New Delhi: Turkey and India, though not the best of friends, have been trying for the past three decades to overcome their differences, and strike a balance in ties, with a little give and take from both sides. But the relation appears to have nosedived of late under the Presidentship of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has taken on the mantle of becoming a “global Islamic leader”.
Bilateral relations have soured to an extent that India has decided to call off an upcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Ankara later this month, which would have been his first stand-alone official visit to the nation since taking over in 2014.
Erdogan has been openly cosying up with Pakistan, especially its Prime Minister Imran Khan. His sharp statement on Kashmir at the UN General Assembly last month, where he raked up the UN resolutions, and accused the world of ignoring the plight of “eight million people stuck” in Kashmir, have not gone down well with India.
Turkey has also markedly increased its defence cooperation with Pakistan. Ankara is building four MILGEM medium-sized warships for the Pakistan Navy, in a deal estimated to be worth over $1 billion. According to the deal, two ships would be built in Turkey and the other two in Pakistan under technology transfer. The two countries last year also inked a $1.5 billion deal for the supply of 30 Turkish attack helicopters – in the largest defence deal between the two sides.
Other reasons for the drifting apart of India and Turkey are New Delhi declining to accede to Ankara’s request for backing of its nuclear ambitions, and also Erdogan’s ire at India for allegedly not cracking down on the institutes of his close rival – Fethullah Gulen.
Turkey blames the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation (FETO) for last year’s failed coup to topple Erdogan. Ankara has alleged that FETO has “infiltrated” India, and Erdogan feels India is not doing enough to curb its activities.
Explaining the Turkey-India relations, Professor A.K. Pasha, Associate Dean, School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that Erdogan’s statement on Kashmir at the UNGA came as a “surprise”.
“Over the last 30 years, during almost all presidential visits and other visits from both the countries, we had agreed that Kashmir will be bilaterally resolved through the Simla agreement. But now he has raised the international issue of UN resolutions, which has come as a real surprise,” Pasha told IANS.
“In the last three-four years, we thought they have de-hyphenated their ties between India and Pakistan. But now it appears that they are slowly reviving the military relationship with Pakistan too, which is a matter of concern.”
According to the expert, in the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars, Turkey “supplied substantial military equipment of American origin” to Pakistan. “The Pakistani weapons were largely of American origin, and they needed spare parts, ammunition and other equipment, for which America had given the green signal to pass on to Pakistan,” he said, adding that “the Saudis then had also financed a major part of it”.
However, India has been able to strike a good relationship with Riyadh, especially under Modi.
“The Saudis we have been able to disentangle from other relationships,” he said.
According to Pasha, India had kept the Turks on “short leash” by supporting the Greek Cypriots at the UN. “So it was a quid pro quo, give and take — that we will not raise the invasion and occupation by Turkey of northern Cyprus, and Turkey would not raise the Kashmir issue at the international forums.”
Even when Turkey became a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) contact group on Kashmir along with Saudi Arabia, and other countries, Ankara explained to India that “since there is no voting taking place and resolutions are passed by consensus, so we have explained our position – that bilaterally Kashmir should be resolved between the two countries”.
But the OIC resolution passed by the Kashmir contact group on the sidelines of the UNGA last month was very harsh.
“The contact group not only passed resolutions which were very critical of India during the UN General Assembly, but also they went many steps ahead by voicing concerns about human rights and the need to resolve Kashmir through UN resolutions,” Pasha added.
“So now we are back to square one, despite 30 years of diplomacy, and all the high-level visits there, and several rounds of talks have been held – at the NSA level, the Foreign Ministers level etc. Both sides had wide consensus on a wide variety of issues, on Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Greece and Cyprus.
“But now suddenly Erdogan has become a sort of global Islamic leader, which has come as a real surprise,” Pasha said, adding that the strain in ties would be diplomatically resolved.
In October last year, Erdogan had declared that “Turkey is the only country that can lead the Muslim world”.
Turkey has a fairly advanced defence industry, which manufactures small arms and ammunition. India was planning to buy two naval ships from Turkey, but the deal has been cancelled over Erdogan’s raking up Kashmir at the UN and other fora.
In terms of bilateral trade too, it lies in India’s favour. “There is nothing much we can import from Turkey. For the last 30 years, we have been buying pulses, cotton, machinery, and other things; but there is very little else we can buy from them. So the balance of trade is in our favour. Turkey has been maintaining that both sides should bring the balance to more acceptable levels.”
“The Turks were a little upset. They felt that the advantages were only accruing to India, and that they were at the receiving end,” which led to building up of animosity.
According to Pasha, Turkey was also keen that both countries should cooperate in the construction industry in the West Asia and North Africa region. “But that did not work out.”
Turkey had two requests of India. It wanted India’s help in the nuclear field. “Turkey has nuclear ambitions, and India has huge thorium reserves in Kerala, and we have a fast breeder reactor which we have developed using thorium. Turkey wanted our technical skills, but the India government declined.”
“And the last straw that broke the camel’s back” was India’s refusal to close down the Gulen-controlled schools and other institutes in India, said Pasha.
The Gulen-controlled schools and institutes are spread across many parts of India, from Delhi, to Bengaluru, to Mumbai. “Some are disguised as schools, some as research centres,” he said.
“The Erdogan government was really upset that we have done nothing. He feels that America is using Gulen, and will bring him back to Turkey and organise a coup against him.”
“These are some of the issues that have led to cancellation of the visit of Modi,” says Pasha.
Gulen, a leading figure in the politics and religious affairs of Turkey, is in self-exile in the US. Erdogen alleges that Gulen played a pivotal role in the attempted coup against his regime in 2018. His government has demanded Gulen’s extradition, but the US State Department has asked for “credible evidence of his terrorist” activity.
Gulen, who lives in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, since he was forced to flee Turkey in 1998 to escape trial for treason against the state, is known to be linked to the CIA.