General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Leonid Brezhnev and Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, 1973
General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Leonid Brezhnev and Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, 1973

Centuries-long History of Close Ties

May 27, 2017
The 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Russia makes us recollect the history of the bilateral ties.

Indian-Russian relations enjoy centuries-old history that began with the XVth century journey to India by Afanasy Nikitin, a merchant from Tver, and uninterruptedly continue until the present. Sometimes the ties between us developed dynamically, sometimes they used to loose they pace, but they never have completely stopped.

Considerably tight relations between the two countries began in the early XX century when the British ruled India and Nicholas II sat on the Russian imperial throne. December 1900 marked the biggest event in the history of the Indo-Russian relations, when the Russian Imperial Consulate General opened in Bombay (nowadays Mumbai) and subsequently moved to Calcutta (modern Kolkata) in 1911. Its inauguration created absolutely new relations between Russia and India, it further moved forward constantly growing trade and economic ties, the growth of Russian visitors to India, including the royal family members, as well as Indian visitors to Russia, and, most importantly, spiritual rapprochement between the countries.

However, it took more than 30 years of hard and persistent efforts to allow the Saint Petersburg diplomacy to open the first Russian official mission in India. London and especially high-ranked British colonial administration officers in India all these years were no less persistent in preventing India from hosting a Russian diplomatic mission representative.

It began in 1858 when the Russian government, referring to the trade agreement with Britain, requested through its London embassy to establish Russian consulates in various British colonies, first of all, in the Indian port city of Bombay. This was followed by the years-long correspondence and exhausting negotiations between the two foreign services of the empires competing in the Orient, though still trying to reach an agreement through mutual concessions and promises. In particular, establishing the Russian consulate in Bombay, would have given the British authorities an opportunity to open its consulate in the South Caucasus, first of all, in Tiflis (modern-day Tbilisi).

In 1876, the Viceroy of India in his telegram to the Secretary of State of the Foreign Office in London expressed no objections against opening the Russian consulate. Moreover, he believed that it could bring “certain advantages”. However, new Viceroys who succeeded him, were pathological Russophobes and eventually managed to convince London in the opposite. Despite countless oral and written reminders from Saint Petersburg, the British government went back on its words having agreed even to close the by that time already established British consulate in Tiflis.

An official note to the General Staff by a Russian officer Alexander Vygornitsky who was in India officially to study the “Hindustani” language gave an unexpected new impetus to the Consulate General opening. In his 1887 note he explained the necessity to establish the consulate in Bombay due to commercial, economic, political as well as military reasons, but also emphasised with resentment that India hosted consulates of almost all leading European nations except Russia.

Vygornitsky’s note reached both governmental and the highest level. Emperor Nicholas II himself expressed personal interest in establishing the consulate in Bombay. Probably, he still remembered his world cruise on the “Azov” ship happened not so long before his accession to the throne. The cruise included India where he spent a rather long time.

The new round of diplomatic battles in the Russia – Britain – India triangle became even more severe, and although Viceroy Lord Curzon and all military and political officers of the British administration were bombarding London with point-blank memoranda and protest notes, the issue with establishing the Russian consulate was eventually solved. The British government in London made a concession and in August 1899 gave its accord to appoint a Russian Consul in Bombay. Vasily Oskarovich von Klemm, a specialist in Oriental politics, who had for many years served in Bukhara, Tashkent and Ashgabat was appointed for the post.

Von Klemm had been a Consul (by the end of the term, Consul General) for five years. He assisted in developing and expanding a broad spectrum of Russian-Indian trade and economic, cultural and scientific links, interactions between different companies and enterprises, agricultural laboratories, etc. In fact, his activity contributed to the circulation of verified information about Russia in India and vice versa, which created new opportunities for wider contacts between the countries.

The 1905 Russian Revolution inspired Indian freedom fighters. Mahatma Gandhi, one of the founders of the Indian state, was amazed by the similarity between India and Russia in the social and economic spheres. His long letter exchanges with the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy proves his close relations with Russia.

