Himalayan Heritage Foundation

Center for policy research on Himalayan Region

Gilgit And The Great Game In The Himalayas

There is a continuous ploy to dismantle the Northern Frontier of India in the Himalayas

Written by: Dr. Mahesh Kaul || Posted in category: Northern Frontier || Dated: 2014-08-08

Title cover of the book The Gilgit Game by John Keay

The State of Jammu and Kashmir has been the focal point of all activities that range from cultural to political. But it can be called the misfortune of the comprehensively rich geographical and historical entity that it has been used as the flash point of all intrigues that have brought miseries to the populace of the state in all times. The seed of the destabilization of the state was sown when the British imperialists happened to be the illegitimate overlords of this rich entity.


The colonial rulers sponsored many expeditions and missions to gather information about the remote and extreme fringes of this state and its frontiers. As they knew if they have to rule India then they will have to strengthen their stronghold over the Himalayas. And it is in this context that they were interested in having their foothold in Gilgit- a small town in the centre of the Western Himalayas. While researching about the Northern Frontiers of the India I came across a book titled “The Gilgit Game” by John Keay published by Oxford University Press in 1979. It is a well established fact and well documented in history how Gilgit region of the Himalayan frontier became battle ground when India was witnessing the transfer of power and partition of the country at the same time. It was used as region where many intrigues were shaped to destabilise the state of Jammu and Kashmir and alter its boundaries besides fomenting trouble by communalising the situation by the British agents who were active in the area as early as1830’s and by 1870. They tightened their stronghold on it to suit their imperialist goals of violating the boundaries of the state and use it as a focal point to rule the subcontinent keeping in view the developing geo-political interests of other emerging powers in the Himalayan frontier.


This book is an interesting and informative material not only on the various tribes that inhabit this frontier region and their way of life but explains the strategic importance of the region as far as the state of Jammu and Kashmir is concerned . It explains to a greater extent the British mindset regarding their imperialist designs and co opting various forces that later were instrumental in posing challenge to the idea of united India. In the introduction to the book John Keay writes, “The point of Gilgit, now as always is strategic. High above the snowline, somewhere midst the peaks and glaciers that wall in the Gilgit valley, the long and jealously guarded frontiers of India, China, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan meet. It is the hub, the crow’s nest, the fulcrum of Asia.” These words should explain how astute the British were while governing India and knew well that this region in the Himalayas was the focal point of the balance of power. And it goes to their credit that they understood the importance of this area in guarding the frontiers and boundaries of India.


But when they were on the verge of leaving India after partitioning it, they left no stone unturned in dismantling this fulcrum of the Indian frontier by fomenting trouble there so that this area and the state of Jammu and Kashmir of which it is territorially integral part is dismantled and the unity of India as a nation is always kept under strain. To weaken the Indian unity they left no stone unturned to rupture the defense of the Indian nation in the frontier itself. And the outcome is the present conflict and continuous destabilization. Writing further to explain the importance and significance of this frontier he writes, “A little over a century ago none of these frontiers came anywhere near one another, Gilgit itself was far flung, disaster prone and run down outpost of the Maharaja of Kashmir. Beyond it and on all sides save for a vulnerable supply line back to Kashmir, there stretched virgin territory. South to the Punjab of British India, West to Badakshan in Afghanistan, north to Tashkent in Russia and east to Sinkiang in China, this rectangular sea of mountains stretched for hundreds of all but impenetrable miles.


The Gilgit Game is simply the story of how and by whom such a wilderness was explored and approached.” It is interesting to note here that the British were not only consolidating their rule in their Indian colony but exercising the strategic and political influence of their country by using the land of this nation as the theatre of war and once they left, they trampled it to such an extent that it is still bearing the blows of that intrigue. Narinder Singh Sarila, ADC to the last Governor General ,Lord Mountbatten has clearly explained in this book titled ‘The Untold Story of India’s Partition” that how the Great Game was played to partition India by socially, communally, economically, geographically and culturally balkanize India so that no room is left for the national resurgence of India among the comity of nations.


