by Aziz Ali Dad
“And hard by Gilgit it is that, in an undefined way, on the high Roof of the World – what more fitting a place! – the three greatest Empires of the Earth meet – Great Britain, Russia and China.”–E F Knight in Where Three Empires Meet, 1892.
The three greatest empires of the 19th century were attracted to the Himalayan region and the Central Asian principalities because of these places’ geostrategic importance. To establish their supremacy there the British and the Russian empires embarked on a new political game. Believed to have been coined by the East India Company’s intelligence officer Capt Arthur Conolly, the term “Great Game” was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim. The term, and the region to which it applied, subsequently disappeared from modern political discourse. But after the end of the Cold War the phrase and the region re-emerged on the political radar screen of global politics.
In his article, “China’s discreet hold on Pakistan’s northern borderlands,” Selig S Harrison has expressed his concern that the “Chinese behemoth” would devour Gilgit-Baltistan. Writing in The New York Times on Aug 26, Harrison, director of the Asia Programme at the Centre for International Policy, said there were 7,000-11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) present in the region.
In his article “China and India: the great game’s new players”, Jaswant Singh, India’s former minister for defence and foreign affairs, wrote in The Guardian on Sept 25 that China, hungry for land, water and raw materials is encroaching on Himalayan regions redoubting and directly challenging India.
The newfound interest of policymakers and political pundits of different states in Gilgit-Baltistan is evidence of a revival of the Great Game. It supports Peter Hopkirk’s observation in The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia that “not much has changed in the last hundred years,” and that “the Great Game is still ominously topical.”
In the New Great Game, the only change is the addition of new players: India, Pakistan and, indirectly, the United States. Gilgit-Baltistan has a geography of pivotal geostrategic importance, which is why the New Great Game is liable to produce profound repercussions in the region.
The Karakoram Highway there was built by the personnel of the PLA with the help of the Pakistani army’s corps of engineers. The highway helped the Chinese win the hearts of the local people. The Chinese are now upgrading the highway and working on other projects within the region.
Their initiatives in the region are driven by economic interest rather than ideological affiliation. They have until now focused on building infrastructure. Their contribution in social development is nonexistent. On the other hand, Western countries are working in collaboration in the social-development sector with the government and NGOs, with little focus on infrastructure.
It is yet to be seen whether infrastructure development or social interventions are going to tilt the local population towards the players in the New Great Game. But it is imperative for the local people to get an understanding of the complexities of the New Great Game which blurs boundaries between local, national, regional and international interests.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are still more vulnerable to the game being played there because of the region’s ambiguous status within Pakistan. It is still outside the ambit of the constitution and has no representation in parliament, and has therefore no role in decision-making in Islamabad.
During the Great Game the players either negotiated with or confronted local rulers of the different valleys in the region. Since the interests of the local rulers and people were embedded within the indigenous power relations of society, they were not ready to surrender their power to foreign forces. Unfortunately, there is no link in the current dispensation which links power with the interest of the local populace.
Furthermore, the convergence of conflicting interests and continuous unrest in the same space might pave the way for the new players to intervene. Sporadic sectarian violence, incessant targeted killings and segregation of people of the same family, ethnicity and language along sectarian lines in Gilgit are just parts of the bigger picture of the New Great Game.
To protect Gilgit-Baltistan from the fallouts of this game, it is indispensable for the local people to be empowered economically, politically and constitutionally. Provisional arrangements will make the people an easy prey to the power politics of the New Great Game.
The local people interpret the politics of different countries regarding Gilgit-Baltistan through folk lore, such as the prophecy of a shaman named Khameto. Centuries ago, the legendary shaman predicted a great war in the following song in the Shina language: Peace will prevail,
When horses wade through the blood up to their knees at Khunjerab, The meaning of Khunjerab in the Wakhi language is “blood stream.”
A logical analysis of the modern power politics of the region lead us to a similar conclusion. Let us remember that the players of the New Great Game are three nuclear states.
The writer is associated with a rights-based organisation in Islamabad. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in The NEWS.