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Mehmed Talaat

“Motives make actions right or wrong,” Arjun said to his son who wondered why his father was so staunchly opposed to right wing politics. Shyam was 14 years old but his relationship with his father remained as cordial as it ever was, untinged by any adolescent rebellion. Rebellion was obviated by the unique bond that the father had built up with the boy right from his infancy. Father and son can be good friends forever – that was one of Arjun’s many axiomatic truths.

“Let me tell you an incident,” Arjun said. “Straight from history.” History is stranger than fiction, Arjun used to say. That was another axiom of Arjun’s. He was a history teacher and he should know.

“Now visualise this. 14 March 1921. A damp day in Berlin. A burly man in a heavy grey overcoat is taking a stroll in a public street. He is 47 years old. A young man of 24 pulls up behind him, places a revolver at the back of the older man’s head and shouts insanely, “This is to avenge the death of my family!” And he pulled the trigger. The pedestrians immediately overpowered the killer who was beaten black and blue before the police arrived and arrested him.” Arjun paused.

“Who were the two men: the killer and the victim?” Shyam asked. If they’re from history, they can’t be mere ordinary men.

“The victim was Mehmed Talaat and the killer was Soghomon Tehlirian.” Shyam had no idea who they were. Arjun continued, “Talaat was responsible for the death of about a million people some of whom were Tehlirian’s family members.”

“A million people!” Shyam gasped.

“Killing one person is a crime,” Arjun said, “but killing a million is nationalism.”

“Mehmed Talaat was a nationalist,” Shyam concluded.

“Yes, Turkish nationalist who hated the Armenian Christians in his country. Nationalism is more about hatred of a certain community than about love of anything.” Arjun never wanted his son to be a nationalist. National borders are imaginary creations of small minds, he used to say. Big minds are citizens of the cosmos.

Arjun put the clear picture before his young son. It was a war by a government against a section of its own people. The Armenians were treated like slaves. Their churches were desecrated. Schools were closed. Those who consented to convert to Islam were set free. Others were tortured. Eventually ordered to leave the country.

June 1915. Soghomon Tehlirian’s hometown was evacuated. 20,000 people including little children started walking. Into death. Most of them would die of starvation and torture on the way. Or be killed.

The Turkish gendarmes dragged Tehlirian’s sisters off behind bushes and raped them. Next he watched another gendarme split his 22-year-old brother’s head open with an axe. Then the soldiers shot his mother dead before striking the 19-year-old Tehlirian unconscious.

When Tehlirian regained consciousness, he was lying amid a pile of corpses. He saw the mangled body of one of his sisters and the shattered skull of his brother. His other relatives had disappeared.

“In the end both Tehlirian and Talaat reached Germany,” Arjun said, “Tehlirian as a refugee and Talaat as an exile.” When the World War I ended and the Ottoman Empire was brought to its knees, the new regime in Turkey ordered to punish war criminals and Talaat was held responsible for one million deaths. But the demon could not be caught; he escaped to Germany.

“I started the story of Talaat and Tehlirian with a statement about motives making our deeds right or wrong,” said Arjun. “Will you blame Tehlirian for the murder he committed?”

“It’s revenge,” the boy said hesitantly, “and revenge is not good.”

“Well,” Arjun said. “The German court of justice acquitted him.”


“Why are you surprised?”

“But… revenge can’t be a good motive.”

“Was it revenge? Wasn’t it something more than revenge?”

“Something more than revenge?” The boy wondered. “What’s that?”

“Justice,” the father said.

The boy considered that. That was something new for him: justice as a tweaked form of revenge. He decided to contemplate that later. His concern today was why his father detested the right wing in India.

“The right wingers are descendants of Talaat,” Arjun said. “Check their motives.” A pause and then Arjun said, “Talaat is a demigod for many people in Turkey even today.”

“One man’s god is another’s demon,” Shyam said to himself.

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  1. Hari OM
    While I appreciate your intent here, it is necessary to point out that nationalism is identification with one's own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations. This is entirely different from religious zealousness of those in power against other groups within a nation; what you describe is persecution leading to extermination. Hindutva is NOT nationalism. It is the pursuit of a single-faith state. The Jewish state came into being due to Zionism ("we alone are") and not nationalism as such. Neither consider the followers of Hitler's doctrine as being in favour of nationalism - the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi) had nothing to do with nationalism and everything to do with Aryanism and the desire for a single-race state.

