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During the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement which called for restraint from both the sides and resolving the conflict through peaceful diplomatic negotiations.
Turkey and Pakistan siding with Azerbaijan was considered as a ground for India to support Armenia. Turkey and Azerbaijan have sided with Pakistan on the Jammu & Kashmir issue while Armenia has supported India.
India’s relations with Armenia remain underdeveloped. The recent conflict could provide a reason for India to cultivate closer ties with the small Caucasian nation. But apart from partisan alignments in that region, India must make efforts to develop its relations with Armenia.
India’s interests in the region
India has a stake in peaceful resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict since it has an impact on India’s interests in the region. The south Caucasus is important for India as the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) passes through it. The INSTC would connect India to West Asia, Central Asia and Eurasia. India’s relations with this region and neighbouring regions are still in a developmental phase. Connectivity remains crucial and the most basic factor for India in this area. India has been involved in the development of various connectivity projects through Central Asia and the Caucasus.
To give further boost to connectivity, the INSTC is expected to operate in coordination with the Chabahar Port and the Ashgabat Agreement. India’s intention in developing the multiple connectivity links is to circumvent Pakistan to reach Central Asia and Eurasia.
Involvement of different regional powers supporting either side would result in instability in the South Caucasus as well as in the wider neighbourhood. Overall the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict directly affects India since it could stall the implementation of connectivity projects and thereby hamper India’s outreach to the region.
Cultural connections between India and Armenia
Cultural connections between countries are important in conducting diplomacy. India has also time and again invoked shared cultural ties in reaching out to various countries in Asia.
India often cites millennial cultural links with Iran, Afghanistan, the Central Asian countries and the Middle Eastern countries.
It is also important to consider the links between India and Armenia through Hinduism. India’s contact with Armenia is said to be 2000-year old. Two Hindu princes are said to have ruled over a portion of Armenia and so Hindu religion was practiced there. On the other hand, the Armenians had contact with India for business and trade. Over the past few centuries Armenians had settled in India. While today their number is negligible there are ancient Armenian churches in Kolkata and Chennai.
Just as bilateral relations between India and Armenia remain underdeveloped, India’s Hindu connection with Armenia also remains relatively unknown. India should explore this historical relationship in order to increase proximity with Armenia.
Israel and Taiwan as the template
Israel and Taiwan provide a template, in two different contexts, for India to develop stronger relations with Armenia.
India’s relations with Armenia may be seen in parallel with its ties to Israel in the sense that India and Israel had several centuries old connections through the Jewish people living in India. The Jews came to India after fleeing persecution at the hands of Seleucids in Palestine more than 2000 years ago. Over the centuries the Jews had integrated into the Indian society and Indians built ties with the Jews long before Israel came into existence as a country in 1948.
With respect to Armenia the earliest contact of Armenians with India is believed to have been established in 780 CE with the visit of an Armenian merchant to Malabar in Kerala. Not unlike the Jews, many Armenians had to flee their country after the Ottoman and Safavid conquests in the 15thcentury. Some of those who fled arrived in India settling in Delhi, Agra and later in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The Armenians in India were not large in numbers but they have been a prosperous trading community.
Following the formation of Israel, most of the Jews left India in 1948. Similarly following India’s independence in 1947, the majority of the Armenians too moved to Armenia and other countries.
India established diplomatic relations with both Israel and Armenia in 1992. Since then India’s bilateral relations with Israel have only grown in the past three decades, especially in the area of defence. The last five years have seen India-Israel relations getting stronger with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India in 2018. India is Israel’s largest arms buyer while Israel is India’s third largest arms supplier. The growth in India-Israel relations could be replicated in India-Armenia relations.
Taiwan provides yet another template that could be matched with Armenia. The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has found a resonance with Indians and in a very different context so has China’s conflict with Taiwan.
Similarly the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has triggered discreet Indian support10 for Armenia . While the support to Armenia and Taiwan is understandable in the context of opposing India’s adversaries, India can benefit significantly by having closer relations with Armenia.
The way ahead
India’s relations with Armenia have been receiving some quiet boosts in the past one year. In the 2019 United Nations General Assembly, Turkey raised the issue of Jammu and Kashmir criticizing India’s actions. In turn India responded by Modi holding bilateral meetings with the leaders of Armenia, Greece and Cyprus.
In another development, earlier this year India secured a $40 million defence sale to Armenia. As per the agreement Armenia is set to get India’s indigenously developed SWATHI weapon locating radars. The deal is an important step in India-Armenia relations through which both the countries could elevate their relations to a higher level.
Despite the still incipient status of India-Armenia relations, more progress could be expected on the lines of the foreign policy conducted by Modi in the past six years. The Indian Prime Minister’s foreign policy lays stress upon less high profile partners. Modi has the distinction to be the first Indian prime minister to visit countries like Australia, Fiji and Spain after a gap of several decades since the last Prime Ministerial visits to those nations. Modi is also the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. Since Armenia remains a lesser focused entity, it should form part of Modi’s foreign policy in the future going by these precedents.
Building up multiple engagements with a country not only strengthens bilateral relations, it also provides a wider access to the region. India’s engagement with Armenia would allow India to increase its outreach to the Caucasus region.
Cultural connections combined with the emerging geopolitical factors make a strong case for India to increase its interaction and transactions with Armenia.