Once a highly connected region is now least linked geography in world due to trust deficit and lack of political will to address issues
Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir recently declared an age-old building unsafe, asking its residents to vacate the premises.
Named after Yarkand – one of the largest cities in northwest China’s Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region – this historic edifice known as Yarkand Sarai in the heart of the capital Srinagar symbolized the trade and connectivity between the Central and South Asian regions, ties enjoyed until the early 20th century.
Unfortunately, over the past century, links between the two regions have all but disappeared, and they are currently the world’s least integrated geographies, due to a trust deficit and rulers’ lack of political will to address issues.
However, at the ongoing 76th session of the UN General Assembly, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan proposed a draft resolution, co-sponsored by Pakistan, stressing the need to improve connectivity between Central and South Asia.
Munir Akram, a top Pakistani diplomat at the UN, said the ancient Silk Route that connected the East and West across the Eurasian heartland was a prime historical example of the benefits of regional connectivity. He said Pakistan is working on several specific projects to enhance connectivity. The landmark among them is the Central Asia-South Asia power project, known as CASA-1000, which would supply surplus electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Work has also been going full steam ahead on the Termez–Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway project, which is set to provide Central Asian states access to deep sea ports in Gwadar and Karachi. There have also been several rounds of talks on constructing a pipeline to bring gas from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Using past linkages for outreach
Besides Pakistan, over the years India has been also working towards geographical integration of the regions around its landmass.
Using past civilizational linkages, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government started an initiative to involve the eastern state of Odisha with the ancient name Kalinga to build bridges with Indonesia.
Indonesia had awarded its highest civilian honor Bhumiputra to the late Biju Patnaik, who served as chief minister of Odisha, for his daring 1947 air rescue of Indonesian Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir and Vice-President Mohammad Hatta from a remote hideout, using his piloting skills to take them to India via Singapore to save them from a Dutch attack.
India has also used its western state of Gujarat to rekindle age-old connections with the rest of the continent. In outreach to Myanmar, it has used projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the Kaladan multi-modal transport project to connect the Rohingya-dominated Rakhine state with its northeastern provinces.
Efforts are also being made in the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu to revive marine and trade links similar to those of the ninth century Tamil Chola Empire, which ruled Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and areas of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southern Thailand.
These instances are reasons enough to use Jammu and Kashmir as a connecting link between Central and South Asia. The landlocked region, which has been a battleground for India and Pakistan since 1947, was an economic hub until the early 20th century.
In his book Central Asia and Kashmir: A Study in the Context of Anglo-Russian Rivalry, K. Warikoo mentions that the presence of Russian and Central Asian merchants was a common sight in Kashmir in the 18th and 19th centuries. They used to come to purchase world-famous Kashmiri shawls, which were quite popular in Russia. He said the Czarist government was also keen to rear pashmina goats in the subzero temperatures of Siberia to supply their wool to Kashmiri artisans.
Kashmir’s proximity to Central Asia
Several routes branched off the southern route of Khotan and Yarkand towards the Karakoram or Pamir mountainous ranges, passing through Kashmir on their way to the Indian subcontinent.
According to Warikoo, thanks to geographical proximity to Central Asia and linkages with the old Silk Route, Kashmir became a transit emporium in the Indo-Central Asian trade. A more frequent trade route that passed through Kashmir was via Srinagar, Leh, Yarkand, and Kashghar to Kokand, located in the Ferghana region of Uzbekistan.
The Soviet Union’s blockade of Tajikistan, the Chinese conquest of Kashgar and Tibet, and later events that unfolded in the region in 1947 cut off the geographical linkages, thereby sealing the region’s cultural and historical roots.
A remarkable commonality between the South and Central Asian region is that both produce cotton. Unfortunately, there is little dialogue and coordination between India, Pakistan, and Central Asian Republics as cotton producers, but there could be a “cotton route” via Kashmir connecting the two cotton-producing regions. This route could push forward policy in the area of cotton farming, cotton seed development, coordination of cotton marketing, and development of upstream and downstream industries surrounding cotton.
In 2012, India announced its Connect Central Asia policy. These efforts got a further boost after Prime Minister Modi’s eight-day visit to all the Central Asian states, including the Russian city of Ufa, for the July 2015 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. But afterwards there was hardly any movement to revive terrestrial linkages.
All these linkages, according to Pakistani diplomat Akram, have become hostage to the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan.
Yarkand Sarai may return to life
It is high time to emotionally, ideologically, and economically reconnect these regions by using Kashmir as a nexus point. Islam came to Kashmir through Sufi preachers from Central Asia. For over six centuries, Tajikistan’s Kulob province has served as the final resting place of Sufi saint Mir Syed Ali Hamadani (popularly known as Shah Hamadan), the founder of Kashmiri Islam.
The poet, scholar, and saint is believed to have introduced unique handlooms, arts, and crafts, architecture, cuisine, and culture to Kashmir. Among hundreds of followers who accompanied him were men of arts and crafts who flourished in the Kashmir Valley.
The oil and gas resources of Central Asia are the nearest and most economical answer to energy-deficient South Asia. In the latter half of the 21st century, countries in both regions will need Tajikistan’s help accessing freshwater resources, which account for 4% of the world’s hydropower resources and 53% of Central Asia’s resources.
The South Asian nations using Kashmir as a way to connect to Central Asia may revive the landmark Yarkand Sarai in Srinagar to once again become a symbol of geographical integration in the region.