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Indian Press ( 19 Dec 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Indian Press on Pakistan Is Stuck in Time, Israel’s Poison Pill, Erdogan’s Turkic Vision and Delhi-Dhaka Bond: New Age Islam's Selection, 19 December 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Desk

19 December 2020

• Pakistan Is Stuck In Time, As Far As International Diplomacy Goes

By Bhopinder Singh

• Israel’s Poison Pill: Targeting Iranians for Assassination Is a Way of Blocking Revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal

By Ramesh Thakur

• 1971: A Military Victory and the Birth of A Nation

By VK Singh

• For Long, Indian English Literary Establishment Has Enforced A Culture That Can Only Be Called Brahminical

By Sumana Roy

• Bangla Connect: New Delhi Must Not Take Ties with Dhaka for Granted

The Times of India Editorial

• The Delhi-Dhaka Bond

The Hindustan Times Editorial

• Erdogan’s Turkic Vision!

By Vivek Katju


Pakistan Is Stuck In Time, As Far As International Diplomacy Goes

By Bhopinder Singh

December 18, 2020

Pakistan is stuck in time, as far as international diplomacy goes. The essential narrative, expectations and language that define its sovereign aspirations have not changed, despite the tectonic changes globally. Its famed and institutionalised duplicitousness often tests the dexterity of its leadership, that necessitates hopping from the aspired Pakistan of Qaid-e-Azam to the militaristic bluster of its Generals, to the religious piety of its ubiquitous Mullahs.

This schizophrenia is tantamount to the infamous Pakistani track of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. The irony is writ all over as Prime Minister Imran Khan cries himself hoarse complaining ‘Pakistan is the biggest victim of terrorism’ just when he seeks to navigate Pakistan from getting ‘blacklisted’ for sponsoring terrorism, as per the global watchdog, FATF (Financial Action Task Force). From ‘allies’ like the United States, ‘fraternal relations’ with Saudi Arabia, ‘brotherly relations’ with Iran, to ‘inseparable brothers’ in Afghanistan ~ all are increasingly queasy for the gaps between what Pakistan says, implies and finally does? This leaves the increasingly isolated and cash-strapped Pakistan with the only option that asks for no corrective measures from the shady Pakistani ways, that is China.

Flowery descriptions like ‘Saudi Arabia’s closest Muslim ally’, ‘special relationship’ notwithstanding, nothing signifies the near-pariah regression for Pakistan like the spurning of Islamabad by Saudi Arabia, which bears a symbolically venerated relevance in the Ummah (Muslim world). This rebuff is especially significant for a constitutional ‘Islamic Republic’ that vests its popular identity and existential purpose in religiousity. But this fracture is a recent development, as Saudi Arabia more than any other nation has supported Pakistan since its independence. Riyadh openly sided with Islamabad in 1965 and 1971 and in the 1980s funded Afghan mujahedeen operations.

Pakistani troops were sent to safeguard Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War. Saudi Arabia was the only country to be taken into confidence before Pakistan conducted its nuclear test. Both routinely posited Kashmir on the global centerstage ~ basically the Islamic world’s most affluent nation and arguably the most militarily powerful (and only nuclear) nation converged on reciprocal sensitivities, theatres and urgencies. However, the long-lasting honeymoon is seemingly over.

