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For many in the South Block (and several diplomats who served in the West Asia/Gulf region in the past), India’s emergence as ‘Guest of Honour’ at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting of Foreign Ministers, scheduled to be held in Abu Dhabi, is a great solace and a ‘mission accomplished.’ Having an observer status in a transcontinental organization of 57 countries, with more than 1.5 billion population and a combined GDP of more than $7 trillion, is not a small thing in a complex web of international relations, especially in the background of consistent opposition by Pakistan to India’s entry since its formative days in 1969. India might be on the threshold of this status if the positive gestures of OIC are of any indication. However, the Ministry of External Affairs in its press release on 23 February said that Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister has been invited by the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the ‘Guest of Honour’ to address the Inaugural Plenary of the 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OIC to be held in Abu Dhabi on 1st and 2nd March 2019. The South Block considers this invitation as “the desire of the enlightened leadership of the UAE to go beyond our rapidly growing close bilateral ties and forge a true multifaceted partnership at the multilateral and international level.” Seeing it “as a milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE,” the Ministry said that “this invitation as a welcome recognition of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and of their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, and of India’s contribution to the Islamic world” (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2019b).

There are reasons as to why India feels rejoiced. The invitation in the 50th year of OIC itself came in the background of India’s intense diplomatic campaign across the world following the terror attack in Pulwama, even as Pakistan has been opposing India’s entry all these years. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bangladesh et al. have been arguing that India should have been an observer in the OIC. Way back in 2006, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia said that it would have been ‘beneficial’ had Pakistan proposed India’s candidature as an observer (Sager 2009). Many pointed out that if Russia and Thailand found a place in the OIC observer states’ list, why not India with a huge Muslim population of 185 million. But the single most important reason why India being denied this has been Pakistan which used the platform for its campaign against India by raising the Kashmir issue from time to time. Though India has been maintaining a comfortable relationship with all Muslim countries bilaterally (with the exception of Pakistan), this ‘smoothness’ did not get reflected in a platform when they all got together.  The OIC resolutions as well as the speeches of leaders in its meetings therefore tended to reflect more or less the Pakistani version of the situation in Kashmir.

The painful memories of the fist OIC meeting in Rabat, Morocco in September 1969 still linger on. India was actually invited to the first session and the Indian Ambassador, Gurbachan Singh, did attend the preliminary rounds. However, there was a sudden volt face in the following day and the Indian delegation, led by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was not allowed to continue in the remaining sessions. Ambassador Gurbachan Singh recollects this: 

The unprecedented developments at Rabat certainly had consequences. These may be viewed internationally and bilaterally, as well as in the short and long-term perspectives. The efforts to renege on the unanimous invitation to India, and failing that, to change the description of Indian representation in the official record are certainly unprecedented. It is perhaps the first time in the history of international conferences that an official delegation, unanimously invited by the conference itself after it had commenced its formal deliberations (and part of the delegation had already participated in an earlier session), was prevented from attending the concluding session. Whatever may have been the justification for this action, the fact remains that the conference submitted to the blackmailing pressure of Pakistan, to exclude the Indian delegation. The irony is even greater when it is recalled that Pakistan was a party to the invitation to India, the commitment having been made by no less a person than the president of that country, and that the Pakistan delegation, headed by President Yahya Khan, was present at the afternoon plenary session of the conference on September 22, while the Indian delegation, under the acting leadership of its Ambassador to Morocco, was present at the conference table (Singh 2019).

It was reported, later, that General Yahya Khan had come under pressure from his colleagues as well as leaders of the opposition parties and that he had to turn the tables at the OIC with the help of some countries like Jordan. Once India was out, Pakistan effectively used it as a comfortable forum to mobilise opinion in its favour on Kashmir. The OIC has since then been openly taking a position against India.  Just two weeks before the Pulwama attack, Yousef bin Ahmed Al-Othaimeen, Secretary General of the OIC reaffirmed “the principled position of the OIC to support the Kashmiri people in their long struggle to realize their legitimate right to self-determination” (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 2019). A few months before that, the General Secretariat OIC “expressed strong condemnation of the killing of innocent Kashmiris by Indian forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IOK) where direct shooting at demonstrators in Pulwama region claimed the lives of a number of innocent citizens and injured others.” The Secretariat “condemned this terrorist act and called upon the international community to play its role in order to reach a just and lasting solution to the conflict in Kashmir, in accordance with the relevant international resolutions adopted by the OIC and the UN Security Council, and fulfill the aspirations of the Kashmiri people” (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 2018a).

