Karakorum conundrum of India: ‘Great game’ still going alive

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
‘There is a hand behind every curtain, she quoted. And a knife in every hand’, finished Mara.—Raymond E. Feist. ( Great Game)

The most famous convergence zone of the mountains in the world , the ‘Pamirs’ are like top of the roof of this planet from which emerges in a serpentine fashion several south-central Asian mountain ranges radiating in almost directions including the ‘Hindu Kush, the Karakorum ranges, the Kun lun mountains, the Tien shan and the Himalayas . Out of these ranges, the Karakorum ranges which lies on the northernmost borders of Pakistan, China & India takes the cake for virtually housing the largest concentration of peaks over 8000 meters aka ‘Eight thousandres’ including the savage of the peaks -K-2. The combination of these peaks including the area adjoining these peaks always was in the cross hairs of great empires beginning from the Victorian England to Czarist Russia in the 19th century extending to as late as early 20th century , each hedging their bets and fate against the other to jockey to power. The chess board of this so called great game had taken into its ambit virtually the entire present day central Asia inching close to the sub-continent’s borders of Kashmir thus casting its ominous shadow on the shape of things that were to decide the course of India too in the later years. Not only that the great game has not entirely finished its final move. Albeit, it has renewed some of its evil machinations that has the potency to carve out a narrative for itself having broader ramifications across India, Pakistan and China.
The latest Geo-political googly in this area has been hurled by none other China in the form of building a road that connects areas in ‘Shaksgam valley’ just about 48 kms north of ‘Indira Col’ our northern most part of Siachen glacier. The glacier has been held by us since 1984 and closer the Chinese inch towards this glaciated wasteland on which are locked both the armies of India and Pakistan in a deadly embrace the greater the consequences for India. The ‘Shaksgam valley’ was handed over by Pakistan to China in 1963, an act which India regards as illegal since this is Indian territory.
Now this has wider implications for us which might force India to redo its strategic calculations which till date were holding good for us. But won’t do so now under the changed paradigms of security as found obtained over here.The ‘Shaksgam valley’ measures around 5,163 square kilometer and draws its name from the Shaksgam river , a tributary of Yarkand river. Situated between the western Karakorum range and the Kun Lun Range , traditionally dominated by the Hunza valley of Kashmir and serving the frontiers of Khotan , this valley essentially is a no man’s land owing to its brutal remoteness but holds strategic significance of immense value for our country. Before I dwell upon the implications of this road building by China in the Skaksgam valley ,it would be prudent to throw light on its physical features. Access to Shaksgam valley primarily involves four major routes-three from Xingjiang side and one from across the Karakorum mountains side. The most accessible route, originating from the west entails traversing along the river upstream. Another significant route lies to the north, crossing the Aghil pass through the Aghil ranges ,facilitating access to the northern approach of the K-2.
Even otherwise historically caravans utilized a trail across this pass to access Shaksgam valley. The third route deemed the most challenging , traverses westward delineating the watershed between Yarkand and Shaksgam rivers known as the ‘Shaksgam pass’. Fourth route or the southern route approaches this valley across the famous ‘Shimshal pass’ situated in the Hunza valley of Pak occupied Gilgit -Baltisthan .
In addition to the above minor routes also exist to approach this Shaksgam valley. Notably among them is the route via the ‘Marpo pass’ and also from the Siachen glacier traversing the Indira col before descending to this valley via the Urdok glacier. Pakistan also touts a route via ‘Muztag pass’. Historically Shaksgam valley has been deemed to be a typically ‘No-Go’ area due to its brutal remoteness as also its harsh living conditions. As mentioned earlier in my write up this place was a transit halt for caravan trails during the summer months. Given its position on the fringes of Kashmir and Khotan , during the hey days of ‘Great Game’ the British initially planned many hush-hush expeditions often led by redoubtable army officers of the British Indian army to map these areas along with the survey teams of the ‘Great Trigonometric society’ ( present day survey of India) , which most of the times went unheard and unsung. Most of them falling prey to the evil terrain and harsh elements of the weather. It was left to Francis Younghusband in 1889, to establish formal boundaries between Qing China and British India. During British times the maps depicted varying representations of this area leaving the Shaksgam valley a contentious area, which to till this date is grappling with its cartographic identification and on the horns of dilemma of this sub -continent planners.
Cut to the late 1950s, the area suddenly gained traction when China ostensibly gave in to its aggressive cartographic appetite and started claiming this valley as part of Kun lun range and hence legitimizing as a Chinese territory. Thus came in the infamous development wherein Pakistan surreptitiously handed over about 5163 square kilometers area of this valley to China under the Sino-Pakistan frontier agreement of 1963. The implications of this new motorable road in the context of India are multidimensional. Firstly it is located just about 48 kilometers from our northern most part of Siachen glacier , a hotly contested war zone for the last four decades that has no end to sight to its resolution. The road can be quickly converted to its military use as also to actively support as an alternative to the CPEC via the Muztagh pass. With China already neck deep in its commitment with Pakistan with regard to this CPEC project ,and India often sabre rattling with its claim on this valley that dates back to Nehruvian days of 1959, the pincer of an economic spend along with contentious status of Shaksgam valley has put the communist giant on the horns of dilemma. Not only this, even this road under construction has the potential of connecting the Chinese areas opposite our (SSN) Sub sector north via the Shaksgam pass linking to an already road reaching the source of Yarkand river.
Incidentally SSN is now the ‘new normal’ for the Indian army wherein May 2020 the deadly Galwan clash took place between us and the PLA. With Siachen glacier the only triangular wedge between our two arch enemies to prevent joining hands , this ominous development has even a dark prognosis for our northern most ALG , the Daulat Beg oldie and its surrounding posts. As if this is not enough, this new motorable road has connectivity with even the Chinese G 219 Highway via Mazar and complements the road along the Shaksgam river bed. A complete maze of roads that China has built on the roof of the world has the potential of upsetting the apple cart of India’s aspirations to call the shots in this part of Himalayas. The sooner we get our act together, the better for us. The chess board of former ‘Great game’ hasn’t changed much in the last two centuries. Rather it has added more players albeit in a different format. As Raymond E.Feist had correctly observed—‘There is a hand behind every curtain , and a knife in every hand.’

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