Part of this is attributable to the change of track under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman who seeks to go beyond exporting the ‘religio- oil’ admixture towards a more sustainable-diversified economy, wherein larger markets like India make more socioeconomic sense. Part also has to do with Pakistan trying to outsmart the Saudis and their leadership within the Ummah, by cozying up to the rival camp of the Turkey-Iran-Malaysia triad. In the evolving world, sovereign positions and rallying cries are getting recalibrated with new realities which require that countries renege on the past and appropriate the ‘new ask’. The Pakistani machinations that go into ‘terror support’, religio-fundamentalism and nuancing Israel, are amongst some of the changing tracks that have completely missed the Islamabad establishment ~ only to get a rude wake-up call of the inevitable by getting disowned even by the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In an unprecedentedly cold and unforgiving move, the Saudis who had earlier extended a bailout package of $6.2 billion for the desperately cash-strapped Pakistan suddenly ‘stopped’ the said aid mid-course and sought earlier repayment. Unlike the relatively light rebuke following Islamabad’s earlier refusal to be drawn into Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, owing to combustive sectarian undercurrents in Pakistan itself, this time the retaliation from Riyadh built up to become relentless and unmistakable. A series of bilateral barbs had preceded the final move of aid-stoppage, including the Saudis pressuring Pakistan from pulling out of an international summit in Malaysia (showcased as an Turkey- Iran show), Saudis showing disinterest in raking up Kashmir on cue from Pakistan, as also tightening work imperatives for the 2.5 million Pakistani workers whose remittances make for over 25 per cent of Pakistan’s foreign reserves.

The warning like belligerence expressed by Pakistan’s foreign minister against Saudi Arabia was to be the literal last nail in the coffin, and all subsequent reassurances like ‘Pakistan stands shoulder- to-shoulder with the Kingdom’ notwithstanding, the Saudis have maintained the early repayment displeasure. It is believed that Egypt will increasingly replace Pakistan in providing the military wherewithal for the Saudi kingdom.

Now, China has agreed to ‘rebailout’ Pakistan with $1.5 billion immediately to repay the $2 billion of Saudi Arabian debt, that has/will, become due by next month. Coming as it does on the heels of Pakistan’s inability to get the $6 billion IMF program restored, Islamabad is now solely banking on Beijing to avoid going belly-up. In this deteriorated and isolated status for Pakistan, the Turkey-Iran-Malaysia ‘alternative’ cannot compensate for the economic aid, trade, energy-needs or the sheer scale of remittances, as generated by Pakistan, from Saudi Arabia.

The socio-economic-diplomatic vulnerability is getting temporarily addressed by China, and the long-term consequences of sovereign surrender and stranglehold, are guaranteed. The nature of Chinese support has also worryingly morphed from promoting bilateral trade in local currencies to usage for paying other foreign debt ~ a classic ‘debt-trap’ in the making that will make Pakistan completely beholden to China.

Pakistan has boxed itself into a corner with its bullheadedness to remain mired in the past, when even those who instigated, supported and defined the definitive narrative of the ‘past’, have moved on.

Getting exposed and left to fend for itself by earlier ‘allies’ like the United States (by calling out the Pakistani role in terror and thereafter stopping aid) could be lazily contextualised to the latent street sentiment of the ‘Evil West’, but explaining the break-up with the Arab sheikhdoms and Saudi Arabia in particular will be a tall ask for the Pakistani establishment.

For now, the Pakistanis are dutifully repaying the Saudi debt and unleashing a series of rapprochement visits to Riyadh, but the reality of the only other person in the form of a menacing Dragon in the room, remains. The fact that the principal opposition in Pakistani politics currently is an old and trusted Saudi hand i.e. Nawaz Sharif, makes it difficult for Imran Khan to cast any aspersions.

Only a change of landscape with the incoming Biden administration or change of government in Islamabad itself, can reset the free-fall towards becoming a vassal state of China, as everyone else has left the building.


Bhopinder Singh is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry


Israel’s Poison Pill: Targeting Iranians for Assassination Is a Way of Blocking Revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal

By Ramesh Thakur

December 18, 2020

For Iran 2020 was bookended with two high-profile targeted assassinations. On 3 January, the head of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and architect of Iran’s regional security apparatus Major-General Qassem Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike near Baghdad airport en route to meeting Iraq’s PM. It provoked a fierce debate on the legality of US action. In July Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, formally reported that with no evidence to support the charge of imminent attack planned by Soleimani against US interests, the assassination was an “arbitrary killing” in violation of international law.

