Turkey’s tentacles in India go deeper than thought, says new intel warning
The Turkish foreign ministry on Wednesday criticised India’s decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August last year, asserting that it did not contribute to peace and stability in the region. India had, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Ankara said, “further complicated the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and not served peace and stability in the region”. It also called for dialogue between India and Pakistan.
The Turkish statement has been seen to have been issued in coordination with Imran Khan’s government in Pakistan, the only country other than Xi Jinping’s China to have put out a statement on the first anniversary of Jammu and Kashmir’s new status in the Indian constitution. Erdoğan’s government did not make any reference to Pakistan’s new map that had been issued just hours earlier that counts Indian territories as its own.
New Delhi isn’t surprised. In the past, Erdoğan has gone out of his way to echo Imran Khan on Kashmir. Like in February this year, Erdoğan’s speech in the Pakistan National Assembly during his visit to Islamabad compared the “struggle of Kashmiris” with the Ottoman Empire’s fight during World War I.
But this isn’t all that Ankara has been doing. An intelligence report on the role played by fronts for the Turkish government last month accused Ankara of efforts to radicalise Indian Muslims and recruit fundamentalists. Turkey had emerged as the “the hub of anti-India activities” next only to Pakistan.
A second report handed over to national security planners over the past week said fronts for the Turkish government or the outfits it supports - some of them directly linked to Erdogan and his family - appeared to have made deeper inroads in India than assessed earlier. Much of this effort is directed via three sectors: Turkish state media, educational institutes and the nonprofit sector, or NGOs.
The intelligence assessment identified individuals and groups, some of them also suspected to be in touch with Pakistan’s ISI, who had been lured to work with entities in Turkey that had strong links with the Erdogan regime.
In particular, the report listed organisations that had started accelerating what it described as “lucrative scholarships” to Indians to study in Turkey.
“Turkey has been providing lucrative scholarships and running exchange programmes for Indian Kashmiri and Muslim students to study in Turkey through state-sponsored NGOs. Once the students land in Turkey, they are approached and taken over by the Pakistan proxies operating there,” the report said.
The list of outfits that sponsor the scholarships is long, the report said. It includes Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), Presidency of Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), Turkish Airlines, Yunnus Emre Institute (YEI), Turkey’s Diyanet Foundation (TDF) and Turkist Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA).
“Most of these organisations have direct connections with the Turkish government, President Erdogan or his family,” a counter-terror official said.
The TUGVA, which functions under Erdogan’s son Bilal’s patronage, has developed strong links within India by establishing connections with Islamic outfits in India including Jamaat-e-Islamic Organisation’s student wing, Student Islamic Organisation (SIO), the report said.
SIO’s Fawaz Shaheen, however, denied that the students’ body had anything to do with any Turkish group or entity related to Erdogan or his family. “We have nothing to do with either Turkish or other groups involved in anti-India activities,” Fawaz Shaheen said.
The intel report also accused the Turkish Embassy in Delhi of forging alliances with Indian NGOs, pointing that Indian activists who serve Ankara’s agenda are increasingly being sent to Turkey on exposure trips and encouraged to speak against India. Some of the Turkish organisations that have been used to launch coordinated attacks on India are its International Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the TDF (which also funds scholarships) and Pak-Turkey Cultural Association.
The TDF is part of the religious directorate of Turkey, now deployed with Erdogan supporters, and tasked to build Erdogan’s image as the tallest leader of the Muslim community by championing the Islamic cause where it suits Erdogan’’s ambitions.
And Turkey’s authoritarian leader for 18 years has many.
The most prominent has been to lead the Muslim world, building on Turkey’s imperial Ottoman past. The Ottoman sultans doubled as the caliphs of the Muslim world. Erdogan and his supporters believe they can revive the Ottoman Empire’s former glory that collapsed nearly a century back, and its peak in the 1500s ruled over much of Southeastern Europe, west Asia, and North Africa’s coastal strip.
Erdogan’s effort to expand its influence among South Asian Muslims comes against the backdrop of his pitch to challenge Saudi Arabia’s dominance in the Islamic world and offering a conservative Turkey with Ottoman traditions as a model for Islamic nations to follow.
It is a narrative that works well for Imran Khan in the Indian subcontinent, particularly given India’s recent success in deepening its ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In April, Pakistan’s public broadcaster started airing Turkey’s television series, Ertugrul Gazi, which is loosely based on the story of the 13th century Muslim Oghuz Turk leader Ertugrul, whose son Osman Ghazi is considered to be the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
The series dubbed in Urdu, promoted by Imran Khan in Pakistan just as it was supported by Erdogan in Turkey, depicts the bravery of Muslim Oghuz Turks fighting the Mongol, Christians and Byzantines, glorifies the Ottoman Empire and is seen as a key part of Turkey’s “soft power” influence in the Muslim world.