Like other parts of High Asia, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan has also served as a pivotal link between Central and South Asia for centuries. Refuting the common perception, about the region being historically isolated owing to its geographical inaccessibility, modern scholarship has proved that the region remained a major conduit for movement across the great massifs of the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir.
Indeed, it is not geography but political developments of the 19th century which turned different regions of High Asia into a cul-de-sac. Hermann Kreutzmann, chair of human geography and director of the Centre for Development Studies (ZELF) at Freie Universitat Berlin, is of the view that while for centuries these mountains have generally been perceived as barriers to communication, they have also facilitated communication.
Archaeological and historical evidences lend credence to the thesis that the mountainous communities of High Asia were mobile and communicated with neighbouring regions despite geographic obstacles. The region, spanning from Khunjerab Pass on the Pak-China border to Indus Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is full of epigraphs and petroglyphs that are almost 2,000 years old. The ancient petroglyph records show religious pilgrims, soldiers, hunters, shamans and travellers and people from different walks of life, traversing the treacherous terrain of the mountains. Since majority of these petroglyphs depict figures of pilgrims, Buddha, motifs and stupas, it can be safely deduced that besides commodities, religion was most revered by the communities along the Silk Road.
The historical interaction and exchange in High Asia continued despite changes in the routes of the Silk Road at the level of principalities because of the political events that engulfed Central Asia. With the start of The Great Game in the 19th century, the ‘roof of the world’ turned into a turf important for espionage and power game between the three empires – Russian, Chinese and British. This necessitated the then powers of the world to map the passes and valleys and carve out new passages and routes to fulfil their strategic goals.
What is mostly ignored in research about the colonial period is how indigenous sports were employed by the British to achieve geo-strategic objectives deep within the mountainous valleys and principalities against the Russian and Chinese empires. Among different games, the indigenous sport of Gilgit-Baltistan, polo, was favoured most by colonial officers of the military and administration – and so in the colonial period, polo got a new boost. The game was sponsored through construction of new grounds in villages of different valleys of the region, and players were inducted in the Gilgit Scouts to only play the game. In addition, new teams were formed and annual polo matches were held. This attracted local rulers and a large number of people. The tradition still continues in Gilgit-Baltistan as all military, paramilitary and other governmental organisations have their own polo teams.
The covert purpose of establishing such an infrastructure and organising polo events in every part of Gilgit-Baltistan was to create a standby force and system to provide uninterrupted logistics supply to the army stationed in the inaccessible mountains of High Asia in case of a military conflict. Hence, we saw expansion of new mule tracks and proliferation of polo grounds in every nook and corner of Gilgit-Baltistan. This helped in the addition of new arteries to the old Silk Road in the area.
The summer of 1931 was important because the region witnessed the first motorised vehicle arrive in Gilgit Agency from Kashmir after crossing the 14,000 feet high Burzil Pass. It was a major breakthrough as it expanded the infrastructure, and mule tracks were turned into roads. In the first-half of the 20th century all historical routes that connected mountainous communities of different regions of High Asia, including Gilgit-Baltistan, were closed off because of new demarcations in the post-Soviet and Chinese revolution periods.
Following the independence of the Subcontinent, all old and new routes including the Gilgit-Kashmir road got disrupted. As a result, Gilgit-Baltistan literally became isolated from all the neighbouring regions of Central and South Asia. Realising the gravity of the situation, the then Pakistani government immediately built the Kaghan Route via Babusar, at an altitude of 13,691 feet. It was necessitated more by the state’s attempt to merge peripheries in the centre than economic reasons.
But the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in 1964-1978 started a new era of expansion. Although the highway was primarily built for geo-strategic reasons, it brought about major changes to society, lifestyle, mindset, economy and trade in the region. With the KKH, roads which could previously only accommodate jeeps were expanded to also accommodate trucks as well.
Now after 35 years of the KKH, Gilgit-Baltistan has reemerged on the radar of national, regional and international politics with respect to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is a complex project. To understand its complexity in a nuanced way, it is essential to view the project by situating it within the holistic framework of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. OBOR comprises two components: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. It is estimated that OBOR will cost $6 trillion.
Unlike the traffic infrastructure of the past, OBOR will be gigantic in scale, as it will cover more than 100 countries and transform them by introducing mega infrastructures which would facilitate trade and transport within a short time. Along with the economy, the project could change the very geology of earth. The Great Wall was a mega structure of the old, inward-looking China to protect itself from invaders. But OBOR is a mega infrastructure of an outward-looking and confident China of modern times.
According to Professor Tang Mengsheng, director of the Centre for Pakistan Studies at Peking University, China, OBOR and its component CPEC has been necessitated by the increasing security tensions in the Northeast, and Chinese mistrust of South Asian countries due to territorial disputes. “Facing such situation,” he writes “China has started to explore the possibility and feasibility of ‘Western Development Strategy’, namely strengthening political and economic relations with South Asian, Middle East and African countries in the west of China…”
Within the overall China Western Development Strategy, OBOR will play a crucial role. China considers Pakistan an important bridge for the realisation of this strategy through CPEC.
The central position of CPEC in OBOR is evident from the fact that Gwadar is the point where the economic belt and road meet. Therefore, CPEC ought to be viewed as the bigger part of OBOR. Unfortunately, a maritime route is missing from Pakistan’s policy as well as the planning of its decision-makers.
To be continued
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.