What can a tiny country, a dot on the map, offer a giant one like India? This has been a recurring thought for me since the tiny Caucasian country of Armenia opened up its embassy in New Delhi a decade ago. It stemmed from something purely personal – the love and warmth that I had received many summers ago when I had visited the place as a student. I have since travelled across the globe. Numerous countries have left their mark for some or the other reason. But tiny Armenia had captivated me with its haunting beauty and ancient if at times melancholic history; the love that people had for India and things Indian were beyond my expectation, besides, of course, the generosity and hospitality (which would require a separate article).
Many Indians still struggle to find Armenia on the map, but Armenians know India well. Small compact nations tend to know their history well. So it was Armenians who told me how their first constitution had been drafted in the city of Chennai; Armenians were away that their diasporas existed in cities as far flung as Kolkata, that one of the oldest hotels there had been built by an Armenian, and that an Armenian school and college still exist there. Bollywood had also done its bit to endear us to the Armenians; children from Armenia come to India each year and do their schooling at the Armenian College in Kolkata. The groundwork for good bilateral ties had already been cemented by history.
Some high-level bilateral meetings have taken place between the two countries.
Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Armenian President Nikol Pashashian in New York in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. “Had extensive deliberations with PM @NikolPashinyan. We talked about expanding India-Armenia cooperation in aspects relating to technology, pharmaceuticals and agro-based industries. PM Pashinyan also referred to the popularity of Indian movies, music and Yoga in Armenia,” he had tweeted after the meeting.
This news gained currency because just days before that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had stridently condemned India’s recent reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir state. It seemed only natural, therefore, and wise, for India to try and cultivate closer ties with countries inimical to Turkey, of which Armenia is one, because of the genocide of Armenians during Ottoman times, which Turkey has not yet acknowledged, and next, because of Turkey’s cooperation with Azerbaijan during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
But there are other merits for India to develop relations with Armenia and the Caucasian region in general. For one, Armenia has a full vote in the UN General Assembly and it is important at a time when India is shoring up support for itself in the UN for a seat in the expanded UN Security Council. Moreover, Armenia fully appreciates India’s position on Kashmir, has no diplomatic relations with Pakistan, and has almost total convergence with India on bilateral and multilateral issues. In the words of Ambassador Achal Malhotra who had earlier served as India’s ambassador to Armenia, “It is difficult to identify an issue which can be termed as a bilateral irritant.”
Next, it is a great tourist destination, with ancient sites, delectable cuisine, and home to the famed Armenian cognac. With many Armenian heritage sites in India, some kind of joint heritage tourism can be and should be developed (Armenian heritage sites are interesting for Armenians outside of Armenia too).
Silicon Valley of the CIS
More recent developments, however, demonstrate yet another angle to bilateral relations. Last month, India clinched a deal worth $40 million with the Caucasian country to supply it four indigenously built weapon-locating radars. The SWATHI radars have been developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). This opens up new vistas of cooperation for both countries and defence cooperation is always long term. Such sales, while helping countries like Armenia as they are cheaper than their European counterparts, also opens up new markets for India and will give a big boost to indigenous defence production in India.
Armenia is considered the Silicon Valley of the CIS, and is a member of the Eurasian Economic Community and also has a partnership agreement with the European Union. Sitting on the threshold of Europe, in the heart of the Caucuses, and having a border with Iran, Armenia’s geo-political location is significant. By deepening ties with the country, India would have everything to gain, and nothing to lose.
Aditi Bhaduri is a widely published journalist and political analyst, tracking West, South, and Central Asia.