Though the book The Gilgit Game was written years before Narinder Singh Sarila could reveal the reality of the British game plan to vivisect India, it succinctly explains the development of the strategy called the “Great Game and the Gilgit being the starting point of this intrigue to later balkanize the Indian nation.  Explaining the rationale behind the Great Game, he writes, ”It was called a game in recognition of the process being a crucial episode in the Great Game, the century-long rivalry between Russia and British India for control of Central Asia. The latter phrase had been coined back in 1830’s but came into common usage about 1870.With the popular discovery of cricket, football and tennis, suddenly everything became a game: the word was bandied about as loosely as, more recently,’scene’. But it was also in the 1870s that the great game, after a mid -century lull, returned as a political feature to obsess the minds and dictate the policies of those who ruled Asia. Inspite of some impossible terrain, inspite too of some of the improbable characters involved ,here was one of the most desperate and portentous confrontations that the late nineteenth century had to evolve.” One should acknowledge the analysis of the author in comparing Great Game with Cold War. But it is also a reality that Great game is still functional when we witness the turbulence and ethno-religious conflict in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and Cold war may be called its corollary but in the present scenario it is a bit mild as far as the existence of unipolar world at present is concerned. He writes, “The Great Game has often been compared with the Cold War of 1950’s and 1960’s. In both cases war as an instrument of policy was used sparingly and the global explosion that threatened never materialized.


A safer outlet for imperial aggression was found in trying to secure a favorable alignment of minor powers and thus outmanoeuver the opposition. In the Great Game, China (although itself an empire ), Afghanistan and Persia all provided ideal ground for such jockeying. So too, in the early days, did the Khanates of Central Asia and subsequently the mountain states of the Western Himalayas. In retrospect the imperial rivalry looks fairly genteel and, indeed, there were those who at the time defended even Russian encroachments on the ground of Europe’s civilizing mission. Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that for most, the Tsarist threat in the late nineteenth century was as real and alarming as the Communist menace in the mid-twentieth.”


Explaining military strategy of the powers that were indulged in the Great Game, John Keay writes, “Again like the Cold War, the Great Game was played, or fought, over a vast area and at many different levels. Any clash of British and Russian interests east of the Balkans had a bearing on the Game. The action had a way of shifting unpredictably from a concourse of statesman in Europe to a sudden shunting of troops in the Hindu Kush; or from the activities of a lone Kiplingesque secret agent to some frantic excitement among the small-scale maps at military headquarters.”


Gilgit turned out to be the focal point of all geo-political and strategic affairs that define the imperialist policy in guarding the Northern Frontier. It is a pity that the people who were the subjugators of the Indian nation understood the strategic and political importance of the Northern Frontier in the Himalayas and kept an eagle’s eye to guard it but the Indian state has failed to safeguard the national integrity and the sovereignty of the nation in this frontline area and squandered the advantage and failed to understand the British ploy on the eve of partition to alter the boundaries of princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to suit their long term game of the balkanization of India that are now clearly visible in the state.


John Keay sheds light on the broader agenda of the Great Game and writes, “What was true of the Great Game went for its Gilgit sector; the process of geographical and political penetration only makes sense when seen in the broadest possible context. Yet Gilgit was surely the wildest arena in which the Game was played. Diplomatic activity had to wait on the deliberations of ilitary strategists and these in turn waited on the process of exploration. Because of the political vacuum in the area, the movements of explorers and agents could themselves constitute a valid claim to territory and their chance friendships and difficulties could have the most far -reaching repercussions ;it would be in the mountains around Gilgit that the two imperial frontiers came closest to collision. All of which, though occasionally leading to ab

Keywords: Gilgit Game,Northern Frontier,Maharaja Hari Singh,Great Game,China,British,Pakistan,Himalayas,India,Jammu & Kashmir,John Keay,