The Crossroads: Kashmir—India's Bridge to Xinjiang

[Review by Dr Mahesh Ranjan Debata, (June 20, 2024): Historically, culturally and emotionally, Kashmir and Xinjiang have been intertwined for the past 2,000 years. Until 1949, Xinjiang was India's overland trade route to Central Asia and beyond. Even today, a significant portion of the "undivided Jammu and Kashmir," currently occupied by Pakistan and China, maintains connections to Xinjiang in various forms.

In this context, Professor Kulbhushan Warikoo's book, "The Crossroads: Kashmir—India's Bridge to Xinjiang (Rupa Publication, 2023", underscores Kashmir's historical, cultural, and geopolitical significance concerning Xinjiang. The book explores Kashmir as a crucial link in trade and cultural exchanges between South Asia, Central Asia, India, and Xinjiang. It revolves around three key pillars: trade, culture, and strategy. The book is structured into three sections comprising sixteen chapters, comprehensively examining the region's historical, cultural, and geopolitical dynamics.

This book is a masterpiece by the foremost Indian scholar and expert on Himalayan and Central Asian studies. With over 30 years of research and teaching experience at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and nearly 30 books to his credit (both single-authored and edited volumes), the author brings unparalleled expertise to this work. Broadly speaking,  the book represents the culmination of four decades of his research, fieldwork, and academic engagement in Kashmir, Central Asia, and Xinjiang. The genesis of this seminal work dates back to 1979 when the author met a Uighur from Xinjiang who shared the struggles of the Uyghur community.

At the outset, the book elaborates on the rich and eventful history of the region, detailing how goods, ideas, and religions (especially Buddhism) traversed along these routes, fostering cultural efflorescence in and around the area. It is crucial to note herewith that Buddhism was prevalent in this region for over five centuries, from the third century AD to the advent of Islam, and Sanskrit was the main lingua franca. The book highlights Kashmir's historical and cultural heritage, which has been significantly influenced by its social, economic, and cultural ties with Xinjiang. The primary and contemporary significance of this book stems from two facts – firstly, the book refers to "the undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh, Hunza, Gilgit, Baltistan and adjoining frontier territories", which at present is considered an inalienable part of Akhand Bharat. Secondly, the book describes Ladakh as the "entrepot of India-Xinjiang trade" and the central hub of the Uttarapath. Needless to mention here, Ladakh is considered an important strategic frontier of India in the 21st century, particularly when India has two inveterate enemies (People's Republic of China and Pakistan) on its northwestern border, who have been posing serious challenges to peace and stability in the country in the last seven decades or so.

Furthermore, this book justifies that Kashmir has been an important strategic frontier of India and a vital cog of long-established two-way trade between the two regions. The book meticulously details the exact trade routes as well as the impact that trade had on the local people. This book tells how the remote and sparsely populated town of Leh (capital of Ladakh Union Territory now) was transformed into a bustling trading centre for the summer months of the trading season. It provides detailed import and export figures between Xinjiang and Ladakh, highlighting the diverse range of traded items, their origins, and their economic and societal impacts. Yet this trade, which lasted for centuries, was interrupted by internal subversions in China in the 1930s, ending almost entirely with the establishment the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

In addition, the book explores the importance of Kashmir during the British rule in India, when it served as a strategic base for British intelligence activities during the imperial rivalry between Tsarist Russia and British India in the 19th century that has been dubbed as "Great Game" by the pundits on geopolitics. It is imperative to add that besides the two imperial rivals, Xinjiang was also a party to the Great Game, though as a non-entity. The book explains how British India strategically employed Kashmir's proximity to Central Asia to checkmate Russia's sinister designs in the region during this geopolitical ballgame.

This book is an example of how the region's historical context can reflect upon several issues in the contemporary period, particularly the geopolitical dynamics involving China, India, Central Asia and Pakistan. As discussed earlier, issues like trade, culture, and strategy have also been the mainstays of recent times. In the last two chapters, the author provides an in-depth analysis of important issues in India. For example, this book highlights the Sino-Pakistan bonhomie, which caused India to suffer irreparable strategic loss. It is imperative to note that a substantial portion of India's northwestern territory is part of China because of the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan.

Further, the author provides a blow-by-blow account of the origin of the strategic Karakoram Highway project, which has now merged into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)) project under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its implications for India and regional trade, connectivity, strategy and politics. The book extensively analyses contemporary political and economic development, such as Gwadar Port and roads, railways and energy projects under the ambit of the Sino-Pak partnership over the years. While decades-old ties between China and Pakistan have grown by leaps and bounds, the author laments that since the partition (August 1947), India has lost its centuries-old civilizational linkage and finds itself without a direct or indirect link to Xinjiang now.

The book under review has covered topics such as trade and economy, culture, geopolitics and geostrategy, religion, and contemporary politics and society. The book is praiseworthy for its detailed research and comprehensive overview of the historical and present significance of "the crossroads" along the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindukush mountains. Each chapter is framed and prepared solidly and lucidly so that each can be formed as a book. As the author of this book is very adept at presenting his views, observations, data, and information from various primary and secondary sources, this is one of the finest volumes available to date on the topic for a wide audience. This well-documented and thoroughly researched volume would cater to the needs of the students, researchers, academicians, and policymakers and be a seminal contribution to any South and Central Asian study.

[Dr Mahesh Ranjan Debata teaches at the Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi]