Turkey and India: At a Similar Point on History's Crossroads
NEW DELHI: Walking down the very trendy and very crowded Istiklal Caddesi in the downtown Taksim area of Istanbul - their equivalent of Jan Path in Delhi - on the 24th of December 2015, I came across an extraordinary demonstration.
There were about 500 people, almost half of them women. They were of all ages, from say 25-60. Many carried kerosene lamps, which baffled me. I couldn’t understand the posters they carried, or their slogans. I wondered about the ululations that erupted now and then, from the women, mainly. What I did understand was that this was a community of doctors – many wore the white doctor’s coat that I had had at one point. It was difficult to find out what this was about since most protesters said they could not speak English. Were they afraid to talk to a stranger?
This was striking: the dreadful mono-lingualism in Turkey. Orhan Pamuk says in Istanbul: Memories and the City, that as a young boy he heard Greek and Armenian and Kurdish and Hebrew and all kinds of other languages on the streets. He also remembers being told later, only speak Turkish on the streets or you will be in trouble.
I had some experience of this. On the tram to Sultanahmet, I met a gentleman prepared to tell me, in English, what he knew of the histories of the fabulous monuments we passed. So I gave up my seat and went to stand close to him, to hear him. Where are you from? he asked. India, I replied. He pointed to a young man sitting next to him and said he is also from India.
And this was a young Malayali man, studying journalism in Istanbul, hoping to go to Germany. As we spoke to each other, this Turkish gentleman said sharply, you are both Indian and talk to each other in English?
We had a long discussion about this, but he wouldn’t talk to me any more.
Back to the demo, I talked to this one, then another one. Finally, a journalist covering the event told me this was a demonstration by doctors protesting the government’s actions in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, particularly the withdrawal of medical facilities. They were also protesting cutbacks in health budgets in general.
This peaceful demonstration by doctors was covered by three huge water cannons, and about one thousand automatically armed policemen. Two lethally armed policemen to every one peaceful demonstrator. There were no policewomen.
So I too joined the demonstration. And simply by persistence, got through to meet Dr. Samet Menguc, MD. He was the Secretary of the doctor’s union that had called for this demonstration. Even through an interpreter, a young woman doctor he called for assistance, it was difficult. He said they were protesting against “ the war” the government was waging in Kurdish areas of Turkey. “War?”, I asked. He said yes, the Turkish government is waging a war against Kurds in Turkey. He wanted me to write about this in India, so people could know what is going on in Turkey.
I would never see something like this in India. No doctors’ associations have protested against what is going on in Kashmir or the Northeast or Chattisgarh. Or indeed, Gujarat 2002. Or Delhi 1984.
We now have a government in India waging war against her students. As a teacher deeply concerned with the ongoing attacks on JNU, I was struck by the parallels we have between India and Turkey, the differences notwithstanding. Amitav Ghosh recently had a piece about our infatuations with strong men, Mr.Modi and Mr.Erdogan.
Two things that struck me: Istanbullus, Pamuk says, are engulfed in huzun, the nearest English word being melancholia. They strive for the glories of the world they have lost. They also strive for equivalence with the West.
So Kemalism meant Turkey must become Western, everything Turkish was abolished. The Roman script replaced the Arabic, the Friday holiday was abolished for Sunday, Turkish dress (the Fez) disallowed you from entry into universities and public employment, a civil law was promulgated. A secularism, if you will, from above. Frequently imposed by the army.
During the Cold War years of course Turkey was one of the bastions of US influence. Like Pakistan was. We now have this particular friendship with the USA too, with our Prime Minister paying homage to the unknown US soldier, killed in the war in Vietnam.
Turkey was so important to the US, that I read somewhere that Istanbul had more spies per thousand population than any other city in the world. No wonder more James Bond films have been located here than any other.
There was a violent ridding of Leftists in the 1980s, followed by a war with Greece over Cyprus. For three days “Greek” houses and properties were looted, while the army stood by. We saw this in 1984 in Delhi. So the “Greeks” then left for a Greece they were never part of for many centuries. With the creation of Israel, ungrateful Jews migrated. These were descendents of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 – as the great modernist programme began of one nation and one people, a very European idea of nationhood that the Hindutva lot seek to emulate. The Ottoman empire offered them special status, welcoming them.
My friend Prof. Esra Mungan, professor at Bogazici University, Istanbul, was jailed recently for signing a petition, along with other academics, over the ongoing war against the Kurds. Another friend, whose name I shall not mention, a young historian who has signed this petition, has been told he has no chance of a faculty post in Turkey.
I can vouch for the fact that we are also getting there. Certainly in JNU, where apparently Hindutva ideologues are appointed hither and thither, by a Vice Chancellor who has no respect for democracy or indeed, JNU’s unique traditions.
With such different trajectories, that we have arrived at a similar moment in our countries is chilling. In both countries, “strong leaders” are demonizing Others, the Kurds in Turkey, Muslims and indeed others in India. It is in this context that public universities are under attack in both countries.
(Dr Mohan Rao,MBBS, PhD is Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)