Locating the Geopolitical Discourses on Central Asia
The Central Asian countries are celebrating their three decades of independence from Soviet rule and there is a continuity in the political system without much subtle structural change. However, the geopolitical scenario is undergoing a sea change in the last few years in this part of the world. These radical transformations in the geopolitical front of Central Asia are taking place largely due to the interplay of both global and regional forces and their subsequent impact on the region. This region is experiencing tumultuous geopolitical changes largely due to its location as the British Geopolitical Analyst, Halford Mackinder coined the term first as “Pivot” and later as “Heartland” in the Eurasian landmass. In the post 1991 era Andre Gunder Frank in a seminal article titled “Centrality of Central Asia” published in 1992 in the Journal, Studies in History recontextualised the significance of Central Asia using historical analogy. On the other hand, American geopolitical analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski in his thought-provoking book The Grand Chessboard, re-strategised Central Asia’s location in the context of Western perception rooted in “geopolitical plurality”. At the same time, Yevgeny Primakov then Foreign Minister of Russia, considered Central Asia as the “Zone of Vital interest” for Russia and perceived this region as its “natural sphere of influence”. Over the years different geopolitical interpretations are also coming out like “Greater Middle East”, “Greater Central Asia” promoted by the US Administration. Similarly, President Vladimir Putin’s vision of “Greater Eurasia” is also being used to locate the geopolitical significance of Central Asia.
There are two major inferences one can draw from the above normative geopolitical framework in the context of Central Asia. These are: a) Central Asian countries are trying to balance normative geopolitical framework with the geopolitical reality at the ground level; b) The new geopolitics which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union has also impelled these countries to pursue a policy of “multi vector” or “permanent neutrality” in the context of regional/global geopolitics. These narratives of Central Asia helped in understanding the geopolitical dynamics in a more succinct and in-depth manner.
However, a question that naturally arises here is how these above mentioned geopolitical polemics in the context of Central Asia can be useful for India to engage with this geopolitical space. This as Devendra Kaushik says India’s “uninterrupted geocultural relationship” with Central Asia is “rooted in history”. The geocultural relationship has also need to be studied in the context of present strategic developments which are taking place in this part of the world. Some of these developments propel three major questions as far as India’s relations with Central Asia is concerned. These are:
- How India looks at Central Asia as a geopolitical space?
- To what extent India can shape the regional dynamics of Central Asia?
- Is a maritime approach to reconnect Central Asia is the most viable policy option?
Some of these questions can be studied in the context of following themes which require an in-depth analysis.
The Context of Geocultural Relations between India and Central Asia
There are two major contextual factors that need to examined while analysing India-Central Asia. These are: a) a “ common geocultural space”; c) synergy in “ strategic culture”. Though these two above discussed arguments appear to be interrelated but need to be studied in a broader geopolitical setting in the context of Central Asia. As has been argued over the years by academics and policy makers a consensus over strategic culture can facilitate the fruition of greater strategic cooperation among different countries. It is in this background one has to locate what are the common geocultural vectors or shared cultures that bind both India-Central Asian countries?
In this regard. it is necessary to examine some of the academic literature which focusses on India’s Civilisational connectivity in Central Asia. Some of these literature like Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s
Arctic Home in the Vedas, Babajan Gafurov’s Tajiki (
Central Asia: Pre Historic to Pre Modern Times), G.M Bongard Levin’s
Studies in Ancient India and Central Asia, R.C Majumdar’s
An Advanced History of India, Prabodh Chandra Bagchee’s
India and Central Asia, B.A Litvinsiky’s
Outline History of Buddhism in Central Asia, Devendra Kaushik’s
India and Central Asia in modern times : a study in historical-cultural contacts from the early nineteenth century and B Kumar’s
The Early Kushans are some of the pioneering contributions to study India and Central Asia relations in a geocultural context.