After the 1917 October Revolution Soviet leaders urged India to fight for its own freedom and independence. Inspired by the Revolution many Indian freedom fighters established personal contracts with Soviet leaders. And even though the relations between the two states would become a role-model after the Indian independence, the Soviet leadership stated closely looking towards India even before that. For instance, in 1921, Vladimir Lenin said: “The outcome of the struggle [for the World Proletarian Revolution] will eventually depend on Russia, India and China that make up the overwhelming majority of the world population and extremely quickly engage in fighting for their freedom. Thus, the final outcome of the world struggle is beyond the slightest doubt, in this sense, that this will eventually ensure full and unconditional victory of socialism.” Stalin also took potential cooperation with India positively and used to note that “India’s liberation will strengthen revolutionary positions all around the world”.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is known to have laid the foundation of the Indian National Congress policy on the Soviet Union. Having visited the Soviet Union on the Bolshevik Revolution’s tenth anniversary in 1927, he returned home deeply impressed by the soviet experiment. Nehru firmly believed that a poor developing country like India should avoid capitalism and follow the model that focused on social justice, equality and human dignity. He emphasised that India should build tight and friendly relations with the Soviet Union.

The second half of the XXth century saw the real peak of relations between the countries after India achieved its independence in August 1947. The official diplomatic ties were remarkably established four months before, on April 13. It was no accident but due to deliberate reasons that the Soviet Union chose India as one of strategically important Asian partners in the early 1950s. Having stood at the origins of the Non-Aligned Movement, India carried out an independent foreign policy based on non-participation in military blocs and refusal to host foreign military bases on its territory.

1955 was remarkable, as it saw the first highest-level official visits which initiated broad economic ties. In June Jawaharlal Nehru visited the Soviet Union, and already in autumn Nikita Khrushchev paid a return visit. USSR widely assisted India in a number of fields. It supported India’s demands regarding the Pakistan-disputed Kashmir in 1957 and 1962. The Soviet position significantly impeded the Beijing leadership’s plans during the 1962 China-India conflict. USSR was the first to provide considerable help in creating heavy industry in the state sector. The Soviet Union significantly contributed to India’s defence capability. Overall, cooperating with USSR strengthened the Indian economy, stabilised its international positions, helped to defend itself from external pressure from various powers. In 1971 saw the signing of the Indo-Soviet Peace, Friendship and Cooperation Treaty, which became the relations’ milestone. Even though negotiations on the legal basis for the partnership began in 1969, many experts and politicians of that time were sure that the document came to life as the result of the border conflict with Pakistan, brokered by USSR.

The Treaty envisaged that “enduring peace and friendship shall prevail between the two countries, and that they shall build their relations based on principles of respect, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the other party, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit”. The parties expressed their intention to “strengthen peace in Asia and throughout the world, to halt the arms race and to achieve general and complete disarmament”, “condemn colonialism and racialism in all forms and manifestations, and reaffirm their determination to strive for their final and complete elimination with the help of other states”. The Treaty was concluded for twenty years and automatically extended every five years.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Indian-Russian relations soured until 1993, when Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin finally visited India after several postponed attempts and signed the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty. Even though it replaced the Soviet-time Treaty, the document contained no concrete provisions going beyond the mutual friendly assurances. Economic, military and political cooperation rapidly shrinked, turnover between the countries dropped five times. Moreover, Moscow stopped, as it used to, actively supporting India on difficult geopolitical issues. The situation began to improve in 1994 when prime ministers Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao and Victor Chernomyrdin during their meetings signed about 20 agreements encompassing various economic spheres.

In the beginning of the XXIst century, amid the ever growing Asia’s role on the global arena, Russia’s foreign policy again started prioritising its relations with India. It is connected with the fact that role of Asia in the world is constantly growing. President Vladimir Putin visited Delhi during his very first year in the office, signed the Declaration on the India-Russia Strategic Partnership and agreed the annual summit programme. Meetings of the leaders became regular. One of such meetings in the early 2000s established the Russian-Indian Joint Working Group on Combating International Terrorism. Partnership between the countries continues to cover more and more directions and today India is Russia’s privileged strategic partner on the world stage.

Sergey Saenko, exclusively for «Indian Herald», Natalya Yunkevich, journalist