The International Symposium on India and Turkey: Past and Emerging Ties

Dr. Burak Akçapar 26.03.2015

New Delhi, 26 March 2015

The International Symposium on India and Turkey: Past and Emerging Ties
Turkish Historical Society and Jawaharlal Nehru University – Centre For West Asian Studies

Professor Bansidhar Pradhan,
Professor Derya Örs,
Professor Refik Turan,
Professor Mansura Haidar,
Professor İhsan Fazlıoğlu,
Mr. Ahmet Belada,
Distinguished Professors,
Esteemed Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with great honour that I address this august audience. The distinguished participants here are all pursuers of a life in the “high office” of “judging the past and instructing the contemporary world as to the future”, to quote Leopold von Ranke.

That “high office” is most relevant in this context of India-Turkey relations in our particular day and age. Many have observed that the knowledge about the past of India-Turkey relations is almost as scanty as knowledge about our present. The most significant challenge and opportunity before this relationship of strategic importance remains to be the efforts to bridge the mutual knowledge gap. This symposium is a worthy effort to that effect and the job is entrusted to this august audience.

As Cicero had said, “He who is ignorant of what happened before he was born is destined to remain always a child.” The past, the present and the future are intertwined. These three temporalities are locked in an inescapable interaction.

I would argue that the relations between Turks and Indians have been defined throughout much of history by two characteristics;

One is that the people to people relations have been most cordial and cooperative. 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.

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.

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 limited to scholarly circles.

So much so that when I stopped my car in Mumbai at a mosque displaying red flags with white crescent and star, much in the Turkish tradition, the Imam of the mosque was not aware of the roots of the use of that symbol nor of its Turkish association.

Secondly, at the state to state level 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 overtures 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 strongly.

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 to highlight that 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.

Our task is to build on the positive energy and approach that our peoples enjoy with regard to each other and to forge a relationship that fulfils its strategic promise.

This symposium takes place at a particularly important historical juncture in Turkish-Indian relations. Over the recent years a sincere effort is made by the political leaderships in both countries to take our relationship forward. This effort has intensified even more over the last few months.

This is because the relationship, as well as, its two actors are important.

Unlike Winston Churchill’s faulty predictions India has grown into a robust nation since independence amassing significant power and influence. Amongst its long list of achievements India’s democratic institutions and secularism hold particular place. The fact of the matter is that within any State citizens are ultimately in the same boat. The good governance in any State is a common concern to all its citizens and, as we see in Western Asia, to the entire region and beyond. Democratic and secular institutions, incorporating accountability, the rule of law, separation of “religion and state”, individual human rights, economic freedoms and protection of free enterprise enable good governance and thus peace and prosperity at home.

As such Turkey and India are wound up by shared values. Our peoples have made the same choice on the side of a democratic, secular republic governed by the rule of law.

Turkey’s grand strategy is constructed upon the premise that international legitimacy, economic interdependence, respect for human rights, pursuing a sustainable environmental policy and harmony among people belonging to different religious and ethnic origins stand as the most important tools in building lasting peace, stability and prosperity.

Turkey is spending time, resources and energy to contribute towards, not only benefit from, a positive evolution of the regional and global order. In the words of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu:
“Rejecting a reactionary foreign policy approach, Turkey develops its positions on regional and international issues with careful consideration of its own conditions. More than anything else, Turkey’s stance reflects its historical depth, geographical positioning and rich legacy in international affairs. We believe that those who fail to understand the flow of history and do not position themselves in the world accordingly will be overtaken by the rapid pace of events and will end up paying a heavy price for it. Therefore, we formulate our policies through a solid and rational judgment of the long-term historical trends and an understanding of where we are situated in the greater trajectory of world history.”

Turkey’s active engagement with the world at large has already transformed the one and only pluralistic democracy in the Muslim World into a rising donor country and an active player in a multiplicity of regions and global matters including in economic and humanitarian issues. As Chairman of the G-20 in 2015 Turkey is striving to bridge the gap between the wealthy and not wealthy nations cohabiting egregiously in a globalized world. Having hosted the Least Developed Countries forum in 2011, Turkey will next host the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. Being on the right side of history motivates Turkey and compels her to take principled stances and pursue proactive policies. The challenge to implement principled stances and proactive and active policies is nowhere greater than in Western Asia or the Middle East.

The shared values of Turkey and India stand as an example for the peoples which live between our two countries.

The Middle East and North Africa have entered a new era of transformation which is based on the legitimate aspirations of people to enjoy democracy, human rights and better living standards. The same has raised rightful expectations regarding the future of the region. The “Arab Spring” essentially entails the establishment of political systems which respect the will of the people. Since the revolution in Tunisia, Turkey’s value-based approach and emphasis on democracy and popular legitimacy have underpinned her policy toward the uprisings in the Middle East.

