Central Asia seldom features prominently in the Indian media with its obsession with the West, most notably the United States and, in the past six decades, with Pakistan, which is a pity because the five states-Kazakhistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan which together form Central Asia are of vital importance to India in more ways than one. In the first place, friendship with these predominantly Muslim nations should help India to contain Pakistani and Chinese strategic designs against it. In the second place, these countries which together have a population close to 80 million are rich in mineral resources such as oil, gas, uranium etc that India would like to have easy access to. In the third place, all five countries themselves prefer to have lasting friendship with India which should be treated as a major asset to be constructively utilised to mutual interest.
It is not so well known, as a Soviet media person so eloquently reported six years ago, that “in many respects Central Asians view India as a beacon of hope and a route to progress in what they perceive as their ‘southern arc of instability’ involving Afghanistan and Pakistan”. It was sometime in November 2003 that Indian bureaucratic functionaries showed interest in Central Asia for the first time by attending a regional conference in Tashkent. Since then, India’s connectivity to land-locked Central Asia has improved considerably. Only this September came an announcement that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) has given a green signal to state-run Oil & Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Mittal Investment Sarl, owned by the Indian multi-millionnaire Lakshmi N Mittal, to sign an agreement with the Kazakhistan Government for $ 400 million investment in Kazakhistan’s Satpayev oil field in the Caspian Sea where a peak output of 2.87 lakh barrels a day is envisaged.
In October 2004, Kazakh President Nur Sultan Nazarbayev told then India’s External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh how keen he was on an Indian presence in the country’s oil and Information Technology sector. And an Indian official told the Indian media: “You can’t imagine how positive the Kazakhs are about India. For Kazakh analysts Indian engagement is not just good business but a vital element for strategic stability in Central Asia”. The Mittals, incidentally already have a strong presence in Kazakhistan. In November 1995 Mittals acquired a steel plant in the heart of Kazakhistan’s Karaganda region, which now produces over 6 million tonnes of steel annually and employs 52,000 employees. The steel mill, it is claimed, is the biggest employer in the country.
It is in this context that one must view President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Tajikistan in September this year. A first ever visit to the country by any Indian President, it has apparently aroused great interest in Dushambe (meaning ‘Monday’ in the local language), the state capital. With a population of just 6.8 million, it has in recent years become a strategic playing ground for Russia. The country reached a debt restructuring agreement with Moscow that included a $ 250 million write-off of its $ 300 million debt. Both the United States and China have shown interest in Tajikistan with India as a late comer, because of the State’s prime location. Russia has a military base here and continues to be the country’s mentor and has already poured in $ one billion into the country’s coffers. China has not lagged behind and has provided about $ 400 million by way of aid, to improve roads and an electricity transmission network. And the US funded a $ 36 million bridge which opened in August 2007 linking the country with Afghanistan.
India’s own aid is on the low side-between $ 20 and $ 25 million. While Tajikistan thus has received fairly substantial aid and has been experiencing a steady economic growth since 1997 nearly two thirds of its population continues to live in poverty. So far, India’s aid is limited to providing training in defence and upgrading an airport at a place called Ayni at the country’s request. India is happy to be of some help to Tajikistan because it has so far bravely defied the trends in the region towards terrorism because of its largely secular orientation.
Tajikistan, it must be remembered, is close enough to Kashmir and is narrowly separated from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) by a small stretch of Afghanistan territory. Apparently Mrs Patil made a big hit in Tajikistan when she visited the mausoleum of Mr Sayyid Ali Hamdani, a Sufi saint, credited with propagation and spread of Islam in the Kashmir Valley. According to reports, “thousands of school children and young girls waved and danced as the presidential cavalcade wound its way from the airport to the shrine”. The children have been apparently waiting for long hours in the sun without food and water, surely a sign that the Tajiks long for friendship and cooperation with India in many field of activity.
As for India itself, the Pamir mountains-fed waters to large rivers offer huge potential for electricity generation and the hope is that once planned projects are completed, it should be possible for India to import electricity from Tajikistan. Completion of the Sangtuda I hydropower dam-built with Russian investment-and the Sangtuda II and Rogan dams will add substantially to electricity output. But more than anything else it is important for India to cultivate close friendship and cooperation not only with Tajikistan, but all the five Central Asian States where Pakistani fundamentalists are trying to establish a foothold, with some reported success.
India cannot afford to neglect Central Asian republics with their predominantly Muslim and Sunni-populations. Besides, Tajikistan is rich in mineral-especially gold, tungsten and uranium-resources access to which would be very much in India’s interests. In the context of globalisation, especially, India would do well to continually maintain close relationship with Central Asia, not only for friendship’s own sake but for security. President Pratibha Patil’s well conceived visit to Tajikistan must now be followed by visits of industrialists and entrepreneurs to establish a strong Indian presence in the area, as much for keeping China out as far as possible. For Tajikistan, India is closer than China, a point that must be fully exploited.