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India's Turkey Policy - Ambassador Sanjay Panda's speech at South Asia Think Tank of Turkey- GASAM on December 16, 2020

Posted on: December 18, 2020 | Back | Print


India’s Turkey Policy

(Address by Ambassador Sanjay Panda at South Asia Strategic Research Center (GASAM) on December 16, 2020)

It’s an honour and a privilege to interact with several scholars, academics, foreign affairs experts, strategic analysts and members of the media, my first such interaction since taking up my assignment in Ankara six months ago. I would have preferred to meet you all physically, but respecting these difficult times, I think it’s only natural that we settle for a virtual meet. I am grateful to GASAM for providing the platform.

At the outset, I wanted to assure you that I will be candid in my assessment of the state of play in our bilateral ties. While sharing my perspective on the relationship that has taken the trajectory of a roller-coaster ride over the years, I will try to identify the cause of this effect. Not so much as a diplomat but as a student of international relations, I propose to delve into a few questions, “What Turkey means for India?”, “What are the bilateral challenges and opportunities?”, and finally, “What is the way forward to take our ties to the next level?”. I will be happy to take your questions after my presentation.

Friends, I have been an ardent Rumi fan. In fact, my first visit outside Ankara after joining my new post was to pay homage to Mevlana at Konya. I am deeply fascinated by Rumi’s philosophy towards life that provides true testimony and proof that people of all religions and backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony. Rumi’s visions, words, and life teach us how to reach inner peace and happiness so we can finally stop the continual stream of hostility and hatred, and achieve true global peace and harmony. Interestingly, this message is no different from the Indian ethos of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, a Sanskrit phrase that denotes “the world is one family”.

Since India attained its independence, a major plank of our foreign policy was peaceful co-existence based on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. This was a conscious decision by the policy makers to ensure that a new found sovereign entity, raising its head breaking free from the colonial fetters, could focus itself fully on the development and wellbeing of its people.  With our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of internationalism, India embraced the policy of non-alignment, pursuing an independent foreign policy in a bipolar world. Keeping with the times, our commitment to non-alignment has now evolved further into a policy of strategic autonomy. It is in this spirit that India adopted a balanced approach towards problems facing the world and has at no time taken an aggressive stand against any country.

While a free India embarked its journey with the objective of meeting its  development priorities, the international community was there to extend a helping hand. And today, it’s give back time for India. While India still strives to meet its growth and development aspirations, at the same time it also provides assistance to a number of developing countries through its development partnership programmes.  It is in this overall context that India’s foreign policy approach may be viewed, and the policy towards Turkey is no different.

Our two countries have a deep historical, civilizational and cultural connect. Exchange of diplomatic missions between the Muslim rulers and Ottoman Sultans in the 15th and 16th centuries are well documented. Turkish influence on Indian art and architecture during the period is clearly discernible. Ottoman architect Mimar Yusuf, disciple of the renowned Mimar Sinan, adorned the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar and designed many iconic buildings in Delhi and Agra. And not to mention the resonance of Rumi’s Sufi philosophy in India’s Sufi tradition and the Bhakti movement. The language links with over 9000 common words in Turkish and Hindi/Urdu also signify the cultural overlap.

More recent contacts include Dr. Ansari’s medical mission to Turkey in 1912 during the Balkan Wars, the Mahatma Gandhi led Khilafat Movement from 1919 to 1924 and the support extended by India in the 1920s to Turkey’s War of Independence. Gandhi himself took a strong stand against the injustices inflicted on Turkey at the end of the First World War and the entire country rallied around him.   

India has always considered Turkey a friendly nation, with which it shares the attributes of democracy, secularism and rule of law. Ataturk’s name and his legacy hold a particular appeal for every Indian. The similarities between the two countries in terms of pluralism and multi-ethnic social structure resonate strongly in India – both in the Government as also in the academic circles.

Located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Delhi recognises the strategic significance of Turkey – geopolitically, as an important player in a volatile region, and economically, as a hub for third country exports, particularly as a stepping stone into the EU market. Efforts have been made to optimize the potential for multifaceted cooperation across a wide spectrum, ranging from trade and investment to defence and high technology.

