India and Central Asia: Vanishing distances

Linked with Firdous Tabasum – Kashmir.

by DR. TABASUM FIRDOUS, lecturer Central of Central Asia Studies, University of Kashmir. She is also member of our NGO:

In this globalized world when distances do not matter, nations come closer, people interact at ease, Central Asia too is no longer a forbidden land that lies on the other side of hedge for the world in general and India in particular.

In recent years, especially after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asian region has come under a sharp focus. With the physical presence of the US in some of the Central Asian States (CAS), geo-strategy of the entire region has undergone a conspicuous change.

Central Asia is no more a forbidden region for the West and for the world. It is no more behind the iron curtain. Western powers as well as neighboring countries all are eager to find a foothold in the CAS. Their success depends on the agenda they are pursuing and the programmes they would like to undertake. India is a big country in South Asian region. She is also an emerging economic power. Naturally she would also like to make some impact in the new strategy in South Asian region as well as the Central Asian region.

India, traditionally known to the Central Asians as Hindustan, has had close and strong links with the Central Asians. Beginning with the rise of the Aryans in hoary past in Central Asian region – the Oxus basin – and their movement Southward to Northern India down the line to the advent of Central Asian hordes, Huns, Scythians, Sakas, Mongols, Timurid Uzbeks, Ghaznavids, Ghoris, Afghans and Mughals, these relations have taken different shape and content leaving behind indelible impact on what is called the mosaic of Indian civilization. This civilizaional commonality forms a strong basis for India to find space in Central Asia of post-independence period.

The nature and content of this relationship for the purpose of building a good receptive ground for Indian presence in Central Asia depends on how deftly the Indians are able to handle with them. At the same time it also depends on the response India gets from Central Asia. The basic difficulty for India in developing a close working relationship with CAS is the absence of an overland route. Given the acrimonious relationship between India and Pakistan and the ongoing instability in Afghanistan, there appears little chance for India to manage an overland link with Central Asia. A possibility of thawing of relations with Pakistan and smooth passage through turbulent Afghanistan seems to be very remote. Hence India has to depend for a longtime on the sea-cum-land route meaning Bandar Abbas port in the Persian Gulf and then overland route to Sarakhs on Iran-Turkmenistan border. This route though used by India to ship merchandise to Central Asia has its difficulties. In the first place transshipment in itself is an expensive exercise. Secondly, Teheran can be whimsical for various reasons. Therefore, India has first to sort out this obstruction. Even if relations with Pakistan improve, that does not mean that Pakistan would overlook the trade benefits accruing to India by allowing her a passage to Central Asia. But notwithstanding this formidable obstacle, India cannot afford to miss the chance that is coming her way. The foremost interest India can envision in developing closer and friendlier relations with CAS is that of containing proliferation of religious extremism in the region.

CAS are predominantly Muslim but they have always been liberal and moderate Muslims. Though we find some extremism in Ferghana in Uzbekistan or in segments of Tajikistan but these are only aberrations caused by extraneous influences and not inherent in the Central Asian culture. India has the second largest population of the Muslims in the world and the majority is of Sunni Hanafi Muslims. Central Asia too has the majority of Sunnihanafi Muslims. This commonality can be put to much useful purpose by both the sides in order to protect their societies from falling a prey to religious extremism. Through large scale exchange of delegations or what is generally called people to people contact, a ground can be prepared to resist and defeat extremist elements in their design. Towards this purpose India would be immensely interested. Moving forward along this line would mean that India is closing the space for Pakistan and other theocratic states to make Central Asia a fertile ground for the growth and spread of religious extremism, conservatism and orthodoxy. This is what the Central Asian understands perfectly and they have in the past failed in such attempts.

Then there is the question of military presence of the United States and to a smaller extent of other European powers in CAS. India like China is a regional power. Russia has had historic links with Central Asia, which have not been terminated in toto. India would like to cater to two objectives in making her small military presence in Central Asia. Firstly, she would like to be in close touch with the strategic situation that develops in Central Asia where the states do not have strong militaries to defend themselves or to resist disruptive forces within or from outside. Secondly, India would like to keep Pakistan at an arms length in Central Asia because that not only scuttles Pakistan’s designs for strategic depth but also forces Pakistan to shift her attention to the western border rather than the eastern border in Kashmir. Big Indian business houses and companies who have considerable expertise in their respective fields can play a crucial role. For example India has massive technical manpower, which she can deploy to provide latest technological know-how to the Central Asians Indian experts are much cheaper to hire than the western technocrats and the Indians do not lack in upgraded skills India can help Central Asia in a big way to make it industrialized. True the infrastructure does exist there but the question is of modern technology especially in heavy industry, soft-wear, information technology, hotel industry, textiles, pharmaceuticals etc. Proper utilization of these services will go a long way in modernizing and industrializing Central Asia. India is already on its way but the exercise needs streamlining.

Central Asia is the bridge between the East and the West. It has always been the bridge. Only during the 80 years of Soviet power was Central Asia isolated from the mainstream of international trade and commercial exchanges. The day is not far away when Central Asia will be revived to its past glory and the fabulous Silk Route will again hum with caravans of merchandise moving along its arteries from east to west.

The last but not the least, which India will pursue in wooing the Central Asians, is the hydrocarbon energy resource of Central Asia. Kazakhstan has one of the world’s richest oil field in Tengiz. Turkmenistan has one of the worlds richest gas field in Daulatabad. The Caspian Sea also promises enormous deposits of gas and oil. Big western cartels are eyeing this booty. Turkmenistan has recently contracted with Afghanistan and Pakistan for a gas pipeline from Daulatabad via Kabul to Gawadar in Makran coastal Pakistan. India is also reported to be asking for a linkage. Apart from this India is also trying for underwater pipeline for Iranian gas. It will be inconceivable for Turkmenistan and also Pakistan to shut down the pipeline at Gawadar and not extend it to India, which promises enormous market. As such India has a big interest in this hydrocarbon booty of CAS. India has a very limited quantity of gas and oil of her own and she needs to import the stuff and on cheaper rates. Therefore the future strategy in the region will be the strategy of oil.

This, therefore, is a bird’s eye view of India’s strategy in independent Central Asian Sates in times to come. But as one knows that India is a gregarious elephant that moves very slow and turns very slow. Indian democracy and secularism are in the making. Infact the whole of India is in making. But given the assurance that her economy is developing at the rate of 8 per cent per annum, one can envision the nature and dimension of her relations with Central Asia in years to come. (The author is lecturer Central of Central Asia Studies, University of Kashmir).

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