On November 22, 1953, a tiny Reuters dispatch from Leh appeared in The New York Times with the headline “Indians get out of Red Sinkiang”. “After a journey of 500 miles through the western Himalayas, nineteen Indians have arrived here from southern Sinkiang in Communist China,” the wire service reported. These were believed to be the last Indians who left the western Chinese province (now spelt in English as Xinjiang), ending a presence that is believed to have lasted at least several hundred years. The group was led by a vice counsel in Kashgar, who looked after Indian interests for three years after the Indian consulate in the fabled city was closed.

The exodus of Indians fearing Communist rule in Xinjiang, which took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, closed a long chapter of history where people, goods, ideas, religion and culture moved in both directions across the Himalayas.

Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar Xuanzang, who visited India on a pilgrimage in the 7th century CE, travelled through the Khyber Pass and Hindu Kush to Kashgar and Khotan before heading back to eastern China, carrying with him sacred manuscripts. Indian Buddhist culture once thrived in the Khotan Oasis and spread from there all the way to the eastern coast of China.

Like Xuanzang, a community of traders from different parts of the Indian subcontinent travelled to Xinjiang either via Badakshan, Afghanistan, or Kashmir and Gilgit or the onerous and treacherous path from Ladakh through the Karakoram Pass, Karakoram Mountains and the Taklamakan Desert.

“The one from Ladakh, which was much frequented by the traders, was a gruelling test of endurance and determination, with at least four mountain passes averaging heights of over 17,600 feet having to be crossed,” Madhavi Thampi, who taught Chinese history at Delhi University for 35 years, wrote in her book Indians in China, 1800-1949. “The journey to Yarkand in Xinjiang took on an average 38 days.”

Indian traders are not known to have documented the rigours of the journey, but in 1925, Russian artist, writer and philosopher Nicholas Roerich wrote about his trip from Kashmir and Ladakh across the Karakoram Pass in great detail: “It is impossible to describe the beauty of this multi-day snow kingdom. Such diversity, such expressiveness of outlines, such fantastic cities, such multi-coloured streams and streams and such memorable purple and moonlit rocks…At the same time, the striking sonorous silence of the desert. And people stop quarrelling with each other, and all differences are erased, and everyone, without exception, absorbs the beauty of the mountain desolation.”

Leaving aside the romantic writing of Roerich, this was a journey that came at a heavy cost of human and animal life. The trail across the Karakoram Pass was littered with the bones of dead humans and animals. It was rare for caravans to make the trip without loss of life or goods.

The Great Game

Located in the heart of Central Asia and sandwiched between an expanding Russian Empire and British India, Xinjiang was one of the main theatres of the Great Game, the diplomatic and political confrontation between London and Moscow in the 19th and 20th century.

Indian traders began crossing the Karakoram Mountains long before the British colonised the country, and the presence of an Indian community in the western fringes of China was seen as an asset for London. Attempts to set up a diplomatic mission in Xinjiang were in full swing in 1890 when Francis Younghusband went on an expedition to the area. His interpreter George Macartney would stay on in Kashgar. It however took 18 years before the Chinese agreed to recognise him as the consul general, giving him the official right to intervene in legal matters when it involved Indians.

CS Cumberland, a British major who visited Xinjiang in the 1890s and wrote Sport on the Pamirs and Turkistan Steppes, was of the belief that Indians helped enhance British soft power in the region. He wrote, “I consider that the friendly feeling and respect shown to Englishmen in Chinese Turkestan is entirely due to the reports of our traders.”

Punjabi Domination

Caravans of horses, mules and camels took Indian spices, tea, cotton, sugar, opium and dyestuffs to Xinjiang. From the other direction came carpets, charas, green tea, silk, precious stones, gold and silver.

Until the 1940s the cities of Yarkand, Kashgar and Khotan had active and clearly visible Indian communities, comprising of traders from Punjab, Ladakh, Kashmir and Sindh’s Shikarpur. Most of them would stay in their own serais.

“The actual trade between India and Sinkiang via the high Karakoram Pass was controlled by Punjabi Hindu merchants from the town of Hoshiarpur,” French historian Claude Markovits wrote in his book titled The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947.

These Punjabis mainly belonged to the Khatri caste and worked both on their own and as agents of other traders. “They were in general treated well by the Chinese authorities, although they had to bear some discriminatory measures such as not being allowed to wear turbans or ride horses within the town,” Thampi wrote.

Many of these traders would split their time between Xinjiang and Punjab, with some managing to accumulate vast fortunes. The British authorities managed to recruit some of them to work as informers and interpreters, and also to keep an eye on Russian activity in the region.

The British were happy to reward such traders for their services and loyalty. A declassified letter dated October 26, 1893 shows the approval of a monthly pension of Rs 50 to one Jowala Bhaggat, a trader who moved back permanently to Punjab. “Jowala Bhaggat, now between 70 and 80 years of age, is the well-known Yarkand trader who rendered on many occasions, as the correspondence submitted shows, conspicuous services to the British Government and its officers from whom he holds very high testimonials,” HC Fanshawe, Officiating Secretary Punjab, wrote in the letter to the Foreign Department.