    It is not without irony that Tehlirian was acquitted by a republic that would, two decades later, perpetrate similar atrocity to that of the Pashas. Assassination, however, is still a wrong act, no matter how the intention (motive) is argued. Revenge is not justice, for it does not respect the law any more than those against whom the justice is sought. Two wrong acts to not make a right.

    As a point of historical interest, Tehlirian's son has been on record confirming that his father was not even in the country at the time of the slaughter - and that he had only brothers. YAM xx


    1. First of all, I wrote this in the form of fiction because I didn’t want to assert anything as my personal beliefs or convictions or even opinions. Moreover, I wanted to highlight the irony of all these and nothing can do that better than fiction format.

      All these concepts – nationalism, justice, etc – are never objective entities. Most serious thinkers from Karl Popper to Yuval Harari have questioned the very validity of nationalism. Popper says that nationalism appeals to our tribal instincts, to passion and prejudice, our nostalgic desire to be relieved from the strain of individual responsibility which is replaced by a collective responsibility. Harari thought nationalism was a fantasy…

      Today’s kind of nationalism I find in India is contemptible. It alienates people merely because they belong to particular religious communities. An Aryan Khan can be charged with anything merely because he is a Khan and his father is known figure who has questioned the present Indian nationalism more than once. A Sanjeev Bhat can languish in jail for years merely because he had given evidence against the Prime Minister long ago in a riot case. An octogenarian Catholic priest suffering from Parkinson’s disease can die in jail for no crime at all unless being a Catholic priest is a crime in present India. A Gauri Lankesh or a Kalburgi or a Dabholkar can perish pitted against absurd notions of nationalism. The list is endless. Don’t forget innocent people lynched by frenzied nationalists on roadsides. Definitions don’t help. But I didn’t want to kick up a storm and that’s why I made it look like a story.

      Even the notion of justice as a tweaked version of revenge is meant to make the reader think rather than assert a universal truth. I left the boy to think about it just because I wished the reader to think. What is justice for all the victims I listed above but sheer revenge by people who wield power in the name of nationalism?
      I haven’t mentioned Tehlirian’s father in the narrative. But I know you’re just mentioning that fact about him as a point of historical interest.

      Happy that you take my writing so seriously.

    2. Hari OM
      I wasn't talking about T's father, but Tehlirian himself. That article is from his son, who learned from T that he and two of his three brothers were in Serbia and that he probably never knew what actually happened to his mother and third brother.

      I do appreciate that you were seeking to fictionalise - but this is difficult to do when dealing with real life events.

      The difficulty of nationalism is that has been usurped for single-doctrine usage; in India's case "Hindu nationalism" is referred to, but the nation consists of much more than those of that one cultural and faith structure. There is no reason a Sikh or a Muslim or a Christian or Buddhist should feel any less and Indian national and therefore have a feeling of nationalism toward the country. Really what is happening is Hindu exceptionalism... "We are better than the rest." Absolute nonsense of course and I agree having labels can add fuel to the fire - but this is the way of things. We all, ultimately, identify in one way or another - even if it be 'anarchist' (of which I, perhaps, have a touch!)

      Keep writing dear blogpal - keep us thinking!!! YAM xx

  2. I think the motives doesn't matter if something is motivating you to take life then its never good. Be it justice, religion or anything else

    1. I used the word motive to mean "reason for doing something" and not as motivation.

  3. I understand your perspective. But my definition of nationalism vastly differs from the one you have put out.

    I for one view nationalism as a pride in my national identity and as a collective, and while that intrinsically involves that 'othering' it is certainly not hatred.

    1. Ultimately the motive makes the difference. If your nationalism brings good to you and others, that's fine, though i don't understand why one should give undue importance to collectives that make little sense especially in a diverse country like India.

  4. This is a such a great read... I just love the way you penned it

  5. This story make us think on what is bigger the motive or the circumstances, once this is prioritised then all things falls in place.

    1. Justice relies heavily on motives. Literature looks at motives. I'm sure even god does the same.


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