Daily Excelsior: India and Central Asian Republics Relations

In Nov 2020 two Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) summits were held, and India participated in both of them. The SCO Heads of State summit held in Russia on 10 Nov 2020 was attended virtually by Prime Minister Narender Modi, and SCO Heads of Government held in India on 30 November 2020 was participated in by Foreign Minister S. Jayahankar. Since this took place in India for the first, therefore evoked great response from strategic analysts and the business community.

SCO is a permanent international intergovernmental organisation with headquarters in Beijing in China. It is a Eurasian political, economic and security organisation whose aim is to maintain peace, security and stability in the region. This group was created on 15 June 2001 in Shanghai, China by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Also known as the ‘Alliance of the East’ and SCO is the largest group globally in terms of territory and population and viewed as the counter-balance of the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). India joined SCO as a full permanent member on 09 November 2017, at a summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Significance of Central Asia

Central Asia consists of five former states of Union of Soviet Socialist Republic(USSR)- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. On 25 December 1991, the five states were recognised as independent countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnically, linguistically, culturally and historically, these countries are the same. These countries have both geopolitical and geo-strategical importance, but knowledge about them is both scanty and limited. It is a vast area and rich in natural resources and minerals.

None of these Central Asian countries wanted to be independent when former USSR collapsed. They didn’t have to fight for their independence but got on a platter, which they accepted reluctantly. The fear stemmed from their lack of confidence that they wouldn’t survive and progress without USSR. According to one survey, 90% of the people didn’t want to sever their former USSR relations. However, for the last, almost three decades, things have changed drastically, and these countries have carved out their identities and are in the process of nation-building and consolidation.

All these five countries are landlocked, instead doubly locked as their neighbouring countries are also landlocked. That was the reason they didn’t want to go for independence. So, these countries must connect with the outside world to establish good relations. They need to have access to warm-water seas. These countries have developed these problems into the opportunities by making their territories available to develop infrastructures such as railways, highways, roads, and gas pipelines crisscrossing from north to south and east to west. They are thus connecting with industrial and other business hubs in the world. Their leadership is stable, peaceful except civil war in Tajikistan in the early ’90s and Andijan uprising in Uzbekistan in 2005. There was sectarian violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Probably, Islamist Forces triggered both these incidents. Fringe elements of a few terrorist groups do exist, but they are not effective. But this scenario may change due to the resurgence of the Taliban in Afganistan is a cause of concern.

Roots of relations between India and Central Asia.India and Central Asia have been deeply connected in history. India’s historical links to Central Asia goes back to the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD when Indo-Scythians or Kushan kings migrated from Central Asia across the Oxus(Present-day Amu Darya) river into Bacteria, Arachosia, Gandhara(Present-day Afghanistan) then eastward to Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujrat. These Indo-Scythian tribes are the Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas and so on were absorbed in many Kshatriyas and Jat communities in India. We share geography which has facilitated prosperous trade and commerce throughout history; the movement of goods, ideas and people travelling in both directions. But, partition in 1947 and subsequent creation of Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir(POJK) finally led to cut-off India’s land routes to Central Asia. Pakistan doesn’t permit people and cargo to pass through its territories. For India, Central Asia is not a distant region, but it is a part of our ‘extended neighbourhood’.

India’s objectives in the Central Asian Region. Broadly India’s purposes in the region are divided into two:

* One is to take concrete steps to enhance economic and trade links with an emphasis on energy and transport connectivity.

* Two, to enhance and deepen India’s strategic engagement with the region by building bilateral and multilateral partnerships. And to aid stability and development of Afganistan.

Development in relations between India and Central Asian countries.After the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991, India was confident of strengthening the historical linkage with Central Asian Countries thus established diplomatic relations immediately. Then Indian Prime Minister P V Narshima Rao visited these countries in Aug 91 and in Feb 93 and initiated the honest and open friendship to promote stability and cooperation in the region. But did not translate into any meaningful strategic or economic ties. This was partly due to lack of physical road connectivity as Pakistan denied access through POJK. Thus, our initiatives were mainly limited to small scale capacity-building measures, Human Resources Development, and IT and Pharma partnership.

However, things changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US which shifted the international focus on terrorism and drug trafficking from Afghanistan and surrounding areas. This marked the expansion of India’s strategic and security aspects with CARs because ‘war on terror’ didn’t target only the Taliban in Afghanistan and terrorists’ organisations in Uzbekistan. A Joint Working Group(JWG) on counter-terrorism with Tajikistan, Kazakistan, and Uzbekistan was formed in 2003. In 2005, India was appointed as an observer of SCO. A breakthrough was the 20011 agreement between Indian ONGC and Kajakistan’s KMG on buying 25% stake in the Satpayev oil field in the Capsian sea and Indo-Kazakistan deal that India will get 2000 tonnes of the uranium. In 2001, India, Russia and Iran signed an agreement to open up ‘north-south’ trade corridor with CARs and European countries. Indian President Smt. Pratibha Patil visited Tajikistan in 2009, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited in 2011 which paved the way to the formation of a new vision called Connect Central Asia Policy emphasising on 4Cs-Commerce, Connectivity, Consular and Community.

In 2014 Indian Government prioritised re-emerging India’s engagement with CARs. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all the countries in Central Asia in 2015. Stress was laid on building connectivity, regional integration, defence, anti-terrorism cooperation and cyber-security. In 2017 India became a permanent member of SCO. In 2019 direct dialogue initiated between India and CARs organised a digital video conference on 28 October 2020, andAfganistan also participated. The ministers strongly condemned terrorism in all form and shapes. Meeting of SCO heads of the state held in India through video-conferencing on 30 November 2020. On 14 December 2020, a trilateral meeting was held wherein officials from India, Iran and Uzbekistan met and discussed the Charbhar port issues, which is now partially operational.


India and Central Asain Countries are secular, pluralistic, diverse and peaceful societies. Their relations are deep-rooted in history. They are the natural allies and friends to promote inter-ethnic, inter-religion and inter-cultural harmony; this is also the need of the hour. India has proximity to Central Asian Region as compared to Russia and China. India poses neither a security threat to the region, as is the case with Russia or an economic or demographic threat, as is perceived in China’s case. India’s level of knowledge of Central Asia is far superior to that of China, while its cultural literacy concerning the region far outshines that of Russia, Europe, or America. Moreover, India’s role in Afganistan is an asset not only to Afganistan but to the whole of Central Asia. After the cold war ended between the US and USSR, the focus shifted from the West to Asia.

“Daily Excelsior”