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PRESIDENT FOR LIFE
- India should not dismiss Turkmenistan as a tinpot dictatorship

You could love him or hate him, but there was no way you could ignore him if you had even a remote interest in Central Asia or the former Soviet Union. Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s President for Life, “Turkmenbashi” or Father of all Turkmen, died unexpectedly at the age of 66 last week leaving questions of succession unanswered.

Much of what has been reported in the international media about Niyazov’s death has been on predictable lines, that he was a tyrant, he built golden statues of himself which rotated with the movement of the earth so that Turkmenbashi’s image always faced the sun, that he renamed the months of the calendar — January after him and April after his mother, and so on. The bulk of the Indian print and electronic media have faithfully reproduced Western prejudices about Niyazov and commented on his legacy based on Western pet obsessions with how other countries should be run. It is yet another example of how a creeping tendency among India’s political and intellectual elite to mindlessly accept Western political and ideological concepts can make the country blind to what its best interests are and where they lie.

To understand the significance of Turkmenistan for India, there is no need to look beyond the Delhi landmark of Turkman Gate. The landmark was originally named after Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani, a holy man of high reputation, who belonged to the Bayabani sect, whose members liked to live and pray in the wilderness. Shah Turkman died in 1240 and his tomb, which lies east of Turkman Gate in Old Delhi, has become a dargah, perhaps the oldest shrine today in all of Delhi. Over time, the Turkman Gate has also come to symbolize the service of Turkmen who fought in the Mughal army.

Bairam Khan, who was Regent to Akbar the Great from age 13 — when Akbar was thrust into power — until he came of age, was a Turkman too. To commemorate Bairam Khan’s role in Indian history, India and Turkmenistan not long ago jointly organized celebrations of the Mughal Regent’s 500th birth anniversary. Although Emperor Akbar and Bairam Khan fell out and the latter was murdered, Bairam’s son, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, became Akbar’s stepson by virtue of the Emperor’s marriage to Bairam’s widow. Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, better known as the celebrated poet, Rahimdas, was one among the navratnas in Akbar’s court, a Muslim by birth, but a passionate devotee of Lord Krishna, which was typical of those times. Relations between India and Turkmenistan are literally age-old. Altyn-Depe near Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, is home to an archaeological site. In recent years, work on that site has revealed that contacts existed between the Indus Valley Civilization and Bronze Age communities near what is now Ashgabat. Indeed, it has now been established that the population of some of these Turkmen settlements was proto-Dravidian and that members of those communities spoke a language, which could be described as Dravidian.

India’s Silk Route connections with Central Asia have, of course, been repeatedly celebrated since the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia became independent countries and forcefully asserted their identities and history. But there is more to India’s continuous links with the region that goes beyond Silk Route commercial connections. The links, which were fostered between the Indus Valley Civilization and Bronze Age Turkmenistan, continued under Kushan rule in India. Excavations in Merv, near Turkmenistan’s Mary City, threw up a Buddhist manuscript in Sanskrit, coins from India and a statue of Buddha in stone. All this is worth recalling because it would be a mistake now to dismiss Turkmenistan as an inconsequential tin-pot dictatorship where the iron grip on power has passed from one Stalinist, following his death, to a group of apparatchiks.

For all the secrecy that is attributed to Turkmenistan under Niyazov’s rule, this columnist discovered that it was not difficult in Ashgabat to come by sensitive information, which journalists could only dream of in Bishkek or Tashkent. Last month, for instance, Turkmenbashi decided, for whatever reason, that it was pointless to keep his bad health a secret and acknowledged that his heart condition was bad. In any case, it was known in Turkmenistan’s capital for a long time that its president was undergoing treatment for heart problems, although no one suspected that he would pass away so soon. Perhaps diplomats, analysts and journalists had also become victims of Turkmenbashi’s personality cult as to somehow be lulled into the illusion that he is immortal.

Just as he let slip some details of his failing health, Niyazov also told a visiting German minister recently that Turkmenistan had just discovered a new gas field: it was a discovery, which could change the dynamics of global energy politics. Subsequent news reports described the potential of this new gas field to be in excess of seven trillion cubic meters of gas. A country with that much of gas reserves can aspire to change not only the course of its history, but also the history of its neighbours, the way Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is influencing the destiny of much of Latin America with his combination of oil-wealth and ideology.

Given such strategic importance, the record of India’s engagement with Turkmenistan can only be described as dismal. Jawaharlal Nehru had the foresight to recognize the strategic importance of this Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republic. He acknowledged it by stopping over in Ashgabat with his daughter, Indira Gandhi, on a tour of the USSR, as early as 1955. India recognized Turkmenistan’s independence on the very day the Soviet Union was disbanded, although it took two more years before an Indian diplomatic mission was formally established in Ashgabat.

Responding to India’s keen interest in developing relations with his newly-independent state, Niyazov travelled to New Delhi within four months after he broke away from the Soviet Union. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who took a personal interest during his prime ministership to create a strong Indian presence in Central Asia, visited Ashgabat in 1995 although his continuation in office was very much in doubt by that time. There was another attempt to kick-start bilateral relations when Niyazov made a second visit to New Delhi two years later. But that was about it: relations have stagnated since then although there really are no major problems between the two countries. The absence of problems have led to complacency on both sides and a reluctance to explore the limits of a potentially vibrant engagement with each other.

Despite the National Democratic Alliance government’s preoccupation with the nuclear tests during its first year in office, the then external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, tried to keep Central Asia on South Block’s radar with a visit to Turkmenistan in May 1999. But there was little by way of follow-up and after Singh left South Block, India’s interest in Central Asia was largely put on the backburner. Sending water resources minister, Saifuddin Soz, to represent India at Niyazov’s funeral was a message that India had no further interest in Turkmenistan. On such occasions, it is normal to send a cabinet minister, who has some previous contacts with the country in question. Otherwise it makes sense to send a minister whose charge has something in common with that country. Turkmenistan is land-locked. A water resources minister is probably the last person in the Union cabinet to have anything relevant to discuss with ministers in Turkmenistan.

It would have made eminent sense to send the minister for petroleum and natural gas, Murli Deora. Deora’s ministry has a big stake in Turkmenistan and it is a stake which will continue to grow. Besides, Deora was deputed by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to represent him at the last meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Turkmenistan is a key member. Unlike Soz, Deora already knew others who came for Niyazov’s funeral and he could have brought back valuable inputs on what Central Asia would look like with the end of an era in Ashgabat. But the view in South Block may well have been that its mind is made up on Turkmenistan, and it did not want to be confused with facts.

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