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28 February 2020

The never ending colonial legacy of Great Game

Prateek Joshi
The writer is pursuing Postgraduation in International Relations from South Asian University (a SAARC nations project).He is researcher on issues of Gilgit Baltistan/ Ladakh and Xinjiang

For those inquisitive to know about Gilgit, British records of 19th century are the most valid sources. It is in this era when there was a serious attempt by the subcontinent’s colonizers to understand this landscape, hitherto unknown to them. This phase is also known as the ‘Great Game’, a period of rivalry between the British and Russians to capture Central Asian territories. The lurking threat of a potential Russian invasion was compounded by the presence of Russian surveyors in Pamir by mid-19th Century. It was precisely at this point when Gilgit and its surrounding regions became an obsession among the British. Suddenly, Gilgit’s elusive passes and valleys were imagined as the gateways through which Russians could invade anytime. Imaginations of the Gilgit frontier as a strategic gateway are reflected in the conferences of the Royal Geographic Society, London, which encouraged expeditions in the high Karakoram-Pamir belt to locate the secret passes. Captain Francis Younghusband (famous for crossing the Muztagh pass for the first time to enter India), the Durand Brothers, Viceroy of India Lord Curzon are some notable personalities who had their eyes set on Gilgit and lobbied with for an aggressive British policy to ensure the control of Gilgit never slipped into the hands of Russians. In fact, the British and the Russians reached on the brink of a war when rumor spread that Captain Younghusband was killed by the Russian army while surveying the territories of Hunza and Wakhan corridor in 1891.

Despite the treaty of Amritsar granting the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir territories east of Indus, the British encouraged him to incorporate the areas lying to its west. Gradually, Giglit became a British agency by 1877 and again in 1889. Rather than a formal administrative apparatus, it was the network of explorers and spies of British army which was entrusted with the task of keeping Gilgit under British occupation. Due to British policies in the larger framework of the Great Game, this nearly impassable terrain of Karakorams became geostrategically significant region. In his attempt to expose the British manipulations, legendary explorer George Hayward got murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1870. The place where he was murdered (near Darkot Pass, Ghizer) is named Feringhi Bar and his body rests in a British graveyard in Gilgit.

Nearly 150 years ago from today, Hayward had prophesized that the type of politics the colonial masters were engaging within this region, the future generations would not live in peace. Enter 21st century and today, despite the nearly universal acceptability of nation-state driven international order, the Karakoram-Pamir belt is yet to witness political stability.

The politics stirred by the Great Game has a direct bearing even today when these mountainous regions covering India, Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan are viewed with the same colonial lenses of Geopolitics. It is indeed unfortunate that a region through which cultures travelled fluidly, where the mystical traditions of Buddhism and Sufism mixed with the local cultures, and where Silk Road created flourishing trading towns, is today blocked by the mighty walls of nation states’ borders.