Dialogue  October-December, 2004, Volume 6  No. 2

India and Central Asia 1947–1991

Surendra Gopal

During the second World War the Soviets were fighting to save their homeland from Nazi occupation. When the Nazis encircled Leningrad (now St. Petersberg) and knocked at the gates of their capital Moscow, the Soviet shifted some of the Indian Indologists, Balavushevich, K A Antonova, etc and some Indians to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. The group had two major tasks to perform: first, to keep studying India and secondly, to overhear messages exchanged by the allied powers over wireless even though they were partners of the Soviet Union. The later task was confidential; none of the Indian specialists put on this job was allowed to divulge anything about his work.

Historians like Balabushevich and Dyakov brought out brochures and articles on the labour movement in India.

Tahkent was now, as in 1920s, the major center for Indian studies in the war-torn Soviet Union.

Once the war ended, the Soviet specialists on India were repatriated to Moscow. Tashkent, however, retained its the prime position for Indian studies in the Soviet Central Asia. Several factors were responsible for this.

The international situation had substantially changed.

The aftermath of the war saw decolonization and the emergence of India as a sovereign state though it was partitioned. Indians leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that the new country became the torch-bearer of the ideology of anti-colonialism, anti-racism and liberation struggle. The Soviet authorities, initially, refused to take note of the new reality. The Soviet Press did not publish the news of Indian independence in August 1947. In the eyes of the Soviet leader-

*Dr. Surendra Gopal is Professor of History (Retd.), Patna University.

ship, India was a lackey of western imperialism. Even diplomatic relations were established with great diffidence.

Things changed after Stalin’s death in 1953. Within two years Khrushchev and Bulganin were occupying the seats of power and they reversed Soviet policies.

Khrushchev decided to enlist the support of anti-colonial countries against the capitalist camp led the U.S. India emerged at the top of the list of non-Communist countries to be roped in as allies. Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, had a strong Socialist bias and was enamoured of Soviet experiment of development through planned economy. He had visited the Soviet Union in 1927 and was actively associated with the League Against Anti-Imperialism, floated by the Soviets and their sympathizers. during its early years

The era of Hindi-Rusi Bhai-Bhai dawned. The Soviets in order to impress Nehru that Socialism was a powerful antidote to poverty, illiteracy and under-development, cited the example of Central Asia where illiteracy had been obliterated, cooperative farming had been introduced and the hold of religion on the minds of people had been broken. Central Asia was put forward as a shining example of transformation of an undeveloped and backward region into a developed and modern one.

When Pandit Nehru visited the Soviet Union, he was taken to Tashkent to see how socialism had changed the face of a backward region.

Indo-Soviet friendship developed. It was nurtured by government to government understanding and solidarity and backed by Indo-Soviet Cultural Societies (ISCUS), promoted by Indian communists and their sympathizers.

In the Soviet Union also ostensibly, a similar non-governmental organization was established ed to coordinate with ISCUS in India.

Indo-Central Asian relations developed as an offshoot of growing Indo-Soviet friendship at the governmental level.

Geography and history, both helped to bring the two countries together.

As a resultant of growing diplomatic, economic and cultural cooperation, the Soviets established several big factories in India which required regular visits by Soviet and Indian officials to India and the Soviet Union. Regular plane services were started between to two capitals, Delhi and Moscow.

In the late fifties planes flying between Delhi and Moscow needed a halt at Tashkent for refueling. Air-India, operating between Delhi and Moscow opened an office in Tashkent. Tashkent had recovered its connection with India.

The Soviets decided to broadcast to India and Radio Tashkent was chosen for the purpose. The broadcasts were in English, Urdu and Hindi. They needed experts in both written and spoken Urdu and Hindi.

Persons required for the job were recruited in two ways. First, search was made for Indians on the Soviet territory who knew Urdu. The Soviets succeeded in finding one Indian expatriate, Hardat who had been sent to Siberian prison during the Stalinist regime and had been set free after Stalin’s death. He could not travel back to India, as he had no valid travel documents.

The Soviets were still scared of unrestricted entry of foreigners. To get over this problem, they decided to ask some members of the Indian Communist Party to come over to Tashkent and work for the Tashkent Radio. Mr. Habib, a very active member of the Communist Party of India was selected for the purpose. The authorities were also able to locate a local Mr. Haider who knew Urdu, both written and spoken. Some Russians were also called in.

At this juncture other factors also strengthened Tashkent’s role as a centre for Indian Studies.

Babajan Gafurov became the Director of Institute of People of Asia and Africa (now Institute of Oriental Studies), Academy of Sciences (USSR). He belonged to Tajikistan and was keen to promote closeness and traditional friendship between India and Soviet Central Asia; he persuaded Soviet Central Asian Republics to accord a special place to Oriental Studies. His advice was heeded.

The Soviet government also approved promotion of Indian Studies. While promoting friendship between the two countries, it would provide input to Soviet foreign-policy makers.              

The need was felt to train indigenous cadres, expert in Indian languages, especially Urdu and Hindi.

The Soviet government decided that Soviet workers in India must have a Soviet interpreter, knowing Hindi and Urdu.

