Indian President Pratibha Patil made a quiet but strategic three-day state visit to the Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan from 6-8 September. She stated India’s commitment to assisting Tajikistan in nation building through Indian experiences in human resource development, agriculture, Information Technology, health, education and sports. Further, the two countries agreed on the need for establishing direct air links. Historically speaking, she became the first Indian President to visit Tajikistan and the only foreign leader to attend celebrations of Tajikistan’s Independence Day on 8 September.
Since the days of the Taliban in Afghanistan, India reportedly maintained a medical facility at Farkhor, 130 km south-east of the capital Dushanbe. Farkhor is geo-strategically positioned, about 2 km from the Tajik-Afghan border. It has been reported that injured Northern Alliance fighters were treated at this facility. Allegedly, it was through Farkhor that India pumped in assistance to the Northern Alliance. At that juncture, Tajikistan was suffering from a Civil War against the Islamists. Therefore maintaining a base against the Taliban in order to avoid a nexus between the Tajik Islamists and the Jihadi Taliban, was natural
Even after 1991, Russian influence over Tajikistan continued. Moreover, since 9/11, American and NATO forces were stationed in Central Asia. It was in this period post - 9/11 that the Ayni Air Base (15 km from Dushanbe) received attention from India. The NDA government decided to spread its wings in Central Asia after the Kargil War and the IC-814 fiasco in 1999. The objective was to get a strategic foothold so as to encircle Pakistan and Taliban-infested Afghanistan politically and militarily. In this connection, Vajpayee’s visit to Tajikistan in 2003 is noteworthy.
Ayni was in fact an unused air base since the days Soviet influence in the mid 1980s. Neither India nor Tajikistan has officially acknowledged the development of Ayni as an Indian Air Base. Also, the Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has vehemently announced that “Tajikistan would not host any foreign bases on its territory other than that of Russia’s.” Maybe this kind of rhetoric has forced India to re-think the ownership of the Ayni base. A joint ownership by India, Tajikistan and Russia of the alleged base can be a viable option. Furthermore, India would try to extract as much leverage as possible in Central Asia in order to counterbalance the Chinese influence. Assertion of India’s rise as an Asian power is another plausible reason for its presence in Central Asia.
The volatile situation in Afghanistan and the associated US-led presence have facilitated India’s ventures in Central Asia. USA viewed India as its partner in its global war on terror, at least till the Bush regime. It can be conjectured that the Obama period would not be dramatically different. Rather Russia can pose certain problems for India in having a full-fledged air base at Ayni or for that matter any strategic venture in Central Asia. A cynical viewpoint taken by Russia would not be unnatural in this era of Indo-US bonhomie. Thus, it would be in India’s interests to take Russia into confidence.
Apart from the disputed Ayni Air base, India has other elements of interest in Tajikistan, uranium and natural gas being the most important. In an annual address to the Tajik parliament in April 2008, President Rakhmon said that Tajikistan has 14 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves. Later that year, the Tajik parliament allowed foreign companies to extract uranium ore in the country. There have been subsequent reports of Russian and Chinese plans to mine uranium in Tajikistan. Keeping in mind such competition and the fact that India is the world’s sixth largest energy consumer, it would seem that New Delhi has its work cut out. Exploration of natural gas by Indian companies is certainly an option. Following the Indian president’s visit, it was announced that Indian companies plan to invest US$12 million in the development of gas fields located in southern Tajikistan.
Total annual trade between India and Tajikistan in 2007-08 was US$22 million with the balance of trade in India’s favour. A circuitous trade route is the major impediment in bilateral trade. Indian companies have invested US$17 million in the reconstruction of the Varzob-1 hydroelectric power station, which supplies part of Dushanbe with electricity. India has also put in US$5 million in the construction of a five-star hotel in the Tajik capital.
India’s presence in Tajikistan is imperative from a geo-strategic point of view. Presently, India has a number of consulates in Afghanistan. Hence Farkhor and Ayni can act as supply lines for those consulates. In an era of Jihadi Terrorism and its unholy connection with Pakistan, a Farkhor or an Ayni should not be interpreted as mere manifestations of India’s “forward policy” rather the realistic outcomes of her national interest. However, the functionality Ayni and Farkhor depends on many factors, especially India’s economic commitments in Tajikistan and also Russia’s consent. In this context, it can only be desired that the recent visit of our President shall augur well for Indo-Tajik relations and India may successfully land into the country of the Pamirs.