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Is It Too Soon To Proclaim That India Is a ‘Eurasian Power’?

India’s ties with the CARs are governed by many factors, including its relations with Iran & Afghanistan.

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Opinion
4 min read
Is It Too Soon To Proclaim That India Is a ‘Eurasian Power’?
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The third meeting of the India-Central Asia Dialogue is scheduled to be held in Delhi on 18 and 19 December. The participants of the foreign ministers’ level Dialogue are the five Central Asia Republics (CAR)—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, apart from India. It has also been reported that India is in the process of inviting all the five Central Asian top leaders together as chief guests for Republic Day 2022.

Afghanistan also attended the previous two meetings but will not do so on this occasion because the Taliban regime has, as yet, diplomatically not been recognised by any country. Besides, unlike the CARs, India withdrew its embassy personnel from its embassy in Kabul in the wake of the Taliban takeover of the city on 15 August.

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Part of Each Other's Historic Consciousness

The first edition of the India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in the historic city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan in January 2019. It represented a desire on the part of all the CARs to strengthen their contacts with India. India and Central Asia are part of each other’s historic consciousness, despite a hiatus in contacts beginning with the end of the 18th century. The colonial period in India and the incorporation of Central Asia in the Russian Empire led to this interruption, which continued with the formation of the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917. After India’s independence, Indian-Soviet ties became strong and Indian leaders did visit the Central Asian region, but at that stage, it was part of the Soviet Union.

The end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the formation of these five independent Central Asian Republics. Their ties with Russia remained strong and comprehensive despite the demise of the Soviet Union. At the same time, as China started gaining economic strength beginning with the 1990s, an economic and commercial bond developed between it and the CARs. That has intensified in the decades since. Connectivity between China and the region has grown. There is no doubt that China’s presence in the region is now strong.

At the same time, the CARs have sought to develop their ties with the rest of the world. They are keen to break the shackles imposed by geography.

All the five countries are land-locked and are hence unable to fulfil their economic and commercial potential. As part of this process of reaching out to the world, the CARs are keen to develop their ties with India, which they consider a major player.

The historical memory of contact buttresses their move towards India. For India, the CARs are part of its extended neighbourhood and the growth of productive ties with them is in its interest.

But What About India's Domestic Politics?

The joint statement issued after the first India-Central Asia Dialogue states, “The sides noted ancient civilizational, cultural, trade, people-to-people links between India and Central Asia…”. While some of these links go back to ‘ancient’ times, the fact is that most of them that matter to Central Asia are from the medieval period. Perhaps the most prominent among them is that of the Mughal period of India’s history.

Babur, who is much reviled by the Sangh Parivar, was Turkic-speaking and originally belonged to the Ferghana valley. He was ousted from his home at a young age, and after his wanderings, he captured parts of Afghanistan, including Kabul, which became his springboard to India. The Mughals had a special place in their hearts for the region of their origin, even though they had fully become part of the Indian sub-continent.

On a visit to Turkmenistan in the 1990s, this writer found that Bairam Khan, who was Akbar’s guardian in the early years of his rule, is now considered a hero of the Turkmen people. At the time of this writer’s trip, Turkmenistan was celebrating the 5th centenary of his birth.

Bairam Khan was of Turkmen origin and had loyally served Humayun, too. Khan’s son, Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan, was brought up by Akbar and was a great Mughal grandee not only in his time but that of Jehangir, too. He became a celebrated Mughal general and a remarkable poet in Persian and Hindi.

His dohas are a part of the Indian cultural heritage. The Turkmens honour his memory, too, for they have erected a statue in his honour in their capital, Ashkhabad, which also has a statue of his father. (For readers who wish to learn more about these remarkable men, I would recommend my former colleague TCA Raghavan’s excellent book Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim).

Will the government celebrate these historical contacts between India and Central Asia? In addition, many of the Sufi orders trace their origins to Central Asia. Will these “civilisational” ties be also noted?

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There Are Many Constraints

India and the CARs face common threats arising out of terrorism. They are both deeply concerned by the changes in Afghanistan. But while India has refused to have sustained open contact with the Taliban, the CARs have had no such inhibitions. Interestingly, all states have emphasised the need for an inclusive government in Afghanistan, but none has said with any definiteness what such a government should be like. It would be better for the international community to focus on the Taliban conducting themselves on the basis of internationally accepted norms of conduct, especially on gender issues, and insist on their complete disassociation with terrorism.

While contacts with CARs should be actively fostered, a sense of realism must govern India’s expectations. The absence of surface connectivity, as yet, is a massive constraint. The Chabahar port in Iran has to be developed fully for connectivity with the CARs; it is doubtful if Pakistan will ever allow India access to Afghanistan through its territory.

At present, with India keeping the Taliban at arm’s length, the prospects of connectivity through Chabahar are difficult to foresee. Thus, the development of ties with the CARs is also governed, to a large degree, by India’s relations with Iran and Afghanistan.

Amidst all these constraints, some Indian strategic thinkers have already proclaimed that India is a Eurasian power. Is that really so?

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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