Present-day Indian rulers, who are keen on establishing India’s presence in Central Asia, can draw inspiration from the daring and enterprising Indian traders of the medieval era, who were key participants in the trade along the Central Asian Silk Road.
In Medieval times, Central Asia, now comprising the independent Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, were not known to be rich in crude oil, natural gas, cotton, gold, copper, aluminium, and iron as they are now. But the area was on the Silk Road, a trading highway linking China with Russia and Europe. Indian merchants were a very prominent part of the multi-ethnic trading community operating on this dangerous, wild, and desolate but important route.
Pravin Swamy writes in The Print that in 1557, Anthony Jenkinson of London’s Muscovy Company found Indian merchants from Bengal trading in cotton and linen apparel in Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan. In the 17 th. Century, the Prussian zoologist Peter Simon Pallas found Indian merchants indulging in “idolatrous worship” in their colony called “Indeiskoi Dvor.” Historian Stephen Dale wrote that Indian merchants had Russian-sounding names like Marwar Baraev, Narayan Chanchamalova, Vishnat Narmaldasov, Talaram Alimchandov and Ramdas Dzhasuev.
India’s first Moghul emperor, Babur, who was from Samarkand in Uzbekistan, had written that caravans set out to Ferghana in Uzbekistan from India “bringing slaves, white cloth, sugar-candy, refined and common sugars and aromatic roots.” In addition, Indian textiles, indigo and spices were traded for Turkic horses. Large-enough numbers of Indian men, like Bujak Lachiram, married Turkic women to create an Indo-Turkic community in Astrakhan in Southern Russia.
According to Swamy, local Central Asian and Russian traders “bitterly resented the arrival of Indian traders and moneylenders, repeatedly lobbying rulers to prevent their entry.” But these efforts failed because the rulers needed revenues and finances for their military campaigns and the creditors were Indian merchants. TiImur Khan writes in Oxussociety.org that British traveler William Moorcroft met one Atma Ram, a Hindu merchant from Peshawar in 1824, to find that he had monopolized the trade of the Afghan city of Kunduz with Yarkand in Xinjiang!
The next phase of India’s relations with Central Asia was during the 19 th.Century when the British government in India and Tsarist Russia played the “Great Game” in Central Asia. These were tactical maneuvers and intelligence missions carried out by the British who were entrenched in India, and the Russians who were entrenched in Central Asia. The British erroneously believed that Russia wanted to capture India, and to thwart it, they indulged in intrigues and war in Afghanistan to force it to be a buffer state. The Anglo-Russian convention of 1908 brought the “Great Game” to an end. But not for long. The Russian revolution of 1917 created a fear of Russian communism influencing Indians who had started a movement against British rule.
Emergence of Central Asian Republics
Central Asia was opened up to the world after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Central Asia got divided into various independent “Stans”. However, Russia and China wanted to prevent the “Stans” from going over to the US. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was brought into being in 2001 to prevent that.
SCO’s aim was to promote economic development and integrate Central Asia with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative BRI). But to prevent Chinese domination, a weak Russia roped in India in 2017. And to checkmate India, China roped in Pakistan.
India was interested in joining the SCO as Central Asia was rich in minerals and also to establish communication and development links. The projects which interested India were: the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) connecting the European Union through Russia and Iran to India and ASEAN; the Chabahar Port and railway connecting India through Iran to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia; and the Vladivostok-Chennai sea lane of communication connecting India to Russia’s Far East as well as countries partnering India in her “Act East” policy.
India had convened the first virtual gathering of the SCO’s Consortium of Economic and Analytical Centers in August 2020 to analyze the factors affecting economic cooperation within the SCO. The Meeting prioritized the implementation of India’s proposed SCO Special Working Group on Innovation and Startups. According to the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, Indian initiatives in using digital technologies covered the education, healthcare, and small/medium enterprise (SME) sectors.
At the Samarkand summit in on September 15 and 16 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that since the pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine had disrupted global supply chains, the SCO must make efforts to “develop reliable, resilient and diversified supply chains in our region, which will require better connectivity.” He also demanded the full right to transit for all.
Modi then marketed India as a manufacturing hub with a “people-centric development model, which could be replicated by SCO countries.” Saying that there are more than 70,000 Start-ups in India, of which more than 100 are unicorns, their “experience can be useful for many other SCO members.”
Touching upon food security, another common concern, Modi said that India is promoting the cultivation and consumption of millets. The millet is a “superfood which is traditional, nutritious, and a low-cost way of meeting the food crisis,” he said. Since the year 2023 will be celebrated as the UN International Year of Millets, the SCO should consider a ‘Millet Food Festival’, Modi suggested.
He then pushed India’s bid to be an “affordable destination for medical and wellness tourism.” He recalled that the WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine was inaugurated in Gujarat in April 2022, which is WHO’s first and only global center for traditional medicine. “We must increase cooperation on traditional medicine among SCO countries. For this, India will take the initiative for a new SCO Working Group on Traditional Medicine.”
Modi discussed the development of a trade route to Central Asia through Chabahar in Iran at his meeting with the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Connectivity was considered key to unlocking the potential in this regard, including the greater usage of the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor.
Modi’s bilateral meetings with Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were also significant. Iran is necessary for India to link up with Central Asia. India can have a fruitful relationship with Turkey because both are industrializing countries which can trade “for the benefit of our people,” as the Indian spokesman Arindam Bagchi put it.
Some other issues on which India played a lead role were climate change and terrorism. Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said that the SCO adopted a statement on climate change at India’s initiative. SCO member Pakistan had just got devastated by floods caused by climate change.
On terrorism, the SCO agreed to work towards developing a unified list of terrorist, separatist and extremist organizations whose activities are prohibited on the territories of the SCO member states.
It is apparent that India is completely in tune with the interests and aspirations of the Central Asian countries. Like them, it does not believe in blocs and military alliances and is wholly devoted to transparent and mutually beneficial development cooperation. While India has problems with Pakistan and China, it has adopted the line that it will be “multi-aligned” and will join any organization, irrespective of the membership, if the organization will help promote India, its capabilities and interests.
Perhaps, Indian leaders of today are only following the footsteps of the Indian traders of the medieval era who braved natural and political barriers to trade in Central Asia and made themselves indispensable to the prosperity of the locals and the local economies of Central Asia.