Friday, August 23, 2013

Tashkent and the forgotten Central Asia

Even before we studied in school anything related to the Mughal Empire and their Turkic origins, I had heard about Tashkent.  A mysterious Tashkent.  A city that was somewhere far away beyond the Himalayas.

All because that was where Lal Bahadur Shastri, who followed Nehru as the prime minister, died of a heart attack a day after signing a peace treaty with Pakistan.

Shastri's death, which happened well before my schooling began, was talked about often because there were always suspicions that it was not a natural death. Conspiracy theories were in plenty, enough and more to put to shame the theories on JFK's assassination.  After all, Shastri's death in 1966 was against a global backstage of the intense Cold War and, therefore, any number of interpretations seemed plausible.

Throughout my years of life in India, Tashkent was somewhere out there in the USSR.  In one of those republics that was far away from Moscow.

And then the world changed. The Berlin Wall fell. The mighty Soviet Union collapsed like it was all a facade. The different republics of the USSR became independent countries.

The strangest thing is that even now most people, in India and anywhere on the planet, wouldn't be able to spot Tashkent on a map. Most of us cannot even name the country where it is located, and nor will be able to name its neighbors.  Somewhere in Central Asia will be our best guess, as much as my impression was way back when I was a kid.

Here in the US, we have a good reason why we have not bothered to find out anything about Tashkent and Central Asia--they have not attacked us nor have we have gone to war against them.  Apparently, wars are how even begin to recognize that there are other countries and peoples!

But, there are plenty of reasons why we ought to pay attention to those Central Asian countries.

You notice that Tashkent is not that remote, after all?  Central Asian countries are not somewhere in outer space?

The US presence in Afghanistan for twelve years ought to have made us familiar with that part of the world, one would imagine.  But, that is asking for way too much when we are so busy entertaining ourselves with everything from college and professional sports, to reality television, to video games!

Ahmed Rashid writes, in reviewing a few books, about "why, and what, you should know about Central Asia"
Since September 11 and because of Central Asia’s borders with Afghanistan, the big powers—Russia, China, and the US—are showing a renewed interest in the region. Until now the Central Asian leaders have manipulated one big power against another in an astute and ruthless game of trying to extract the maximum benefit in loans, investment, weapons, or rent for bases.
As in 1991, Central Asia has reached a turning point and what comes next really worries it. Will the Taliban return to conquer Afghanistan and open the way for the Central Asian Islamist groups that are closely linked to al-Qaeda and have increased their forces while based in Pakistan? Will populist riots reminiscent of the Arab Spring sweep through the region? They have already done so twice in Kyrgyzstan, in March 2005 and April 2010, bringing down two presidents.
Will the weaker states, lacking economic resources, become hostage to China or Russia? Will the most important regional organization they all belong to—the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—help them overcome instability or will it continue to help them avoid making serious reforms?
I suppose the region has been having a resurgence of sorts after the decline since the days of "conquerors of the world—Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babar."  Babar, of course, was the invading conqueror who founded what became the Mughal Empire.

The region has all the ingredients for geopolitical drama: population of various ethnicities, religions, languages, political ideologies, and a couple of dictators.  Rashid reminds us about that old idea in political geography:
Sir Halford Mackinder, the nineteenth-century political theorist, viewed Central Asia as “the pivot region of the world’s politics” and “the heartland” because, he said, “it is the greatest natural fortress in the world.” He reckoned that whoever controlled Central Asia would exercise enormous power. But no power has achieved control there and the battle for influence will take different directions after 2014. One of the great dangers for the US and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there
Oh well, it is time to watch some ball games on television, while stuffing ourselves with inexpensive calories!

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