The presence of Armenians in the Indian sub-continent dates back centuries when the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605) invited a large number of Armenians to settle in Agra. The emperor granted Armenians several religious and financial privileges and opportunities to work in his empire. Thus Armenian merchants were exempted from paying taxes and were allowed to move freely around the empire, unlike other foreigners. In 1562, Armenians built a church in Agra and started to expand their influence on the port of Surat which was one of the important trade ports in India. Later Armenian colonies were established in Calcutta and the cities around. Armenians were influential in gun-making and printing.
During Soviet times, Indian President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Soviet Armenia in 1964 and 1976, respectively. In August 1992, India became one of the first countries that established a diplomatic relationship with Armenia. Presidents Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Robert Kocharyan also visited India in 1995 and 2003, respectively. However, this relationship didn’t exceed the limit of cultural and scientific cooperation. Indian nationals living in Armenia were almost exclusively students and often stayed only as long as their studies demanded. Today, after Armenia liberalized the visa regime to Indian citizens in 2017, new business opportunities in the IT and medical sector have led to a new wave of Indian immigration. Around 2,200 Indians are legally working and living in Armenia. It is also worth mentioning that India is considered one of the emerging superpowers in the world. In 2015, it became the world’s fastest-growing economy with a 7.5 percent estimated GDP. Still, Armenian-Indian relations didn’t move beyond cultural and scientific cooperation. Due to geopolitical reasons and security threats, these relations must develop in the near future.
Why should India be concerned about the ongoing war on Artsakh?
When Turkish-backed Azerbaijan launched a full-scale invasion on Artsakh, Indians on social media quickly took sides and expressed their solidarity with Armenia. Indian newspapers, despite being cautious and categorizing the Republic of Artsakh as a “separatist entity,” were aware of the dangers of the presence of Syrian mercenaries, Pakistan’s logistical support and Turkey’s ambitions in Central Asia and beyond. For the Indians, “Turkey has been assisting Pakistan when it comes to Kashmir, and Islamabad returns the favor by pledging support to Turkey in its aggressive policies in South Caucasus and Western Asia.”
Even before the Artsakh War, there was a “war of words” between India and Turkey over Kashmir. During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the Kashmir “conflict” must be mentioned and it is a “burning issue” that threatens the stability in the region. In response, India’s permanent representative to the UN condemned Erdogan’s statement and told Turkey to “learn to respect the sovereignty of other nations.” Meanwhile, on various occasions Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared that Armenia fully defends India’s position on Kashmir. In September 2019, Pashinyan had a meeting at the UNGA session with his Indian counterpart PM Narendra Modi, and both reaffirmed to strengthen the economic and political ties between their countries. To strengthen the military ties in March 2020, India and Armenia signed a $40 million deal for the sale of four Swathi weapon locating radar (WLR) stations. A WLR is designed to detect the trajectory of an artillery shell. Furthermore, the Yerevan City Council approved a proposal in April to install a statue of Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi in the Armenian capital.
India, meanwhile, is aware of Pakistan’s involvement in the ongoing war in Artsakh. Indian newspapers have reported that Pakistani officers were in Azerbaijan providing logistical and technical support for the Azerbaijani army. Not only does Pakistan not recognize Armenia, but it has also established strategic relations with Azerbaijan. In 2003, Baku and Islamabad signed a defense agreement which allowed Azerbaijani military staff, in particular special forces units, to participate in annual military drills with Pakistani armed forces. The main reason driving Pakistan-Azerbaijan political-military cooperation is Baku’s enmity to Yerevan over the crisis over Artsakh. Ironically, while Baku accuses Yerevan of “violating Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity,” President Ilham Aliyev has always talked in favor of Pakistan’s territorial claims on Indian Kashmir.