First and foremost, Turkey decided to support the people who rise to demand such basic rights as freedom of expression and other political freedoms. Turkey’s chief concern was to sustain the deep and dear friendship we established with the people and to not trade these ties for temporary balance of power calculations. Secondly, Ankara emphasized that the transition towards stable and legitimate democratic political structures can only be achieved via a balance between security and freedom. Thirdly, Turkey believed that there is no contradiction between our emphasis on democratic demands, which in some cases required us to confront repressive regimes. Fourthly, Turkey expressed her opposition to foreign intervention because this region’s future has to be decided by its people. Last but not least, Turks proclaimed that they considered all peoples of the region as their eternal brothers and sisters irrespective of their background and saw it their duty to dampen sectarian tensions provoked by some irresponsible actors.

Recent political developments and the rising security threats have led many observers around the world to question the future of the “Arab Spring’. The emergence of political systems based on the free will of people involves challenges and comprehensive and far reaching transformations require long term efforts. There is a very strong possibility that over the longer haul democratic turn may well be irreversible despite shorter term ups and downs. It is most certainly needed and desirable.

Democratic governance is also needed in order to address the growing extremism in that neighborhood. Turkey is taking necessary measures against the activities of the extremist groups to defend her territory and citizens. However, transnational threats require efficient international cooperation which is currently rather weak. And this is what makes those threats ultimately resilient and stand as the hallmark of the many challenges confronting not only the Middle East but also various other hotspots around the world.


Turkey is aware and pleased that her friend India is taking firm steps forward to be a global power with its growing economy, huge market, military power, outstanding knowledge in space technology and informatics, rich human resources and deep-rooted historical and cultural heritage. It is of course customary for an Ambassador to argue that there is further potential in bilateral relations but in the case of the Turkish-Indian relationship the statement is unquestionably accurate.

The founding document of our relationship is the 1951 Treaty of Friendship stipulates that there shall be perpetual peace and friendship between the two countries. It must be a telling fact that independent India’s first cultural cooperation agreement was also concluded with Turkey. The leaders of the independence movement including but not limited to Gandhi-ji and Nehru were ardent supporters of a strong relationship with Turkey. It is time that the two countries come up with a restatement of their joint will to build on the 1951 Treaty of Friendship and quickly develop a more robust, intensive relationship than ever before.

Turkey and India need a new statement that would acknowledge similar visions, values and ideals, namely, promotion of peace, stability, prosperity based on democratic values and commitment to rule of law, human rights, pluralism, open society and sustainable development; remember with heartfelt gratitude the assistance peoples of the two countries extended to each other in their most difficult times; welcome the increase in people to people contacts and business sector cooperation while looking forward to further developing their economic relations; commit to further develop their friendly relations on their own merits;
acknowledge that today's complex challenges require a more structured, comprehensive and intensified practice of consultation and cooperation; aim at enhancing practical cooperation between the two countries on issues of common interest.

The two friendly countries decide on a number of actionable items in the immediate future, including particularly mutually intensifying visits of Heads of State and Government, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, as well as other Ministers including those in charge of Commerce, Culture, Tourism, Energy, Internal Affairs, Transport and Communications, Agriculture, Health, Education, Science and Technology; promoting contacts between the two Parliaments; broadening the consultations between the Ministries to include global and regional issues of mutual interest, including but not limited to Central Asia, Western Asia, Middle East, Asia-Pacific, Africa, fight against organized crime and terrorism as well as arms control.

Turkey and India need to daily consult and cooperate in the areas of food security, connectivity, transport, logistics and communications, information technology, sustainable development and environment. The Istanbul Process on Afghanistan already provides an important platform for regional cooperation including between Turkey and India and need to be jointly emphasized and promoted.

However, the most pressing need is in increasing the air connectivity between the two countries in order to facilitate tourism, business and economic as well as cultural interaction and cooperation between the two countries. Concluding a new trade agreement would also be necessary in order to develop commercial ties.

Although bilateral relations are behind potential, the fact is that leap forward is achievable and would require only a minor further push. In this context, it is imperative that the communication and interaction between the political leaderships in both countries be intensified.

In the last eleven years no Indian Prime Minister visited Turkey. I am hoping that the Honourable Prime Minister of India would visit Turkey next year not only on the occasion of the G-20 Summit that Turkey would host towards the end of 2015 but also on a bilateral occasion. In turn I also hope that the Turkish side, upon India’s invitation of course, would take the initiative to break the unnecessary cycle of 15 years for a return visit at the Presidential level.

The fact of the matter is that the Turkish-Indian relationship holds strategic value that is yet to be explored, identified and tapped. That is the very task that awaits those of us who have assumed responsibilities both at political, bureaucratic and intellectual domains. I may be the 20th Ambassador of Republican Turkey in India. But our diplomatic relations were established as early as the 16th Century. Turkish-Indian cultural and historic ties are deeply entrenched. And the potential of our cooperation is immense.

Building a robust Turkey-India friendship is one responsibility that we should not forfeit. It is one response we can give to the enduring challenges of our day and age in a world where history far from being finished has instead come to a precipice.

In concluding allow me to offer my sincere congratulations for holding this symposium. I thank the organizers for their vision and labour and the participants for taking the time to meet their counterparts and sharing their wisdom with the world.

I know that your deliberations today and tomorrow will add significantly to the body of knowledge about each other and help carry our relationship forward and upward to where it belongs.

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