By Rashmi Saksena
The rugged mountainous Central Asian country of Tajikistan has been battling poverty, a radical Islamic movement and drug smuggling from the days it became independent in 1991. In fact, it was plunged into a five-year civil war as soon as it became independent. Tajikistan’s Ambassador to India, Mirzosharif A. Jalolov spoke to Rashmi Saksena of a changing country and its immense geo-strategic significance for India. During the last visit of its President Emomali Rahmon to New Delhi in December 2016 (it was his sixth visit so far), much was achieved on bilateral co-operation in energy, defence and security sectors. Excerpts:
Q: Is the radical Islamic movement in Tajikistan still a problem?
A: After our separation from USSR in 1991, we had a civil war beginning in 1992 that went all the way up to 1997. Radical Islam and their supporters - both inside and outside Tajikistan - were let free, resulting in intense fighting. What we had witnessed was literally 'street fighting'; there was war in the streets and what made matters worse was the fact that we did not have a 'national army'. We say that 'our army is built from the ashes of war'. This fighting ended with 'National Reconciliation'; the government decided to share 30% of the seats with Islamic Revival Party (IRP) of Tajikistan. They were integrated into the system, making us the only country to constitutionally recognize an Islamic Party.
But there was a coup in 2015 - the deputy defence minister who belonged to IRP was the hand behind it. However, that was unsuccessful. We overcame it and now IRP has been recognized by the Supreme Court as a 'terrorist outfit'. We have a saying, 'no matter how much you nurture a wolf, it will come back to bite '. We have removed the power sharing bit by a constitutional amendment.
Q: Where did the radical Islamic fighters come from?
A : They came from within Tajikistan, but were backed by foreign actors, who alone were not Sunnis.
Q: And Tajikistan is mostly Sunni Muslim?
A : Yes. Most of us are followers of Hanafi fiqh though we are not so strict - courtesy the Soviet influence. Constitutionally, we were permitted to practice our religion, but in reality, we were being molded to become the 'new Soviet people' who practiced 'scientific atheism'.
Q: You also have supporters of the Daesh. The commander of police forces defected to IS.
A : He did. Halimov was influenced IRP. We have information that about 1000 people from Tajikistan are in IS. Some of them have returned from Syria.
Q: Is there a growing presence of IS in the region then?
A : According to some estimates, about 2000 'fighters' are from the ex-Soviet republics. Now we have an emerging threat coming from our south border - Afghanistan - since its northern part is becoming volatile.
Q: Do common people of Tajikistan dislike such radical Islamic movements?
A : We have educated classes who detest such ideologies. Ansarullah and Daesh are still counted as major concerns. Salafism has been outlawed in the country.
Q: Are women in your country made to follow strict purdah and wear the veil?
A : It has not been outlawed; they can wear it if they so please.
Q: What is the literacy rate of Tajikistan?
A : About 99%. We pay very strong attention to women's education. We have almost 20-30% women in Parliament. We also have a provision that the leadership of political organizations should at least have one woman. We also have special provisions whereby we promote education among women from remote areas. We do not have a huge gap between urban and rural areas.
Q: Much of your economy depends on remittance from other countries?
A : Not anymore. Our economy is running as we are no longer dependent on just one product. We used to be cotton and aluminum producer under USSR, but we have diversified now.
Q: What are Tajikistan's trade relations with India?
A : We buy pharmaceuticals from India and the second is bovine meat. India imports - although rare - cotton; semi-purified rare earth elements. We are also encouraging tourism - like road shows; we have taken tourists to Dushanbe. Dushanbe Sheraton is an Indian investment. The problem is on our side - we haven't developed tourism as an industry nor built the infrastructure for it.
Q: Tajikistan is also fighting a drug problem. What is the situation when it comes from drugs smuggled into your country and then moved on to other countries?
A : There is poppy cultivation in the country, but legally for medicines. Illegally, no. We do not have much land for poppy to grow illegally! Tajikistan seizes the maximum - about 80% - of drugs whenever they are attempted to be routed through our territory. Most of it comes from Afghanistan.
Q: What would you like to see happening to strengthen ties between India and Tajikistan in 2017?
A : Trade and economy - to introduce Indian knowledge, particularly in the IT sector, in Tajikistan. Indian businessmen are highly risk averse, and the Indian government is aware of it, and to give it a fillip, it has initiated projects there.
Q: Like the Ayni airport?
A : It is an airdrome - one lane - and India did help in its construction.
Q: Any other major Indian project there?
A : The India-Tajikistan Friendship Hospital is a noteworthy project.
Q: How are India and Tajikistan co-operating with each other in multilateral fora?
A : We are cooperating with each other, particularly in matters related to water since more than 90% of the rivers that flow into CIS and beyond originate in our mountains. International Decade of Water, which is our initiative, has been co-sponsored by India. We promote action against terrorism; we are also supporting India's membership to SCO.
Q: The situation in Afghanistan is of common concern to Tajikistan and India?
A : We have joint working groups on terrorism; India is training our military personnel. My military attache was trained in India. The position of my government is that we will support any initiative taken by Afghan people to stabilize the country. We have been training Afghans; have a border training college; we pay high attention to social projects in Afghanistan - like we have border markets with Afghanistan.
Q: The food situation in Tajikistan has been a matter of concern. How is it now?
A : We have three strategic goals: food security, communication and transportation; and energy independence. Of them food security is a top priority. We have recently achieved 24 hour power supply in cities. We are building power plants - since we have abundance of water, we try to harness most of it - example CASA 1000.
Q: There have been grave health concerns in Tajikistan too?
A : Yes. Polio, Cholera and Plague have been eliminated; but our surrounding areas (Afghanistan) are not so sanitary. This is a challenge when a country like mine is a transit route. There is easy flow of people and infections are difficult to contain.
Q: You have been in India now for over two years. You must have had some ideas about India before you came here. Has your perception changed now?
A : Well, it would be different for anyone in connection with any other country. We always judge things on the basis of the information we receive from various sources. We had exposure to Indian culture during the Soviet times, and that has continued into the present times. For instance, India cinema and music are very popular in Tajikistan. I had also read before about India in books, but after coming to India, I found the country much more interesting, much more diverse. Indian diversity is mind-boggling; each corner of India is unique in its own right. The President of Tajikistan who was on a six-day visit to India began the visit in Kerala, and we found it too unique and different from north India.