Azerbaijani fans of Bollywood reconsider their relationship with favorite icons
due to India’s refusal to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity

April 14, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C.- It has been a month since Sakina Iskandar, an Azerbaijani native of Arlington, Virginia, packed her Shahrukh Khan DVD collection. She has also postponed indefinitely attending the screening of “U, Me aur Hum”, much awaited movie starring her another favorite, Kajol. Just like hundreds of Bollywood fans in Azerbaijan, Sakina’s long time affection of Indian culture turned to a mere confusion after India’s vote on March 14th at the UN General Assembly floor against Azerbaijani sponsored resolution.

India was one of the seven countries in minority to say “no” to the decision of the international community to reaffirm the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan within its internationally recognized borders and demand the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all the occupied Azerbaijani territories.

Hours after the UN vote, quoted Azerbaijani Ambassador to New Delhi Tamerlan Karayev as saying: “We have long worked with the Indian side to get them, at least, abstain on the resolution. But they didn’t listen to us. India’s position is disappointing and will certainly bear consequences for the future Azeri-Indian relations”.

Azerbaijan hosts a sizeable Indian community, many members of which found better career perspectives in the country after graduating from the local universities. My own alma mater, “Khazar” university has hosted a large student community from Southeast Asia since early 90s. A number of Indians work at all levels in the oil and gas industry in the country. Mixed marriages between Indian men and Azerbaijani women can also be found. Almost all major television networks in Azerbaijan dedicate regular weekly broadcast spots to Bollywood movies, popularizing Indian culture.

The ties between two countries date far beyond the last decade though. “Ateshagh”, centuries old Fire Worshippers temple located minutes away from the capital city of Baku has several inscriptions in Sanskrit, Hindi and Gurmukhi. The temple traces its origins to Zoroastrianism, which took root in ancient Azerbaijan. There is also a belief that it was built by Hindu traders community living in the area and dedicated to “Jwalaji”, the goddess of fire. Azerbaijan has been an important transit hub on the ancient Silk Road.

Analysts believe, the modern relations between “the largest democracy in the world” and “the first democracy in the East” to have bright perspectives of cooperation especially in oil and gas and IT sectors. But, as Ambassador Karayev puts it “with its UN vote India canceled all those plans.”

The vote created much concern and confusion among Azerbaijani public. Especially, since New Delhi pursued a decade- long policy of either voting for or abstaining from the decisions of major UN bodies on Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict. “I am really upset”, says Sakina Iskandar, a Bollywood fan, “I haven’t been able to listen to a single song or even chat on-line with my many Indian friends. It’s not just their movies I liked. I always thought our cultures shared a lot of similar values, like respect for elders and importance of family.” Her feelings are shared by many in Azerbaijan, who a month later still don’t have a clear answer to the question why India decided to take this negative turn in its bilateral relations with a very promising partner as Azerbaijan. Was it some kind of an international bargain with one of the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk group (US, Russia and France) which mediates the settlement of the conflict, who also voted against the resolution? Or Azerbaijan’s close ties with Pakistan? As one of the members of Yeni Dostlar Network, a primary Azerbaijani on-line public forum for political discussions put it “despite excellent relations with Pakistan, Azerbaijan always respected territorial integrity of India. It is shocking to see India, which has the fact of Kashmir separatism present on its territory to vote against the territorial integrity of another UN member country.”

Indeed, back in 1998, during the first ever visit of an Indian official, Minister of State for External Affairs Vasundhara Raje, to Azerbaijan, the late president Heydar Aliyev spoke at the meeting with her against separatism, pointing out that Azerbaijan was facing the similar dilemma in Nagorno-Karabakh. Mr. Aliyev said India and Pakistan must solve all outstanding issues between them through a dialogue. This official position of the Azerbaijani government toward India’s international concerns has been continued since then.

And Azerbaijan itself is putting her actions where her mouth is. After losing about 20% of its territory to Armenian aggression and having close to 1 million of its population turn to refugees and IDPs diplomacy remains Azerbaijan’s preferred solution even today. A March 14th UNGA resolution was another diplomatic step by Azerbaijan to bring an end to a bitter conflict and peace to the region. It has been 14 years since bloody Azerbaijani-Armenia war ended with Russian-mediated ceasefire. But all four UN Security Council Resolutions, a number of decisions by UN General Assembly, as well as messages from OSCE, Council of Europe, European Union, NATO and other international organization fall into Armenia’s deaf ears. Armenia ignores the norms and principles of international law and continues illegal occupation of Azerbaijani territory. This is something Azerbaijan cannot tolerate. The country refuses to make any compromises when it comes to its territorial integrity and bargain with the right of return of IDPs who more than a decade later live in temporary settlements. Armenia hopes that by maintaining the status quo it will make the world accept the shameful consequences of its aggressive policies.

A word of the world community is clear: Azerbaijani territorial integrity must be restored, IDPs granted their deserved right to return to their home lands and the status of Nagorno-Karabakh determined within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

Now, which is the part that India doesn’t agree with? The Councilor at the Permanent Mission of India to UN in New-York Mr. Vikram Doraiswami refused to comment March 14 vote and suggested to seek answers from the Office of the Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. “Asian Age” quoted the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs saying India’s vote was “consistent with the policies of the government of India”.

“This is equal to saying “I don’t want to talk about”, believes Sakina Iskandar, “I think, we deserve to know the real reason behind India’s negative attitude. I hope, we will hear more on this”.

Shafag Mehraliyeva, is an Azerbaijani journalist based in Washington, D.C.