Tilak in his book
Arctic Home in the Vedas shed light on India’s geocultural boundary which he extends up to the Arctic region or the Northern pole in which Central Asia was a part. In this regard, Tilak quoting various puranas says “Mount Meru is the home or seat of all the gods”. (p. 62) He further emphasises that “ ancestors of Vedic Rishis lived in ancient times” in this space . (p.30) Quoting Rig Veda Tilak further highlights that in “ Pole[North], there is only one day and one night for six months each” the same was described in Rig Veda as “ Ushasa Nakta and Ahani”.( P. 125) It is not only Tilak who succinctly outlined India’s geocultural outreach in Central Asia, even Soviet Indologist G.M Bongard Levin ‘s book Studies in Ancient India and Central Asia, has also thrown much light on the same. Levin argues that “ Gandhara art”, “ excavation of Nilakanth” (Lord Shiva) and “sleeping Buddha”, at Penjikent” located in Tajikistan, “ Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts in Merv” in Turkmenistan and the existence of “ Buddhist monasteries” in different parts of Central Asia is a clear proof that there was a “continuous geocultural exchanges” between India and Central Asia .(pp.214-228) Prabodh Chandra Bagchee in his book India and Central Asia also highlights that both in Ramayana and Mahabharat the region of Central Asia was mentioned (p.20) Similarly it is a well known fact that the name Bukhara came from Vihar ( Buddhist Monastery) and Samarkand’s earlier name was Markanda as mentioned by Babajan Gafurov in his book Central Asia(Tajiki, vol,1) . In fact, the people of both Bukhara and Samarkand still reminisce these names. J Marshall’s book The Guide to Taxila explains how “ Sanskrit”, “ Prakrit” and “ Brahmi” played an important role in the “ ethno-linguistic” developments of Central Asia. ( p. 5,33 and 36) The same view was also mentioned by Devendra Kaushik in his academic works. Bagchee in his seminal work quoting Matshya Puran mentions that river “Cakyu ( Oxus ( Vakyu- Amu river” ) flowing in this part of the world. ( p.143) Another instance of closer cultural relations between India and Central Asia can also be evident from the popular practices like “ worshipping of five elements of nature” which is known as “Panchamabhuta” as Devendra Kaushik emphasises. What is important to note here that there are many other illustrations through which one can infer the syncretic “ geocultural” relations between India and Central Asia.
It may be recalled here that India and Central Asia relations thrived during the Medieval period also. The Sufi connection is a well-known fact. In the post- 15th Century as Andre Gunder Frank in his inspiring work “ Centrality of Central Asia” highlights that due to “ spread of plague” and “ advent of maritime trade route” contributed to the “ decline” of Central Asia. However, India’s interaction with Central Asia continued even after that. It may be recalled here that merchants and traders of India played a crucial role in shaping relations with Central Asia. As mentioned by Alexander Burnes in his work Travels into Bokhara and Hungarian Travelogue Arminius Vambery’s book Travel in Central Asia, Indians used to thrive in the trade and commerce of Central Asia. As mentioned by Vambery in his above-mentioned book that “ Hindoo” traders used to “worship Vishnoo”(p. 372) These two books of Burnes and Vambery suggest that trade and commerce between India and Central Asia flourished even after Tsarist Russia took over Central Asia. This can be evident from remnants of Indian Sarai ( the rest place for Indian traders is still there in Bukhara) and the local people of Bokhara take pride of that. It is in this background, one has to gauge the nature and extent of India-Central Asia cultural connection. While examining India-Central Asia relations one cannot ignore the fact that the First Provisional Government of India formed under Raja Mahendra Pratap as a protest against the British colonial rule in India as quoted by Devendra Kaushik in his above book. One may highlight here that India-Central Asia relations continued even after the formation of the Soviet Union. India used to maintain its relations with Central Asia through the then Soviet Union in the post 1947 era.
