An inconsequential and non-existent relationship that India should continue to snub.
When it comes to Kashmir, among the plethora of multilateral organisations on this planet, there is only one that consistently takes a strident anti-India line with its pronouncements on the subject. That body is the Organisation of The Islamic Conference (OIC). It has provided an international platform to the Kashmiri separatists, issued statements against Indian government over Kashmir, and has even announced a special envoy for Kashmir. Although this hasn’t made India’s position on Kashmir untenable, it has been somewhat of a minor irritant for New Delhi.
Of course, India is not a member of the OIC. But it was a part of the Islamic Summit Conference held at Rabat in September 1969, which led to the birth of the OIC [see Hamid Ansari's op-ed from 2006 in The Hindu, from which this blogpost draws heavily]. The provocation for that gathering was the desecration of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was personally instrumental in having India invited to the Conference. He accepted the argument that the desecration of the third holiest place in Islam was a matter of concern to all Muslims, not merely to “Muslim states” and that India, with its very large Muslim population of 120 million, was entitled to be concerned. However, since the gathering was an inter-governmental one, only the Government of India could be invited. Consequently, India participated in the third session of the Conference, on the afternoon of September 23. The Chairman of the Conference, King Hasan of Morocco, interrupted the scheduled order of speakers to give the floor “to the Ambassador of India who is representing his country after the Conference has decided that India should be represented.” The speech of the Indian delegate forms part of the official transcript of the Conference.
Subsequent developments, and the antics of the then President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan resulted in the forcible exclusion of the Indian delegation from the subsequent sessions of the Conference. Arshad Sami, an aide to the then Pakistani President has recounted in great detail how it took a boycott call by Yahya Khan for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco to beat a hasty retreat and banish India from OIC. Yahya decided to feign illness and threatened to fly out of Rabat without attending the plenary session of OIC, which would have been the death knell to the incipent organisation, if the world’s then largest Muslim country walked out. King Hassan, in his capacity as the chairman of Islamic Conference decided to withdraw the invitation extended to Indians and bar the Indian delegation from entering Morocco. Furthermore, the Declaration of the Conference was ingeniously crafted to show them as “Representatives of Moslem Community of India.” In fact, subsequent delegation to OIC from India, led by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, did not make it beyond Rome. No invitations were extended to India in subsequent years and the domestic political backlash of the Rabat incident persuaded most people in India to wish away the OIC and its activities.
It was only after the Pakistan-backed insurgency started in Kashmir in 1990 that Pakistan started using the forum of the OIC to produce strident anti-India resolutions. They were a source of embarrassment for India till the world-view on Islamist terror turned around after 2001. Meanwhile, India was able to contain the armed insurgency in Kashmir, especially after 2004. In 2006, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia suggested that India, like Russia, could get an observer status in the OIC. But Pakistan strongly objected to the proposal and India also did not evince any interest in pursuing the lead.
Is there a case for India to seek engagement with the OIC now? After all, realpolitik dictates that India must engage with an organisation that purports to represent a majority of Muslims of the world. Muslim countries and societies form the immediate and proximate neighbourhood of India and have a bearing on our strategic environment.
The argument for seeking a limited association via an observer status goes thus: After all, the US and Russia have an observer status there. So why not India? It might just prevent us from the embarrassing ritual of statements on Kashmir. But the situation has already gone beyond that. The OIC unilaterally announces an envoy for Kashmir and India would be legitimising its stance by seeking any association there.
Moreover if the debate over India’s association with the OIC is to be reopened, it needs to go back to the beginning. If India was an original invitee, the question of offering it an observer status now should not arise. Instead, it should be a simple matter of restoring the founder-membership that was taken away from India by a sleight of hand that did no credit to those who did it, or assisted it in any manner. In fact, the offer and acceptance of an alternative status would revalidate what was done in 1969. For this reason alone, any offer of an observer status should be rejected.
Also, OIC is not a monolith or a regional association like the ASEAN. It has little geo-strategic value. India, with its emergent economy, is being courted by all the countries and sticking to bilateral relations with individual countries is working best for it for now. Among multi-lateral organisations, India must focus on the G-20, ASEAN and perhaps the UNSC to improve its geopolitical standing and ignore sniping by the OIC as a minor irritant that it can afford to live with.
The world has changed dramatically since 2001. What does India stand for and what does the OIC stand for? There are no commonalities between the two as India, in contrast to a majority of OIC member countries, stands for a plural society, secular polity and a democratic state structure. The incompatibility is further pronounced because India’s aim in the OIC, as it is with the rest of the world, will be to show not the Muslim face of India but the Indian face that has a Muslim dimension also.
The whole debate is actually academic for an offer, either for observer status or for full membership of the OIC, is not coming India’s way in the foreseeable future. It is also not something India has craved for and there is a slim chance that India’s approach to the OIC is going to change any soon. In any case, not having India as a part of the OIC is today more of a loss for the OIC than it is for India. If the OIC realises this, it will make the first move. India can then choose to respond. Till then, let the status quo prevail.