How India and Turkey are Similar in More Ways Than One

The recent incident of Darwin being dropped from school syllabus in Turkey would have made many in India react with ‘this is more of the same’ boredom. The ‘the more of the same’ boredom is understandable given the fact that rewriting of school history books has become a routine affair in India.

However, the way the two countries are trying to indoctrinate their education may appear to be coming from the global trend of rise in conservatism, but they are, in reality, rooted in the histories of the two countries which are strangely similar.

Like India, Turkey was a British colony. The founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk Kemal Pasha, was among the most prominent figures of Turkey’s freedom movement. Once Turkey found independence from Britain, Kemal, a military person, seized power. He is said to have had many of his political adversaries killed, some of whom were his former allies, to remove hurdles to his passage to power.

A diehard Westophile, Kemal believed the only way Turkey could prosper was by embracing Western ways. He told his people they should look to Europe for social and cultural reference and consider themselves as part of European culture and not the Arab countries.

He replaced the Arabic script of Turkish language with Roman script. He insisted on Western attire. He completely suppressed the Muslim orthodoxy.

In 2014, BJP came to power with a majority unmatched since 1981 when Indira Gandhi, following some years in opposition, had stormed to the PMO. Indira Gandhi’s 1981 victory meant a resumption of continuity following a disruption in 1977. Conversely, BJP’s 2014 victory was a complete break with the past.

This departure from the past signifies a much bigger break than mere political. This victory meant a halt to everything Congress. It’s not as if Congress had not suffered electoral reverses before (read 1977), nor is it the first time that there is a non-Congress government in power; BJP itself was in power 10 years ago.

What is different this time is everything is being completely reversed. New definitions of traditional perceptions are being laid. Because of Congress’ long stay in power, popular perceptions about good and bad involving things like space of minorities in the society, secularism were coloured by Congress’ stand on them. Now a new normal is being formed.

But Congress, to a great extent, is responsible for their decline. Subsequent leadership generations of Congress digressed from the core values of socialism and secularism  which defined the value framework of pre and post independence Congress leadership. The quality of Cong leadership in fact started reducing  post Nehru.

Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was ideologically less driven. Her son Rajeev Gandhi was a novice and a new comer to politics when leadership was thrust on him following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. The current leadership of Congress led by Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great gradson,  is reluctant and incompetent.

In addition to this, what works for BJP is a popular leader and unprecedented majority in parliament.

But perhaps the bigger reason is the party in power represents Hindu orthodoxy, a group that was denied any voice in post-independence India when Jawaharlal Nehru was steering the country in the direction where religion had no role, in the same way as the voice of Muslim orthodoxy was suppressed in Turkey when Kemal Pasha was writing the rules for a modern Turkey. It’s this that brings a touch of vengeance to whatever they do to the old orders (Kemalism and Nehruism) in their country.

Since then, lot of water has flowed under the bridge for both the countries.

In 1998, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, read out verses of Ottoman Islamist poet Ziya Gőkalp at a public event. In a secular Turkey, it was an oddity for a politician to read out Islamist verses publicly. It was also illegal – which attracted a 10 month sentence for Erdogan for ‘’inciting religious hatred”.

While in jail, Erdogan continued to mobilize opinion and founded a party, AKP (Justice and Development Party), his launch vehicle for a career in politics. In 2002, AKP won a thumping victory and since then the man who was born in a family of modest means in a provincial town of Turkey and moved to Istanbul aged 13 and joined the youth wing of an Islamist party, has not had to look back.

In the years following Erdogan’s coming to power, Turkey became economically prosperous resulting in the rise in income levels of the middle class and exit of many from poverty. But together with this economic boom came social conservatism (many wear scarves publicly – a marked departure from the past) and shrinking civil liberties, especially after the failed military coup last year which saw wide-spread purging of perceived and real enemies from different institutions and terrorist attacks carried out by Kurdistan separatist and ISIS affiliated groups.

Since then the long shadow of the state hasn’t retreated.

BJP came to power with the promise of change – change from the corruption, incompetency, leaderlessness and an economic stagnation which had characterized the Congress led UPA 2 (United Progressive Alliance). And indeed BJP has been able to deliver change on several fronts. The economy is doing better but how much of it is due to BJP’s performance is uncertain because the party has not had a long shot at power unlike AKP. It has taken bold decisions involving several areas – some of which mayn’t have had the intended impact and some may make their impact felt in longer term.

Its biggest impact has been on how the country discusses matters related to politics and other issues of public interest. On every matter there seems to be a division from the middle – whether it’s religion, the army, security, food, on everything the nation is divided into two camps, pro national and anti-national. The same moral certitude informs the stand people take on any issue involving moral ambiguity, corruption and media collusion (certain sections of the media generally presenting balanced view of things are targeted for being antinational and sections of media presenting a pro-government view of things in an unabashed manner are being hailed). A simplistic certainty on everything seems to have gripped the country.

The stridency of the ruling party and their fellow companions has helped them counter the backlash they faced from the intelligentsia (both pseudo and real) after coming to power. But the same stridency is not helping them handle problems that require a softer approach.

Like there has been a spurt of violence from the Kurdish groups after Erdogan’s ascendance, the Kashmir problem in India seems to be getting more complicated – and the reason why the government is not able to try out softer options, like engaging with moderate separatist voices within the valley, is that doing so will not square up with hyper nationalism which the government has come to be associated with. This may lead to the cornering of the moderate voices allowing the movement in Kashmir to acquire a religious colour.

Reading the social media reactions to a changing Turkey, Turkey is also going through a similar experience.

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