From Air Bases To China/Pak Factor – Why India Must Defend ‘Ally’ Tajikistan In Its Bitter Regional Conflicts

India belatedly established diplomatic relations with Tajikistan in 1992. Four years later, India opened its embassy in Dushanbe, and the relations between the two countries started on a low key.

OPED By Padma Shri KN Pandita

After the Communists took power in 1917 and created the Soviet Union, it was decided to divide Central Asia into ethnically based republics in a process known as National Territorial Delimitation (NTD).

This was in line with Communist theory that nationalism was a necessary step on the path towards an eventually communist society and Joseph Stalin’s definition of a nation as being “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”

As a result of the delimitation process, seven Central Asian States (5 Central and 2 Trans-Caspian States of Azerbaijan and Armenia) came into existence.

The Delimitation Committee headed by Joseph Stalin claimed that it had been very pragmatic in delimiting the boundaries and borders of the reorganized states of Central Asia.

This was not the whole truth, and we have seen a good deal of accusations leveled by some of the newly formed republics of CA of serious border violations. Many border disputes are the legacy of the ill-fated delimitation of 1929. The Uzbek-Tajik dispute or the Tajik-Kyrgyz dispute are examples.

Recently, there has been a clash between the border guards of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and some casualties have been reported. Despite meetings between the security chiefs of the two states, besides those of other senior officers, the restoration of normalcy on the border appears fragile.

India has good relations with all the Central Asian Republics, and there is a regular exchange of visits and meetings on international fora. However, keeping in mind the volatile situation in Afghanistan and the uncertainty that prevails there, India had to take into account the strategic location of Tajikistan, the once under-belly of the former Soviet Union.

Why Is Tajikistan Important For India

The late Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan has become a region of great strategic, economic and cultural interest to our country, and its importance will surely increase with time.

Trans-Badakhshan region has had a prominent place in the Vedic geography, albeit under ancient and different nomenclatures. Considering that the Central Asian region is the original habitat of the Aryans, and their migration to the north, north-west, and south Asian lands, their new settlements on both sides of the Badakhshan Mountain were monitored by the compiler (s) of Rig Veda.

The Vedic names of the region are different from what we know of these today. Aryana, Tukhara, and Sogdiana, in general, represent modern Afghanistan, Trance-Oxiana, and the Samarqand valley, also called Istravashan.

The mountainous region lying immediately across the northern slopes of Badakhshan, bordering Afghanistan and beyond the Oxus River, extending to the southern borders of the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, fell in the region called Tukharistan.

A somewhat clearer idea of its geography could be gleaned from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, who gives the region the name of Turan and juxtaposes it with Iran. The area lying beyond the River Oxus and speaking a language that is termed as the offshoot of Farsi has been termed by Ferdowsi as the land of the Tajiks.

The Trans-Oxiana (Oxus is the Greek name of Amu/Jayhun river) lands came to be called Tajikistan, and it received formal recognition during the Soviet period when the boundary commission appointed by Lenin and headed by Stalin delineated the boundary of the then Soviet Republic of Tajikistan.

The peculiarity of this new state was that it had a long borderline with Afghanistan, which had been an independent state (Khokand ) before the Tajik state came into existence.

The nearly 1,300 kilometers long mountainous border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is difficult to cross owing to its ruggedness. Patrolling the border is not easy, particularly when both countries have limited resources at their disposal.

Tajikistan’s concerns are understandable, taking into account that nearly 27 percent population of Afghanistan comprises the people of Tajik ethnicity with a concentration in the north of Afghanistan.

During the post-independence (1992-1997) civil war in Tajikistan that trailed the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Tajikistan suffered immensely in terms of disquiet on the Tajik-Afghan border and the migration of thousands of Tajiks to the region beyond the Oxus.

The rise of the radical Taliban in Afghanistan boosted the pro-Islamist elements in Tajikistan, like the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Uzbekistan was already witnessing the rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Salafi-jihadist militant group seeking to overthrow the Uzbek government and install an Islamic, Sharia-driven government.

Dushanbe regime was apprehensive of its fallout in Tajikistan.

India belatedly established diplomatic relations with Tajikistan in 1992. Four years later, India opened its embassy in Dushanbe, and the relations between the two countries started on a low key. A big difficulty in establishing brisk relations was the absence of a direct overland route or air connectivity between the two capitals.