Likewise, the Secretary General of the Organization inaugurated a ceremony in remembrance of ‘Kashmir’s Black Day’ in Jeddah on 19 November 2018 and  “underlined that organizing Kashmir’s Black Day commemoration at the OIC General Secretariat’s headquarters is a true expression of the OIC’s firm stance and continued support to the Kashmiris to exercise their long overdue right to self-determination.” The Secretary General “pledged that the OIC will continue to advocate the Kashmiri issue at every international forum (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 2018b).On 30 April 2018, the OIC Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir held its meeting in Jeddah “in the context of recent killings of more than 20 innocent Kashmiri civilians at the hands of Indian occupying force” and “condemned the recent killing of innocent Kashmiri civilians by the Indian occupying forces and reiterated OIC’s principled position on supporting the people of Jammu and Kashmir in achieving their legitimate rights, including the right of self-determination.” During the meeting, the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan “apprised the participants about the Indian aggression and recent escalation in atrocities against the innocent Kashmiri civilians..” and “reaffirmed Pakistan’s diplomatic, moral and political support to the people of Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir” (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 2018c).

Given this history of OIC’s consistent position on Kashmir, it is certainly challenging question if a ‘Guest of Honour’ position can make things change within the organization. An observer status, even if it comes through, may not enable India to change the mindset of the organization.  Article 4 of the OIC Charter says that “Decision on granting Observer status to a State, member of the United Nations, will be taken by the Council of Foreign Ministers by consensus only and on the basis of the agreed criteria by the Council of Foreign Ministers” (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 2018d). Given the setbacks in bilateral relations in the wake of Pulwama attack, it remains to be seen if Pakistan will come around a formula, in terms of a ‘consensus’ in favour of India, to avoid further damage in its relations with a large number of countries in the Muslim world. It is true that Islamabad already felt isolated even among its traditional strategic allies in the West and it was reflected further in the UN Security Council debates.

Evidently, the recent spurt in India-UAE and India-Saudi relations helped strengthen the situation in favour of India. All GCC countries are badly in need of new investment and business locations in the wake of the slowdown of the global economy and the fluctuations in oil price. They obviously look upon India and China as potential partners in the emerging scenario. For example, a spate of agreements signed between India and Saudi Arabia, during the visit of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to India in February 2019, is an indication of this trend. Both countries, while stressing “the importance of regional stability and good neighbouring relations”  “agreed on the need for creation of conditions necessary for resumption of the comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan” (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2019a). Apparently, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, had also expressed his desire to mediate between the two countries in the background of his visit to Pakistan and India. Though India does not officially approve of any third party mediation in its relations with Pakistan, the role of a strategic partner in helping restore normalcy cannot be ruled out. In that sense, the road to OIC, though challenging, has some instrumental value.

References

India, Ministry of External Affairs (2019a): “India-Saudi Arabia Joint Statement during the State Visit of His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to India, 20 February 2019,” available at https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/31072/IndiaSaudi_Arabia_Joint_Statement_during_the_State_Visit_of_His_Royal_Highness_the_Crown_Prince_of_Saudi_Arabia_to_India

India, Ministry of External Affairs (2019b): “EAM to attend 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as ‘Guest of Honour’ to attend the Inaugural Plenary,” 23 February 2019, available at https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/31081/EAM_to_attend_46th_Session_of_the_Council_of_Foreign_Ministers_of_Organisation_of_Islamic_Cooperation_as_Guest_of_Honour_to_attend_the_Inaugural_Plena

Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (2019): “Al-Othaimeen Meets Consul General of Pakistan,” 30 January, available at https://www.oic-oci.org/topic/?t_id=20548&ref=11685&lan=en

Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (2018a): “The OIC General Secretariat Condemns the Killing of Innocent People in Jammu and Kashmir,” 16 December, available at https://www.oic-oci.org/topic/?t_id=20403&ref=11630&lan=en

Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (2018b): “The Secretary General Inaugurates Ceremony Marking Kashmir Black Day,” 19 November, available at https://www.oic-oci.org/topic/?t_id=20268&ref=11575&lan=en

Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (2018c): Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir Reviews Recent Developments on the Ground,” 30 April, available at https://www.oic-oci.org/topic/?t_id=18624&ref=10323&lan=en

Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (2018d): Charter of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, available at https://www.oic-oci.org/upload/documents/charter/en/oic_charter_2018_en.pdf

Sager Abdulaziz (2009): “Why not India in OIC,” Khaleej Times, 10 October, available at https://www.khaleejtimes.com/editorials-columns/why-not-india-in-oic

Singh, Gurbachan (2019): “How Pakistan Scuttled India’s Invitation to the First OIC Plenary,” The Wire, available at https://thewire.in/diplomacy/india-pakistan-oic-first-plenary

This write up has also appeared in the Global South Colloquy. The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at kmseethimgu@gmail.com