Over the years, the mutual desire to seek areas of strategic convergence and deepen political synergies have manifested in regular high level exchanges between the two countries. Commencing with Prime Minister Nehru’s visit to Turkey in 1960, there have been regular visits by Presidents and Prime Ministers from both sides to each other’s country, the latest being the visit by President Erdogan to India in 2017.  These high level contacts reflect the keenness with which the two countries have strived to expand and deepen their relationship.

We have cooperation at multilateral fora, convergence of views on global issues and have generally supported each other on issues of mutual interest. Turkey joining the Indian initiative, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), last week exemplifies our collaboration for a common cause. India strongly believes in multilateralism as well as in the United Nations as a founding member.  Presently multilateralism is going through a crisis and there are questions on the credibility and effectiveness of institutions of global governance.  It is important that countries like Turkey and India work together towards bringing about necessary reforms of the UN, especially the Security Council, to make them relevant to contemporary realities.

Both India and Turkey have been victims of terrorism, including cross border terrorism.  We have a cooperation mechanism in place whereby each side shares with the other its operations and experience in combating terrorism.   However, a lot more need to be done to counter this global menace and all like-minded countries should come together in this endeavour.  Terrorism in any form and on any pretext cannot be justified and it is for the global community to come together to meet this biggest global challenge.  In this fight, there is also need to hold supporters of terrorism accountable.

India-Turkey economic and commercial cooperation constitutes an important dimension of the bilateral relationship. As two large fast growing economies and G-20 countries, they hold a great potential to expand their partnership. There are bilateral institutional mechanisms in place such as the Trade Agreement of 1973 and the Joint Committee for Economic and Technical Cooperation (JCETC) signed in 1983.  There are also regular interactions between the two countries at Government and industry levels.

India’s economic engagement with Turkey saw a new momentum in recent years.  Bilateral trade grew 22% to cross US$ 8.6 billion in 2018. India ranked 6 in Turkey’s overall imports in 2018. The following year saw a dip and COVID has not helped matters either in 2020. Both countries recognise that the bilateral trade is at an inexplicably low level, and a target of US$ 20 billion has been set to be attained by the year 2025. India is also listed among the 17 target countries in Turkey’s recently launched Export Master Plan, and this had propelled enhanced exchanges among the business communities until COVID emerged as a spoiler. 

Similarly, investment flows have grown steadily in recent years, though considering the sizes of the two economies, it is presently rather low.   Indian corporate sector remains optimistic about Turkey’s long term prospects, and big business houses in India are in readiness to invest in Turkey awaiting a conducive political environment between the two countries.

People-to-people contacts between the two countries have continued and flourished in recent times and constitute yet another important dimension of our bilateral relations.  In the last couple of years, cultural performances, film shows, exhibitions, seminars, outreach to universities, a Festival of India in Turkey, India by the Bosphorus, showcasing Indian dance, music, food, were organised by the Embassy. Tourism plays an important role in bringing revenues as well as promoting understanding and cultural contacts.  There has been a dramatic increase in Indian tourists visiting Turkey, growing from 160,000 in 2018 to 316,000 in 2019, primarily thanks to the enhanced air connectivity. Indian tourism, especially destination weddings, is a major revenue earner for Turkey. In fact, US$ 31 million was spent on “Big Fat Indian Weddings” in Turkey in 2019.

Now let me move to the difficult part – the current strains in our bilateral ties. Unfortunately, we are confronted with some challenges in our relationship which is holding back the progress from realising its true potential. India-Turkey relations have been hostage to some misconception about history based on a wrong narrative crafted and propagated by vested interests. Such narrative also included giving colour of religion to a matter, namely Jammu & Kashmir, which is wholly internal to India. 

The initiative of 5th August 2019 to withdraw the temporary provisions of Art 370 and bifurcate the State into the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh were internal administrative decisions of India in accordance with our Constitution.  That should be respected.  Giving the benefit of doubt, acceptance of the flawed narrative could perhaps be attributed to ignorance. But how can one gloss over the armed aggression against Jammu & Kashmir in 1947, which is at the root of the problem, the legal accession of J&K to India, non-implementation of that part of the UNSC Resolutions mandating immediate withdrawal from areas of forcible occupation by the aggressor and continued cross-border terrorist activities that has cost the lives of over 42,000 innocent Kashmiris?

