By Iftikhar Gilani
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AA) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East policy and a reach out to Central Asian nations has gained ground to seek alternate markets. Much before the U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war and tariff threats, India had begun reassessing options, triggered by the U.S. decision to walk out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). India and Japan were supposed to play a sheet anchor in the TPP.
Experts and politicians in Indian part of Jammu and Kashmir have been pleading the Indian government, to use the region as a point, to seek outreach with Central Asian states. They believe that revival of links with Central Asia will undo the damages caused by borders and heavy militarization.
Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti even argued that the only way to evolve a narrative against the demand for complete freedom, is to bring people psychologically closer to the openness and free movement.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first tenure, effectively pushed a plan to promote enhanced connectivity and greater people-to-people contact. He prompted states like coastal and border provinces like Odisha, Gujarat and seven sister states in the northeast to revive their historical and civilizational links with the external world.
Unfortunately, post-Independence, leaders in India had opted for an inward-looking approach, halting the re-emergence of India. This not only has affected the psychological behavior and entrepreneur skills of people, but also denied the country its share in world trade.
Reviving Kalinga dialogue that included the eastern state of Odisha building linkages with Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar, was hailed by Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Similarly, the Modi government used western state of Gujarat to revive connections with the African continent.
Despite insurgency and mushrooming of militant organizations, Modi encouraged northeastern states to drive his Act East vision. There have also been efforts to expedite important projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, as well as the Kaladan multi-modal transport project to connect Rohingya-dominated Rakhine state. Efforts are also on to revive South India’s historical trade and maritime links with Indian Ocean countries that existed during the Chola Empire from the latter half of the 9th to 13th century.
Therefore, experts feel there is a strong case for the revival of traditional linkages between Jammu and Kashmir and Central Asia, independent of the dispute between India and Pakistan.
- Kashmir more Central Asian than South Asian
Siddiq Wahid, former vice-chancellor of Kashmir based Islamic University, who has widely travelled to Central Asian countries, said that the region in its socio-cultural frame is so akin to Kashmir that he wondered whether Kashmir is in its essence Central or South Asian.
Until the early 20th century, the Kashmir valley with its great geostrategic significance, was an economic hub, linking South and Central Asia. In fact, Islamic scholar Mir Syed Ali Hamadani who brought the Sufi version of Islam to Kashmir, though originally from Iran, travelled to Kashmir from Tajikistan. He is buried in the Kulub province of the Central Asian Republic.
Much before the partition of united India in 1947, Kashmir had already lost its vast linkages with the Soviet Union blocking Tajikistan and then Chinese conquests of Kashgar and Tibet. The drawing up of the Line of Control (LoC) -- a de facto border dividing disputed Kashmir valley -- along with heavy militarization dealt another severe blow, completing the cycle of locking the region. Significantly, till this date, raw material for world famous Kashmiri shawls and carpets is imported from these regions and from far off Mongolia.
The abrupt disruption of linkages has created a “siege mentality” in Kashmir, which, when mixed with political issues has become a lethal cocktail. There is a case to break this “prison mindset”. Monetary appeasements hardly help to change this negative prison mindset. When former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conceived the idea of opening up the LoC for trade and travel, an elementary step which was then operationalized by his successor Manmohan Singh, the idea was to hit this siege mentality, which would later help in to bring in a positive change to achieve a larger political objective.
- Prospects depend on India-Pakistan friendship
Former Vice Chief of Indian Air Force Kapil Kak told Anadolu Agency that one of the issues in Kashmir is that it has been pushed to a corner in geostrategic terms.
“In contemporary terms its inability to connect to world outside, whether it is trade, people and culture has affected the psyche there,” he said, pleading that the region’s links with Central Asia should be restored.
He, however, said while the prospect exists, it can happen only when India and Pakistan have some semblance of friendly relations.
“If both India and Pakistan can be in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and if they can conduct military exercises jointly with Russia, China and Central Asian countries, restoring historical linkages of Kashmir is doable,” he said, adding that it will provide an opportunity to trade, growth and human development.
He said the earlier proposals to bring gas from Kazakhstan to India via Jammu and Kashmir should be brought back to table. With the gulf oil drying up, there is case to pursue Central Asian linkages, to transport energy from Central Asia via Kashmir. Uzbekistan holds the world's 18th largest natural gas reserves and is a major exporter of electricity produced from both natural gas and hydropower.
In 2012, when India pronounced its Connect Central Asia, it missed to include the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Prime Minister Modi conducted an eight-day tour to all the Central Asian states in July 2015.
So far, India’s linkages with Central Asian nations have been more of strategic rather than focusing on linking people and trade. Much before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that began in October 2001, India had built a hospital at the Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan, located some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Afghan border, to treat wounded Afghan Northern Alliance soldiers, who were fighting against Taliban.
The leader of the Alliance Ahmed Shah Massoud was rushed there after the fatal attack on his life in September 2001. Post-Kargil war and hijacking of its plane to Kandahar in 1999, India had acquired Ayni airbase in Tajikistan, 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of the capital Dushanbe. In 2007, it was refurbished at the cost of $70 million. But it could not base its fighters and helicopters following Russian objections.