During the Soviet regime, no foreign country was allowed to establish diplomatic or cultural relations directly with any confederating state of the Soviet Union. India was no exception. In a sense for the entire period of Communist rule, India remained cut off from a swath of land with which her history has remained found for a very long time. It was only in the early eighties that a small Indian cultural office was opened in a two-room private accommodation in Tashkent. I had an opportunity of visiting this office during my visit to Tashkent in 1982. It was an apology from a cultural office.
The five Central Asian Republics plus the two Trans-Caspian Republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia besides the Baltic States began to breathe the air of freedom with the implosion of the Soviet Union. Moscow gave them the choice of either continuing the federative status or declaring their independence.
Emomali Rahmon, the then Secretary General of the Communist Party of Tajikistan was in a great fix about the choice. He had reasons to be sceptic about independence; negligible defence establishment, precarious economic condition and the hidden threat of radical uprising. But taking courage and trusting the intrepidity of his people, he announced the independence of Tajikistan in 1991. There were subdued rejoicings in Dushanbe. The general election following the announcement anointed him as the first President of an independent Tajikistan. Now the Tajiks began seeking their identity and history, which, no doubt was glorious and inspiring. A great challenge lay before the historians, thinkers, writers and scientists of Tajikistan to pull out their nation from oblivion and obscurity.
A geographical region with nearly 90 per cent of land occupied by the snow-clad mountains but gifted with abundant water from rivers and streams fed by permanent glaciers of the Badakhshan Mountain, a country with less than a crore of population, depended for its economy on limited agrarian activities. Small horticulture certainly supplemented the income of the farmers. The poor country had got the sobriquet of “underbelly of the Soviet Union” during the Soviet days. The people supplemented their income through limited handicrafts and some traditional skills.
The independence of 1991 brought in its train the great misfortune of a civil war which divided the people on regional, sectarian and ideological grounds. Six years of civil war (1992-1997) brought untold misery and suffering to the Tajik people. It consumed nearly a hundred thousand lives and uprooted millions from their homes and hearths, many of them crossing the border and seeking shelter in Northern Afghanistan.
Emomali Rahmon continued elected and re-elected as the President, obviously for his constructive policies that steered a famished nation through great upheavals. With the exemplary quality of fortitude, he carried his nation and his country from stability to strength and peace. He undertook the onerous mission of inviting foreign investment besides funds raised locally for developing industries that would employ a large chunk of the youth. He concluded agreements of friendship, trade, tourism, investment and development of infrastructure with big and small countries like the US, China, Japan and India. Today, Tajikistan has almost overcome old debilities and is taking an active part in world politics. In regional politics, the Tajik President has adopted a middle path that reassures friendship and cordial relations with all countries, especially the neighbouring countries.
A calamitous situation that took away the peace of mind of Tajik political leadership was the rise of radical Taliban in the neighbouring country of Afghanistan. Tajikistan had hardly left behind the era of the resurgence of radicalism within Tajikistan when a new and no less disturbing situation emerged in Afghanistan. Dushanbe directed its full attention towards drawing schemes of resisting any adverse impact from the Islamic resurgence movements either in Afghanistan or in Uzbekistan.
Tajikistan was not happy with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Emom Ali’s great concern was that the deployment of Tajik soldiers by the Russian commanders in a war against their co-ethnic fraternity in Northern Afghanistan was a highly tenuous situation.
Once again, Tajikistan was face to face with a new threat from Afghanistan when the American and NATO forces deserted the two-decade-old fighting in Afghanistan, leaving the radical Taliban undisputed masters of the war-devastated country. For Dushanbe, the situation became tense when the resisting forces of Panjsheer valley began to show signs of weakness. The capture of Panjsheer valley, forced the Tajik President to move his army units, tanks and air force squadron close to the Tajik-Afghan border. Not only, but the President also issued a warning to the victorious Taliban that if they ventured to disrupt the peace and stability of Tajikistan, he would strike back with full force. He also mentioned that Tajikistan takes a strong note of the Pakistan air force entering the air space of Panjsheer valley to support the terrorists of the Haqqani network and other Taliban groups.
These developments forced President Emomali to take a close view of the security and defence strategy. At the same time, India was also keenly watching the moves of the terrorists in Pakistan who, after the Taliban had occupied Kabul, claimed that after Kabul, the Taliban would march towards the Indian part of Kashmir.
Tajikistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). So is India. Regular exchanges between the Tajik and Indian delegations in these and other meetings finally resulted in both countries giving great importance to their security and territorial integrity. This culminated in a very good Indo-Tajik friendship. Delegations of very high levels began visiting each other’s countries. President Emom Ali paid at least six visits to India, the latest being in October 2018. Two Indian Presidents besides the Prime Minister visited Tajikistan. Our foreign minister took several jaunts to Dushanbe. All this interaction at high levels helped in paving a solid path for Indo-Tajik cooperation in a variety of fields. Most importantly, Tajikistan allowed India an air base at Farkhor, a short distance from the capital city of Dushanbe. This, besides the air base of Ayni, is perhaps the first Indian defence foothold anywhere outside India. The Barkhor air establishment is meant not only to defend India’s western border but also the entire southern border of Tajikistan touching upon Afghanistan.
India has invested large amounts in the infrastructural development of Tajikistan. She has undertaken the projects of modernizing Verzob Hydro Power Station and also the construction of an 8-lane highway from village Chortut to Ayni. India has provided millions of US Dollars by way of humanitarian aid to Tajikistan to overcome the devastation caused either by floods or by harsh winters.
In the final analysis, India has earned a dependable and durable foothold in a sensitive part of Central Asia, which will serve her security and eco-political interests. At the same time, it will open a vast prospect of trade and cultural interaction with the people of the Republic of Tajikistan and djoining areas, who have fought stubbornly against radicalization and resurgence of Wahhabism and Salfism in that part of the world.
The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the authors’ own)