Religious element can in no way hold ground in the context of a secular country like India.  Owing to its ancient traditions of tolerance and respect for each other’s religious beliefs, all the religions have flourished in this land of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. And, it was in this context that the freedom of religion found a place in the list of Fundamental Rights under the Indian Constitution. Barring a few aberrations, people of all religious denominations have lived peacefully and prospered in India.

As for Islam, it is not only an integral part of our civilization but also represents India’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. Home to 190 million Muslims, the second largest in the world, India is perhaps the only country that has had four Presidents or Heads of State from the minority communities including three Muslims. If one still chooses to turn a blind eye to these realities falling prey to the false narrative systematically marketed by India’s adversaries, the bilateral implication could be far-reaching, and this we can ill afford.   

Lest it loses its relevance, no stones are left unturned to reinforce this false narrative that I mentioned about through diverse means, such as raising the matter at every conceivable multilateral fora, dragging the subject to seminars and conferences irrespective of the subject under discussion, instigating public, organising public demonstrations even in third countries causing law and order problems, and even by sponsorship of terrorism. And I am pained to see that the media in Turkey has also been victim of this false narrative resulting in lack of objectivity in their reporting on India.

So, what is the way forward? As an eternal optimist, I don’t think it is as bad as it seems. Ties can certainly be put back on rails – if not overnight, incrementally. A lot could be achieved for the benefit of our respective countries and peoples through an expanded and diversified partnership, and India is ready to work towards this end.  However, such progress can be achieved only on purely independent bilateral considerations not influenced by either country’s relationship with any third country. In other words, our bilateral relationship has to stand on its own merit, and we should refrain from looking at each other through the prism of any third country.

Secondly, every country has the right to manage its internal affairs, so does India, and any interference on this count is totally unwelcome and naturally liable to be viewed adversely.  We do recognise that it is not always possible to see eye to eye on every issue between two individuals or for that matter two nations, but some middle ground, respecting the sensitivities of each other, could nevertheless be found.  There have been suggestions to expand our bilateral economic engagement as a standalone objective and letting the other issues remain on the backburner.  Though this approach seems good to satisfy objectivity in relationship, it has little practical value in cases where issues in question are core in nature to a country and influence the very nature of decision making process.

To recapitulate, mutual understanding on political-security issues, especially sensitivity on issues of core concern to either side, lies at the root of development of relations.  As we advance, we can enhance our economic engagement, collaborate on high technologies, cooperate in regional and global priorities and become partners in the creation of a new global order.

Coming to specifics, once we have the right political environment, we could seriously make the most of the post-COVID opportunities by reimagining and reconfiguring our partnership. We have to identify areas of convergence and build synergies across diverse sectors, ranging from global healthcare to technology and innovation to optimizing from the drive to diversify global supply chains.

Once the trust and understanding is reinstated, defence and security cooperation will flourish, trade will boom, investments will flow unhindered, and floodgates will open for the participation of Turkish companies in the huge scale of Indian infrastructure projects covering transportation, housing, smart cities, etc. envisaged over the next 20 years with an outlay in excess of US$ 1 trillion. Our Science & Technology collaboration, especially in high technology areas such as space, IT, biotech and many others will spur future growth and economic cooperation.

In conclusion, may I say that we are talking about two societies who represent ancientcivilizations in every sense of the word. Our peoples have known each other and interacted over the millennia, both intellectually and materially. We have lived through a transforming world.  We have overcome difficult and unfortunate times in recent centuries. Today, we are young nations with fast re-emerging dynamic strong economies and vibrant young and aspirational youthful societies. We face common challenges in today’s interconnected world such as climate change, sustainable development, terrorism or pandemics. We have to join hands and demonstrate our solidarity and resilience while taking on these challenges. As major international players committed to multilateralism, either at the UN or as G20 members, it is in our mutual interest to actively explore avenues of collaboration to find solutions that will benefit our peoples. It is high time that we put aside external issues that distract us from our larger goals.

Friends, let us recognise this big picture in our bilateral ties and embark on an urgent course correction. It is only then India and Turkey can realise their full potential as natural partners in the 21st century.

I conclude with a quote from Rumi:

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”.  

I leave you with this thought.

Thank you.