The Tashkent University therefore, launched a programme for teaching Hindi and Urdu. After Moscow and Leningrad, Tashkent became the third major center for Indian studies (not only Indian languages). Gradually Indian History emerged as a subject of study and research in Tashkent, both in the University as well as in the institutions, run by the Academy of Sciences, Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic.

In 1962 further first time two language teachers, Dr. Qamar Rais for Urdu and Dr. Bhola Nath Tiwari for Hindi were invited to teach in Tashkent.

Their spell as teachers helped local students to update their knowledge of Hindi and Urdu.

It was also decided to students to Indian Universities so that they could develop their speaking skills in Indian languages they had learnt in Tashkent.

The realization was reinforced when the Soviets decided to further strengthen Indo-Soviet friendship.

One area in which the Soviet Union promoted active cooperation with India was education. The Soviets first agreed to enroll Indian students for research courses in scientific, technological and social-sciences and humanities. The medium of study remained Russian and it was necessary impart basic knowledge of Russian language to Indian students. Indian students selected for higher studies were to study Russian language for six months prior to taking up higher studies. A Podgotovitelny Fakultet or Preparatory Faculty was opened for foreign students in Tashkent to impart newly arrived students skill in Russian language. Foreign students including Indians arriving in the Soviet Union were admitted to this faculty.

This scheme attracted a number of Indian students; gradually the Soviets felt that this scheme be extended to undergraduate studies. The institutions in Uzbekistan from now onwards admitted Indians students to undergraduate courses. This was in addition to Indian students admitted to undergraduate courses in Patrice Lamumba University, Moscow.

With the passage of time, the influx of Indian students increased; they were admitted to undergraduate courses located in other republics of Central Asia, in Tajikstan, Azerbaijan, etc.

In early1960s, Tashkent became embedded in Indian consciousness because of a tragic incident.

The Soviet-Chinese rift widened under Khruschev and Soviets drew nearer to India. When the 1965 Indo- Pakistan War concluded, the Soviets offered their mediation . Tashkent was chosen as the venue for a tripartite conference. Soviet, Prime Minister Kosygyn, the Pakistan President, General Ayub Khan and Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Sastri attended it in January 1966. The meeting was successful and India and Pakistan signed Tashkent Declaration. Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Sastri suffered cardiac arrest and passed away in Tahkent.

Later on a statue of was Gandhi installed in Tashkent and Hindi was made a subject of study in Indian schools.

Tashkent TV frequently showed Indian films and Raj Kapoor – Nargis pair was well known in Central Asia.

Tashkent was a must on the itinerary of Indian visitors as it showed how backwardness, economic and social could be overcome within decades, given the will power. Indians visitors were undoubtedly impressed and Tashkent also showed its appreciation of India by assiduously promoting Indian studies.

Azimzanova concentrated on medieval Indian history and translated Baburnama, the antibiography of the founder of the Mughal Empire into Russian. Nelya Ismailova studied Urdu and Uzbek scholars took up contemporary Indian authors as subject of their doctoral researches. One of the students of Hindi and Urdu became the first envoy of Uzbekistan in Delhi. They also threw up a cadre of interpreters from Russian into Urdu and Hindi and vice-versa.

The initial effort of historians was primarily directed at describing Indo-Central Asian relations before the establishment of the Soviet regime in the area. Scholar wanted to discover the past roots of Indo-Central relationship.

N.B. Baikova in 1964 published her monograph Rol Srednei Azii v Russko-Indiiskyn Torgovykh Svyazyakh where trade contacts between India and Central Asia between the 16th and 18th Centuries were described.

Rasulzade’s Iz Istorii Sredneaziatsko-indiiskikh Svayzei vtoroi poloviny XIX nachala XX veka (Tashkent, 1968) carried forward story of economic cooperation to the early XIX Century. Rasulzade’s work supplemented that of Baikova’s narrative.

Another work focusing on Indo-Central Asian relationship in 1960s was published by Ilyas Nizamutdinov who also discussed diplomatic and cultural exchanges in the Mughal period.

But must effective initiative came from Babajan Gafurov, who organized a series of conferences in India and the Soviet Union on Kushan history. The Kushan empire extended over both Central Asia and India and had played a decisive role in propagating Buddhism in Central Asia. This was to be a joint endeavour and an important conference of Indian and Soviet (including Central Asian) scholars was held in Dushanbe (Tajikstan). From now onwards Indian archaeologists were able to visit Buddhist sites excavated by Soviet archaeologist and enrich their knowledge of Kushan history and more correctly evaluate India impact on Central Asian art, architecture, culture, religion and society.

In 1960s scholars, both Indian and Central Asian, firmly established the historicity of ties between India and Central Asia.

In 1970s these ties were both deepened and broadened.

The Indo-Central Asian ties received further stimulus after 1971 Indo-Pakistan War. In this war the Soviets had openly come in support The theme was Indo-Central Asian relations and the activities of Indians in Central Asia which was known in outlines only.

The UGC with the approval of the Indian government under its Area Studies Programme sought to promote Central Asian Studies in India to nurture millennia-old historic ties.