Post-1991 Phase: India as an emerging Power in Central Asian “Heartland Geopolitics”
In the post -Soviet phase, India tried to maintain its relations with Central Asia by recognising these five countries and establishing diplomatic missions. However, India’s relations with Central Asia in post-Soviet Central Asia cannot be immune from the geopolitical developments that took place in this part of the world. Though Russia tried to maintain its so-called “umbilical relations” with the Central Asian countries through forming regional organisations with the Central Asian countries like the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Collective Security Treaty, it could not able to penetrate itself effectively into the Central Asian space. At the same time, in the post 1995 era Yevgeny Primakov tried to bring this space through his “near abroad” policy. China and the United States also made efforts to assert their sphere of influence. In this geopolitical milieu, India has also initiated its own geopolitical diplomacy in Central Asia. Visits of former Prime Minister P.V Narsimha Rao to Central Asia within a short span of two years in 1993 and 1995 contributed to strategising India’s relations with Central Asia . Similarly, Central Asian countries’ presidents also visited India. Tough these visits helped a lot in generating much warmth in bilateral relations but it has not achieved any substantial benefits in the direction of trade as well as strategic cooperation. This is because, Central Asian countries have a much narrower geopolitical vision of global geopolitics at that time. Even India looked at the Central Asian geopolitical space through Russia which to a greater extent limited its engagement in Central Asia. The emergence of the radical Taliban in Afghanistan, role of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey in the growing radicalisation of Central Asia completely changed the geopolitics of Central Asia. Simultaneously, the geopolitical and geoeconomics interests of China and the US to a greater extent also altered the geopolitical narratives of Central Asia.
Similarly, the change in leadership of Russia as Vladimir Putin took over the President has also brought out a fundamental change in Russia’s approach to Central Asia and Afghanistan. At the same time, the 9/11 incident occurred which altered the geopolitical situation in Central Asia also. The establishment of military bases in Central Asia by both the US and Russia to fight the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan has also contributed a lot to the evolvement of “cooperative geopolitics” in the initial phase. Later on, the joint collaboration contributed to a confrontationist mode based on the prism of “ Zero Sum Game” between Russia and the US . This to a greater extent has heightened the strategic competition. Scholars termed it as return of Great Game or emergence of “New Great Game” in Central Asia.
Consolidating India’s strategic Ties with Central Asia : Move Towards “Rimland Geopolitics”
It is in this geopolitical milieu, India launched its first regional policy towards Central Asia known as “Extended Neighbourhood policy” under the leadership of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This policy initiative marked a sea change in India’s policy approach towards Central Asia. Similarly, India has also joined the Kazakhstan led the CICA initiative. At the same time, India also got an opportunity to set-up its air base in Tajikistan, took an active role in strengthening the connectivity with Central Asia trough the International North South Transport Corridor Project(INSTC) and in the TAPI energy corridor project.
Thus in the post-1999 era, India took steps to boost its relations with Central Asia but the geopolitical rivalry among the great powers to a great extent stymied its greater engagement in Central Asia. Similarly, after much competition India secured a stake in the Satpayev oil Bloc in Kazakhstan. Slowly and steadily India also took steps to get a share in the energy sectors of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan India got a stake over the years in the hydroelectric projects. The developments that took place in Afghanistan has also propelled India and Central Asian countries for strengthening closer cooperation.
The Connect Central Asia Policy which India unveiled in 2012 is a major milestone in India’s regional approach towards this region. Though this policy India unveiled a broad-based approach for strengthening relations with Central Asia. However, the geopolitical developments that took place in Central Asia in the post 2013 era fundamentally altered the strategic situation in this region from Russia-China cooperation to rivalry. China’s unveiling of One Belt One Road Project (OBOR) in 2013 at Asthana and lessening American interest in Central Asia and growing radicalisation in this region because of the adverse impact of the Syrian crisis are some of the major developments that took place in this region. At the same time, growing resentment towards China among the Central Asian population can also be noticed . This is despite the fact that China launched its ambitious OBOR project in Central Asia and at the same time all these five countries received massive aid in the form of joint cooperation in infrastructure projects and financial aids. However, the Central Asian countries are now more interested in getting rid of Chinese “debt diplomacy” in this region in recent years. It may be stated that though Russia is a “traditional strategic actor” in Central Asia but slowly and steadily China is also taking advantage of Russia’s economic weakness and trying to replace Russia as a major force in Central Asia. This is in fact one major factor which is creating irritants between Russia and China in this geopolitical space. It is in this strategic milieu one has to look at India’s policy options in Central Asia.