Though in the 1980s, weekly air service between Dushanbe and New Delhi did operate but later on, it was suspended. It was revived in 2019 for bi-weekly flights.

Indian Airbases In Tajikistan

The strategic importance of Tajikistan for India was felt after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan and the takeover of that country by the Taliban with the strong assistance of the Pak-US combine.

Given the endemic hostility of Pakistan towards our country and the proxy war unleashed by Pakistan in Kashmir in 1990, Indian policy planners had to concentrate on the developing situation in the Pak-Afghan region.

A thorough assessment of the situation in that region unfolded the crucial revelation of the Northern Area of Afghanistan being predominantly of Tajik ethnicity with a close connection with the Tajiks across the border in Tajikistan.

During his fight against the Taliban, Ahmad Shah Masud, also called the Lion of Panjsheer Valley, often visited Dushanbe and had strong sympathizers there, especially Emamali Rahmon, the President of Tajikistan. Ahmad Shah Masud was a great friend of India and had also studied in an Indiana educational institution.

During the two decades of war in Afghanistan in which the Taliban were pitted against the US-NATO forces, Pakistan played a very dubious role.

However, India found that the Haqqani network, funded and abetted by Pakistan’s ISI, had taken a strong anti-India role, attacking the Indian embassy and other assets in Kabul and intimidating Indian – origin Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul, India woke up to the dangers that were looking at her with eyeball stance in Afghanistan.

This situation made India explore the strategic importance of Tajikistan for her security against the combined Pak-Taliban ill intentions. Indian diplomats and emissaries began their frequent visits to Dushanbe to talk to Tajik authorities.

They knew that Russia had a military pact and was bound to support Tajikistan in case of incursion from an enemy from any side. India had to open negotiations with Moscow and Dushanbe both and discuss the security scenario in an overall estimation.

It was a result of these talks that Dushanbe allowed India an airbase at a place called Ayni, about thirty kilometers from Dushanbe. Over the years, it developed into an Indian Air Force (IAF) base known as Gissar Military Aerodrome (GMA).

It is located in a village called Ayni, not far from Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. India and Tajikistan jointly manage it. It is the first airbase India has outside its geographical border.

In 2002, the news leaked that India was setting up an airbase at Farkhor in which Russian assistance was also involved. Writing for the Defence XP of Indian Defence Network on June 22, 2021, Sheersho Deb says, “The Indian Government issued a $10 million tender to a private builder in 2003 to restore the airbase by 2005.

But the builder defaulted, and the Border Roads Organisation jumped into action to complete the work. By 2006 there were reports that the Indian government was considering the deployment of a squadron of Mig 29 at Farkhor airbase.

Russia MiG-29
File Image: MiG-29

India also spent 70 million dollars to completely renovate and modernize the Ayni Airbase. India constructed a 3200 meters long modern runway, air traffic control, and modern navigation equipment along with strong air defense systems. Analysts believe IAF also operates from Ayni airbase along with the Russian Air force.” 

Pakistan Concerned

According to military observers, Pakistan Air Force is more or less concentrated along the LoC with India as it does not apprehend air attacks across its western border with Afghanistan.

The distance between Farkhor and Pakistan is about 900 kilometers. Thus Pakistan falls within the range of Indian jets if exigency arises. Even a small presence of the Indian Air Force in Farkhor stimulates Pakistan’s security concerns that were hitherto of lesser importance.

In case of an open war with India, some of Pakistan’s cities to the west of the country, which the Indian air force would have some difficulty reaching, can be easily reached by its jets stationed in Farkhor.

Besides this, India’s military presence at a Central Asian air base is bound to cause ripples in the defense strategy of China in her western sector. In a subtle sense, it is also a message to China from Moscow, which is in full conformity with the presence of the Indian Air Force contingent in Farkhor. Even the prestigious CPEC project of China comes within the targets.

In recent months and years, visits of Indian senior diplomats, especially the Foreign Minister to Dushanbe, have become frequent. In between, the Tajik President also visited India at least six times, the latest being 14-16 December 2018.

Today, India has far deeper relations with Tajikistan, which encompass not only the security concern but many other areas as well.

