HISTORY AS A GUIDE TO THE FUTURE OF TURKISH-INDIAN RELATIONS
Professor Emeritus Irfan Habib,
Professor Chatterji, Professor Pala,
Dr. Ishrat Alam,
Esteemed Students, Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There could not have been a much merrier occasion for me than to address this conference of Turkish and Indian historians.
Let me start by wholeheartedly thanking our esteemed hosts, the Indian Council for Historical Research and their revered partner, the Turkish Historical Society, for putting together this august gathering.
I particularly thank Professor Dr. Basudev Chatterji and Professor Dr. İskender Pala for leading the two delegations, which include experts of global repute in their respective fields.
Many of you have been known to me through your invaluable research and timeless writings.
It is thus a great honor to be addressing you today and listening to your deliberations.
This conference is both timely and much needed. As the great historian, sociologist and jurist Ibn Khaldoun states in 1377 right at his beginning sentence of the Muqaddimah:
“history… is information about human social organization, which itself is identical with human civilization.”
He wrote about placing an event in its real context or awareness of the laws governing the transformation of human society.
That scholarly historical anchor must come to the help of the policy makers, intellectuals and our discerning publics as they grapple with the fact of change.
Today, Turkish-Indian relations are moving ahead towards a positive tipping point.
Both the global environment in which Turkish-Indian relations operate and the nature of the interaction between the two great countries and nations are subject to redefinition.
Firstly, both India and Turkey find themselves on an upwardly mobile fast-track within a global society and order that is signalling inevitable change.
They are in the process of both internal and external evaluation of circumstances and prospects as the world around them undergo fundamental change.
Historical perspective is necessary as Turks and Indians try to figure out the dynamics of global change and the implications and prospects of their resurgence among the human civilization and global social organization.
The second reason why this conference is important and timely is that Turks and Indians are in the process of rediscovering each other. And, in this regard too they need a historical perspective as a guide to their future relationship.
This perspective has long been absent because the two nations have forgotten about each other.
I have been deliberate in my word choice because the two nations actually knew a lot about each other as their pasts and their cultures were shaped in close proximity and intense interaction.
This time-honored proximity and interaction is in fact under-researched and under-documented, although I have come across some top quality publications both in Turkey and in India, and in lesser degree elsewhere.
In this context, allow me please to digress a bit and refer to a recent book I read on the Ottoman-Mughal relations, and particularly the part about the exchange of embassies between the two Turki dynasties in Turkey and India.
My records indicate that I’m the 20th Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey in India.
Before this twenty, however, there were several embassies dispatched by the Sublime Porte and the Mughal Court.
Of course, Turco-Indian contacts and interaction dates back at least to 1000 BCE.
However, the first recorded exchange between Turkey and Indian rulers dates back to 1481–82. This was the time when ambassadorial missions carrying letters, and gifts were exchanged between the Bahmanid kings Muhammad Shah and Mahmud Shah and the Ottoman Sultans Mehmet II and Bayezid II.
However, as Bernard Lewis tells us, it was particularly the “establishment of Ottoman rule in Egypt in 1516–17, followed by the extension of their power down both shores of the Red Sea, (that) involved the Ottomans more intimately in Asian affairs, and brought them for the first time into direct contact with the Indian sub-continent and her problems.”
A moderately intensive and customarily courteous exchange ensued in the diplomatic realm.
Naimur Rahman Farooqi quotes from Manucci that:
“it was an ancient practice from Akbar’s days that Mughal kings….do not take a letter direct from the hand of any man. Letters were delivered to the wazir and he read them to the king.”
Prof. Farooqi notes:
“However, an exception was made in the case of Ottoman and Persian ambassadors, and the Emperors used to receive letters directly from them. They were given an elegant robe of honour, a large purse of money as maintenance allowance, and a variety of gifts…They were received by the members of the royal family and entertained by the eminent nobles of the empire. The Ottoman envoys were also invited to attend all the court ceremonies, banquets and pleasure gatherings.
Mughal ambassadors were, likewise accorded a magnificent reception in the Ottoman empire; they were conducted from Scutari to Istanbul in a European galley meant only for the extra-ordinary envoys of friendly countries. On Landing at Istanbul, they were received by the Chaush Bashi ( Chief Persuivant) and his staff. The palace of the high imperial official was assigned for their residence. The envoy’s expenses during his stay in Ottoman territories were borne by the state; occasionally his food was supplied from the imperial kitchen.
