India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj addressed the inaugural session of the 46th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers on March 1, 2019, in Abu Dhabi as a “guest of honor” invited by this year’s OIC host country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Raveesh Kumar, India’s official spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) tweeted from the MEA’s official twitter handle:
“History is made! EAM @SushmaSwaraj concluded her address at the Inaugural Session as ‘Guest of Honour’ at Council of Foreign Ministers of @OIC_OCI – first time by India: I come from land of Mahatma Gandhi, where every prayer ends with the call for Shanti or Peace for all.”
The moment was phenomenal in itself: for the first time in 50 years, India attended such a gathering of the grouping, which states that it works to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony.” But was this truly a historic development or a tectonic moment for Indian diplomacy?
The ebb and flow – where ebb overpowers flow — of India’s relations with the OIC has been evident since its inception. India was invited to attend the first summit of the OIC 50 years ago in 1969 in Morocco. But the Indian delegation had to return midway due to a withdrawal of the invitation after Pakistan’s objection. It was a setback for Indian diplomacy, as it could not further become a part of the second largest inter-governmental organization in the world (after the United Nations). Pakistan’s adamant stance toward India’s non-entry in the grouping has ensured even today that India is neither a member nor an observer of the OIC, despite having one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Countries like Thailand and Russia are observer members, despite having a significant minority Muslim population.
In addition to this, the OIC’s stand on the Kashmir issue questions the state of Jammu and Kashmir as a legitimate part of India. The organization has been generally supportive of Pakistan’s concerns over Jammu and Kashmir. With regards to this, the OIC has been issuing statements criticizing alleged atrocities and human rights violations in the state. For instance, as recently as December 2018, the OIC General Secretariat had “condemned killing of innocent Kashmiris by Indian forces,” further describing it as a “terrorist act.” India has always categorically stated the issue to be a “matter internal to India” and insisted that any dispute over it with its neighbor Pakistan must be resolved bilaterally.
But winds of change have been blowing for India. UAE Foreign Minsiter Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s formal invitation to his counterpart in New Delhi is viewed as part of the larger diplomatic rapprochement between the UAE and its friendly neighbor, Saudi Arabia. India is the third largest economy in the world, one of the biggest importers of hydrocarbons like gas and oil, and one of the largest exporters of labor, with more than 8 million Indians living in West Asia, especially in the Gulf region. West Asia and India’s growing economic and energy interdependence makes it difficult for the former to ignore the latter. This was evident when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi appealed to the host country of the OIC plenary this year to rescind its invitation to India amid the ongoing escalation (and later de-escalation) of the crisis between New Delhi and Islamabad following the Pulwama terrorist attack. Qureshi raised his concerns only to fall on deaf ears, following which he refrained from attending the plenary session. These happenings could be viewed as a reversal to the 1969 incident in the backdrop of the same grouping and thus, a tectonic moment for Indian diplomacy. But are India’s real aims being achieved?
For more than a decade, reforms in the OIC have been continuously called for. In 2006, then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz had proposed India’s candidature as an observer in the grouping. Similar voices have been vocal, the most recent being that of India’s eastern neighbor Bangladesh. During the 45th meeting of the Council of Ministers in Dhaka in 2018, the Bangladeshi foreign minister called for reforms paving the way for countries like India, non-Muslim majority countries, to join as observers in the organization.
Moreover, the OIC 2025 Program of Action (2016-2025) stands out as a unique venture envisioning the OIC’s role in peace and development in the Muslim world and beyond, focusing on priority areas like peace and security, terrorism, inter-faith harmony, poverty alleviation, food security, and women empowerment. But the exclusion of around 185 million Muslims of India from the organization, which states that it is “the collective voice of the Muslim world,” would hardly help in achieving these objectives. Furthermore, these priority areas find resonance with India’s domestic issues and the country’s efforts to engage effectively with them. India’s EAM Swaraj, while addressing the recent plenary, mentioned that “the fight against terrorism is not a confrontation against any religion…it is driven by distortion of religion.” A similar stance has been taken by many OIC countries, which delink terrorism from any particular religion.
India’s presence at the 46th OIC meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is historic, but it still remains a stepping stone toward larger engagement with the OIC and the Muslim world. Article 4 (1) of the OIC Charter states the need for consensus among the OIC Council of Ministers for deciding on granting observer status to a state. Consensus-building for India’s entry in the grouping without Pakistan’s support is inconceivable. Thus, it remains in India’s interest to engage positively with Pakistan on this issue and collectively work for the ideals to which the OIC is committed.
During the plenary session, India was able to voice its concerns with respect to the menace of terrorism, which affects the entire world. Pakistan should heed to India’s concerns with respect to terrorism, which find similarity with that of its other two neighbors, Afghanistan and Iran. With mushrooming concerns like the rise of Islamophobia, cross-border terrorism, extremism, and instability in the world order, the OIC has become more relevant than ever before. Active engagement in the grouping by India, home to around 10 percent of the Muslims in the world, can add more substance to the existence and working of the OIC.
Jayesh Khatu is a Research Associate at the Center for Air Power Studies, New Delhi