India’s Narendra Modi in Mongolia: Wrestling, Buddhism and Democracy

What do India, with its 1.2 billion population and Mongolia, a country of 2.8 million, have in common? More than you might think.
But as Narendra Modi reached Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator on Saturday night, it was the first time a serving Indian prime minister set foot in the Central Asian nation. On Sunday, he will address the Parliament in a specially convened session and attend an open-air festival with displays of wrestling, horse riding and archery, among other things, during the day-long visit.
The two countries have had cultural and historical ties for more than 2,000 years.
In popular Indian thinking, Mongolia is generally linked with Genghis Khan: a horse-riding warrior who came to India in the 13th century to expand his empire.
At least one Bollywood movie has been made about him, the 1957 film titled “Changez Khan”  — the name by which he is often known in India.
But there’s more to India’s ties with Mongolia. Here are five connections that you might not know about:
Revival of Buddhism: India helped revived Buddhism in Mongolia..
In 1990, India appointed a Buddhist monk, Kushok Bakula, as its ambassador to Mongolia. At the time, the country, which borders Russia and China, had been under the influence of communism for decades and freedom for religion was restricted.
“For 70 long years there has been almost no religion in Mongolia,” Mr. Bakula, a monk from Ladakh in northern India, told Reuters during an interview in 1990.
“I want to help in the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia,” he added. During his 10-year stint in Mongolia, he helped open a school for Buddhist monks  among other efforts.
Gandan monastery in Ulan Bator was where Mr. Bakula often worked. It will be the first stop for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his one-day visit on Sunday.
“Democracy and Buddhism bind India with Mongolia – our spiritual friend,” Mr. Modi said in a post on his official Twitter account recently.
Cultural Connection: Only around 200 of Mongolia’s 2.8-million population, are Indian, and there’s an even small number of people of Indian origin there. Still, the country shares unique cultural ties with India.
Mongolians consider India to be an especially spiritual place, partly because it’s where Buddha found enlightenment. India’s most-sacred river the Ganges features in several Mongolian folk songs and literature and a major lake in the country shares its name with the river. One local legend says that the lake was created when a man who had returned from India sprinkled some water from the River Ganga at the spot.
More recently, Bollywood movies have become popular and posters of Indian actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Madhuri Dixit, and Vidya Balan can be seen in the local markets.
An Indian television serial on the Hindu epic Mahabharata has been dubbed in Mongolian and shown on Ulaanbaatar TV, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
Like most major Indian cities, Mongolia’s capital has a road named after Mahatma Gandhi.
Meanwhile, India is a popular destination for Mongolian students. Around 500 Mongolians were living in India in 2009, of those, 300 were university students.
Political Ties: India was the first country outside the Soviet block to establish diplomatic ties with Mongolia, which it did on Dec. 24, 1955, according to India’s foreign ministry.
“Glad to visit Mongolia … to commemorate 60th year of our diplomatic relations and the silver jubilee of Mongolia’s democracy,” said Mr. Modi in a tweet recently
India supported Mongolia’s membership into the United Nations, something that China had tried to block in the past. Mongolia has endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Several Mongolian presidents and prime ministers have visited India over the years. From India, the last high-level visit was made by Indian President Pratibha Patil who went to Ulan Bator in 2011.
During Mr. Modi’s trip, there will be “the normal talks with the Prime Minister of Mongolia, after which there would be the usual signing ceremony of the agreements, several of which are going to be signed,” according to a government briefing.
These agreements will include one on solar and wind energy, establishment of direct and regular contacts between the foreign offices of the two countries and agreements on training of diplomats, among others.
Money Links: Trade between the two countries remains small and has shrunk over the past few years.
In 2014, the total value of imports and exports between the two countries was estimated to be around $16 million.
One key stumbling block to widening trade between the two countries is that Mongolia is landlocked. The shortest land route between India and Mongolia is either through China, or central Asian countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Mongolia’s west, a journey that would require going through Pakistan, which has only one main trade route into India.
“India can neither do the business through Pakistan nor through China,” said Arata Bhanjan Mahapatra, director of the Centre for Asian Strategic Studies-India, a think tank in Delhi.
A recent deal by India to develop a port in southeast Iran, the Chabahar port, could provide an answer to this dilemma.
As of now, the port will provide access to Afghanistan, but India could potentially extend the connectivity to other central Asian countries including Mongolia, said Mr. Mahapatra. This could “serve as a kind of mini-silk route for India by connecting to Central Asia [without] depending on any of the two rivals i.e. Pakistan and China,” he said.
India is interested in getting access to Mongolia’s large deposits of minerals like uranium and coking coal. Meanwhile, Mongolia wants India’s agricultural products, industrial processing capacity building and information-technology knowhow, among other things, said Mr. Mahapatra.
Defense Engagement: For more than a decade, the two countries have been engaged in defense cooperation, including via joint military exercises.
Mr. Mahapatra, whose research firm has done work for the Mongolian government, said that the central Asian nation wants to boost its defense forces in a bid to counter China, which every few years tries to move further inside Mongolian territory. Mongolia believes that India, which has experience in dealing with contentious neighbors like Pakistan, can help it manage its porous border, he said.
Also, in recent years, Mongolia has had to deal with a new threat: terrorism.  Mr. Mahapatra some recent Indian-Mongolian defense training sessions have been focused on training special forces, to deal with this.
For India, the indirect tradeoff of closer defense ties with Mongolia: “You can have a country that is favorable to you in the backyard of China,” he said.
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