The country most famous – or notorious, depending on your point of view – for the use of targeted assassination as an instrument of state policy, completely indifferent to restrictions of international law, human rights law and humanitarian law, is Israel. One of its highest priorities in recent years has been to protect its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East and, to that end, prevent Iran from developing the human, material and technical capabilities to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran has been widely suspected of having had an active interest in military dimensions of nuclear energy. Between 2010 and 2012, Israel assassinated several Iranian nuclear scientists.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated and signed in 2015 by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, and unanimously endorsed by the Security Council in Resolution 2231, upset Israel. The JCPOA reversed and mothballed Iran’s suspected nuclear weapon gains, dismantled much of its nuclear assets, put quantitative and qualitative limits on nuclear materials and facilities, and imposed a stringent international inspection regime in return for lifting of crippling sanctions. The deal was welcomed around the world for having ended the twin threats of an Iranian bomb within a 12 month timeframe and a US military strike on Iran with incalculable regionwide consequences. But Israel criticised the agreement for merely kicking the can down the road and giving Iran the means to enrich itself before resuming its search for the bomb. Because it was one of the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy triumphs, President Donald Trump was entirely sympathetic to Israel’s carping criticisms, supported by Saudi Arabia as Iran’s chief Arab and Sunni rival for regional sway. The US pulled out of the deal in May 2018. Iran retaliated by breaching limits on the purity and amount of uranium enrichment.

With Trump’s defeat by Joe Biden, and his stated commitment to restore the JCPOA, the transition period gave Israel a narrow window of opportunity to mine the path to its resuscitation. On 27 November Israel struck, assassinating top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in a daring ambush just east of Tehran. The precise details of the hit remain unclear and, in a lesson for the Modi government, Israel resolutely sticks to its policy of never commenting on an intelligence operation or ‘surgical strike’, leaving it to its enemies to attribute responsibility. Israel’s ability to eliminate high-value targets inside enemy countries may make other senior scientists nervous but Fakhrizadeh’s death won’t dent Iran’s nuclear activities.

The most consequential impact will be to put towering roadblocks on the path to reviving the JCPOA which Biden had made conditional on Iran’s return to compliance. Tehran was presented with a lose-lose choice. Doing nothing in response to an act of war damages its credibility, reputation and prestige domestically, regionally and globally. Retaliating against Israeli or US assets risks a counter-strike by Trump in the dying days of his presidency. On 2 December Iran’s parliament enacted a new law. Unless sanctions are lifted within two months, uranium enrichment will increase to 20%, with the ability to get the bomb within six months, advanced centrifuges will be installed and international inspectors expelled. President Hassan Rouhani had opposed the law as “damaging for diplomacy”.

Welcome to Middle East politics, President Biden.


1971: A Military Victory and the Birth of a Nation

By VK Singh

Dec 18, 2020

There was deep resentment against the Pakistani establishment among the Bangla-speaking people in East Pakistan, who had been treated as second-class citizens in their own country. The Pakistani army decided to crush the voices of self-determination through a crackdown called Operation Searchlight which resulted in large-scale rape, murder and looting. The flood of refugees into India meant another confrontation with Pakistan.

The sense of urgency was heightened when a post at Dalu Haat (on the border of India and East Pakistan in Meghalaya), used by refugees to cross over, was attacked by Pakistani troops. The Border Security Force (BSF), despite significant casualties, fended off the attack. After this, my unit was ordered to immediately move into Meghalaya to look after the border from Baghmara to Mahendraganj.

As an intelligence officer (IO), I routinely went with the Mukti Bahini to register targets. The Mukti Bahini initially comprised only students and non-military personnel, had a limited leadership and was fearful of the Pakistani army. But having trained with the Indian Army, it was successful in several missions.

In October, we moved to Tripura and were tasked to clear the Belonia bulge. We were to support the Mukti Bahini operating in East Pakistan as part of this. Amid regular attacks by Pakistani artillery and Sabre aircraft, we, along with the Mukti Bahini, gained control of the Belonia bulge by mid-November. We then pulled back into what is now Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary. At the end of November, the unit was tasked to plan a roadblock behind the forward defensive line in an area 10-11 km in depth.

