New opportunities for India-Turkey relations

Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal built the foundation of a new republic which effectively made Turkey a member of the community of modern nation-states, leaving behind the legacy of the empires.

india turkey ties
Turkey and India have shared interests from Central Asia to West Asia and Africa. (File photo: PTI)

By Omair Anas, 

India and Turkey are two modern nation-states that share a lot of historical commonalities in the making of their state and society. Both nations have an unending history of civilizations, to the extent that many a time, they contradict each other. Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal built the foundation of a new republic which effectively made Turkey a member of the community of modern nation-states, leaving behind the legacy of the empires. Indians, too, stood against the British Empire to build a new nation for themselves, based on ideas of equality, liberty, and justice. Both countries share a lot in their experiences of building a new nation without much alienating from their pasts. One of the memories of their pasts, which both nations still cherish, is civilizational ties between the two people spread from Anatolia to Hindustan. Both countries often take these historical and civilizational ties as a reference to their current and future bilateral relations. The Ottoman admiral Sidi Reis, the admiral of Sultan Suleyman, had an accidental visit to India in 1555 when his ship was pushed to the coast of Gujarat by a powerful storm. On his return to Anatolia, after spending almost six months, his memoir, Mirat ul Memalik, explains the Ottomans’ fascination with Indian society and culture. Since then, the Ottoman-Indian embassies continued to exchange and reciprocate their ties. The Turkish geo-strategic perception of India, however, started changing once the subcontinent came under direct control of British colonial rule. The Russian Empire wanted to challenge British rule by invading parts of India through Afghanistan and Tibet. The British Empire found it convenient to offer Turkey a bigger role in Asia and India to keep the Russian expansion in check. In the Russian-Turkish war of 1876, Britain and local Indian rulers provided financial support to Turkey after Turkey lost the war. Since then, Turkey has received more sympathy as Turkey is seen as an ally. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth century, Turkey-India relations saw the most active and frequent diplomatic, cultural, people-to-people, and political contacts. Much of Indo-Turkish political and strategic perspectives have taken shape in these encounters. As British-Turkey relations, later on, deteriorated, Turkey started supporting local Indian rulers and pro-independence forces. Istanbul gradually emerged as the main transit point of Indian revolutionaries wanting safe travel from India to Europe. Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh had, at least twice, the audience of the Ottoman Sultan Reshad before he declared the first Indian government in exile in Kabul in 1915.

With the tragic partition of India, however, Turkey faced at least three challenges. None of the Ottoman and early republican politicians were expecting such division. Turkey had to split its India policy into two parts. An undivided India would perhaps have maintained the same threat perception towards the Soviet Union. With Pakistan already in the Western alliance, India had little to worry about the expansion of the Soviet Union. Turkey tried to find a middle way when the Turkish delegation met with Nehru in the Bandung Conference in 1955. Indians were surprised to see Turkish delegates enthusiastically speaking against western imperialism. Third, with the end of the Cold war, Turkey lost much of its significance in the West’s Russia-centric threat perception. The never-ending wait for the European Union accession became a political and strategic liability for Turkey. President Turgut Ozal and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to reset Turkey’s foreign policy for a post-cold war world where Turkey could have expanded its relations beyond West-centrism. However, Turkey’s search for a post-cold war world view is only prolonging further.

Turkey’s India policy has yet to overcome the Cold War era’s transactionalism. Both India and Turkey have failed to enter into meaningful dialogue to communicate each other’s perspectives on regional and international affairs. They even lack necessary dialogue forums. They see each other more for what they are doing with others rather than what they can do for each other. This “external factor” remains a disturbing element in their bilateral understanding. Even though both countries have yet to acknowledge each other’s roles in their respective geographies, and their economic and strategic potentials, both countries have a long list of shared interests and shared problems. Interestingly, even in their difficult phase of bilateral relations, they have managed to reach important decisions. India has awarded a consortium of Turkey’s top five leading shipyards, TAIS, the contract of naval shipbuilding worth $2.3 billion. A Turkish company, Savronik, has also completed a defence ministry-related project to build a tunnel in India’s Leh-Manali highway. Both countries exchanged emergency help during the COVID-19. Indians are now the third-largest Asian tourists in Turkey after China and Indonesia. Indian businesses, from food to technology, have been gradually expanding their presence in Turkey. India’s Indigo Airlines aims to bring more tourists to India via Turkish Airlines after both companies have entered a code-share deal. Turks constitute one of the biggest viewers of Indian TV programs in entire West Asia. A Turkish channel, Canal 7, is dedicated only to Turkish-dubbed Indian family dramas. An Indian visitor often receives surprising inquiries about some Indian TV actors, which many Indians might not have even watched. Turkish dramas have also attracted more Indian audiences, especially after the popularity of Ertugrul. A less known aspect of India-Turkey relations is historical Sufi relations between the two countries. There are thousands of followers of Indian Sufis of Naqshbandi and Qadri schools. From the sixteenth century onwards, their disciples visited the Ottoman cities and established Sufi centres (Tekke) in Edirne, Bursa, Van, Bitlis, Istanbul, and Konya. These Indian tekkes receive hundreds of followers even today. Many Turks visit the shrine of Imam Ahmad Sirhindi, famous as Imam Rabbani in Turkey in India’s Punjab.

Turkey and India have shared interests from Central Asia to West Asia and Africa. Turkey and other Turkic nations have recently established the Organization of Turkic States. The initiative has also been backed by Western support as Turkey may balance China’s growing presence in Central Asia. After the US withdrawal, Turkey, along with Qatar and the UAE offer promises that Afghanistan does not miss the gains of political process. After Turkey has helped Azerbaijan reclaim its territories from the Armenian control, Turkey has offered a 3+3 mechanism to create a zone of peace along with Russia, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. With this mechanism, Turkey and Armenia can soon reestablish full diplomatic ties. Azerbaijan and Armenia have already agreed to open the Zangezur corridor connecting Azerbaijan with its separated enclave at the Turkish borders. The corridor will connect Turkey with Central Asia bypassing Iran. With its equally good relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia, India would like to use this windfall peace dividend in rebooting her Eurasia outlook.

Similarly, in Libya, Turkey and Russia have emerged as two leading players in bringing peace and stability to Libya. Turkish drones are already flying on Eurasian, European, African, and West Asian skies. Turkey has followed the Indian approach towards Africa to become a development partner. Both countries can cooperate in Africa to help Africa diversify its trade and development relations. Turkey has thawed its feud with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Turkey has to stay there for many reasons, including to balance with both Iran and Israel. India has improved its relations with its unique balancing act, the Persian Gulf Quad (India, Israel, the UAE, and the USA). India and Turkey have no differences in key international cooperation issues, including trade, investment, climate change, maritime security, and reforms in the United Nations. A new start may not be unrealistic but merely opening new forums of dialogue, like think tanks, academic, and cultural exchanges, may help them acknowledge the new realities and use new opportunities that both countries offer to each other.

(The author is Assistant Professor at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University and Director (H) of Centre for India-West Asia Dialogue. Twitter @omairanas Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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