Tuesday (February 15), India attacks the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to be “communitarian” and “hijacked by special interests” – a thinly veiled reference to Pakistan – after the group called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to take “necessary measures” on the issue of Muslim students who were told not to wear the hijab in schools in Karnataka. The OIC also urged India to “ensure the safety, security and welfare of the Muslim community while protecting its way of life”. The statement said India must bring to justice the “instigators and propagators of violence and hate crimes” against Muslims.
India’s response to the OIC statement was that India is a democracy and issues within the country are resolved “in accordance with our constitutional framework and mechanism, as well as the ethos and democratic politics. The community mindset of the OIC Secretariat does not allow for a good appreciation of these realities. Moreover, India repeated what it said in 2020 that “the OIC continues to be hijacked by special interests to carry on their infamous propaganda against India”.
What is the OIC?
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is the second largest multilateral organization in the world after the United Nations. It has 57 members, all of whom are Islamic countries or Muslim majority members. The stated objective of the OIC is “to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among the different peoples of the world”. The Central African Republic, Russia, Thailand, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the unrecognized Turkish Cypriot “state” have observer status.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference was created by the first Islamic Summit Conference held in Morocco in September 1969, to bring the Islamic world together after an arson attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by a 28-year-old Australian in 1969. It plunged the Middle East into its worst crisis after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
It was known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference until 2011.
India and OIC
As the country with the second largest Muslim community in the world, India had been invited to the founding conference in Rabat in 1969, but was humiliatingly expelled at Pakistan’s behest. The Minister of Agriculture at the time, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, was disinvited upon his arrival in Morocco. In 2006, as India shifted its economy and improved relations with the United States, Saudi Arabia invited Delhi to join as an observer.
But India stayed away for a multiplicity of reasons, not the least of which was that as a secular country it did not want to join a religion-based organization. Moreover, there was the risk that improving bilateral relations with individual member states would come under pressure in a grouping, especially on issues such as Kashmir.
This invitation came back during the 45th session of the Foreign Ministers’ Summit in 2018, when host Bangladesh suggested that India, where more than 10% of the world’s Muslims live, should be granted the status of observer, but Pakistan opposed the proposal.
The OIC is mainly controlled by Saudi Arabia, but Pakistan, as the only Islamic country with nuclear weapons, has had a say since its inception. As a result, over the years the organization has issued several statements on Kashmir that supported Pakistan and criticized Indian “atrocities”. By the 1990s, Delhi grew accustomed to fighting such claims at home and abroad. And it was hardly without friends in the OIC.
Modification of terms
After forging close ties with powerful members such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, India is confident to ignore any statements from the group. India has consistently stressed that J&K is “an integral part of India and a strictly India-internal matter”, and that the OIC has no locus standi on the matter.
In 2019, India made its first appearance at the OIC Foreign Ministers Meeting, as a “guest of honour”.
Then-External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj addressed the inaugural plenary in Abu Dhabi on March 1, 2019, after being invited by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates . The Foreign Office said the invitation was a “welcome recognition of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, and India’s contribution to the Islamic world”.
Ahead of Swaraj’s visit to Abu Dhabi, a report by the official Emirates News Agency had described India as a “friendly country” of “great global political stature”.
This first invitation was seen as a diplomatic victory for New Delhi, especially at a time of heightened tensions with Pakistan following the Pulwama attack. Mohamed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince had visited Delhi just before the OIC invitation. Pakistan had opposed Swaraj’s invitation and its foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, boycotted the plenary after the UAE rejected his request to rescind the invitation.
A few months later, when India’s dramatic changes in Jammu and Kashmir took the world by surprise, while the OIC signaled its concerns and the “internationally recognized status of the J&K dispute”, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have individually taken more nuanced positions.
The OIC includes two of India’s close neighbours, Bangladesh and the Maldives. Indian diplomats say the two countries privately admit that they do not want to complicate their bilateral relations with India over Kashmir, but are playing with the OIC.
India’s response to the hijab row
Given India’s optimistic response to OIC statements on Kashmir, the strongly worded statement on the hijab line may seem unusual. But Delhi had already taken a different approach with the OIC in 2020.
That year, after the OIC struck India again in Kashmir, Delhi went beyond its usual boilerplate statements and said the group continued to let itself be used by a certain country “which has an abominable record of religious tolerance, radicalism and persecution of minorities”.
Officials then said it was untenable that individual members with good bilateral relations with India would be happy to sign anti-Indian OIC declarations.
The statement on the hijab is one piece with this new approach.
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