It was believed that a Pakistani artillery regiment of 105 mm guns was positioned near Parikot. I was to go behind enemy lines with a Mukti Bahini guide to get information on the location of the guns, and also scout for locations where the battalion could take up blocking positions to cut off the Chauddagram axis. When we reached the enemy positions in Parikot, I could locate the sentries who had to be tackled. However, this would entail the risk of being pursued by the enemy once the bodies were discovered. Fortunately, as I was about to silence the sentries, the guns fired, and this assisted in mapping their locations. My team had around ten jawans and we had to make a 30-km dash back from enemy territory before first light.

On December 3, war was officially declared with Pakistan. We received orders to make a daylight attack on December 4 to capture Chauddagram, where the Pakistani positions overlooked the road that went to Parikot and onwards north to Chandpur. I was tasked to lead the assault, which seemed a rash idea as the enemy could see us coming. We were met with heavy enemy fire and suffered casualties. We had no choice but to wait out the counter-attack. On the morning of December 5, we launched an attack on the Pakistani post which we captured.

We were told to proceed to Mudaffarganj that was en route to Chandpur. We encountered many Pakistani units as they tried to retreat to Chandpur. We captured a large number of Pakistani officers and soldiers, a risky operation as they often outnumbered us. We had to convince them that they were surrounded by a much larger force. These prisoners of war were handed over to the divisional resources tasked to handle them.

Mudaffarganj presented another problem as the Pakistanis had surrounded that area and inflicted casualties on 1/11 GR. Our unit surrounded the Pakistanis and our firing broke their morale leading them to run away towards Chandpur. In the morning, the corps commander arrived in a helicopter and told our unit to rush to Chandpur as the Pakistanis were abandoning it. This called for innovation as we had no transport. We rounded up everything that could move — fire engines, garbage trucks, cars and cycles to assist in our dash. Using this unorthodox method, we captured a large number of Pakistani troops.

From Chandpur, we were ordered to join our brigade and move to Chittagong. I was to move before the unit to carry out a reconnaissance mission. I decided to take a shortcut and landed in Comilla town which had not yet been liberated. On spotting my jeep, the locals started celebrating the liberation of the town.

Later, I learnt of the risk taken as Comilla was still under Pakistani control. The move to Chittagong had to be through the hill tract. I led the recce through hills to find a route for the unit and brigade which followed the path by cutting bushes to clear a lane. On December 16, we received news of the surrender at Dhaka, came out of the jungles and moved into Chittagong where a surrender ceremony took place.

A short swift war, a manoeuvre on foot in which the Pakistani army was outclassed tactically and strategically giving birth to a new nation — this victory has no parallel in military history anywhere in the world.


General (retired) VK Singh is a former army chief and a union minister


For Long, Indian English Literary Establishment Has Enforced a Culture That Can Only Be Called Brahminical

By Sumana Roy

December 19, 2020

A few months ago, when the Bengal Chief Minister announced the creation of a Dalit Sahitya Academy, many rushed to characterise it as another of Mamata Banerjee’s “minority appeasing” policies. It was even turned into the likeness of a joke — that there should also be a Brahmin Sahitya Academy, and so on. Raised by parents who rarely discussed caste, and an education system that refuses to engage with it except in a nominal way, I crossed over into adulthood without the awareness of caste marking my thoughts, choices and decisions. All of this would not need to be said if it hadn’t informed the reading choices of people such as myself. It couldn’t be a coincidence, could it, that my favourite writers in Bangla were upper-caste writers, usually Brahmin, or that Bangla literature was Calcutta-centric? This, it seemed, was no different from WASP literature providing the only understanding of the literary in the Anglo-American world. By Brahminical, therefore, I mean an attitude, and, consequently, an invisible structure that makes the normative seem normal, and everything else just aberrations — the way, say, “General” seems to be normal, and “SC/ST/OBC” exceptions, or heterosexuality taken to be the norm, and other sexual orientations wayward.

