Background to the Indian presence at the OIC

Published 29.03.2019 00:45

India felt both baffled and amused after it was invited as a "Guest of Honor" to participate in the 46th session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting. It has been 50 years since the OIC came into existence and it is only after five decades, the UAE's Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as the current chair of the session and the host of the event, invited India to be the guest of honor in the plenary session on March 1, 2019. The content of the invitation stated that the invites were in testimony to India's growing political and economic stature and Islamic component of its history and civilization. The invitation to India was not only surprising but a bombshell, given the painful past of India's association with this Islamic body.

The invitation came when India was mourning the death of 41 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in a horrendous, recent suicide attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir. It was also a time when New Delhi was surrounded by controversy due to the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to India after completing his two-day, high-profile visit to Pakistan, whose hand was suspected in the deadly assault in Kashmir.

MBS received a dismissive reception in the country because of his silence over the killing in India during his interaction in Pakistan and his s

ilence was quite understandable given the deep ideological and strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The invitation was also a juxtaposition and a grim reminder of September 1969, when India suffered deep humiliation after Pakistan scuttled India's invitation to the first OIC Summit in Rabat, Morocco.

Pakistan took no time to condemn the invitation to India, seen as an abrupt departure from the past policy of the OIC and Pakistan lobbied hard with other OIC member states to rescind the invitation but in vain. Pakistan even asked the hosting United Arab Emirates (UAE) to postpone the summit in view of prevailing tensions between India and Pakistan because of the Pulwama incident.

As a mark of protest and anger, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi did not attend the summit and the government sent a low-level representative to the meeting. This was a bizarre move by Pakistan because in the past it has been at the forefront of OIC business and, along with other influential players, dictates its deliberation and resolutions.

In the 50 years of the OIC's history, it was for the first time that the Pakistan foreign minister did not attend the OIC Summit. To put additional pressure and mobilize support against the invitation, Pakistan called an emergency meeting of the "Contact Group" on Kashmir within the OIC after India announced that its foreign minister would attend the OIC meeting.

India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, as expected, spoke about its government policies toward the Muslim minority and India's old civilizational and religious links with the Arab world. She also spoke of Islamic ethos of equality and justice which is the core ingredient of Indian civilization. Sushma Swaraj also asserted that the fight against terrorism is not a fight against any religion or civilization.

India and the OIC: An acrimonious history

It was August 1969 when there was an attempt to burn the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and perhaps it is a coincidence that the Al-Aqsa attacker was also an Australian like the one involved in the Christchurch massacres last week. At the behest of Morocco and Saudi Arabia, an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers was summoned to discuss the development.

Some Arab nations wanted to limit the participation to Arab leaders alone while Saudi Arabia and Morocco wanted to expand its ambit to include other Islamic countries as well. Pakistan, after hectic diplomatic exercise and political efforts, contrived itself included on the plea that it was the largest Islamic state of the time. The preparatory committee decided to convene a Summit Meeting in Rabat on Sept. 22-24, 1969, and that is how the Arab-Islamic body came into existence and of course, in five decades it has gone through several incarnations.

India has its own political claim to be the part of the summit because of being home to a large number of Muslims since time immemorial, while Pakistan claimed that India, being a "Hindu" majority nation cannot be accommodated into this purely Arab-Islamic body. Amid the deliberation of the summit itself, an Indian embassy official was informed that Morocco, with the consent of other participants, had decided to invite India to participate in the first Summit Meeting. Though Indian Embassy officials were a bit hesitant to respond to this invitation and erstwhile Indian Ambassador Gurbachan Singh even asked the host official if the invitation had the consent of Pakistan and he received a reply in the affirmative. India sent a delegation led by erstwhile industrial development minister and later President of the Republic of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad to Rabat to attend the Islamic Summit.

On the last day of the conference (Sept. 24), rumors had started floating that President of Pakistan Yahya Khan refused to come to the venue until he received assurance that the Indian delegation would not participate in the meeting. Immediately after the arrival of the Indian delegation, Ahmad was informed through the Moroccan king's emissary that due to some developments could India accept observer status, which India rejected. The Indian delegation was also asked to withdraw voluntarily from the meeting to save the conference – that too was refused on the plea that India was invited officially and unanimously.

In the preamble to the resolution of fist OIC Summit, Indian representation was described as members of the Muslim community of India. There was no reference to India have participated in the summit despite the fact that the Indian ambassador had participated in one of the three sessions before the official invite was sent to India.

