India’s Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari visited Armenia recently to celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Armenians had ancient trade relations with several parts of India and, by the 7th century, a few Armenian settlements had appeared in Kerala, along the Malabar Coast. An Armenian merchant-cum-diplomat, Thomas Cana, is believed to have reached the Malabar Coast in 780, long before Portuguese Vasco da Gama, using the overland route.
The Armenian diaspora, having immigrated to India hundreds of years ago, are well woven into the fabric of Indian society. Upon the founding of the Armenian nation in 1991, many Armenian-Indians returned to their homeland. Now there are hardly 100 Armenians in India, mostly in Kolkata, where the Armenian College still functions.
Armenia’s Ambassador to India H.E. Mr. Armen Martirosyan, in an interview with India Review & Analysis, talks about these bilateral ties, ancient and modern.
Q: Armenia has ancient cultural footprints in India that most people are unaware of. Could you describe what these cultural impressions look like?
A: Armenia is a 'diasporic nation'. More Armenians have settled in different parts of the world, with India being no exception, than in Armenia proper. Our cultural presence in India goes back to medieval times when Armenian merchants and traders had come to India for doing business. Many of them settled here – some inter-married into Indian communities, while some continued otherwise. Armenians have a significant presence in almost all English-speaking countries and, interestingly, the Armenians served as a kind of link between the British merchants and Indian local communities thanks to their ability to converse both in Farsi (the court language of India in those times) and English. Armenians made their first permanent settlements in Chennai in the beginning of 17th century; from there, they managed to spread to other port towns of India, including the cities of Kolkata, Agra and Mumbai. Despite the depleted numbers of Armenians in India, we currently have 6 operating Armenian churches in the West Bengal and one in Chennai. In 2015 an ancient Armenian cemetery in Hyderabad was restored for which I`m very grateful to the local government of Telangana.
Q: What caused this dwindling in numbers?
A: There is a drastic contrast between the harmonious integration and prosperity of Armenians in Indian society, that predates the establishment of independent states of India and Armenia by four centuries, and the absence of Armenians from the landscape of contemporary Indian culture, business and politics. Partly, I put the blame on the bad calculations of the Armenian community at the beginning of the 20th century, but circumstances were such that made their continued presence in India look dicey. It was during the first half of the 20th century – when the Indian national movement for independence was reaching its peak – that the Armenian community made a move to other English-speaking countries, where the survivors of the Armenian Genocide had formed new and consolidated existing Armenian communities. I can only say, and regrettably so, that my compatriots had misread the future of India back then, and it is this 'strategic miscalculation' that led to the exodus of Armenians from India.
Q: While Armenians arrived in India at different points in time as merchants, did they diversify as they settled down in India?
A: Yes, of course. While those who were wealthy continued to engage in trade, the coming of the British to India created a community of doctors, military personnel of Armenians as well. Our ability to serve as a link between the British and local Indian communities ensured that Armenians assumed positions of significance in the country, which finally created avenues for philanthropy, a trace of which continues to this date. This building where the Armenian Embassy is housed was in fact made by the contributions it has received from the remaining Armenians in India.
Q: While India and Armenia go a long way back, how do the ties between these two nations look like now?
A: I am not satisfied with what both India and Armenia are doing to build on their common, shared history. There is much that needs to be done. Apart from the churches and other sparse mentions, Indians do not know Armenia, and India is not known in Armenia beyond the films and TV serials it exports to the country. There is so much to India's soft power than what it is currently projecting in our country and this needs a lot of work. Moreover, there is too much negative publicity that reaches Armenia and beyond – courtesy the world wide web – which dwarfs all the feats that India has managed to achieve. India, in my opinion, needs to do a lot to highlight the good aspects about it, are available in plenty.
Q: How do the things look in other sectors like education, trade and knowledge-exchange?
A: Diplomatic ties between India and Armenia were established in 1992. These were formalized in 1999 by creating a mutual diplomatic presence. There are currently 600 Indian students studying medicine at Yerevan Medical College in Armenia, and there are about 30 Indian students who are pursuing economics and technical courses at other universities in Armenia.
With bilateral trade at approximately 40-45 million USD, Armenia is not a top destination for Indian exporters. Nor is the structure of Indian exports to Armenia impressive, consisting almost exclusively of buffalo meat. Partly, this low volume of trade can be blamed on lack of connectivity, but for me, the most significant impediment to deepening of trading ties between India and Armenia is the lack of knowledge about each other. India is a major science hub and manufacturer of technology related things; however little is known about it in Armenia. Chinese exports to Armenia are 5 times higher than those of India and range from food and clothing to machinery and chemicals. Also, a lack of VIP visits between India and Armenia has induced dormancy in our ties, despite the cultural and political connections.
Q: What is being done to promote Indian tourism to Armenia?
A: Armenia as the first Christian country, is known as an 'open air museum'. Efforts are being made to create easier routes of connecting Armenia to India. Armenia has a lot to offer to Indian travellers and we are trying to promote interactions between the cultural and social industries of the two countries.
Q: How do you look at 2017 unfolding for the ties between India and Armenia?
A: We’ll continue to strengthen our bilateral and multilateral political cooperation. We are looking at tie-ups between Indian and Armenian educational and research institutions. Information and technology will remain our focus. A number of cultural events dedicated to the 25th Anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and India will be organized in our capitals.