That what we assume as literary is partly a result of our location in the various social structures we inhabit is never quite acknowledged. Just as having tea with salt and butter in a Tibetan household does not quite feel like tea to my sugar-and-milk-knowing tongue, anything outside the range of familiarity — of its tone, register, aesthetics and politics — of the “literary” seems foreign, even contraband, and is, thereby, rejected. This hierarchy, inevitably deriving from arbiters who hold political and economic power, seems to decide what constitutes physical beauty, the singing voice, correct pronunciation, education, manners, handwriting, propriety, or even what constitutes food.

The literary can behave like a gharana, and it is the nature of gharanas to keep things unlike it outside its fold. The “literary” has been inevitably phallic. It was this narrow sense of what constitutes the literary that Virginia Woolf was challenging in A Room of One’s Own — of the genius, which we imagine as inevitably male, and of “anon”, the anonymous (female) creator of primarily oral literature; of the novel, that she asked women to make their own, because it was still a new form, unlike others which had become solidified into male genres. It was also to expand the idea of the literary that Rabindranath Tagore argued for in his introduction to the stories for children in Thakurmar Jhuli. There are two pieces of irony here: Tagore, now a totem of the literary, was once rejected for not being literary enough by Calcutta University; his name, turned into the adjective Rabindrik (“Tagorean”), has been used by the establishment to keep out singers who are disobedient to the Visvabharati mode of singing.

The career of the “literary” has not been very different from the Brahmin’s protectionism of the mantra, an inheritance kept out of the reach of the non-Brahmin. One of the ways in which this has been done in the last hundred years is through anthologies that create — and reiterate — the idea and the habitat of the literary. Indian English poetry, as a field for instance, was created in the same manner. Different as they might be in style and temperament, there is something that is common to them — their metropolitan location. With the exception of Jayanta Mahapatra, the poets in these anthologies are from the metropole, so much so that it might seem that Indian English poetry was only a Bombay phenomenon. The indifference of the anthologists to circles outside their own, unless the poets had a reputation buttressed by the West, as in the case of Mahapatra, who won a prize given by Poetry magazine, created an idea of the Indian English poem that was influenced by the prevalent literary climate in America and England.

The lack of inclusion of the provinces, of poets whose writing had been formed by their other languages, was responsible for a monolithic understanding of the Indian English poem. To ask a question like “Why was there only a woman or two in these anthologies?” is not to ask a question about representation. It is to continue to argue, after Woolf, for increasing the perimeter of the “literary” to include those whose writing have not been included in the idea of “literary history”. The Indian English poem in these anthologies, male in form and tone and urban in its sense of power, supplied the idea of the “Indian English poem” for decades.

Like inter-caste marriage that supposedly kept Brahmins pure, editors keep the circle of contributors limited to family and friends. One only needs to pick up an anthology of Indian English anything — essays, poems, stories — to confirm how the literary is a baptised name for a family-and-friend enterprise, a taste and manner that is feudal, and which its practitioners believe is superior to those that have been excluded. What that has enforced is the idea of a literary that is aspirational, not completely unlike a “posh accent”. The literary has forced a homogenisation of literary production — everyone must write within its aesthetic range to be considered literary writers. Reviewers, because they come from the same class, become naturalised citizens of the world of literary gatekeeping.

“Decolonising the syllabus” is a demand to expand the idea of the literary, not in an instrumental and bureaucratic manner, but of its monolithic real estate — it is a rejection of its proprietorial and gatekeeping behaviour. What the “literary” needs, however, is not the erasure of what once constituted it — as some cancel culture advocates demand — but a far more inclusive accommodation of writing; not a UN-like representative model of writers of various constituencies alone, but of various kinds, manners, and forms of writing.

It is time for the literary to lose its sacred thread.


Sumana Roy is a poet and author.


