Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on his maiden visit to India and the New Delhi centered university Jamia Millia Islamia has decided to confer an honorary Doctorate Degree of Letters upon him for his contribution to the field of humanities. This controversial decision has invited a backlash from the university students who are strongly opposing this resolve.

Jamia Millia Islamia has offered honorary degrees in the past to personalities who do not belong to academic background: Dalai Lama, Ban Ki Moon, and Saudi Arabian Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz. And it is not Erdogan’s ‘non-academic’ background which is bothering the students but the premise on which the university has decided to bestow him with this privilege. How do we justify his excellence of pursuit or his work to make the world more humane?    

The last time an Indian university granted an honorary degree to a Turkish high official was in the year 2000, when the Head of the State, Prime Minister Mustafa Bulent Ecevit received a Doctorate of Letters by Vishwa Bharati University, Shantiniketan.

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Ecevit was a complicated figure, who can be distinguished from Erdogan is many respect. Characterised by his hardline Turkish secular nationalism, Ecevit forged a centre-left consensus and promoted secular educational policies. However, that isn’t reason enough to confer someone a doctorate. Ecevit’s India connection goes far deeper — something that will help you understand why Vishva Bharati chose to give him the honorary title.

He was a fluent Bengali speaker, a scholar on Devanagari and Sanskrit, and a translator of Rabindranath Tagore’s acclaimed works. He gave Tagore to the Turks and thus it was very natural for an educational institution founded by Tagore to grant him with an honorary degree for his contributions.

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In 1970s, Turkey had banned the translations to Tagore’s writings. His works were supposed to promote the left ideology and thus posed a threat to the regime. Ecevit translated these books and gave the closeted intellectuals an alternative thought. On the other hand, all that Erdogan can be attributed to is lustrous infrastructure, crackdown on universities and students, and restrictions on academic freedom.