Beginnings of the journey
The serious engagement, however, began in 1955 with the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru while visiting Moscow in June that year and the Soviet Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev arriving in New Delhi a few months later, overcoming the initial misgivings Moscow harboured about India.
One of the lasting outcomes of Khrushchev’s visit was the announcement of the Soviet Union’s support for India’s claim of sovereignty over the northern province of Kashmir. Sixty four years later Russia has displayed the same consistency in endorsing New Delhi’s revocation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status.
In the spirit of ‘principled reciprocity’ that cemented the bilateral bond between Delhi and Moscow during the Cold War decades, India denounced Western colonial attitudes as the root cause of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis involving Israel, France and the UK. India also refrained from criticising the intervention by Russian troops in the Hungarian uprising in 1955 after Budapest joined the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact. Years later, India was to again break ranks with almost the entire world when it tacitly supported the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, which ultimately led to its collapse in 1991 and the outbreak of civil war and chaos that persists till today.
The most productive years
In the intervening years till the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, relations between India and Russia proliferated, with the former receiving invaluable Russian assistance in the field of science and technology and of course, materiel.
India’s steel plants in Bhilai and Bokaro, the thermal power plant in Neyveli, the antibiotics factory in Rishikesh, the Indian Institute of Technology at Mumbai and numerous other industrial, research and educational centres were established with Russian assistance. The first Indian satellite Aryabhata too was launched with Russian assistance in 1975 and Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian astronaut to travel into space, was a crew member of the Soviet spacecraft, Soyuz T-11 in 1984.
Meanwhile, as enduring Russian assistance in the field of science and technology strengthened India’s economic foundations, collaboration in the defence arena from the early 1960s significantly boosted India’s fledgling military capabilities.
Starting with MiG-21 ground attack fighters and T-55 Main Battle Tanks, India has, over decades built up a massive inventory of Russian-origin military equipment through a combination of direct purchase and local licensed-manufacturing via technology transfer.
It’s little wonder that over five decades later Russia continues to be India’s largest provider of arms and military technology transfer. During 2014-18, for instance, Russia accounted for 58 per cent of India’s total arms import, followed by Israel (15 per cent) and the USA (12 per cent).
Bilateral defence ties received a boost under the August 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation. This pact was a critical factor that contributed to India’s victory in the conflict with Pakistan the same year, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh, a feat no other military had achieved- the creation of a new country. This treaty also proved beneficial to Russia then in the throes the Cold War; it helped Moscow checkmate the USA, other western powers, and China in establishing their footprint in South Asia by propping up Pakistan.
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