July 29, 2016

Why Erdogan should take a lesson from India

Alok Mukherjee*

On a recent trip, our young taxi driver hailed from Turkey. Inevitably, our conversation turned to recent events there. My wife and I love that beautiful country, which we have visited twice. With our own origins in India, we find the cultural and linguistic connections fascinating.

Our driver was extremely worried about the safety of his family and the future of his homeland. For us, the developments in Turkey, which is now under a three-month state of emergency, have a personal resonance: India has been there before.

On June 25, 1975, then-prime minister Indira Gandhi got a pliant president, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, to declare a state of emergency. It lasted 21 months. The presidential ordinance gave Mrs. Gandhi the power to govern by decree and the emergency legislation provided the legal fig leaf.

My father-in-law was one of thousands of people who were imprisoned for more than a year, with no charges laid and no court trial. His crime? A lawyer, he defended poor people against the actions of a corrupt and brutal police and bureaucracy, and he belonged to an opposition party. Members of opposition parties, journalists, teachers, business people and professionals were detained. Constitutional rights were set aside. According to Mrs. Gandhi and her henchmen, these people were threats to India’s internal security.

She said India needed “a shock treatment” to be rid of the threat. The country has not been the same since. As for my father-in-law, he died less than two years after his release, his health broken from the long incarceration.

We must worry greatly about long-term consequences when the leader of a democratic

society engages in such actions. The July 15 attempted military coup in Turkey, in which more than 200 people died, was a crime against democracy and a murderous assault on the country. Turkish people deserve credit for responding to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for resistance. They played a critical role in the collapse of the coup, defending the democratic system that had begun to take root in Turkey, which has a history of military takeovers.

But having stood up for democracy, will Turkish citizens now settle for the loss of the very rights they were defending? Like Mrs. Gandhi in 1975, Mr. Erdogan, who has exhibited autocratic tendencies, now appears to be using the unsettled political climate to advance his own agenda.

Mrs. Gandhi exhibited a deep paranoia about those who had broken with her because of her autocratic behaviour, and treated them harshly. Mr. Erdogan, too, shows a paranoid obsession about Fethullah Gulen, the former imam of Izmir living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, who preaches a message of mutual understanding among faiths, and promotes volunteerism through his civil-society movement, Hizmet.

Mr. Erdogan repeatedly rails against Mr. Gulen and has imposed harsh measures against those suspected of being Gulen supporters, especially since the coup attempt. Although no evidence has been provided to support the claim, thousands of people from all walks of life have been deprived of their jobs, many have been jailed and their human and civil rights dispensed with. University presidents have been replaced by Erdogan supporters. Newspapers and television stations have been closed. Thousands of judges, prosecutors and government officials have lost their positions.

Like Mrs. Gandhi, Mr. Erdogan uses a medical metaphor to justify his actions. She called her move “shock treatment”; Mr. Erdogan says there is a “cancer” that is “metastasizing.” Her emergency lasted nearly two years. Who knows how long Mr. Erdogan’s will last?

The daily show of solidarity by Mr. Erdogan’s supporters creates the impression that the Turkish people are with him; Mrs. Gandhi’s supporters did the same thing. But when the Indian emergency finally ended, and general elections were held in March, 1977, she lost her seat and her party went down to crushing defeat.

Our young taxi driver was confident that although the Turkish people are showing support for Mr. Erdogan now, it will not last if he persists with his course of action. He should take a lesson from the way Mrs. Gandhi’s suppression of the human, political and civil rights of citizens ended for her.

*Alok Mukherjee is a distinguished visiting professor, Ryerson University, Toronto.

Published on The Globe and Mail, 29 July 2016, Friday