The ‘Turkish Octopus’ in the Grey zone: No War, No Peace
Relations between New Delhi and Ankara have grown tense for quite some time. A report published by a Greek journalist on 3 December, 2020,  raked huge controversy regarding the growing Turkish interference in issues concerning India’s National Security. It quoted information gathered by a Kurdish News Agency (ANF) hinting at Turkish plans of infiltrating its Syrian mercenaries (previously operational in Libya and Azerbaijan) into Jammu and Kashmir.  Although denied by Ankara (similar to its involvement in the six weeks-long Nagarno-Karabakh conflicts), the possibilities of the same do not seem remote.
While this report can be identified as the latest development with respect to growing Turkish interference in the subcontinent, it signifies merely the tip of the iceberg. Turkish-links, through a series of events in the recent years, put comprehensively, highlight its emerging extended influence to a majority of aspects concerning Indian interests at home and abroad. Its stance at various international fora; propaganda and influence operations; financing of anti-India activities; radicalisation through NGOs and clergymen; links with separatists in J&K; luring of Indian youth through academic scholarships; possibilities of arms and technology transfer against Indian interests; and the possibilities of implanting mercenaries as the latest development – almost like an emerging octopus with its eight vicious arms seem highly concerning. But, in conjunction with this it must be remembered that Ankara’s motivations behind the build-up have more to do with advancing its influence as a leader of the ‘Caliphate’ in South Asia against Saudi Arabia (unlike, say, Pakistan’s exclusively anti-India motivations). Each of these put together, bring the two nations in an uneasy ‘no war no peace’ situation – the grey zone.
The ‘Turkish Octopus’ and its Eight Arms
The ‘eight arms’ that might only get further diversified in time, can be briefly listed as under:-
One, at various international fora (particularly the United Nations), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been vocally rallying against India, specifically since the abrogation of J&K’s special status. In September 2020, Erdoğan’s statement at the UN General Assembly referring to Kashmir as a “burning issue” drew much criticism from New Delhi. Earlier, his comments on the East Delhi riots (2019) as a “massacre of Muslims” by “Hindus” had gathered similar reactions. Such vocal posturing as a messiah of the “Islamist-cause” could lead to his increasing influence on vulnerable sections of the Indian population – earning him a major leverage point. In an interview to The Print in this respect, Bashir Assad, author and journalist based in J&K, confirmed Erdogan’s growing popularity stating that he is indeed “emerging as the new role model” in the Kashmir Valley.
Two, Ankara’s extensive use of media towards carrying out targeted influence operations is highly concerning. Apart from social media, the state media in both forms – print and digital – is being rampantly used to spread anti-India propaganda. The Youtube channel of the state agency Turkey Radio and Television Corporation (TRT World) has been regularly releasing propaganda videos with the latest one released on 27 October, 2020, titled ‘Decoded: India’s Annexation of Kashmir.’ The date of the release becomes crucial to note since 27 October is celebrated as the infantry day across India marking the entry of Indian troops to defend J&K from the Pakistani invaders in 1947. What is also notable is that this day is often referred to as a “black day for Kashmir” by the anti-India separatist forces.
Similar videos hitting hundreds of thousands of views including the famous Kashmir is my name music video (January 2020), those elaborately drawing parallels between J&K and Palestine, promoting conspiracy theories of demographic alteration in J&K, and interviews of helpless victims of violence are widely uploaded. Like most propaganda videos, these too present a motivated narrative but given their reach and visibility, impact a significant section of viewers online. Additionally, the Turkish web series Ertrugrul Ghazi (2014) glorifying the strength of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate lately found great popularity, especially among the Kashmiri youth. The release of Ertrugrul Ghazi with Urdu dubbing by Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) only added to the fervour. The valid question that must arise is what makes the popularity of a historical-fiction a matter of concern. In this respect, it is interesting to recall President Erdogan’s statement in the Pakistani Parliament which drew parallels between the Battle of Gallipoli and Kashmir. The Battle of Gallipoli was fought between the Allied Powers and the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The print media has been only more vicious in promoting such propaganda and influencing the educated readership. A report from the state-run Anadolu Agency attempts to reconstruct the history the J&K’s accession in 1947, stating “counter-narratives”:
“…the “unpopular” ruler was facing a revolt from his Muslim subjects. His military actions against people had led the tribesmen from neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan to come to the rescue of “persecuted” Kashmiri Muslims… Historian Abdul Ahad said the motive of soldiers (Indian troops) was to gain a foothold in Kashmir at a time when the rules of Partition dictated that Kashmir should become a part of Pakistan. He said that the controversial Accession was used as a pretext to send the army.”
Quite interestingly, of the 11 copy-editors in Anadolu Agency, 5 positions are held by Pakistani nationals. There have also been reports of separatist elements being hired by Turkish journalists for furthering this propaganda.