Some of these strategic developments in fact provided an opportunity for India to consolidate its position in Central Asia. This was reflected when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all the five countries of this region in 2015. The visit helped in the consolidation of India’s relations with Central Asia both at the strategic level as well as at the economic front. Another major milestone in the evolvement of India’s policy towards Central Asia is when the “India-Central Asia Dialogue Forum” was created which includes Afghanistan in 2019 . Along with the above forum in February 2020 “India-Central Asia Business Council (ICABC)” also came up to give greater teething to India’s economic diplomacy in the region. Similarly, India has also assisted these five Central Asian countries to the tune of 1 billion US dollars as reported.
India’s connectivity diplomacy in Central Asia got a major boost when Uzbekistan formally joined the Chabahar Connectivity project along with Afghanistan in recent months. Hopefully, in future other Central Asian countries will also join the same. his move will end their land-locked status. Similarly, the INSTC project can be another important means through which India can connect Central Asia. The promised Chennai-Vladivostok connectivity project through the Indo-Pacific corridor if operationalised can also be connected with Kazakhstan through the Altai region of Siberia of Russia. This can make Kazakhstan an Indo-Pacific player. By strengthening maritime connectivity with Central Asia through Iran, India can also shape both geopolitical and geoeconomics dynamics in Central Asia.
Along with these measures, India can strengthen its outreach in Central Asia by providing assistance in augmenting the Social Capital. For instance, India’s rich experience in managing the local-self-government (Panchayat Raj system) can also helpful to Central Asian countries where mahalla culture (local self-government) is widely prevalent. Similarly, if India can set up affordable health care facilities (which also includes traditional Indian medicines like Ayurveda and Siddha) in Central Asia the people of this region can access better health care facilities. The other areas where India can also assist these five countries is in the agricultural sector, information technology and the “civilian nuclear cooperation” etc.
Along with the economic domain, India has also signed a number of defence and security pacts with the Central Asian countries. These include “Security Cooperation Agreement” signed in November 2019. A similar such agreement was signed with Kyrgyzstan when Prime Minister Modi visited Bishkek in June 2019 to attend the SCO Summit to improve defence and military cooperation. Both with Kazakhstan in October 2020 and Tajikistan in July 2015 India also signed agreements to “fight against terrorism”.
India’s “Cooperative Geopolitical” Approach in Central Asia
Over the years the US is taking lesser interest in Central Asia, partly due to its minimal interest in harnessing energy from this region along with its keenness to withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. Similarly, souring relations between Russia and China over the years is also contributing to complex geopolitics in Central Asia. On the other hand, growing resentment towards China by Central Asian countries is also evident. At the same time, Russia has also does not have much leverage in this region because of Moscow’s own economic weaknesses especially in the post-2014 era due to Western sanctions as argued. In this regard, it can be stated that a “ Great Game 3 0” is taking place currently in Centra Asia between China and Russia A closer look at some of the above analysis demonstrate that over the years, India, is emerging as a major player to shape the regional dynamics of Central Asia. India also looks at the Central Asian geopolitical space to strategies its broader post-Soviet Eurasian diplomacy. By strengthening the above-noted maritime connectivity projects with Central Asia, India can also bring these countries into the Indo-Pacific orbit. The recent developments which are taking place in Afghanistan is also necessitates growing India-Central Asia cooperation.
Growing cooperation between India and Central Asia is rooted in a common “geocultural milieu”. Along with this, the active diplomacy India is pursuing in recent years in this region based on “cooperative geopolitics”, maritime connectivity will augment the relations to a new height.
The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org