Despite the fact that some Indian officials view the Artsakh struggle from a “separatist angle,” this perception has changed over time. For many Indians, Armenians are battling for their existence against Erdogan’s pan-Turkic and neo-Ottoman projects. Many Indian nationalists see Armenia as a buffer wall against Turkish expansion to the Far East. Both Armenia and India have a mutual concern about the growing partnership among Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. Backed by its two partners, Islamabad tried to consolidate its position on Kashmir, while Baku does the same over Artsakh. Moreover, the pan-Turkic aspirations of both Ankara and Baku should concern the Hindus in India. Ankara’s pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic dreams to unify all the Turkic nations and expand its influence over Central Asia threatens India’s national security and territorial integrity. The employment of Syrian mercenaries in the war has also raised some alarms in New Delhi as newspapers were loaded with reports of possible Turkish enrollment in Kashmir by deploying Syrian mercenaries to Kashmir via Pakistan to organize terror attacks against Indian troops. Simultaneously for these reasons, Armenia and India must develop a strategic security partnership that goes beyond cultural and economic relations.
Suggestions to further deepen the Armenian-Indian relations
During my academic visit to New Delhi back in February 2020 and my participation at the “Human Rights: National and International Issues and Challenges” conference, I met with many Indian scholars, journalists, activists and ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their stance was very pro-Armenia, and they were aware of Erdogan’s expansionist aspirations. We had honest discussions about the Armenian cause, and I came to a conclusion which I would like to summarize in the following points:
- On the state level, Armenia must strengthen and consolidate its diplomatic presence in India and engage in cultural events. Armenia’s diplomats must be present in cultural festivals held around India. Exchange programs must also be organized. Such events are being organized in Yerevan by the Indo-Armenian Friendship NGO, and I hope similar events will be organized in India. Moreover, religious and cultural tourism should be encouraged by the embassies of both countries.
- Armenia’s IT sector is growing, and India is home to an advanced and significantly large IT market. Both sides can deepen their cooperation in the scientific and security sectors. To facilitate this, an Armenian-Indian business forum could be established to further attract Indian investments in Armenia’s IT, tourism and industry sectors.
- Given Pakistan’s assistance to Baku, Armenian lawmakers must pass a bill condemning Pakistan’s policy on Kashmir. This would not create any diplomatic problem as both countries do not have diplomatic relations, and Islamabad has always supported Turkish-Azerbaijani positions in international forums.
- I have realized that there is political groundwork in India that would make it possible for the establishment of a “Hai Tahd” office in New Delhi. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) can facilitate such an initiative by sending young activists and journalists to establish a small Armenian-Indian lobbying group. This group does not necessarily need to be composed of only Armenians. But it can be a nucleus of a future committee that lobbies in India for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the defense of the Armenian cause in cultural, educational and political fields. The first step should be to translate Armenian Genocide history and literary novels into Hindu, publish articles in Indian newspapers and create networks with influential Indian news outlets, activists and politicians. This group can facilitate exchange programs and workshops in the fields of journalism, academia and political science and international relations.
- Armenian organizations, especially in the United Kingdom (which has a significant concentration of Baloch Diaspora) and elsewhere, should organize solidarity events for the Baloch cause in Pakistan. This in turn would strengthen Armenia’s lobbying activities in India and the United Kingdom. India is a supporter of the Baloch cause in Pakistan. However, Armenia’s political support for the Baloch cause should only be limited to its national liberation movement in Pakistan and not Iran to avoid a diplomatic crisis between Armenia and Iran.
- In order to balance the Turkish-Azerbaijani-Pakistani axis, Armenia and India must enhance strategic and security relationships and coordinate in international forums. Yerevan and New Delhi can create a common security center to share intelligence information and combat terrorist activities in the region. Moreover, military drills and exercises (anti-terrorism training) should be encouraged between both armies. In addition to the Russian Defense market, if needed, Armenia can also look to the Indian defense industry to modernize its army with heavy weapons such as attack drones, multiple launch rocket systems and anti-tank guided missiles.
Vahan Baibourtian, International Trade and the Armenian Merchants in the Seventeenth Century, Sterling Publishers, New Delhi, India, 2004