It is important for political leaders, especially from border states, to harp on strategic issues, take a visionary peep into the future and ideate on these.
The leaders of the North East must dwell on the connectivity to South East Asia which will make their region a hub for trade activity.
After many years we heard a political leader from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) talk strategically. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s recent address to the J&K Assembly, as part of the motion of thanks to the Governor’s address, was a welcome one. It, however, did not sufficiently catch the attention of the national media. Come to think of it, it did not find adequate analysis even in the J&K media. That is surprising, but then in India how many people really know the geography of J&K to be excited about any such references, which demand the picking up of a map to scan for what Mufti was really talking about.
What did the Chief Minister say and why is it interesting? She simply said, “taking advantage of its natural geographical location, Jammu and Kashmir could become a nucleus for forging economic cooperation between South and Central Asia”. She went on to emphasise, “…the trans-Kashmir corridor, with diverse sub-corridors, was symbolic of relative peace, prosperity, cross-cultural and ideological fertilisation and human security until late 1940s”.
With the current situation in J&K and the state of relations between India and Pakistan, to think that something like her vision can take shape, would be a pipedream. However, realpolitik isn’t always the answer to future solutions; it’s a great instrument for naysayers and rhetoric. What the Chief Minister's statement does is, that it asks strategic leaders, analysts and anyone who knows geopolitics and geo-strategic issues, to take a fresh look at maps, something most people are reluctant to do. How will a map study make a difference?
A map tends to speak to you. Firstly, it reveals that major arteries of the Old Silk Route lay across J&K. These were good routes for caravans and some foot travellers or those on horseback because of the sheer ruggedness. However, modern-day China has applied technology to harness these alignments to its use and is attempting to create the New Silk Route through the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), in the form of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India has of course rightly objected to this. Secondly, maps provide the understanding that India’s access to the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan could lie through GB, if the latter was in our hands and thence to Tajikistan, which lies in Central Asia. Thirdly, even a cursory look at a map will confirm that the entire territory of J&K is India’s closest link to the strategic ground of what has come to be known as the New Great Game.
The New Great Game, much like the older version of the Great Game, is all about exploiting the other roof of the world, apart from Tibet. It is about establishing spheres of influence in the region of Central Asia, once closed off during the Cold War for being a part of the former Soviet Union. This region is important for four things; one, the gas and oil belt; two, the conduit for continental outreach from China to the western world and the same access from South Asia to Russia and the reverse; three, the ground which will see in the future maximum crisscrossing of trade and energy corridors; and four, the potential incubation ground for radical Islam, should the promoters choose to shift focus there. Being rich in resources and underdeveloped makes it the ground for potential conflict.
Chief Minister Mufti probably understands that where there is a potential for conflict is also the region where there is tremendous scope for economic cooperation to offset conflict. J&K is India’s closest landmass to this territory. It is not easy to comprehend the future if we look at it only through the prism of the current scenario. It should be remembered that Deng Xiao Ping was outlining China’s modernisation in 1978 well before the end of the Cold War. To many of us, the recent Russian moves to come closer to Pakistan and participate in talks with China and Pakistan over Afghanistan are again not easy to comprehend unless one looks at the geography. It reveals clearly that Russia is extremely worried about its security matrix. To its west, it has had to aggressively contest the march of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Ukraine was a testing ground for that strategy. Its east is fairly secure with an emerging politico-economic relationship with China based on Beijing’s energy needs. The south is a worry chiefly because Russia too has 11 per cent Muslim population and Muslim neighbours in the five Central Asian Republics (CARs). Then there is the whole Muslim belt of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Xinjiang region of China. The advent of greater turbulence than what already exists in this belt is something which would worry Russia. All this is from the prism of the present and augurs poorly for cooperation between nations. Yet economics is what has driven the current upcoming revolution of trade and energy corridors, enabled through better construction and infrastructure technology.
Mufti’s loud thinking about connectivity may have partially come from the efforts of her late father’s government in his earlier tenure as chief minister. Taking Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot links as inspiration, she has expressed her thoughts for many other potential links leading from the Valley and Ladakh to GB area. What is important for us in India is not to rule out such strategic thought because of the current state of relations with Pakistan and the Sino-Pakistani collusion ranged against us. Pakistan denied us linkages to CARs and Afghanistan for over 25 years due to a cussed sense of economic priorities. The opportunities that the region offers are tremendous and Indian strategic and economic thought must continue to remain positive despite the obstacles Pakistan has placed. It could well be economics which becomes the driving force for conflict resolution and eventual linkage of J&K as the conduit and hub for economic activity between Central and South Asia.
The Chief Minister’s thinking must spur demand for application of greater emphasis on infrastructure for connectivity of J&K to rest of the country and within itself. Ladakh is awaiting this as much as the Valley itself is.
It is important for political leaders, especially from border states, to harp on strategic issues, take a visionary peep into the future and ideate on these. The leaders of the North East must dwell on the connectivity to South East Asia which will make their region as the hub of trade activity. Only then will the factors which promote conflict dilute and the people be persuaded to create conducive conditions and peace which will see the promotion of economic activity for the betterment of all.