Brave old worlds: Turkey and India

Published 28.04.2017 21:22
Updated 29.04.2017 01:25
Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

Redesigning their foreign agendas, Turkey and India have found a great opportunity to better their friendship with the upcoming bilateral meetings

If Turkey had avoided taking sides in the Cold War, rather than deciding to join NATO and throwing its lot in with the West during the 1950s, it is highly likely that Turkey and India would have had been close allies in the non-Aligned Movement.

Turkish and Indian cultures bare striking resemblances to each other. Babur Shah's impact on India's language, culture, art and architecture as well as its clothes, cuisine, and even more importantly, the idea of tolerance between the two enormous civilizations was considerable.

The medical mission led by renowned Indian freedom fighter Dr. Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari in Turkey in 1912 during the dark times of the Balkan Wars is still well respected and remembered by Turks. In fact, without India's support in Turkey's War of Independence in the 1920s, victory would have proven much more difficult and may have possibly lead to a stalled formation of the Turkish Republic. The last Ottoman memory of Indian intervention relates to Mahatma Gandhi and his stand against the injustices inflicted on the country at the end of World War I. The archives of the last Ottoman newspapers demonstrate that Gandhi's courage heartened the imperial delegation on their way to the Paris peace conference.

Due to their similar mindsets, as soon as the Cold War era ended, both sides put tremendous effort in developing their relations, an effort reflected in Turkey's recognition of India's declaration of independence on Aug. 15, 1947. As a result, their diplomatic relations were established immediately and have continuously been developing ever since.

Unfortunately, ties between the two countries remained tense for a long period of time before 2013. Rooted in their deep-seated sense of inadequacy, the diplomatic corps of Turkey, as well as inept coalitions of politicians during the pre-Justice and Development Party (AK Party) period, were not able to support Pakistan's stand on Kashmir in the international forums and simultaneously work on their shared interests with India in peace and stability in the Middle East and South Asia.

THE START OF THE FRIENDSHIPLate President Turgut Özal went on to prove that cooperation was indeed possible and that the Turkish people were willing to work toward a cooperative relationship. During his historic visit to India in 1986, then-Prime Minister Özal suggested that the two countries have offices with military representatives in their embassies. Later, during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Turkey in September 2003, it was decided that the defense ministers of both countries would maintain closer relations. India's willingness to expand military contacts and to encourage the exchange of delegations in training facilities helped further develop closer relations.

After the 2003 popular revolution in Turkey, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara and the Foreign Office in New Delhi finally had the leeway needed for constructing a closer relationship. Later, during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to India in November 2008, the two countries agreed to strengthen cooperation between the countries' defense forces. As a result, there are ongoing naval exercises between India and Turkey that have continued to the present.

Turkey's first nano satellite, manufactured at Istanbul Technical University's (ITU) Faculty of Aeronautics, was sent to space on a rocket by the Indian Space Research Organization in 2009. Now, ITU is planning to further expand cooperation in space technology through Indian companies.

Erdoğan's visit not only opened the door for closer cooperation in space projects, but also for commerce and finance. Recently more than 200 companies with Indian capital have registered businesses in Turkey in the form of joint ventures, trade and representative offices. Among them are major Indian giants as GMR Infrastructure, TATA Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra, Reliance, Ispat, the Aditya Birla Group, Tractors and Farm Equipment Ltd, Jain Irrigation, Wipro and Dabur. In fact, India's GMR Group is one of the main partners in the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in Istanbul. Likewise, Turkish companies have also taken up ventures in India, with investments totaling more than $100 million. Turkey and India are members of the G20 group, which as members, gives them the capacity to closely cooperate on the global economic issues.

A VISIT TO BETTER RELATIONSErdoğan's visit to India this week could not come at a better time. President Erdoğan is pioneering a reform in the United Nations Security Council with his slogan, "The World Is Bigger than Five," which indicates that the five permanent members of the Security Council cannot have more rights than the non-member countries, and India has offered its full support to Erdoğan. However, India's push to secure a permanent seat suffered a setback last year. The General Assembly decided to postpone the reform discussions to this year's session. President Erdoğan and President Pranab Mukherjee will have a lot of notes to compare. Erdoğan champions the idea that the problem of the "imbalance of influence" in the council should be corrected by adding non-permanent members to the powerful U.N. body. India has been defending the same idea and finds it essential to achieve a new balance that reflects current global realities. However, Pakistan and some other countries taking part in an interest group called "Uniting for Consensus" (UfC) are asking to find other solutions that would make the "five" a "six," which would simply exacerbate the existing problem. After all, the world is bigger than six, too. The UfC group includes Italy, Pakistan, Mexico and Egypt as founder members, as well as Argentina, South Korea, Spain, Turkey and Indonesia, who joined later. The G4 countries — India, Japan, Germany and Brazil — had asked the United Nations to speed up the security council reforms, with the assumption that the issue will be on this year's General Assembly agenda.

Despite the strong and still developing relationship, the Western press sources would have their readers believe that India and Turkey are contentious on several issues, especially concerning India's stance on the so-called Armenian Genocide. In fact, India doesn't officially recognize it as such. According to Turkish officials, Indian officials' visits to Armenia have had no effect on Turkish-Indian relations. This week, Erdoğan offered his "condolences" to the grandchildren of those who lost their lives in 1915. In his message to the Istanbul Surp Vartanants Church, where a ceremony was held, Erdoğan said: "I offer my condolences to the grandchildren of the Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives in the harsh circumstances of World War I. We have zero tolerance for our Armenian citizens being ostracized, marginalized or made to feel like second-class citizens."

Since 2010, after decades of denial, the tragedy has been publicly commemorated in Turkey as well. The world needs to know that World War I atrocities are no longer taboo in Turkey, and that the government has returned the properties of the Armenian churches and charities. An example of this policy has been demonstrated in the restoration and reopening the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar (Aghtamar) Island on Lake Van in eastern Turkey, where an Armenian congregation now holds regular masses. Armenian historian Ara Sarafian states that the project represents an answer to the allegations of cultural genocide. He opined that the revitalization of the site is "an important peace offering" from the Turkish government.

Another point of misrepresentation in Turkish-Indian relations is Turkey's long-standing partnership with Pakistan. Some western observers think that this strong relationship between the two countries could make Turkey standoffish in its ties with India. For example, it has been alleged that Ankara put up hurdles for India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG), a 48-member international group that regulates global nuclear trade. Following an agreement with the U.S. in 2008, the NSG allowed India to engage in civilian nuclear trading without having to give up its nuclear arsenal.

It is well-known that Turkey has no objection to India joining the group. İlnur Çevik, senior advisor to President Erdoğan, reiterated last week at a meeting on "India and Turkey's Place in the Rising World" organized by Daily Sabah, that this is no longer an issue in bilateral relations. In fact it is quite the opposite. Turkey is interested in nuclear cooperation with India in the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

President Erdoğan will be receiving a Degree of Doctor of Letters from the Jamia Millia Islamia (Community Islamic University) in South Delhi during his two-day visit to India. The degree will be awarded in the university's Dr. M. A. Ansari Auditorium. Although symbolic, this event brings the Indian-Turkish relationship full circle by recollecting the medical help Turks received from Dr. M. A. Ansari in 1912 during the Balkan Wars.

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