Both countries have been steadily widening the scope of cooperation in many areas. In 2020, Tajikistan supported India’s candidature for a non-permanent seat in UNSC for the impending term. Tajikistan is among such countries in the world as having supported India’s claim for a permanent seat in the SC.

This was also reflected in a joint statement issued in October 2018 when Indian President Ram Nath Kovind was on an official visit to Dushanbe. India supported Tajikistan’s accession to WTO in March 2013.

India has consistently supported Tajikistan’s proposals at the UN on water-related issues. India also supported Tajikistan’s candidature to ECOSOC.

India, Tajikistan Economic Cooperation

Writing specifically on the economic cooperation between the two states with an emphasis on India’s contribution to the development of Tajikistan, the Indian Defence Network of June 22 summed up the subject as follows:

  • In 1995, India extended a credit line of USD 5 million to set up a pharmaceutical plant (Ajanta Pharma)
  • With a grant of USD 0.6 million, a Fruit Processing Plant was established in Dushanbe by HMT (I) in 2005
  • With a grant of USD 0.6 million, an Information and Technology Centre (Bedil Centre) was commissioned in 2006. The project ran for a full hardware cycle of 6 years and trained almost all first-generation IT experts in the government sector in Tajikistan.
  • India set up a Modern Engineering Workshop and commissioned it on 02 June 2011.
  • India undertook rehabilitation and modernization of a 1936 vintage Varzob-1 Hydro Power Station through Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) and National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).
  • A project for setting up computer labs in 37 schools in Tajikistan was completed
  • India shall be undertaking the construction of phase-I of an 8-lane highway from Chortut village to Ayni roundabout in Dushanbe

India’s Humanitarian Assistance To Tajikistan

  • India delivered USD 5 million worth of food assistance in 2001-02
  • To overcome a crisis caused by an unprecedented harsh winter in January-February 2008, India gave a grant of USD 2 million (USD 1 million as cash assistance and USD 1 million in kinds, such as power cables, generators and pump sets)
  • In 2009, USD 200,000 cash assistance was given by India to overcome damage caused by floods in April-May 2009.
  • After flash floods in Kulyab province in May 2010, India provided USD 200,000 humanitarian cash assistance.
  • After the outbreak of Polio in southwest Tajikistan, India provided 2 million doses of oral polio vaccine through UNICEF in November 2010.
  • In 2015, India granted USD 100,000 as humanitarian assistance to Tajikistan to provide relief to the flood and mudslide-affected people of GBAO (Pamir) and Rasht valley.
  • India provided USD 100,000 to Tajikistan in March 2017 as humanitarian assistance for natural disasters.
  • In 2018, India gifted 10 Russian-made ambulances to various regions of Tajikistan

Connectivity, Trade & Economic Relation

  • In December 2019, direct air connectivity between Delhi and Dushanbe was restored after almost one year when a Tajik private airline, M/S Simon Air, started its operations.
  • In February 2020, Simon Air started operating a second weekly flight between Dushanbe and Delhi.
  • Indian exports to Tajikistan mainly consist of pharmaceuticals, medical preparations, cane or beet sugar, tea, handicraft, and machinery.
  • Indian pharmaceutical products occupy approximately 25% of the Tajik market.
  • However, not all medical products are directly imported from India, and some of them arrive in Tajikistan via Russia. Different types of ores, slag, and ash, aluminum, organic chemicals, herbal oils, dried fruits, and cotton are exported to India by Tajikistan

 Private Investments and Projects

  • A 5-star hotel constructed by M/s CHL Limited, India
  • An Indian company KEC/RPG completed the construction of 116 km. the long power transmission line from the Sangtuda-1 Hydropower plant to the Afghan border in October 2010 under an ADB-financed project.
  • BHEL supplied a 7 MW generator to the Tajik company “Pamir Energy” in 2011 under a commercial contract.
  • Indian Company M/s Kalpataru bagged a contract worth approximately USD 22 million for the construction of electric transmission lines under ADB financing and finished the project in early 2017
  • Besides, there are other small private projects/companies/ clinics which provide healthcare and other services in Tajikistan.
  • Tajikistan has potential in hydroelectricity generation, power transport, mining, full chain of cotton processing, tourism, medical tourism to India.”

In the final analysis, we find that Tajikistan is emerging as a vital strategic partner of India in securing and strengthening its northern border.