[Opinion] Still ominously topical

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:

Originally published in The NEWS.

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  1. “Provisional arrangements will make the people an easy prey to the power politics of the New Great Game.”
    how exactly sir..

  2. Thanks, Aziz bhai for yet another piece of well elaborated piece of writing on the subject. The people of GB are fortunately more literate this confronting another great game being played in their courtyard.

    The current developments in the region suggest that the new chapter of great games has already been begun taking shape. The construction of KKH, the huge investment in infrastructure projects like the Gawadar deep sea port and other projects in the pipeline by the chinese government and huge investments in the social sector development by the international powers through international NGOs.

    The January 04 disaster in Hunza early this year which has blocked the Hunza river and a most difficult portion of KKH blocking the chinese trade and link to Pakistan for the tenth month now. The forces that have willfully delayed to reopen the blockage by the authorities is apparently an attempt to block the chinese.

    The most dangerous and tricky part of this game is that the western powers especially the United States would be using Pakistan against its all weather and tested neighbor, China while she would not expect Pakistan to do that. Pakistan can lose its most loyal friend in the course of pleasing her masters the United States and this would be disastrous for Pakistan.

    Some international NGOs have been mysteriously focussing on the extreme northern boarders of Afghanistan (Wakhan) and Pakistan (Chipursan) engaging a few locals people for high salaries.

    The increasing interest of United States in building infrastructure in the power and communication is also seen in the recent days. While Indians are also increasing focus on the region by reiterating her claim on Gilgit-Baltistan. The recent article by Mr. Selig S. Harrison and Mr, Jaswant Sing of India are parts of this game.

  3. Dear Ali Dad,
    No comments at all being a technocrate, no so wellveresed with the past, History. Agree with all the narration of YOURs with very respectfully the correction of KHUNJERAV not with “b”, Hope You don’t mind and If I am wrong, Please correct me———Waitng for Your articles—

    “When horses wade through the blood up to their knees at Khunjerab(KHUNJERAV), The meaning of Khunjerab(KHUNJERAV) in the Wakhi language is “blood stream.”

    Engr. Baig Ali

  4. @Darwesh. By this statement I meant that people will naturally attract to dispensation that enables them to become part of mainstream politics and system. Across the border Kargil and Ladakh have constitutional cover and permanent systems in place. whereas Pakistan is fiddling with Gilgit-Baltistan by experimenting different systems sans constitutional cover time and again.
    @Jojon thanks for your appreciation.
    @Baig Ali. i appreciate your correct. In fact I wrote KHUNJERAV in original draft after consulting Noor Mohammed and Azam Tajik but editor went for standard name of Khunjerab. it is interesting to note that how local names of different areas are disappearing under the pressure of standardization. For example, none of us write ‘Gileet’ or ‘Geelt’ but write Gilgit.

  5. Aziz Ali Dad has written good article linking our motherland with regional poltics of China, India and Paksitan. I agree with what he said in the article but disagree with the impression he gives that we do not understand the dangers of the great game. in reality we are more literate than rest of Pakistan because Hunza has 95% literacy rate and education people know about new politics in their region. It would be good if we hunzukuch establish research institute which can guide other parts and communities of our region. for this we need to unite by removing hurdles between people of Hunza because of language difference issue. Aziz focused only on shina and wakhi by ignoring examples from brushashki, balti and khaowar language. Good writer is when who care about other when he writes.

  6. Another prophecy of a shaman was
    Ganish palajot Baltit bagot ( Ganish would be destroyed and Baltit would be over populated) .
    This prediction is again related to this great game as well when another giant projects, the pipeline and railway track will be constructed through ganish and there would be no land left for the population to live in the premises of Ganish. The narrow strip of land starting from Nasir abad to ganish would be mostly occupied by the two projects and related facilities. Will our identity b buried under such infrastructure and the hunzukuz will be forced to live in rented apartments somewhere in kohistan or Mansehra.

  7. Letter of Dr. Sabit Rahim published in The News on Oct 18, 2010
    The great game
    This is with reference to the article “Still ominously topical” by Mr Aziz Ali Dad (October 16). The learned writer has done a commendable job by analysing the phenomena of the “great game” being played again in the strategically sensitive region of Gilgit-Baltistan with additional players like the USA, India and Pakistan joining in. Mr Selig Harrison has alluded to the presence of Chinese forces in Gilgit-Baltistan earlier too in his article titled “China’s discreet hold on Pakistan’s northern borderlands” which was published in the New York Times, on August 26, 2010.
    The new great game seems to aim at containing our time-tested friend China. The article should be treated as a timely warning to prevent any harm coming to our region, country and China. All concerned must be extremely vigilant and proactive. Gilgit-Baltistan should be taken out of its present constitutional limbo and powers must be transferred to a real representative government.
    Dr Sabit Rahim

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