It’s significant India has been invited to the OIC post-Pulwama – an opportunity India must use with restraint and caution, and not be in a hurry to push its agenda too hard.
The context for this piece is the invitation received by India to be the guest of honour at the plenary session of the foreign ministers meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to be conducted in Abu Dhabi from 1 to 2 March 2019. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will reportedly attend the session and address it.
Early responses are alluding to the justification of the OIC in inviting India where 185 million Muslims exist as a minority with full rights under a secular Constitution. However, the Indian link with the OIC has been a rather unpleasant one. It has been a forum from where Pakistan has repeatedly criticised India as regards the Kashmir issue and made repeated allegations of human rights violations against it.
India has been reticent about the OIC connection due to a rather unpleasant experience at the inception stage in 1969 when it was initially invited to attend the summit at Rabat in September 1969 and was subsequently denied a seat. A brief description of the events of 1969 and the Indian connection with the OIC will help to remove a few cobwebs.
In August 1969, I can recall the headlines stating that the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem had been set on fire by a supposedly mentally ill Christian fundamentalist. The damage was to the roof and an old pulpit of the iconic mosque but the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was justifiably unhappy and demanded a worldwide Islamic condemnation through a meeting. It was King Faisal of Saudi Arabia who proposed such a meeting of heads of state of Islamic countries, and King Hassan II of Morocco volunteered to host it at Rabat.
A lot had happened before this including proposals to set up an Islamic summit at a meeting in Mecca but the divide within the Islamic world remained the stumbling block. It was an era when the Arab world was in major confrontation with Israel following the defeat of the Arab armies in the Six Day War of June 1967.
The Al Aqsa incident became a trigger for the convening of a summit meeting which took place on 25 September 1969. Thirty-six nations were invited and 25 attended the Rabat Conference. Saudi Arabia suggested that India should be invited since it had strongly supported the Arab cause on many issues and had a large Muslim population. Egypt, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia besides others, had supported India's inclusion even before the preparatory meeting for the summit on 8 September and echoed the same support on 22 September 1969 at the plenary.
Accordingly, the invite came through the next day, 23 September 1969. Indian Ambassador Gurbachan Singh was summoned by the Moroccan Foreign Minister Moulay Ahmed Laraki and informed that the conference had decided unanimously to invite India as a full-fledged member to participate.
The Indian ambassador was requested to attend the conference until a ministerial delegation could arrive and take on the full-fledged place at the table. The Indian delegation was led by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad who was an Indian Muslim. The narrative speaks of much drama at Rabat where then president Yahya Khan of Pakistan had already arrived at Rabat. Learning of the invite to India, Yahya threw tantrums with King Faisal and King Hassan II, and threatened to walk out of the conference if India was given a place at the table.
It was learnt that three Pakistani journalists had briefed Yahya Khan after his initial silence and virtual acceptance of the presence of India at the conference. They convinced him that to return to Pakistan after allowing India a seat at an Islamic summit would make him very unacceptable to the army and the people. Before Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad could even think of attendance, having arrived at Rabat in a hurry, Yahya Khan’s tantrums forced both King Faisal and King Hassan II to agree to deny India a place and offer it an observer status, which was promptly turned down by Ahmad.
The Congress government at the Centre came under severe criticism for the insult to India. It did not have any repercussions on the individual equation that India has had with major Islamic countries but the OIC, which emerged from this grouping and conference, became a virtual pariah to it.
That is the story which has now come a full circle with the invitation by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed of the UAE, 50 years later. Coming on the heels of the visit to New Delhi of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), it will be assumed that he had a role to play; there is no denying that Saudi Arabia continues to play an important role in affairs of the Islamic nations. It will also be linked to the recent events in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) including the Pulwama attack which have triggered an energetic impetus in India’s diplomacy.
However, the truth is that over the last few years there has been a slow build-up of change in the visible leadership of the Islamic world. With the Israel Palestinian discord no longer such a contentious issue for the Arabs, steady improvement in the relationship of Israel with major Arab states and the steps being taken to cleanse the Arab world of the scourge of radical extremism, there has been an attempt by the Arab world to look inwards.
Two countries who are leading this to a great extent are Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The former, of course, has a major challenge even as the young Crown Prince attempts to grapple with conservative and puritanical practices of Islam. However, the UAE has been bolder going to the extent of inviting Pope Francis to visit Abu Dhabi and chalking out a programme, which included a meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders in the Grand Mosque of Sheikh Zayed and an interfaith meeting too.
Not in any small way, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to the UAE were hugely successful, paving the way for much greater interfaith confidence. As a part of the efforts of calming the Middle East, which also look towards reducing sectarian conflicts or the potential for the same, the young and dynamic princes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia appear to have taken the lead.
Much of the economies of the Gulf are dependent upon expatriate presence and strained social cohesion with the expatriates will not help in an increasingly networked world where some leeway has to be given to those who equally contribute to the Gulf’s economic well-being.
While appreciating the fact that India has not been granted membership of the OIC but just an invite to a foreign minister’s meeting, it is evident that the existence of a 185 million Indian Muslim population has at last been recognised. By far one of the most moderate and progressive segments within the world Islamic community, its role in ensuring a more moderate face of Islam is being recognised.
There may be consternation within some quarters in India that an invite by the OIC and a potential full membership in the future will virtually label India an Islamic country. However, the lack of hesitation of the National Democratic Alliance government in accepting the invite and the decision to have Swaraj herself attending the meeting reflects the depth of significance the government attaches to the relationship of India with the Islamic world. The fact that 57 nations are part of the OIC representing a collective population of 1.9 billion people further confirms its importance.
To say that the invitation to India has come at an appropriate time would be an understatement. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, India has been seeking international support to isolate and shame Pakistan. The fact that India has received this invitation at such a time is a good strategic message to Pakistan. India will, however, need to exercise restraint and caution. Its stature internationally is many notches higher than it was in 1969.
It cannot, therefore, allow Pakistan to play villain again and get away with it. Pakistan will make strident efforts to limit India’s presence to just an invite to the foreign minister’s meeting. India too should not be in a hurry to push its agenda further, either. Its own standing in the comity of nations will automatically, eventually give it the place it deserves.