Bangla Connect: New Delhi Must Not Take Ties With Dhaka For Granted

The Times of India Editorial

December 18, 2020

Coming a day after the anniversary of Victory Day marking the surrender of Pakistani forces in Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his virtual meeting with Bangladeshi premier Sheikh Hasina, emphasised that Bangladesh was a major pillar of India’s Neighbourhood First policy. India-Bangladesh ties have steadily grown over the last six years. This is exemplified by increasing connectivity, investments and sub-regional cooperation under the BBIN (Bangladesh Bhutan Indian Nepal) platform. Taking this momentum further, the virtual meeting saw the two sides ink seven agreements and revive the cross-border Chilahati-Haldibari rail link that was snapped during the 1965 war with Pakistan.

The deals include cooperation in hydrocarbons, Indian grants for high impact community development projects in Bangladesh, cooperation in transboundary elephant conservation, cooperation in agriculture, an MoU between museums and terms of reference for a CEOs forum. All of this shows that India-Bangladesh ties today have acquired a multi-dimensional character. And a large reason for this is Hasina herself who is personally invested in the relationship with New Delhi. However, China has been pushing hard to increase its footprint in Bangladesh as exemplified by its $24 billion investment plans for Dhaka announced in 2016. Bangladesh has also joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

At the same time, Pakistan has been looking to revive its ties with Bangladesh after a period of major diplomatic spat with Dhaka. Given this scenario, India shouldn’t take its ties with Bangladesh for granted and remind Dhaka of the perils of relying too much on Chinese largesse. Meanwhile, issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens have created a highly negative impression in Bangladesh. Harping on them for hypothetical domestic political gains can jeopardise ties with Dhaka and put unnecessary pressure on Hasina. Relations with Bangladesh are a bright spot. Government must take care to keep it that way.


The Delhi-Dhaka Bond

The Hindustan Times Editorial

Dec 18, 2020

India’s relationship with Bangladesh is arguably its most consequential relationship in the region. The 49th anniversary of diplomatic relations and the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is an opportune time to recognise how far bilateral relations have progressed. Once derided as a basket case, Bangladesh is now the fastest growing economy in South Asia; it surpasses India on many development indicators; and it has overtaken Pakistan’s economy. Sustaining relations with Bangladesh — which saw a turnaround of sorts under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina — has been an important element of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy too.

Much of what is going on today between the two countries, including the results of Friday’s virtual summit, has been about converting goodwill into tangible economic links and steadfast political relations. The two countries are now reconnecting by rail, road and water in the way they were prior to 1965. Conduits for trade and investment keep improving as the two agree to more infrastructure and less red tape. Ms Hasina’s government has provided a model of security cooperation. India should involve Bangladesh more in its global initiatives such as Covid-19 and climate.

Both countries should take some time to consider how to reconcile their domestic political narratives. For example, immigration concerns would be best managed through an agreement that accepts the reality of circular migration. Indian visions of Bangladeshi hordes need to be replaced with a realisation that migrants cross in both directions. Dhaka, in turn, needs to be more honest about localised discrimination of minorities and the outward migration this has engendered. Differences over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act arise from such incomplete viewpoints. New Delhi has concerns about the Hasina government’s policy of allying with Islamist groups to counterbalance other such groups. This may be politically useful, but all such groups are cut from the same anti-Indian cloth and share a desire to make Bangladesh a theological state. Beijing will continue to expand its influence but as long as Dhaka does not cross security redlines and keeps Delhi in the loop, the China factor can be managed. If these larger meta-issues can be addressed over the coming years, in part though domestic debate, the two countries can be assured of another half-century of improving relations.


Erdogan's Turkic Vision!

By Vivek Katju

December 19, 2020

On December 10, Azerbaijan held a military parade to celebrate its victory in a six-week war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan. This round of hostilities between the two countries began on September 27 with Azerbaijan resorting to force to regain the territories around and within the enclave; it had effectively lost these areas to Armenia in 1994. The war ended with a peace agreement brokered by Russia on November 9 which went into effect a day later. Under the agreement Armenia was compelled to cede those areas in Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding areas which the Azerbaijan forces were able to bring under their control. Both countries also agreed to the presence of a Russian peace-keeping force along the line of contact.