Mughal ambassadors were allowed to present the royal letter directly to the Sultan; they received robes of honour, made of pure fur, and other gifts. They were also received and awarded by the Grand Wazir. Most of the Mughal envoys were also entertained at the Sultan’s instructions, by the leading Ottoman dignitaries.”
In fact, a study of the Ottoman-Mughal diplomacy contains scores of lessons for diplomats even today.
For instance, in 1638 Ottoman historian Naima reports the arrival of Ambassador Mir Zarif sent by Shah Jahan to Murad IV. Ambassador carries a letter asking for close alliance between the two emperors against Iran. As Bernard Lewis writes, “Murad’s reply is not extant, but its tone may be inferred from the next Indian letter, which complains of a lack of courtesy on the Ottoman side.” Prof. Farooqi explains that “the Mughals and Ottomans usually addressed each other by a string of titles, covering from five to seven lines of the letter. Lack of proper address was deemed to be insulting to the addressee.”
Of course, the same Shah Jahan, who was upset with Murat IV for his discourtesies of diction, which by the way probably had a specific motive behind it, also invited Ottoman architects led by Mehmed İsa Bey to construct the dome of Taj Mahal, which now stands as a citadel of Indian-Muslim-Turkish heritage. Akbar also employed architect Yusuf from Turkey.
There are also some fundamental strategic lessons to be learned. I defer to the historians to distinguish and elaborate these lessons. Instead let me identify two characteristics that I believe marked the Turkish-Indian political relations in pre-20th century history.
Firstly, the relationship has never been steady and always behind potential. Because of geographic distance and feelings of rivalry and jealousy between the two Turkish speaking ruling families, the relationship was held hostage to particular approaches and whims from one ruler to another. An example is given my K.A. Nizami, who rightly notes that “Despite all his political sagacity and wisdom, Akbar could not appreciate the dimensions of European imperialistic adventures in the East… Political expediency expected Akbar to evolve, in conjunction with the Ottomans, some plan to thwart Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean. But Akbar did not respond to Turkish ouvertures in this connection.” Akbar or others from his dynasty were not alone at fault. The Ottomans also did not consider the Mughals as long-term partners. The two polities came closer when there was a common threat and immediately drifted away when that threat dissipated. Lewis also notes that: “On the whole, Ottoman relations with India after the 16th century seem to have been infrequent and of relatively minor importance. There was a time, during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, when the Ottomans were for a while actively concerned with the affairs of south Asia. Towards the end of the 16th century, however, they withdrew from active participation, and thereafter their links with India were chiefly commercial—and even these began to weaken, as the Western powers established themselves more firmly in the East and diverted a good deal of the trade from the Middle Eastern transit routes to the open ocean.” You know the rest with respect to Indian and Turkish history!
That long-term strategic cooperation never really materialized exerted dramatic and negative if only latent impact on the evolution of the strategic environment in and around the two countries. My purpose here is not the draw lessons from history but to me historical perspective provides a further justification that Turkey and India need to adopt a strategic view to their relations and work on steady cooperation mechanisms and habits.
I should also note that Ottomans and Mughals never entered into a formal trade agreement with each other. The Mughals in fact employed a non-mercantilist free entry policy to all foreigners. Neither that nor the Ottoman “capitulations” proved beneficial. Perhaps, a trade agreement earlier would have mutually helped the two economies and provided a regular linkage between the two countries before the arrival of colonialism to the sub-continent. At any rate we do need such an arrangement between Turkey and India in this day and age. And I also submit this to your attention.
Of course particularly as of mid 19th century there were concrete cases of comity between the nations. The 1912-13 All Indian Medical Mission to Turkey to help treat Turkish soldiers wounded in the Balkan Wars, the Khilafat movement, and the flow of aid to Turkey during the Turkish War of Liberation, the jubilation recorded by Pandit Nehru in his memoirs when the liberation war was won stand out as illustrious examples of cooperation and interaction that made a difference. Prof. Azmi Özcan rightly points out that it was not only the Muslims of India but also the Hindus who rallied support to the Turks in the final decades of the Ottoman and later Republican Turkey.
