India and the Great Game


By Kosla Vepa  PhD


The term Great Game popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel Kim, has its origin in the astonishing conquests of Temujin, the Mongol warrior more popularly known as  Genghiz Khan. This child of the steppe , was so effective in subjugating the duchies of Eastern Europe after laying waste many of the cities of Central Asia, that he was called the ‘Scourge of God’. At its peak, the Mongol Horde and the successor Khanates controlled not only Central Asia , China , Persia, most of what is now Russia, but had crossed the major rivers of Eastern Europe. It was not until the 15th century, almost 2 centuries after the advent of Temujin that the Muscovites were able to stand up to the successors of the Golden Horde. The  small but insignificant Muscovite Duchy eventually laid the foundation for the Great Game and conquered most of Asia. Russia, the name for the land of the Rus, expanded eastward and southward in successive waves, waves so powerful that in the ‘course of four centuries, the Czarist empire grew at the remarkable average of fifty five square miles a day’


Thus was born the name Great Game as it was called by the British and as the Tournament of Shadows by the Russians. It was a deadly serious game starting from the late 1700’s just about the time the British had consolidated their hold on India. The main  players in the game were Czarist Russia and Britain. What is interesting by today’s standards and notions is that it was Czarist Russia  which was expansionist and the Soviet Union, its successor which eventually dismantled a substantial portion of this empire in 1991. There were many subsidiary players including Napoleon, the Turks, the Germans, the Iranians, the Japanese, the Central Asian Khanates and last but not least the Chinese.


Is it a coincidence that the Great Game started at about the same time as  the consolidation of British power in the Indian subcontinent. Not really. Britain was the pre-eminent power during that period. It’s navy was unmatched and it ruled the sea lanes of the world. Yet as Victorian scholar J. R. Seeley observes “Every movement in Turkey, every new symptom in Egypt, any stirrings in Persia or Transoxania or Burmah or Afghanistan, we are obliged to watch with vigilance. The reason is that we have possession of India, and a leading interest in all those countries which lie upon the route to India. This and only this involves us in the permanent rivalry with Russia, which is for England in the nineteenth century what the competition with France for the New World was for the eighteenth century. It is very clear , the raison d’etre of the Great Game, was India.


Thus began a series of clandestine ‘explorations’ to exotic places such as Khiva, Merv, Bokhara, Samarkhand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Khokand, Herat, Kandahar, Chitral, Leh, by intrepid adventurers from both England and Russia. These adventures are chronicled in great detail by Peter Hopkirk in ‘The Great Game’ and in ‘Tournament of Shadows’ by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac. The point to make however is that the purpose of the Great Game was from the point of view of Britain to keep control of India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire and on the part of Russia it was to wrest control of the heartland of Asia to challenge the British control over the oceans and of India.


After the advent of WW II and the consequent break up of the British Empire, there was a change in the nature of the Great Game. The great Game essentially morphed into a Cold War. Now there was an  ideological underpinning to what was a merely a land grab by Britain and Russia. Mackinder’s hypothesis was that whoever possessed the landmasses would dominate. It was now possible to cloak the suspicion of Russian imperial ambitions and the resulting massive land grab , in an ideological garb, as a fight against Communism. India’s compulsions in having to find a steady  and reliable supplier of weapons, gave one more excuse for the US/UK alliance to wrest Kashmir from India.


But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Documents newly released indicate that Lord Wavell, then Viceroy of India had concluded in 1945 that a Congress Party government in Delhi would not support Britain in its endeavors to counter a Soviet thrust downwards towards the oilfields of the Gulf, and it would therefore be prudent on the part of  Britain to concede his demand for Pakistan, in the hope that a loyal Muslim League would keep watch on behalf of Britain on the strategic northwest abutting Iran and Afghanistan. Mountbatten had as much as told the Maharaja of Kashmir  on June ,1947 that Delhi would have no objection if he acceded his state to Pakistan. In fact it was never the intention of Britain that Kashmir fall into India’s hands.


Finally we come to the latest version of the Great Game or as GG3 as some have dubbed it. First let us review the background to the GG3 as it is currently being played. Second we will review the principles under which GG3 operates. The situation changed radically with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The reasons why this happened is not the subject of this column at this time, but the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet union were indeed far reaching. Several countries became independent overnight as a result. Among them were the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, where much of the drama of the Great game in the nineteenth century was played out. Countries that were a blur in people’s consciousness and could barely be pronounced , suddenly leapt into prominence. What was of interest to the West and to India was that, while these countries had Islamic populations in varying degrees, their world view was colored by their long association with the Soviet Central State and prior to that with Russia. Most importantly many of these countries especially those bordering the Caspian Sea had extensive energy resources of oil and natural gas, without at the same time having the burden of supporting the needs of a large population. The paramount question was how to transport these resources to the countries that needed this energy.


Other issues including religion will continue to play a major role in the region for many more decades. That Afghanistan is particularly crucial as it was during the days of the Great Game is obvious even today , in spite of the failed attempt of Pakistan to play a major role in dominating this region. Afghanistan continues to be the hub of American operations to control the spread of international terrorism.

GG3 revolves therefore around theocracy, resources, drugs, terrorism, trade and territory.  The countries vitally interested in these issues and in the region are the US, Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan. From India’s standpoint recent events have generally tended to favor the long term strategic interest of India. India’s relations with Afghanistan are being restored to a level that approaches the friendly relations during the immediate years after 1947. Each of the above factors forms a compelling reason for India to take a keen interest in developing a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship with the Central Asian Republics. Srinagar can form the hub of an expanding trade relationship with the region.


The US has now a toehold in more than one country in the region and hence Kashmir loses the importance that it once had during the days when most of central Asia was controlled by the Soviets. Diminished interest on the part of the US does not mean complete neglect of the region however, and it is safe to say that the US motives in Kashmir are driven by more than mere altruism. Even the British are shedding their long held post WW II aversion and allergy to a strong and economically prosperous India.


Thus, while it is a reasonable premise to  make that Kashmir is no longer central to the interests of the US/UK alliance, it is obvious that Central Asia remains as important as ever to India as it was to the British during their Imperial era. This realization has definitely taken concrete shape in Delhi , as one sees a steadily increasing presence of India in these republics.


© Kosla Vepa