In a 1974 British television interview, Bulent Ecevit, the then Turkish prime minister, was asked what had given him the courage to send Turkish troops to Cyprus (where they still remain). His answer: he was fortified by the Bhagavad Gita which taught that if one were morally right, one need not hesitate to fight injustice. Besides the Gita, Ecevit was also influenced by Nehru’s Glimpses of World History.
According to Ecevit, he was forced to order military strikes on Cyprus because the Greek Cypriots, in league with Greece, had staged a coup and declared unity with Greece. Turkey had to protect the Turkish Cypriots and its own interests. Besides, the situation could lead to a war with Greece. Thus even though he hated violence, Ecevit had had to order the strikes. He felt that he was morally right and had in the ultimate analysis, prevented much more damage.
The Gita had also guided Ecevit when he decided to contest the chairmanship of the Republican People’s Party in 1972 against the venerable Ismet Inonu, Kemal Ataturk’s successor. Inonu played a vital role in Turkey’s transition from one party rule to multiparty democracy. But Ecevit opposed the 1971 ultimatum issued by the military which led to the resignation of the prime minister, Suleyman Demirel, while Inonu, the leader of the opposition, acquiesced in it so as not to exacerbate the political situation. Ecevit said that while he had the greatest respect for Inonu, he differed with him on this point. Inonu lost and retired from politics.
Ecevit first learnt Sanskrit at the Ankara University. Later his love for poetry and philosophy led him to Rabindranath Tagore. He learnt Bengali to appreciate and later translate Tagore’s writings, including some poems from Geetanjali. During his visit to India in early 2000, Ecevit fulfilled his dream of visiting Shantiniketan.
After the 1971 military crackdown on the left, the Upanishads, Gita, and Geetanjali were banned in Turkey. These books had been found, along with the writings of Karl Marx, F. Engels and V.I. Lenin, in the custody of the leftists (Naxalite leaders Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal were also their heroes).
But the ban on Indian writings was lifted soon. The Turks have a lot of regard for India, for its leaders, civilization, culture and democracy, despite their support to Pakistan on Kashmir in exchange for the latter’s support on Cyprus.
In 1998, Ecevit threatened war on Syria unless it expelled the Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan. But after he was brought to Turkey in February 1999, Ecevit, who opposed the death sentence, persuaded his coalition partners to delay the death sentence. This, despite the fact that the Kurdish rebellion had cost Turkey over 35,000 lives, including 5,000 soldiers, since 1984. It also cost billions of dollars a year and destroyed the region’s economy.
For a politician, Ecevit is very sensitive. During a military exercise in 1977, he was greatly perturbed at the agony of an injured horse, much to the disgust of his military chief, Kenan Evren.
In 1996, Ecevit was all praise for India’s secular leadership when the Bharatiya Janata Party government failed to get outside support. Turkey was then led by its first-ever Muslim premier, Nejemettin Erbakan.
In the April 1999 elections, Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party won the most votes and seats, enabling him to cobble together a heterogeneous coalition of fascist nationalist and right of centre parties. He had to make many compromises to stay in power.
At present, Turkey has been badly affected by economic liberalization. Its gross domestic product has fallen by a third, and millions are unemployed. In the elections this month, no party got more than 10 per cent votes, a sign of the electorate’s disenchantment. Now seriously ill, Ecevit has since resigned giving way to a new generation of leaders, led by 48-year-old Recep Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party.