India-Mongolia ties on upswing: Sushma Swaraj’s visit takes forward outreach that began with Narendra Modi's tour in 2015

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Mongolia from 25-26 April takes forward the outreach that began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour to Mongolia in 2015, the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the Northeast Asian country.

Swaraj will co-chair the sixth round of the India-Mongolia Joint Consultative Committee with Mongolia’s Foreign Minister Damdin Tsogtbaatar. India and Mongolia had signed a joint statement on Strategic Partnership in 2015 when Prime Minister Modi had announced a credit line of $1 billion for infrastructure development for Mongolia. Mongolia is using the credit line to build its first oil refinery. The two ministers will review the projects under implementation during their meeting.

Sushma Swaraj in Beijing

File image of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. AP

At Ulaanbaatar, Swaraj will participate in an unusual event to commemorate a former Indian ambassador; she will deliver the keynote address at the birth centenary celebrations of the late Kushok Bakula. Venerable Kushok Bakula Rinpoche was deeply revered in Mongolia. He was credited with cementing India-Mongolia ties and helping to revive Buddhist traditions in the former communist country during an unprecedented ten-year tenure in Ulaanbataar as Indian ambassador.

The 19th Rinpoche was an unusual but brilliant choice as India’s envoy. He was a high lama of Ladakh, parliamentarian, a great scholar of Buddhist studies and activist for the interests of Ladakh. When Bakula reached Ulaanbataar in 1990, Mongolia had just become a multiparty democracy after seven decades of communist rule and Mongolian society was adjusting to the new freedoms, including religious freedom. There was a revival of interest in religion in Mongolia, but there were few religious teachers. During the communist rule, almost all traces of religion had been wiped out, Buddhist monasteries had been destroyed, ancient scriptures burnt and the monks driven away.

The Mongolians follow the same Mahayana school of Buddhism as the people of Ladakh. Bakula brought Buddhist scriptures from India and helped establish the Pethub monastery. He arranged for young monks to be sent to Sarnath in India for religious training and Buddhist scholars from India were invited to visit Mongolia. He travelled extensively through the country, visiting small communities and giving lectures and discourses. The Ladhaki high lama was venerated by ordinary Mongolians and long queues were formed for his blessings wherever he went. As India’s envoy, he worked to build up government to government relations. Even after Bakula returned to India, he retained strong ties with Mongolia till his death at the age of 87 on 6 November, 2003.

The Kushok Bakula birth centenary is being celebrated in Ulaanbataar, Ladakh and other parts of India. The Buddhist connection between India and Mongolia has been in existence for centuries. In 1978, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then External Affairs Minister, had said that India holds the people of Mongolia in high esteem “for preserving, in translation and in manuscript, the vast collection of precious Sanskrit text on Indian philosophy, poetry, logic and astronomy lost by India over centuries.”

Modi’s landmark visit in 2015 coincided with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, adding a new dimension to India-Mongolia ties. Six decades ago, India had been the first country outside the Soviet bloc to establish diplomatic ties with Mongolia. A few years later, India backed Mongolia’s membership in the United Nations even while Beijing and Taiwan were opposed to it.

Despite the distance between them, Mongolia considers India a “third neighbour” as well as a “spiritual neighbour”. Landlocked between two large neighbours, China on three sides and Russia on the remaining side, Mongolia seeks a balance between the two neighbours and has made close friends among some countries which are referred to as the third neighbours.

Mongolia, under its new President Khaltmaa Battulga, is keen to consolidate its relations with other friendly countries as a counterbalance to its overbearing neighbour, China. In 2016, China had imposed a blockade on the supply of essential goods to Mongolia for inviting the Dalai Lama for a religious visit to the country. The Mongolian government was forced to give assurances to Beijing that it would not allow any more visits by the Tibetan leader. China accounts for almost 70 percent of Mongolia’s foreign trade.

Mongolia has large untapped resources and mineral reserves and its government is keen to attract investment in different sectors, including mining. India-Mongolia ties have been on an upswing in the past three years. Mongolia constitutes a part of India’s Act East policy and the relationship has moved forward from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership.

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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2018 17:51:38 IST

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