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EFSAS Commentary

OIC looks to rectify an enduring anomaly by inviting India to its Foreign Ministers’ meeting


The invitation extended by the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan to India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to be the guest of honour at the inaugural session of the 46th Foreign Ministers’ meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Abu Dhabi on 1 March was as much a reflection of India’s growing global stature and its economic potential as it was of the success of the Indian government’s policy of deepening its engagement with the key countries of the Middle East. That the decision was taken and persisted with by the OIC despite vehement opposition and the eventual boycott of the event by Pakistan, which had been one of the OIC’s most influential founding members, clearly demonstrated that the OIC was intent on not again being held hostage by Pakistan as it had been at the time the organization was founded in Rabat, Morocco in 1969. The OIC decision also demonstrated and affirmed Pakistan’s waning influence in the organization, something analysts believed was bound to happen given the frequency with which it has been kneeling before major OIC powerhouses, especially Saudi Arabia and the current OIC chair, the UAE, seeking alms to tide over one major financial crisis after another. While these countries have humoured Pakistan with the largesse it sought, the esteem of the country has suffered significant erosion every time its coffers have been replenished.

The OIC invitation to India ought to have been the norm rather than the exception, given that India has the third largest Muslim population in the world at over 185 million. In all fairness, India ought to have been a founding member of the OIC. That it is not, is solely due to the puerile attitude adopted by Pakistan when the organization was founded in 1969 at a summit organized in Rabat to protest against an Australian Christian’s attempt to set the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on fire. Based on a proposal initially mooted by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Moroccan authorities invited an Indian official delegation to attend, saying that the decision had been taken unanimously and that the then Pakistani President General Yahya Khan had also agreed. India accepted the invitation and its Ambassador to Morocco Gurbachan Singh, on the request of the Moroccan Foreign Ministry, filled in at the summit till the official Indian delegation led by India’s Minister for Urban Development Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed arrived. When the delegation reached Rabat, however, General Yahya Khan, who was facing uncomfortable questions back home for not objecting to India’s participation, backtracked from his agreement and demanded that the official Indian delegation not be allowed to attend the conference. He locked himself in the villa where he was lodged and declined to speak to anyone. Faced with this embarrassing and highly unusual situation, Moroccan authorities attempted to negotiate an alternate level of participation for India, which was not acceptable to the latter. This was how a country with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world was prevented from joining an organization whose stated primary purpose was to protect the rights of Muslims worldwide.

Pakistan has, over the years, strongly opposed even an Observer status for India at the OIC. This has resulted in the warped situation in which Russia, with a Muslim population of only 16 million, and Thailand that has even less, are Observers, while India has not been accorded that status due to Pakistan’s dogmatic intransigence. At the OIC Foreign Ministers’ meet in 2002, Qatar had proposed granting India Observer status in recognition of its substantial Muslim population, but Pakistan had blocked the move. Bangladesh proposed in 2018 that the charter of the OIC be restructured to facilitate inclusion of non-Muslim countries having significant Muslim populations such as India as Observers. Pakistan did not take kindly to this proposal either.

When seen in this backdrop, the invitation extended to India by the UAE assumes great significance. This was not lost on the Indian government. Its Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) described the invitation as “a milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE”, adding that “We see 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”. Further, it termed the OIC invite as a “welcome recognition” of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, as well as of India’s contribution to the Muslim world.

In her address to the plenary, Swaraj underlined India’s tradition of multiculturalism and pointed out that India was home to 185 million socially integrated Muslim citizens. She stressed on India’s long-standing relations with many OIC members and the burgeoning of economic and security ties with West Asian nations in recent years. Her most potent message, however, directly targeted Pakistan when she stressed on the need to dismantle terrorist infrastructure in States that shelter terrorists.

The OIC invitation to India caused serious discomfiture in Pakistan as it signaled the crumbling of its long-held strategy of keeping India at an arm’s length from the OIC, whose shoulders it could conveniently use to fire at India. The Pakistani opposition parties joined the government in demanding that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi boycott the plenary in protest. Khawaja Asif, former Foreign Minister and leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, described the invitation as “an insult and a ridiculous step” and urged the government to engage with other Islamic countries on the issue and tell them that the decision was an “unacceptable act” for Pakistan.

Amidst the furor, Qureshi disclosed in parliament on 1 March that he had written two letters to the OIC Secretary General demanding that either the invitation to India be withdrawn or the meeting be adjourned. He added that despite intense pressure from Pakistan, the OIC had rejected both the demands and hence “I have decided not to attend OIC Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi”. He added that “we were not taken into confidence and neither do Turkey and Iran know about it. Pakistan has decided not to take part in the OIC conference because we were not told that India would be invited too. If India is granted status of an Observer, we will strongly protest and oppose it”.

The fact that Pakistan, the only country opposed to any engagement of the OIC with India, was not even consulted before the OIC issued the invitation was telling. It sent the clear message to the Pakistani establishment that the veto that it had so far used to block out India was a thing of the past. By disregarding Pakistani protests and its threat of boycott, the OIC also made it amply clear that it valued having a relationship with India strongly enough to not succumb to tantrums or intimidation. That Qureshi eventually did not attend the plenary revealed the depth of the anxiety that Pakistan felt at India’s first step towards setting right a historical aberration. 

India, on the other hand, sees a multitude of opportunities in engaging with the OIC. Its interests in the organization go well beyond containing Pakistan. No wonder then that at a time when Pakistan was going hammer and tongs to prevent India’s participation at the plenary and threatening a boycott if it did, India had the civility to quietly depute a senior official to meet the OIC leadership a day prior to the plenary to ask whether they were still comfortable with India’s participation given how flustered Pakistan was and the place that it held in the organization. The response from the OIC was loudly in the affirmative.

Pakistan’s worry going forward is that India has now successfully opened the door for what could well turn out to be a sustained, mutually beneficial and long-term engagement with the OIC. In time, the potential of such engagement to leapfrog India into becoming an observer in the OIC, and at a later stage a member, appears bright. If the past is any indication, Pakistan will, without doubt, redouble its efforts to prevent that from happening.

The damage for Pakistan, though, may already have been done. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s words seem to indicate so. He told the media after the meeting, “OIC has sent a very clear and positive sign to India …that OIC appreciates the relationship with India and looks forward to strengthening such a relationship to a point where we can embrace India one day in OIC”.