In the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, a department of Central Asian Studies was created. Dr. Ram Rahul, who had earlier gone to the Soviet Union and visited several parts of Uzbekistan was made in-charge of this sector. He published books on Central Asia.

The Indo-Central Asia ties further developed. Each Central Asian Republic forged special relationship with one of the major Indian states. For example, Bihar and Kyrghnyzstan became closely linked. There were exchanges of delegations between the two.

In 1980 the UGC opened under the aegis of Kashmir University, Srinagar, a center of Central Asian Studies. The choice of Srinagar for this center was apt. For centuries Kasmir was on the route to and from Central Asia. Even today Kashmir is India’s nearest point to Central Asia. For this reason during sixties or seventies when Indo-Pak relations were at the lowest point Indian planes could not fly over Pakistan on way to Moscow. They then flew above Kashmir and took a left turn after reaching the Pamir Plateau on way to Moscow.

The Centre continues to function and should next year celebrate its Silver Jubilee. It brings out a Journal where research articles on Central Asia are published. It has research scholars who take up different facets of Central Asian history, economy and politics. They have published a number of monographs.               

In India Prof. Warikoo produced in 1986, Central Asia and Kashmir based on diligent researches in different archives in India. He clearly brought out the position of Kashmir as a crucial link between the two regions.

A very important piece of research was carried on by G.L. Dmtriyev in Tashkent who assiduously worked in local archives and wrote about the Indian merchant community in Central Asia and described how they were affected by the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Unfortunately, the dissertation remains unpublished.Only its extracts have been printed. An English translation of his essay entitled “From the History of Indian Colony in Central Asia” is published in Central Asia and India, by Shipra Publication, Delhi-92.

The same author diligently worked in Central Asian archives and wrote a work on Indian revolutionaries in Central Asia in 1920s, Indian Revolutionaries in Central Asia. Thanks to Maulana Abul Kalam Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata the book is now available in English.

In mid-eighties, Prof. Devendra Kanstuk, who went to Tashkent as a Ph. D. Student in 1962 published his book Indian and Central Asia in Modern Times in 1985, based on data collected from different archives in Uzbekistan. The book gave to readers in English on idea how close economic relationship existed between the two regions before the Soviet period

R.G. Mukhminova’s book (Tashkent, 1985) Sotsialnaya Differentsiatsiya Naseleniya Gorodov Uzbekistana v XVIIw. Was significant because she published documents of the 16th and 17th Centuries to show that Indian artisans lived in Central Asia and some of them were extremely prosperous.

Scholars now started taking a multidimensional view. In Iz Istorii Kultunykh svyazei Narodov Srednei Azii I Indii (Tashkent, 1986) scholars in their essays attempted to describe the cultural exchanges between the two areas since Buddhist times.

In 1980s monographs convincingly showed that the two regions were linked by a common history.

In 1980s a new dimension was added to the relationship between the two regions.

The Soviet Union facing economic difficulties was in short supply of consumer goods. The government also decided to open up Central Asia and to invite foreign collaboration to develop its economy.

The tourist sector which if developed properly promised quick and beneficial results to local economy.

The Government invited Tatas to build hotel in Tashkent. Larsen and Toubro was invited to construct a hotel in Samarkand. The two organisations were in the process of finishing their work when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the nature of politics and economy all over Central Asia changed suddenly.

During 1980s local entrepreneurship was not inactive. They discovered that India could satisfy their needs in (a) textiles and (b) pharmaceuticals and (c) leather goods. Computers were available in India and they could also be brought to Tashkent.

A local shop Ganga came up in Tashkent. It sold mostly goods brought from India.

The locals from Uzbekistan, Kyrghyzstan and Kezakhstan made regular trips to India and brought back stitched cotton apparels which were eagerly purchased. They also brought medicines, then in short supply in Uzbekistan and fulfilled an important public need.

Local effort was supplemented by some Indians students, who found that by bringing textiles and medicine on their return trips, they could easily finance their visits to their homeland. Some of these students gathered sufficient expertise to devote there energies to the burgeoning business in Central Asia.

The increased travel necessitated that passengers be issued visa quickly by the Indian embassy. For this purpose a small branch of the Indian Embassy in Moscow was opened in Tashkent in 1980s.

When the Sovereign Republic of Uzbekistan was proclaimed in 1991 after the Soviet collapse, this office took care of the relationship between India and Central Asian Republics till proper arrangements were made by opening embassies in the capital different Central Asian sovereign republics.


The four decades discussed here saw continuous improvement in Indo-Central ties even though they depended to Indo-Soviet Relations.

In 1960s they were put on a firm pedestal after scholars through their researches showed that they were millennia-old.

In 1970s and 1980s several monographs appeared and institutions were set up in India to promote Central Asian studies.

In 1980s economic contacts developed. India’s private sector arrived in Central Asia to help develop tourist in destroy.

Local entrepreneurs began visiting India and brought textiles and medicines which were sold in local markets.

The deepening of contacts necessitated opening of a branch of Indian Embassy, Moscow in Tashkent to facilitate quick disposal of visa applications.

The small office looked after Indian interests when Central Asian Sovereign Republics were born after the collapse of the Soviet-Union.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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