Pakistan later also scuttled several attempts to accommodate India in the OIC. In 2002, Qatar proposed to accord India observer status, but Pakistan blocked the move. Last year, Bangladesh suggested altering the charter of the OIC to accommodate other non-Muslims nations such as India in the OIC, but no headway was made.

Since the creation of the OIC, this India-Pakistan bitterness at the OIC has continued and the persecution of Indian Muslims has always been discussed in every deliberation of the OIC. The Kashmir issue has always been a bone of contention in the OIC and the body always questions the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a legitimate part of India.

Pakistan has a total of 19 resolutions at the OIC and a majority of them are related to Kashmir. The OIC has been supportive of Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir and has constantly highlighted the atrocities and military crackdowns in the state. In most of the resolutions, the OIC has called the killing of Kashmiri civilians by armed forces an act of terrorism. Not only this, the OIC has been quite vocal on the issue of Babri mosque, communal riots in the country and other discrimination against Muslims in India. India has always claimed that Kashmir is an internal matter for India and it would be resolved bilaterally.

After 50 years, why now?

The presence of India at the OIC is an explicit indication of a major departure of the Arab world from its traditional stance and the changing stature of India. The invitation is an outcome of India's hectic diplomatic engagement in the last few years with Gulf nations. India has been invited despite the fact that India is neither a Muslim majority nation nor does it have a Muslim as head of state or the government if one goes by the initial criterion for OIC membership.

India's participation as a "Guest of Honor" can be deciphered at two levels: Strengthening UAE-India ties and changing the India-Arab relationship. The invite was not merely a sign of deep India-UAE ties but an urge to expand the ambit of the relationship further. The crown prince was in Delhi as a chief guest on the eve of Republic Day in 2017. During his last visit to the UAE, Prime Minister Modi had unveiled the first ever Hindu temple on the soil of Abu Dhabi.

It is also a fact that an unprecedented level of change has been observed in the political arena of the Arab world and that is more explicit in terms of its foreign policies and growing Israel-Arab ties is one such example. These Gulf countries along with other Arab countries seem to have sacrificed their abandoned underpinning for the politics of pragmatism.

The presence of India's foreign minister at the OIC could be seen as a larger diplomatic rapprochement between the UAE and its close neighbor Saudi Arabia. India is the sixth-largest economy in the world and one of the large importers of hydrocarbons from the Gulf region apart from being the largest exporter of manpower.

Today around 8 million Indian workers live in West Asia, mostly in the Gulf countries. The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations account for $110 billion annual trade with India and for India it is the largest trading bloc. The growing economic and energy interdependence, the threat of radicalism and growing extremism have also created a new framework for both India and the Arab world to create a fresh mechanism of engagement which is reflected in the invitation.

Not much is likely to change

Despite a lot of buzz in the media about India's participation and being seen as a major diplomatic victory in the past five decades, India should not harbor any optimism that its observer status in the OIC is right around the corner. This is because both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy the greatest leverage due to their strategic and financial strength, respectively, and the deep-rooted ties between the two are well-known.

Pakistan's continued and adamant resistance to India's non-entry in the grouping has ensured that even today India is neither a member nor an observer of the OIC despite being home to one of the largest Muslim communities. Meanwhile countries like Thailand and Russia enjoy observer status despite having a smaller number of Muslims in comparison to India.

Even the absence of a high-level delegation from Pakistan could not deter the OIC from adopting one of the harshest resolutions on Kashmir, and this time too, the final resolution of the OIC termed Indian action in Kashmir as an act of terrorism. The OIC Contact Group on Kashmir called India to respect human rights and resolve the Kashmir dispute according to the relevant OIC and U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Pakistan's nominal presence was more than enough to determine the policies and resolutions of the OIC vis-a-vis India. It can also be said that the UAE along with other countries is charting a course of building an image of moderation for themselves and the new policy is an exhibition of the fact that countries' national interests would no more be determined by religious sentiment.

No doubt India has made some headway in the span of 50 years by being at the OIC and it would help the country in diversifying its ties with the Arab world, but India should have no reason to believe that it has scored a major strategic victory or Pakistan has suffered a major diplomatic defeat. It is also a fact that the OIC is competing very hard with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Arab League for receiving the tag of most ineffective international organization, as its recent record shows.

* Ph.D. holder in Middle Eastern Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Researcher at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a foreign policy think tank based in New Delhi

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