Account of a Persia visit with mixed feelings of warmth, connectivity and pain
Iran is not just a highly significant strategic partner of India and the third largest oil exporter to us, it is also an ancient civilisational ally whose influence on our language, literature, architecture and in the highly Persianised language of the local courts in the North can still be felt. Its poetry and culture, from Ferdowsi to Omar Khayyam and Hafiz Shiraji has influenced Indian poets. The contribution of Parsees in India’s industrial growth, military might, art and culture has been immense with the house of Tata, Godrej, Wadia, on one side and Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Homi Sethna, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Nani Palkhiwala..the list is endless. I saw this Persia with mixed feelings of warmth, connectivity and pain.
INSTC Friendship Car Rally group with India"s Ambassador to Iran Shri Sudhir Kumar flanked by Russian and Azerbaijan diplomats
We were passing through Iran on an ambitious and one of the most thrilling driving experiences on INSTC —a very significant and strategic trade route nurtured by India and Russia. The 7200 kms long International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC) connects India, Iran and Russia through Central Asia. According to a study by the Freight Forwarder Associations of India implementation of the INSTC will reduce trade costs by 30 per cent and distances by 40 per cent as compared to the existing routes, which involve routing goods through Rotterdam Port in the Netherlands. It will help India speed up its trade with Russia, which had seen a declining trend in the past, to a level of 30 bn US $ over the next ten years as has been the joint ledge between two countries. Iran remains a key factor in the completion of the INSTC project.
Prime Minister Modi’s Tehran visit was great success. Iran with second largest reserves of natural gas in world remains a trusted ally in area of energy cooperation. Even during US sanctions, India imported oil from the country through a rupee payment agreement. PM Modi signed many strategic agreements with Iran. Not only the development of Chabahar port and connectivity with Afghanistan but the centrepiece of the trip was also the basket of agreements on the development of the Chabahar port and onward connectivity with Afghanistan. The government deserves praise for the manner in which various pieces of this were put in place. The ground was prepared by extensive interaction of key Indian Ministries with their Iranian counterparts.
In consequence, we have a set of interlinked outcomes: a contract for the development and operation for 10 years of two terminals and five berths; the extension of credit lines of $500 million for the port and of Rs 3,000 crore for importing steel rails and implementation of the port; memorandums of understanding on provision of services by Indian Railways, including financing to the tune of $1.6 billion, for the Chabahar-Zahedan railway line—a line that is also part of the trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan on a transit and trade corridor.
Mohammad-Ali Moalem Damghani (left) presenting a copy of Devdas to Tarun Vijay
My three days in Iran, just a month back changed a lot I had been perceiving about it. We could see a softer, liberal side of the society. We roamed freely, mixed with local people, saw their bazar, had hundreds of selfies with Iranian families, boys, girls, who were simply thrilled to see scores of Hindostani vehicles that were hundred percent ‘made in India’. Restaurants were as noisy and chaotic as in Kolkata or Bangalore, with cokes, pastas, kababs, and “KFC’s outlets (of course K stands for some local variety of some K’ish sounding name-and doesn’t mean ‘Kentucky’). We visited at least one or two restaurants, in all major tourist places in four Iranian cities. In not a single restaurant, inside its serving area, none of the women wore hijab. A large number of the cars on road were women driven who not just waved at our caravan but shouted with their necks out- ‘Hello, welcome to Iran’.
We also visited a Temple and a Gurudwara in the same campus in Bandar Abbas, which are meticulously preserved and maintained by Iran govt’s cultural department. The caretaker, a Muslim, said the temple was constructed in the year 1310 AH. (1932 CE) during the rule of Mohammad Hassan Khan Sa’ad-ol-Molk. It should be the endeavor of our government to see that the temple and Gurudwara become functional places of worship and we can have it managed properly. It will be a very positive contribution to our friendship.
The climax of my Iran sojourn was a meeting with the President of Iran Arts Academy Mohammad-Ali Mo’allem Damghani, a close literary figure to the supreme leader Ali Khamenei. We discussed literature and the ancient threads that still create good, positive vibes for more than an hour. As we sat to have a session of India Iran relations through the prism of literature, he asked, “Do you know the meaning of Hoindostan?” And then immediately answered” Hindostan means friend of duniya—a land that is dost to the world. You have influenced immensely our literature and culture. You have so many religions, castes, different colours of culture, yet you have managed to live together. That is how the world should be. Make this world a Hindostan and all problems will be solved,” he smiled. It was a pleasant surprise. Here I was talking to a contemporary Iran’s important literary figure and a leader who represents the government. He was from his heart all praise for the contemporary India, and good words of appreciation for our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. Diplomacy is the art of serving my national interest. He also presented me a Persian version of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Devdas, translated into Persian.
When the interest of two countries converge, the friendship blossoms. Let us move in a way that helps us walk together with as many countries as possible and that exactly is a great success story of Modi"s foreign policy. He has very prudently maintained good relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, USA, Japan, and China—just look at the post Wuhan development.
(The Writer is a former Rajya Sabha MP)