Closing the Pamir Gap: The Great Game Series
The Chinese Interlude
The Great Game was being played in so many theaters that it baffled even those who were playing them. While Tsar’s armies were marching forward in Siberia, Britain was also not sitting idle in Far East, or Eastern Asia. Russia annexed huge tracts of lands which formerly belonged to the Manchu Emperor of China, and Britain was acquiring more and more concessions from the ailing Manchu Empire and getting a greater foothold in China. The British, allied with the French in the Far East had landed their armies in China and were ready to invade and annex Beijing formerly if need so arise. On the other hand, alarmed by British advances, Russia sent a very able officer Count Nikolai Ignatiev to formally make the Manchu Emperor a Russian vassal.
Ignatiev was only in his late twenties but was a Machiavellian manipulator of the highest order. He reached the Chinese capital and offered to the Chinese Emperor to negotiate on his behalf with the British and French troops which were stationed outside Beijing and which were ready to invade Beijing if they were not given more trading concessions. The British troops had no plans to militarily occupy Beijing for a long time and were from the beginning intent to leave but Ignatiev made the Emperor believe that it was he who was instrumental in bringing about the treaty between the Chinese and the British. In return he convinced the Emperor to cede formally huge swathes of land in Eastern Siberia.
Russia Succeeds in Central Asia
But what is most crucial to our story is that Ignatiev managed to convince the Emperor to let Russia open consulate in Kashgar the central Asian town in what is now Xinxiang. This was the beginning of the Russian advance in Central Asia. This time their advance was very concrete. (Skrine and Ross 237)
Another very different war had a deep impact on the Great Game. The American Civil War was going on and it had ensured that the supply of cotton to Europe would be halted. Cotton was crucial in social and military life and the Tsar Alexander of Russia had to think of an alternative source of cotton. The central Asian plains, particularly around the city of Khokand were ideal for growing cotton. If they could be annexed and made into Russia’s colonies, their cotton problem would be solved and they would be one step further in the Great Game. Once again the Great Game picked pace.
In 1865, Russia defeated and annexed the greatest of the walled Central Asian cities – Tashkent. Three years after this Samarkand and Bukhara fell and five years after that another great city of Khiva also fell to the Russian Bear from the North. Russia had truly become a menace in the North. At the beginning of the 19th century, its borders with India were separated by 2000 miles. By the end of the century, the gap had reduced to a few hundred.
But we are running ahead of the story. Britain too was not lying idle and apart from creating its pocket of influence in Afghanistan it had added Sindh and Punjab to its territories in India. The free days of Central Asia were about to be completely over and the two imperial powers were now discussing where to fix their borders and both agreed that Afghanistan would be the natural choice. The question was: what were Afghanistan’s borders.
In the pre-colonial days, the rulers who ruled the cities of Central Asia scarcely cared about borders but only about major towns. Borders became meaningless in mountainous regions like the Pamir Mountains which lay between Russian controlled cities of Central and British influenced areas of Afghanistan and India.
Then in 1873 Russia suddenly climbed down in its claims on Afghanistan and recognized that Afghanistan’s domains ran well into the Pamir Mountains. They were actually creating this smokescreen for their moves on Khiva. But nevertheless, this was a great victory for the British who always wanted to create a great ring of buffer states around India:
“Lord Mayo was convinced that India’s best defence lay, not in forward policies or military adventures, but in the establishment of a chain of buffer states friendly to Britain around its vast and thinly guarded frontiers.” (Hopkirk 337)
Though Russia had recognized Afghanistan as British area of influence and Badakshan and Wakhan as Afghanistan’s territory but nobody quite knew where these borders lay in the snowy reaches of the great mountains. British officers disguised as explorers like George Hayward and various Hindu men disguised as Buddhist pilgrims were constantly on the prowl in Central Asia, often at great personal risk, mapping these regions.
Mapping the Pamirs and assigning a border of Afghanistan had become even more important as momentous events were unfolding in Central Asia. Yakub Beg a fanatical Muslim ruler in Xinxiang had risen against its Chinese masters and had overthrown the Chinese and massacred all the non-Muslim Han Chinese residing in Xinxiang. He was now the most powerful independent ruler in Central Asia as all the important Central Asian cities had one by one fallen against the advancing armies of Russia, except Khiva Khanate and Yakub Beg’s new Islamic revolutionary kingdom of Kashgaria and what is now roughly Xinxiang. Its capital was the legendary city of Kashgar.
Yakub Beg was a wily politician and he was entertaining both the British and the Russians, trying to look for a better trade and defense deal. But the Russians were a formidable enemy for any Central Asian Muslim ruler and this soon became apparent. Russia had climbed down in its claims on Afghanistan because it had been planning more annexations in Central Asia. In 1873, it invaded and occupied Khiva, one of the most formidable Central Asian garrison cities. And then in 1875, the city of Khokand too fell. The Russian Empire in Central Asia was now immense and in a matter of just ten years they had managed to occupy Tashkent, Bokhara, Samarkand, Khiva and Khokand.