Yet, maybe in a way they were exceptions that proved the rule as far as history concerned. The relationship has carried on with ups and downs in terms of intensity of political interaction and cooperation with negative implications realized only latently. However, positive feelings between the two nations and strong cultural interaction always remained nonetheless.
Secondly, third parties have exerted a negative influence on the bilateral relationship. In different times, the impacting third party may have changed but the fact of the matter remained. For instance, the strong and traditional enmity between the Uzbeks and the Mughals was one such factor. The Mughals were deeply suspicious of the Ottoman-Uzbek friendship, which the Ottomans considered to be a pillar of their policy to contain Persia.
Of course, again as Prof. Farooqi underscores, “friendship with the Ottomans would have obliged the Uzbeks to give up the anti-Mughal propaganda which they had unleashed in the north-western provinces of the Mughal empire.”
It’s an altogether different circumstance thence and now. Nonetheless, to put the point differently, sometimes the friend of one’s enemy needs to be one’s best friend. Such a geometry can well be a game changer that would transform otherwise intractable animosities and improve strategic environment for all.
Distinguished Professors and Students,
I can only agree with the Roman statesman Cicero who said that “He who is ignorant of what happened before he was born is destined to remain always a child.”
Nonetheless, if you allow me, I know that the study of history is much more than chanting certain historical dates, names, events and numbers in isolation.
“The past”, says Simon Schama, “has been studied to understand its connections with the present.” I hope that historians aspire for something higher. That said, suggesting lessons from the past events or as Leopold von Ranke’s widely quoted phrase put it to “judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future” is indeed a “high office.”
Talking about “high offices,” let me digress yet again.
The worst kind of intervention a government can make in social sciences is to gag and punish free scholarly research.
As such I strongly condemn the legalized insult and even intimidation and threat to historians and others that are responsible to the future generations for providing an accurate account of human history. As such, the feckless and unjust acts against free thinking, speech and research one sees recently in France regarding the ongoing Armenian debate is foremost un-French, as we have known it. And together with the rampant Islamophobia, it is a bad omen for its own in a time of economic and social turmoil.
Again going back to Ibn Khaldoun, "All records, by their very nature, are liable to error” either by partisanship towards a creed or opinion, over-confidence in one's sources, the failure to understand what is intended, a mistaken belief in the truth, or the inability to place an event in its real context, let alone a desire to gain favor of those of high ranks.
History must be in the province and the providence of the historians, not politicians.
Following Fernand Braudel "Everything must be recaptured and relocated in the general framework of history, so that…we may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life."
Allow me to conclude my speech by a few more remarks.
When one takes a random poll of public opinion on Indian streets, as I have been doing over the past few months, one sees an unmistakable positive sentiment towards Turkey. I know this to be true also for Indians in Turkey.
Since my arrival to the country in August 2011, I have had the pleasure of meeting countless Indians in at least four different cities who went to great lengths in expressing, in characteristically Indian eloquence and warmth, this innate sympathy towards Turkey and Turkish culture.
I was stopped by sympathetic Indians at airports, restaurants, shopping malls, mosques and museums who either told me about their visit to Istanbul or their strong wish to travel to Turkey.
The mutual public sympathy is not a recently created phenomenon although the mutual appreciation of Turkey’s and India’s visible ascendancy in the global pecking order has also been a strong influence.
I believe that this sympathy is innate and it is a distillation of generations-long interaction between Turks and Indians, between Turkey and India.
There is a story that needs to be told. However, as of today there remains a gigantic gap in historical inquiry into this valuable relationship. As such the beacon of historical knowledge is largely absent.
I therefore not only congratulate all of you and foremost the ICHR and the Turkish Historical Society for convening this meeting, but I also want to strongly encourage this to be a beginning of a long drawn and regular effort to bring the two historian communities closer together.
I also want to announce today that my Embassy will extend strong support to future efforts to research and publish top quality scholarly studies on Turkish-Indian history.
As the epitaph of the Turkish Historical Society conveys, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and guiding light of the modern Turkish Republic once said that writing history is as important as making history.
On that note I wish this august conference full success and submit to all of you my most profound and humble sentiments of respect.
Thank you for your attention.
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