A short history of Turkification: From Dersim to Tunceli

The local authority in Tunceli in eastern Turkey decided this month to call the city and the province by its Kurdish name – Dersim - saying the Turkish name, which means bronze fist, did not represent the culture, history or religious beliefs of an area often at odds with central government. 

But when the municipality’s decision was submitted to the governor of Tunceli the next day, the central government-appointed official filed a complaint to a regional court demanding the decision be annulled on the grounds that it contradicted exiting laws. A day later, on May 24, the court nullified the council decision. 

To understand what the name Dersim means for the province’s predominantly Kurdish and Alevi people, one has to take a short journey in history.

A remote area of thickly forested mountains akin to the Alps, Dersim was only ever loosely under the control of Ottoman authorities in far away Istanbul. Responding to reports of pillaging and looting by local tribes in the second half of the 19th century, the Ottoman government embarked on a policy of repression, punishment and forced resettlement. Seeing every issue in the area through the lens of security, the Ottoman military put down four insurgencies in Dersim between 1908 and 1914. 

Years later, in 1937, one of the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic, İsmet İnönü, described such operations as floods – the operations came as floods, ensuring a short period of order, but then peace receded and left the region poorer and more prone to rebellion. 

It was only three years after the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 that the new regime launched its first military operation in Dersim; to put down an insurgency by the Koçuşağı tribe. The rulers of the young republic followed the example of the Ottomans, handing the job of disciplining Dersim to Colonel Mustafa Muğlalı. But during the operation, a new weapon, airplanes, were used to bombard the area and the Kılabuz creek was said to have been filled with dead bodies. Official accounts listed only soldiers killed, but said insurgents suffered heavy losses and admitted that more than 1,000 head of livestock were seized as spoils from the local inhabitants.

Provincial governor Cemal Bey’s pleas that the pillaging by local tribes was the result of a struggle to stay alive fell on deaf ears and a 1931 official report concluded the ongoing unrest was because the punishments meted out to Dersim had been insufficient.

Fevzi Çakmak, chief of general staff, proposed sending the heads of the tribes to western Anatolia and distributing members of insurgent tribes to Turkish villages across Turkey. The remaining population would be given lands taken from tribal chiefs. “Dersim should be handled as a colony, Kurdishness should be melted among the Turkish community, and then gradually they should be subject to Turkish law,” he said.

The new republic set out to build national unity around a single Turkish and Sunni Muslim identity in marked contrast to the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman Empire. The people of Dersim - mostly Kurds and Alevi Muslims – did not fit into this mould.

“In the Turkish Republic, the Turkishness of everyone that says he/she is a Turk should be clear and visible for the state,” said a 1934 law.  

Everyone in Turkey was given the chance to be assimilated and take on a Turkish identity. But those who refused, or were unhappy to become a Turk, were deemed traitors. The law set out what Kurds were expected to do: Talk Turkish and live as Turks. 

By 1935, Dersim was restless and many Kurds had lost their confidence in the young state. A “Reform Plan for the East” was prepared on the basis of observations and suggestions made by İnönü after a visit to the region. According to this secret plan, after the state had collected the weapons of the local tribes, the provincial governors offices would become military headquarters and be responsible for enforcing punishments, including executions. 

A "Law on the Administration of Tunceli Province” was then adopted unanimously by parliament in 1936. The law not only renamed the province Tunceli, but also gave the governor and regional commander powers to arrest, prosecute and enforce punishments.

A programme of oppression followed. Kurds called it a policy of forced assimilation, saying those who spoke their mother tongue were persecuted, Kurdish newspapers and journals banned, and others killed during forced migrations to other parts of Turkey. Kurdish intellectuals were either shot, hanged, or sent into exile.  

In March 1937, the Dersim uprising began. The suppression of the revolt surpassed all previous military operations in its violence. Aerial bombardments and gas attacks were used to quell the insurgency. 

İnönü, then prime minister, told parliament in September that the military operation had reached its goals. But Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founder and president, and Çakmak disagreed and called for harsher measures - more forced resettlement and more military operations.

İnönü stepped down in October 1937 and Celal Bayar replaced him as prime minister. Seyyid Rıza, one of the leaders of the rebellion, was executed in November along with six others. 

Atatürk, Çakmak, and Bayar launched a second military operation in Dersim in June 1938 and a third in August the same year. While the official reports listed the numbers of insurgents killed, civilian casualties were covered up. Poison gas and dynamite was used to against people hiding in caves and many women and children lost their lives. According to unofficial figures, more than 11,000 people lost their lives and 13,000 were sent into internal exile in the second and third operations. 

In recent years, the province has been the scene of frequent clashes between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and even a small band of communist rebels, in which many hundreds have been killed.

The name Tunceli – bronze fist – is redolent of the violence, forced assimilation and atrocities of the past. Removing this name would help Turkey come to terms with its history and move towards peace and reconciliation.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.