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Updated: September 7, 2009 02:31 IST

First-ever visit by an Indian President recognises Tajikistan’s critical importance

Vidya Subrahmaniam
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President Pratibha Patil
PTI President Pratibha Patil

President Pratibha Patil arrived here on Sunday on the second leg of her two-nation tour of Russia and Tajikistan.

There is considerable buzz around her visit with the Indian side describing it as a part of its “high-level engagement of all Central Asia Republics.” President Patil is the first Indian head of State to visit Tajikistan, and will be the only foreigner so far to have attended functions to mark its national day on September 9.

India’s interest in this tiny Central Asian Republic arises from a variety of factors. Today this post-Soviet state represents a confluence of big power interests. Indeed, because of Tajikistan’s critical location — it shares borders with China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and is narrowly separated from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by a small stretch of Afghanistan — it has, in recent years, become a strategic playing ground for Russia, China and the U.S., with India joining the fray in 2001.

Added to Tajikistan’s prime location is a second attraction — it is a Muslim majority secular State with a declared interest in fighting international terrorism, religious extremism, drugs and transnational crime. Russia, from which Tajikistan separated in 1991, has a military base here and continues to mentor the State, while China has pumped money and aid into the country. The Russian and Chinese engagements are estimated at $ 1 billion and $ 400 million respectively. For the United States, this tiny landlocked State is vital for its strategic calculations — both because of rival Russian and Chinese interests here and because Tajikistan is next door to extremist hotbed Afghanistan.

Indian involvement

The Indian involvement in Dushanbe hit the news in 2006 with speculation that India was negotiating to acquire an airbase in Ayni near Dushanbe. However, both sides have rubbished the speculation. President Emomali Rakhmon was quoted in 2008 as saying, “there are no foreign bases and there will be no foreign bases on the territory of Tajikistan but for Russian ones.”

Defence training

Officials on the Indian side too insist the story is far-fetched. Speaking on background ahead of President Patil’s visit, officials said India’s military engagement with Tajikistan was limited to providing training in defence and upgrading the airport at Ayni “on their request.” They said that as a neighbour, India had a powerful interest in supporting Tajikistan which had bravely defied the trends in the region with its secular orientation and its commitment to fighting terrorism and drugs.

Officials said India — its aid and assistance are valued at $ 20 million to $ 25 million — had also taken into account its own energy security needs. The Pamir mountains fed into large rivers which offered huge potential for electricity generation, they said, adding that once planed projects were completed, it should be possible for India to import electricity from Tajikistan. “If we are to meet future challenges, we must prepare to meet them today,” said an official.

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