“…the Russians, in a period of just ten years, had annexed a territory half the size of the United States, and erected a defensive barrier across Central Asia stretching from the Caucasus in the west to Khokand and Kuldja in the east.” (Hopkirk 353)
The greatest fear in London and Calcutta in the British circles was this; that Russia would next annex the Xinxiang kingdom of Yakub Beg and that would directly give them access to Ladakh, the only place in Central Asia where, as the military analysts of those times believed, that a Russian army could directly invade India.
The British moved quickly to secure the situation. They knew that losing Xinxiang to the enemy would mean endangering the borders of India. Sadly though, after independence, Indian leaders did not give any thought to this and first they let Xinxiang being re-annexed by the Chinese and then they let the Chinese also occupy Ladakh from where the Chinese now again and again threaten to invade India. In Nehru’s infamous words, ‘not a blade of grass grows there in Aksai Chin’. He meant that losing Aksai Chin was no great deal as it was virtually useless. The British rulers who created India’s modern geopolitical policies and borders would have vehemently begged to differ.
Alarmed with the Russian takeover of most of Central Asia, Britain had also been sending espionage and survey missions in Central Asia. It all came down to the Pamirs. Afghanistan was secure for the British now and the Shah was also in an uneasy but a friendly relationship with Britain. The only way the Russian Army could now invade India was through the Pamirs, as it had already controlled all the garrison cities in the north Pamirs in what is now Tajikistan.
The Pamirs is a vast plateau crisscrossed by mountains and broad valleys but there are no trees or human habitations here. The British expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Cordon reported that the Pamirs was far from impenetrable and the Russian Army stationed in Khokand just north of the Pamirs would be able to cross the Pamirs and from there into Dardistan (northern Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan) and Kashmir and finally into mainland India. The most vulnerable passes were the Baroghil and the Ishkaman, just about a hundred miles or so north of Gilgit.
Gilgit-Baltistan was found to be of extreme importance. Anyone who controlled the passes of Gilgit-Baltistan actually controlled the northern passage to India. The British understood this but the leaders of independent India sadly did not pay heed to this and lost the region promptly to Pakistan, thereby losing the geopolitical advantage.
When all other important garrison cities of Central Asia had fallen to Russia, it was very important for the British to actually foster the friendship of Yakub Beg, the ruler of Kashgaria or modern Xinxiang. They promptly went about to accomplish that. On the other hand, it was very important to chart the final map of Afghanistan in the Pamirs (Badakshan and Wakhan corridor). The British found to their horror that the Pamir Mountains actually ran just fifty kilometers short of the borders of the Kashgaria kingdom of Yakub Beg. This meant that there was a 50 km stretch of free territory between the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan and Kashgaria or what is now Xinxiang.
As soon as the Russian explorers and generals would realize this they would try to annex this 50 kilometers stretch which would bring the armies of the two Great Game players face to face on an actual border. Meeting of the actual borders of Tsarist Russia and British India was the worst nightmare of British policymakers. They set about to prevent such an outcome.
In the west, it was the Bolan Pass and the garrison city of Quetta which would be used by an invading army. In 1875 Baluchistan was a free province and was neither a part of British India nor that of Afghanistan. However, in order to strengthen India’s borders, the British managed to strike a treaty with the Khan of Baluchistan. In return of pacifying some rebels, the Khan leased in perpetuity the Bolan Pass and the city of Quetta to India. Thus securing India’s western borders Britain then went about deciding the final borders of Afghanistan, the north-western buffer state of India.
The Second Afghan War
In 1878, hostilities broke out between Britain and Germany on one hand and Russia on another in the Balkans. Fearing the Russian behemoth, Western Europe united to defeat Russia and prevented it from occupying the former Turkish colonies in the Balkans. As the European theatre raged on, Central Asia also became a flashing point between Russia and Britain.
Till now, after the uneasy treaties of the First Afghan War, Afghanistan’s Emir had remained in the camp of Britain. But now, the power of Russia in Central Asia was unmatched and the Emir of Afghanistan, Sher Ali, (the son of Dost Muhammad) was bound to receive a Russian party in Kabul. This enraged the British and after many confusing episodes, Britain under the charge of Lord Lytton and Sir Neville Chamberlain decided to teach the Emir a lesson by invading Afghanistan once again. The Second Afghan War started.
The Emir died in between hostilities and his son Yakub Khan sued for peace. The British exacted harsh terms and entered in a treaty which gave Britain the rights of Afghan defense in case of a foreign attack in perpetuity. For ensuring this, Britain once again committed the mistake that it did in the First Afghan War. It left a garrison in Kabul full of British officers and Indian soldiers.
Meanwhile, in Xinxiang, Yakub Beg had fallen to the armies of China and Xinxiang once again became a Chinese province. For the first time, the three great powers of the region, Imperial Russia, British India and Imperial China stood face to face with their armies facing each other in a volatile situation with just a few kilometers separating them. But things were not so good in Kabul in the Second Afghan War.