Three, financing of anti-India activities has increased in volume in recent years – especially focussed around J&K and Kerala. Currently, reports suggest that preachers from surrendered ISIS cadres are being prepared and funded for radicalisation operations in India. In addition to this, Turkish funding in India currently extends from sponsoring religious seminars to recruiting fundamentalists for radicalising the local population, sponsoring trips to Turkey for “freshly minted radicals” for further radicalisation, as well as specific cases of funding as much as INR 40 lakhs to preachers for preaching radical Islam in Kerala. Notably, the Islamic fundamentalist Zakir Naik to has been funded by Ankara for quite some time.
Four, Turkish NGOs and charities have made it to the security agencies’ radars for attempting to expand their influence and reach among the population. A report from The Hindustan Times states:
“An intelligence report recently submitted to the government has noted efforts by Turkey-linked NGOs to reach out to Kashmiris with assistance during Ramzan. Some others have been organising webinars and other events where topics such as the amended citizenship law, riots, and hate crimes are discussed. An official said the narratives projected at these online interactions and on social media are provocative.”
Five, “lucrative” academic scholarships are being rolled out through similar NGOs particularly for Kashmiri Muslims, and generally for Muslim students from elsewhere in the country. Recently released intelligence reports claim that these students, once landed in Turkey, are “approached and taken over by Pakistani-proxies” who in turn take control of the entire process of radicalisation. NGOs including Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), Presidency of Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), Turkish Airlines, Yunnus Emre Institute (YEI), Turkey’s Diyanet Foundation (TDF), and Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) have been red-flagged.
Six, links with the Kashmiri separatists including Syed Ali Shah Geelani have been confirmed by several Indian officials themselves. This link only solidifies in the face of the celebratory reactions by the Kashmiri separatists on the election victory of Erdogan in 2018, as well as the facilitation of pursuing higher studies for kins of separatist leaders in Turkey. Possibilities of Ankara becoming a sought-after sanctuary for various separatist elements in the future appear strong if it has not become one already.
Seven, the transfer of technology and arms from Turkey, given the bonhomie between Islamabad (rather Rawalpindi) and Ankara should not appear improbable. Two events become important to substantiate this possibility: Turkish drones played a crucial role in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, and the Indian BSF flagged the threat of drones being used by Pakistan for bombing military establishments across the LoC as recently as June 2020. Put collectively, the fact that China too, an all-weather ally of Pakistan, currently collaborative with Turkey, and hostile to India, has a superior drone technology as well as active stakes in Pakistan’s “Kashmir cause” – makes the threat more worrisome.
Eight, if the recent reports are true, the mostly indirect or passive character of Turkish interference shall assume a more direct and active role in the form of Erdogan-backed Syrian mercenaries. The Kurdish media agency ANF reported the relocation of Syrian mercenaries being initiated by Turkey to J&K for an initial amount of USD 2000 per mercenary. These recruitment drives are being undertaken in Şiyê, Azaz, Jarablus, Bab, and Idlib.
Given that a majority of the “arms” of the “Turkish Octopus” are still in their developing-stages, this might be the optimum time to take a 360-degree view of the issue and tackle it in a rather offensive, than defensive manner.
First, the security agencies and the MEA are already carefully monitoring each of these aspects. These events need to be looked at through a comprehensive and singular lens to frame a much pro-active response strategy, instead of an exclusively defensive one.
Second, the fact the Turkish interference does not have anti-India motivations needs to be leveraged. Countries equally threatened by Turkish designs must be brought together to form a collective response mechanism – in South Asia (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, etc., which have a significant Muslim majority and face terror/radicalisation threats), Europe (France, Germany, UK, Austria, Brussels, etc., that have come up vocally against Turkish attempts at radicalisation), as well as the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, UAE, that are grudgingly facing a direct challenge of leadership in the Islamic world).
Third, Indian Embassies and Diplomatic Missions need to play a larger role in keeping maximum communication with Indian diaspora, travellers, and students, especially in Turkey to avoid undesirable external influence.
Fourth, information warfare needs to be dealt with in a pro-active manner. To begin with, it must be acknowledged that restricting or banning online content on a large scale is generally futile in the 21st century. Instead, counter-narratives need to be flooded in the international media, social media, as well as various other online platforms with medium to high viewership, in order to present the flip side of the stories that are currently floating for public consumption. The efforts have somewhere begun, but still need an incredibly higher volume and reach.
Fifth, although India has attained some remarkable feats in this direction, military modernisation must be paced given the imminent threats India is currently facing. Instances of heavily reduced infiltration through the LoC shall only further push Pakistan-backed terrorists to venture into newer areas – drones, to begin with. Backed by Turkey and China, the situations only get trickier.
Sixth, within the domestic boundaries, efforts at integration need to be given impetus in the national interest. To begin with, differentially referring to Jammu and Kashmir must be avoided in regular usage as much as possible. The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir must be projected as a single whole, instead of exclusive discussions surrounding the Kashmir Valley.
Overall, the Turkish Octopus is indeed becoming a reality with every passing day. Provided we choose to deny actively countering its strengthening arms in the currently uneasy ‘no war, no peace’ situation, it might as well turn into a nightmare.
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