The Cashmere Game
Outlook|August 10, 2020
The Cashmere Game
With Kashmir nestled within, Britain and Russia were engaged in an all-terrain, high-stakes tussle over land, empire and perceived threats along the immense arc of India’s northern frontiers
Saikat Niyogi

Who has not heard of the vale of Cashmere,/ With its roses the brightest the earth ever gave/ Its temples, and grottos and fountains as clear/ As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave? Even before the West’s fashionable women— from aristocrats to demi mondes— were to be in thrall of its exquisite Pashmina shawls, Lalla Rookh (1817), the extravagant Orientalist fantasy by Thomas Moore about the adventures of a daughter of ‘Aurungzeb’ on her way to Kashmir to wed the King of Bucharia, made ‘Cashmere’ a byword for beauty. Yet few Europeans had actually set eyes upon its mythical charms; still under Afghan rule, it was shut off to foreigners. That started to change in 1819 when Ranjit Singh conquered the province. After his death in 1839, his Sikh empire was riven with corruption, factionalism and bloodletting…and the 1st AngloSikh War followed a mere seven years later. The Sikhs were comprehensively defeated, with the Bengal Army occupying Lahore, but the British were in a mood of benevolence, and Lord Hardinge, the governor-general, wanted a buffer Sikh state. Benevolence came at a cost: an indemnity of a million pounds had to be paid, and there was no money in the treasury. A tributary chief, Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu, offered to pay up—in return for the Kashmir Valley, Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan and Jammu. Thus came to exist the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which would last 101 years, over four rulers.

Kashmir settled down to an (externally) placid existence under the Dogra kings, a ruling class imposing themselves on a mostly poor population and maintaining excellent ties with a succession of watchful British residents. The latter let them be, for Kashmir was soon to be a station of rest and recuperation. The famed houseboats of Kashmir, moored on the heavenly Dal Lake, arrived around 1875, catering to Europeans who lazed on them, taking their tea and gazing on the snowy ramparts of the Zabarwans. They took to the water chiefly because Gulab Singh, fearing a British influx, forbade Europeans from owning land there—an early manifestation of that inflexible rule. Soon, like in Simla, scandalous things were afoot, so much so that it took the iron-willed, Bibleand-sword-wielding John Nicholson— famed Punjab ‘political’, fierce soldier and moraliser—to pay a visitation and ‘purify the moral atmosphere’ (perhaps aptly, Nicholson, leading the charge at the British retaking of Delhi in 1857, died at the Kashmiri Gate).

Yet, throughout the 19th and till the early 20th centuries, Kashmir was to be the still centre, an untarnished pearl around which raged a gigantic geopolitical tussle for supremacy. The British, French and others might have spectacularly grabbed realms in Asia and Africa, but in terms of territory gained, it was dwarfed by Russia’s Central Asian acquisitions. By the turn of the 19th century, with the Siberian vastness firmly in the Tsar’s doublet pocket, it turned its gaze towards the Caucasus and elsewhere. Just as British dominion in the subcontinent expanded manifold between the 1820s and 1890s, new Russian maps now included the Caspian Sea, its eastward swathe up to the borders of Chinese Turkestan, and the edges of Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet in the south.

For the first time ever, the boundaries of the British and Russian Empires— separated by thousands of miles a generation ago—faced each other.


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August 10, 2020