The Afghan mercenary soldiers and tribal chieftains attacked the British Residency in Kabul. Yakub Khan living nearby did not come to the help of the British. The British were all massacred to the last man, along with many Indians. In an extraordinary tale of bravery just 12 Sikh and Hindu men held out for one more day in the ensuing battle killing as many as six hundred Afghans. It is the stuff of legends.
But the British ultimately prevailed. It was in this second invasion that the British got to complete their geopolitical goals of effectively making Afghanistan a British puppet with its defense a British responsibility. Abdur Rahman a friendly ruler was installed in Kabul. For the first time, Afghan lands were united in one coherent buffer state, friendly towards British India.
Towards the ‘Pamir Gap’
Russia meanwhile completed its conquest of Central Asia by finally defeating the Turkoman tribes at Geok-Tepe and Merv in 1880-81 and merging entire Turkmenistan in Russian empire. They went on to build a railway linking the Caspian shores to the great Central Asia cities.
The British were still worried about the Pamir Gap. Every important officer in Britain knew that there lay a gap in the Pamirs between the Afghan territories and Chinese Xinxiang, but nobody quite knew how to reach there, let alone how to control these territories.
Here enters one of the last but one of the most swashbuckling of the Great Game players – Francis Younghusband. (Trespassers… 159) He was responsible for closing the final laps of the Pamir Gap. For that, he first explored the small mountain kingdoms north of Kashmir, particularly Hunza. Hunza kingdom controlled a secret pass to Central Asia and it was necessary to either annex the Hunza kingdom or to buy its ruler with goodies and treaties. The kingdom was nominally a vassal of the Maharaja of Kashmir but was virtually independent as these remote mountains were rarely visited by anyone. Younghusband was trying to strike a treaty with the ruler of Hunza. (Keay 93)
The Russians were not sitting quiet and in 1891 they finally sent a Cossack army unit to finally claim the Pamir Gap as theirs and thus finding a direct passage to India (finding borders with British Indian territories). Younghusband intercepted them in the high mountains of the Pamirs and when he was expulsed by the Russian military party, Britain lodged such a fierce protest in St. Petersburg that Russia backed down.
But the crisis would not be over until every inch of no man’s land in Central Asia would be partitioned among the great powers. It was a sad state of affairs for the small tribes and nations inhabiting the borderlands but this was the stark truth. If one Great Power did not come for these small borderlands then another far more cruel power would. This is a fact which was completely lost upon independent India’s leaders. Of course, Tibet and Xinxiang were never Indian territories but independent India ignored them and let them be conquered by our enemies. The results are for everyone to see.
To get back to the story of the First Great Game, the prevailing thought in Britain was that the only way to solve the crisis once and forever was to lock the doors from the British side, which meant that charting the final frontiers of India in the north and stationing British garrisons there. Acting on the information of Younghusband in 1891-92 the British annexed the kingdoms of Hunza, Nagar and Gilgit and they became a part of the British Empire. In 1893 the kingdom of Chitral was also virtually annexed as the British managed to install a puppet ruler at its capital.
In the same momentous year of 1893 in a deal between Britain and Russia the Pamir Gap was finally closed to the satisfaction of Britain:
“The Pamir gap, moreover, which had for so long worried British strategists, had at last been closed. With Abdur Rahman’s approval, a narrow corridor of land, previously belonging to no one and stretching eastwards as far as the Chinese frontier, now became Afghan sovereign territory. Although no more than ten miles wide in places – the closest that Britain and Russia had yet come to meeting in Central Asia – this corridor ensured that nowhere did their frontiers touch.” (Hopkirk, 499)
This brought the first three rounds of the First Great Game to an end. The closing of the Pamir Gap would have very long-standing consequences. It not only gave India very secure frontiers but also buffer states shielding it from the enemies. It was a different matter altogether that India was partitioned and the fortress that the British had built was broken at independent India’s birth. But the worst mistakes were committed by socialist Nehru and Congress Party when they practically handed over Gilgit-Baltistan to Pakistan and then Aksai Chin to China.
India had received a great geopolitical chessboard from Britain at independence, but alas it was all squandered by political leaders of India. Britain was undoubtedly a colonial power and it did what it did for its own sake, but it gave a strong geopolitical heritage and, except western India, also great borders. Had independent India carried forward its sharp and farsighted geopolitical policies then we would not be in this trouble that we are now.
Great Game One was not over yet. The last chapter was about to be played in an area which is even more crucial to Indian geopolitical concerns now – Tibet, but that’s the story of the next article.
- Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia. John Murray, 2006.
- Hopkirk, Peter. Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa. John Murray, 2006.
- Keay, John. When Men and Mountains Meet. Archon, 1982.
- Skrine, F. H. and Ross, E. D. The Heart of Asia: A History of Russian Turkestan and the Central Asian Khanates. Oxford University Press, 1992.
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