and Lachung. Eventually, the Dzumsa was officially recognised in 1985 and continues to function today. The Dzumsa is an interesting example considering that few of these surviving political system throughout the Himalayas were officially recognised by the governments in place (see for the example the case of Nyi-shang in Nepal where the ceased to exist in 1977 after the establishment of panchayats).
The word dzumsa has three meanings. Literally, it refers to the 'gathering place' but also to the institution in-charge of administering and organising activities within a given territory, as well as to the general council to the villagers composed to the household heads.
The dzumsa –or general council of Lachenpa villagers – is directed by a group of people, elected or designated by villagers depending on the period, to represent them and manage village affairs. This council of representatives, referred to as the lheyna (las sna) and now better known as the panchayat, is composed of two pipons, six gembos (rganbo), two tsipos (rtsis po) and two gyapons (rgya dpon). The council or lheyna is changed ever year unless the public wishes to renew its mandate. IT is responsible for the application and the respect of the community's laws and regulations, and for the organization of the main village events. It schedules the meetings of the villages general council were decisions are taken and meets before one in order to discuss the agenda and measures to be proposed. Within the lheyna, the pipons and the gembos are the issuers of orders while the tsipos and the gyapons are there to assist them. The two pipons, originally called chipons (spyi dpon) or 'king of the public' are the village chiefs, possessors of authority, spokesmen of the lheyna and Lachen's representatives to the outside world. Since 1978-79, they are no longer nominated as was customary but are elected by the general village council. The gembos, literally the 'responsible people' of the village, are to assist the pipon in their function, in taking decisions, in making the system work and in dispending justice. They were previously designated by the pipons but are now also elected by the public. The tsipos or 'accountants' were previously the collectors of the various taxes that were to be handed over to the Chogyal. They have now lost this function and instead are responsible for calculating fines and maintaining the books. The gyapons finally designated by each of the pipons as their assistants durind the village meeting notable by calling members to assemble by announcing the traditional 'zum niao!' ('dzoms nya'o). The lheyna take place every year at the of the lunar New Year just after the monastic mask dances. Until about thirty years ago, the pipons were not elected as is the case today, but were nominated by the group of the people called theumi (thos mi) who were considered to be the most respected, honest and experienced members of the community. In the mid-1970s, Sikkim entered the new era following its merger with India. The entire Sikkimese administration was upset and restructured, and the repercussions of this upheaval were felt in the remotes corners of the old kingdom. The dzumsa did not unaffected by these changes and gradually took on the structure that would be considered as 'more democratic' by the western societies. This new system gave an equal voice to all villagers when it came to choosing the group of pipons, which was not the case in order Himalayan Buddhist societies where by village chiefs were often chosen by means of ritual (Sagant 1990). In lachen, this new measures even served to better legitimise the pipons status. The first elections were in 1978-79 and continue to be held to this day. After closing the accounts and wrapping up any unfinished business, the lheyna officially resigns by ordering the thenton (grol ston)or last common meal and returning the dzumsa house keys to the public. Elections are organised in the next couples of the days by the transitional group designated by the general council of villagers. In order to give more legitimacy to the new lheyna and channel the votes, a list is compiled which consists of those considered to be eligible for the status of the pipon. Elections begins 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 on the list. Everyone receiving two voting ballots (with the seal of the pipon of Lachen on the reverse in order to avoid fraud) and writes on these the names(s) of the candidate(s). Once the voting is completed, the ballots are sorted by the name and counted. The candidate with the most votes becomes the first pipon and the runner-up becomes the second pipon. Those from the third to the eighth place are elected as gembos and those in the ninth and tenth position are elected tsipos. Once the elections are over and the new lheyna is the place, the public shares the meal offered by the departing lheyna.
The general village council is composed of Lachenpa household heads residing for the most part in Lachen. All Lachenpa household heads are not necessarily council members of khepo (khas po) either because they are lamas or because they are recently separated from the main household. Further, only men can become members of the dzumsa, and no women are officially authorised to attend the various meetings. However, a widow will take her husband's place until their son is old enough to take charge or if they had no son, until she adopts one. When, according to villagers, the dzumsa of Lachen was first established during the first half of 19th century with Dorji Samdup as the first pipon, it had a very small membership and anyone who wished to join could do so if met the previously mentioned conditions. The pipons of those days even Promised Land to those willing to join. The number of members then rose from about 60 in 1936 to 1980 in the early 1970s and to 175 in 2003. In the early 1990s, new measures were put in place in order to limit the membership's rapid growth, and today the rules are much stricter. Only Lachenpas by birth can now join the dzumsa, and the general village council only accepts two new members a year.
Meeting are held in the dzumsa's new house or mang khim (mang Khyim ) built in 1984-85, and which today represents the 'gathering place'. After the 'zum niao!' call to meetings, people have thirty minutes to assemble and make their presence known to one of the gembos taking attendance. Members then sit in a circle without following any specific order or reserved seating except perhaps for the lheyna in order to favour discussions and debate. If the lamas join the meetings, as it is the case when the metter of the day is of interest to them, they will sit on the central benches facing the lheyna. Dzumsa meetings are held as often as situation call for them. Previously, they only happened a few times a year in order to organise the main religious festival, set sowing dates and when to move the herds. They are now much more frequent and varied. The function of the dzumsa have evolved and multiplied since Sikkim joined the Indian union, and the body itself has become the intermediary between the government and the people and acquiring, in this sense, more and more responsibilities towards both. Today the dzumsa had new functions that call for regular meetings, such as calls for tender and the redistribution of property and money, topics to which we will return later on.
The dzumsa's historical functions:
As previously mentioned, the dzumsa was established to favour cohesion within the community by organising activities shared by the entire social group. In order to accomplish its objectives, the Dzumsa has since the beginning enforced a number of rules and conduct. The old rules however were not compiled in a register, and it i only in 1991