The last few Indians living in Xinjiang left the western Chinese province in 1953 out of the fear of the Communists who had established their rule over the mainland a few years before. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The southern areas of Xinjiang also had a presence of Kashmiri Muslim traders. Khotan, Yarkand and Kashgar all had streets that were inhabited by Kashmiris.

“While some were seasonal traders, a number of them stayed on in Xinjiang for so long that they lost their ties with their homes in India and considered themselves as locals for all practical purposes,” according to Thampi. Some Kashmiris married Uyghur women and bought land and were so integrated into to the local culture that they spoke the Uyghur language better than Kashmiri, which they slowly forgot.

In 1949, when the descendants of such people wanted to move back to India, it was more difficult for them to establish their Kashmiri identity with the Indian authorities.

Shikarpuri Moneylenders

An Indian community that earned notoriety and the ire of the Uyghurs and Chinese was the Shikarpuris. The diaries of the Kashgar agency, which would become the British consulate in the city had detailed information about the Shikarpuris in Xinjiang, according to Markovits. “It gives a fairly detailed, although extremely hostile account of the activities of Shikarpuri moneylenders in southern Sinkiang or Kashgaria (there is no evidence of a Shikarpuri presence in the rest of this huge territory), from the 1890s to the 1940s, which saw the last Shikarpuris leave the region,” the French historian wrote.

By 1907, there were 500 Shikarpuri moneylenders in the region. They had a so-called “shah-gumastha” system where the shah advanced capital to junior partners, the gumasthas, who had no capital of their own but were engaged to travel and collect debts. “Some of these gumasthas were described as ‘bad characters,’ men against whom there were cases in Shikarpur for housebreaking,” according to Markovits. “Their exactions against the local population in the course of collecting debts, in particular their seizing of women and children as sureties, led to a string of protests from the Uyghur peasantry, which were relayed by the Chinese authorities to the British consular authorities.”

The British consular officers used to regularly receive complaints about the moneylenders, who were accused of charging exorbitant interest (12% per month), not returning bonds despite loans being fully paid up and forcibly keeping people in confinement until loans were paid back.

Allen Robert Shuttleworth, who was a British consular officer in Kashgar, wrote that the Chinese and the British were ready to help the Shikarpuris collect their debts but there was no satisfying the moneylenders who he called “vultures” and “an unlovable lot”.

By 1909, half of the Shikarpuris were sent back to India. Others managed to stay on in Xinjiang until 1933, when an Uyghur uprising against the Chinese led to violence against the moneylenders. The violence claimed several Indian lives and led to a flight of most Shikarpuris, although some stayed back until the early 1940s.

Political Instability

While the risks that Indians took to trade and live in Xinjiang were rewarded, they were often caught up in business disputes with Chinese and Uyghurs, and amongst themselves. When the British consular authorities would visit cities such as Yarkand, they would be flooded with petitions and requests to settle business disputes.

When the disputes involved Chinese subjects, Macartney would intervene with the authorities. Xinjiang had a system in place through which arbitrators would be appointed to settle these disputes. The corruption in the bureaucracy in the region, well documented in Nicholas Roerich’s Altai-Himalaya, was also a major hindrance to resolving disputes.

Thampi’s book documents a communal riot between local Muslims and Hindus in Yarkand when a Muslim woman was found in the room of a Hindu cook. The situation threatened to spiral out of control, but the Chinese authorities took swift action, including fining the cook, administering mild beatings on those who used insulting languages against Muslims and a gift of carpets. Muslim rioters were also punished with similarly mild beatings and banned from slaughtering cows or selling beef in front of Hindu serais.

Indians would sometimes get in the crossfire between warlords who would seize power in the large territory. With each change in the power structure came a new set of rules and regulation – from increased property taxes to a clampdown on the sale of charas.

The most lucrative period for Indian traders in Xinjiang was right after the Bolshevik Revolution, when chaos in Russia led to minimal trade with the country. By the 1930s, the Soviet Union had become a major industrial force and built good road and railway infrastructure up to the borders of Xinjiang. It became financially unviable for many Indian traders to live and work in the region. The death knell to the Indian presence in Xinjiang was the victory of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War and Beijing’s subsequent exertion of stronger authority over western China. The final exodus to India began in 1949, with some Uyghurs also crossing over the Karakoram Pass to Ladakh and Kashmir.

In 2021 the diplomatic relationship between India and China is far from ideal, but there is no dispute over the boundary at the Karakoram Pass. If trade over the pass were reopened, places like Ladakh, which once hosted Central Asian serais and was a major trade hub, would benefit enormously from the new opportunities. Indians would also be able to gain from the opportunities on the other side of the Karakoram Mountains given how much China is investing in its Belt and Road initiatives.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.