Armenia and Azerbaijan were constituent states of the Soviet Union and with its collapse in 1991 emerged as sovereign countries. Nagorno-Karabakh has a Christian population which had wanted to join with Armenia but Azerbaijan did not let it go; the enclave is surrounded by Azeri territory. The Arminian people are Christian and share close linkages with those of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan has intimate ties with Turkey. Its majority population is Turkic speaking and considers itself part of the wider and historical Turkish world. In the complex politics of the Caucasus, Turkey is totally aligned with Azerbaijan while Iran broadly supports Armenia though an overwhelming majority of the Azerbaijan population are Shia Muslims. Iran has a very significant population of Azeri origin. They live in the north-west region of the country, adjoining Azerbaijan and the Aras river forms a boundary between Iran and Azerbaijan. Consequently, Iran has always been very sensitive to any call that can be interpreted as seeking to impart a separatist sentiment in its Azeri population. It is worth also mentioning that Iran has ethnic Armenians among its citizenry too.

Azerbaijan invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the victory parade. This was to acknowledge the full material and diplomatic support extended by Erdogan to Azerbaijan during the war. Indeed, without that help Azerbaijan could not have made the impressive gains it achieved. On its part Turkey made no attempt to mask its joy in Azerbaijan’s success. Erdogan visited Azerbaijan for the parade. During the visit he made a speech in which he recited verses from an Azeri poem. One of its verses was ‘They separated the Aras river and filled it with rocks and rods. I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly’. The verse is an obvious reference and lament to the presence of the Azeri ethnic group in different countries.

Iran’s social media erupted in anger at what was perceived to be Erdogan’s attempt to erode Iran’s territorial integrity by inciting Iran’s population of Azeri descent. The Turkish President was lampooned and reminded of the fate of Saddam Hussein who had attacked Iranian territorial integrity when he launched a war in 1980 which lasted eight years and extracted a terrible human toll till peace and status quo was restored. The Iranian parliament passed a unanimous resolution to condemn Erdogan’s attempt against Iran’s territorial integrity. The Iranian foreign minister tweeted that “No one can talk about our beloved Azerbaijan” and the foreign ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest against Erdogan’s reciting the verse. Turkey’s response was strong. It objected to the targeting of its President and called in the Iranian ambassador to lodge a strong protest. It clarified that Erdogan did not refer to Iran at all nor was it his intention to take a negative position against Iran’s territorial integrity.

Within a couple of days though both governments moved to contain the situation for their interests coincide on a number of regional issues. Their foreign ministers spoke to clarify their stands and clearly the Iranian government accepted Turkish explanations because Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the media on December 14 “In my opinion, with the explanations (Turkish officials) gave, we can move beyond this issue but the sensitivity of our people is very important”. He added, “Based on my past knowledge of Mr Erdogan, it is very unlikely that he had any intention of insulting our territorial integrity. He always recites poetry in his speeches”.

While Rouhani has decided to overlook Erdogan’s poetry recital the fact is that the Turkish leader is vigorously seeking to revive pan-Turkic sentiments among the Turkic speaking people in Central Asia. He has now been at the helm in his country for eighteen years and during this period he has changed its domestic direction including, significantly, taking it away from the secularism of the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. In July this year he decided to restore Islamic prayers at the Hagia Sophia which had been stopped in 1935. The Hagia Sophia was one of Christianity’s most famous and sacred churches and fell to the Ottoman Turks when they captured Constantinople in 1453. It was used as a mosque but its loss was never forgotten by the eastern Christian world. Thus, Ataturk’s decision to give up prayers and make it into a museum was a major gesture to the Christian world and especially to Europe.

Ataturk wanted to modernise Turkey and make it European in character. However, on their part the Europeans never accepted Turkey despite decades of Turkish attempts. Now Erdogan is emphasising Turkey’s Islamic and Ottoman personalities. On both counts he is treading on many toes—as this episode shows—but he is not bothered because he is convinced that he is a man of destiny.



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