Indian govt and media's harsh reaction to Turkey's comments on Kashmir an unwarranted misreading of situation

Duygu Çağla Bayram

India's revocation of Article 370 of its Constitution has provoked varied reactions from all over the world. German chancellor Angela Merkel, on her recent visit to India, made her views categorically known to the Indian media and officials. The Finnish foreign minister also spoke very clearly on his country's views on Kashmir. The US Department of State, the Senate and several American lawmakers have been echoing similar sentiments. The British foreign ministry, as well as British political parties, have also made their position on Kashmir known to their Indian counterparts. Even the Indian government itself has reached out to several European and Arab countries to explain its decision on Kashmir.

Turkey, in much of its foreign policy conduct, behaves like a European country with its institutionalised decision-making that has been in place for a while and isn't very different from the countries mentioned above.

Yet, many India-watchers in Turkey are surprised to see the harsh reactions both from Indian officials and the general public €" the sort of reactions only Turkey is receiving. Many countries considered to be close friends of India now, have maintained almost the same policy as that of Turkey's, yet they have been spared the harsh reactions. India even issued a rare public statement on its disapproval of Turkey's military operation in Syria. This seems odd because India is known for its 'wait and watch' policy, particularly on international conflicts.

The Ministry of External Affairs even issued a travel advisory to Turkey €" something that generally comes with proper bilateral consultations on the safety and security of visitors to a country. It may be recalled Turkey has among the most favourable environments for Indians thanks to the soft power of Bollywood.

The Indian media has claimed that India responded against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's statement on Kashmir at the UNGA, by organising a meeting for the Indian prime minister with his Armenian, Greek, and Greek Cypriot counterparts, in order to "send a strong signal to Turkey". However, the Turkish side does not necessarily read these meetings as a "response". Indian leaders have been visiting these countries and neither the Turkish media nor government has made any comment on these meetings because Ankara also never saw its relations with New Delhi and Islamabad affecting each other ever.

What may be surprising is the news about the cancellation of the tender granted to Turkey's Anadolu Shipyard earlier this year to help build five support ships for Hindustan Shipyard. Such tenders are not approved without the careful scrutiny of a company, even if the company is Indian. If the Turkish company had won the confidence of the Indian government, it means Turkey has indeed proved its credibility across all criteria. India knows why it chose a Turkish company and why Turkey will remain the best choice even after the Kashmir issue.

What Turks see in India is a misreading of Turkey and its political environment. This leads to the question: Why do Indians single out Turkey for its Kashmir statement when there are several non-Muslim countries who have taken similar or even harsher positions on Kashmir? The answer to that is strange. Based on articles published in recent years on Turkey, it can be concluded that Indian intelligentsia or policymakers have constructed a narrative based on three misreadings: The ideological reading of Turkish foreign policy, the Pakistan-centrism and changing geopolitical environment.

Most of the opinions published in India about Turkey attach too much ideological determinism to Erdogan and his party. They receive the western narratives uncritically that Turkey is nurturing "Caliphate Dreams" or the revival of "neo-Ottomanist" ambitions. This is not too different from what British historian AJ Toynbee used to say about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk during the 1920s. Turks understand the western desperation against Turkey, but they fail to understand why Indians fall prey so easily to such orientalist narratives.

Turkey's domestic politics never allows such ideological rhetoric, let alone how the world should accept it. Yet the difference between speaking on humanitarian issues should not be mistaken as vying for a Caliphate. Indians had been vocal against colonialism in Africa and Asia in the 1940s. Even today, India does not hesitate when it comes to speaking for Palestinians. Turkey, as the leader of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, speaks for the Rohingya and Palestine.

Further, Turkey's South Asia relations are in most references looked at through the prism of Pakistan-centrism. Just because Turkey is a Muslim-majority country, it does not automatically make it "anti-India" or "pro-Pakistan".

Turkey is not alone in dealing with Pakistan, but, not all countries' relations with Pakistan become a regular news item in the Indian media. Moreover, neither India nor Turkey controls the same territorial and cultural boundaries from centuries ago. Turkey too has lost large territory it once had under Ottoman rule, yet, the modern republic managed to have normal and equal relations with all countries on the basis of mutual respect. Unfortunately, the subcontinent is still occupied by the divisive discourse left by colonial politics. Turkey's interests are best served only when Turkey has relations with all communities of South Asia, including the non-Muslim communities of India and the Muslim communities of the subcontinent.

But what many Indians appear to miss is the changing strategic environment around the world and in West Asia, in particular. The Arab uprising has underlined that people's aspirations need to be heard. Turkey has emerged as the only West Asian country where since the establishment of the republic, few exceptions apart, fair elections have bridged the gap between the streets and State. Most of the countries found it difficult to respond to the Arab uprisings. Amid the uncertain policies of western countries, Turkey can't sit around while the crisis drags on. This is particularly so now that the Astana Process has brought the non-western world to the centre of the resolution process.

The new West Asia emerging after the Syrian crisis will need strong non-western support. The changing geopolitics of the region and the world have brought more opportunities for Turkey and India to cooperate on many regional and global issues.

Last August, Turkey announced its "Asia Anew" initiative that aims at enhancing interstate relations, expanding private sector trade, improving academic cooperation and boosting interaction between societies. Turkey knows very well that it can't afford an "either India or Pakistan" policy and would love to see the region turn into a global hub for trade and connectivity. Turkey too has changed from being a poor economy to a G20 economy. Its growing presence in Central Asia, Africa and West Asia as well as in Latin America, is increasing its strategic reach.

Both Indians and Turks are aware that keeping a diversified worldview is the only way in today's competitive world. India and Turkey, as two emerging economies, have many areas in which to cooperate. Erdogan has been supportive of India's call for reform and expansion of the United Nations Security Council. Turkey's trade with India and China has reached $40 billion, something that shows the future direction of both countries.

Turkey too, should expect a fair treatment on issues that need a larger exchange of ideas and discussions, just as India has done with many countries over Kashmir. Let India and Turkey not miss the opportunities to cooperate for a stable, terror-free and prosperous future.

The author is a PhD scholar in international relations at Karadeniz Technical University and India Analyst at Anadolu Agency, Istanbul

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