With a membership of 57 countries spread over four continents, constituting 1.5 billion people and a combined GDP of about seven trillion dollars, the OIC is the second largest inter-governmental group after the United Nations.
The grouping identifies itself to be “the collective voice of the Muslim world” to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world”.
On the eve of his historic visit to India in 2006, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia said that “India should have an observer status in the OIC” and it would be “beneficial” if Pakistan proposes India’s candidature.
Pakistan, however, objected that any country wishing to get observer status with the OIC, “should not be involved in any dispute with a member state.”
And, therein lies the reason that has hindered the OIC-India relationship since the Islamic Summit Conference in Rabat in 1969, which was held in the backdrop of the desecration of the Al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem.
King Faisal of Saudi Arabia played a key role in ensuring that India was invited to the Conference because the issue being discussed was not a matter concerning only “Muslim countries”, but all Muslims.
And, India, with its huge Muslim population, was seen as a stakeholder, apart from the fact that the Indian head of state at that time was a Muslim – Zakir Hussain.
The head of the Indian delegation even addressed the gathering. However, Indo-Pak differences led Islamabad to keep India out for the remaining sessions of the conference and all summits thereafter.
Since then, until as recently as the first week of October this year, when the OIC appointed a special envoy for Jammu and Kashmir, the politics of the subcontinent has drawn a wedge between the organisation and India.
The OIC stresses that as long as the Indo-Pak tension over Kashmir remains unresolved, there is very little room for improvement in the organisation’s relations with India.
While the OIC advocates the issue of self-determination and resolution of Kashmir in accordance with the UN resolutions of 1948 and 1949, India is firm about resolving the issue bilaterally with Pakistan.
This stand has been receiving increasing international acceptance, and appears to be the most viable option to resolve the Kashmir issue.
The debate here is not about Kashmir or about Pakistan.
The larger concern is the Muslim world and what it stands to gain with India finding a foothold in the OIC. It is also natural that India would also gain reciprocal diplomatic benefits through such a move.
While the longstanding Kashmir issue is important enough to be resolved not only for the sake of the people therein, peace in the subcontinent and the Asian continent at large, it is equally important for the OIC to look beyond this issue and address more pressing concerns of the Muslim world.
It must also be argued that while the OIC Charter stipulates that only Muslim countries willing to promote the objectives of the organisation are eligible for membership, many non-Muslim countries have secured observer status and even full membership.
The most recent of them is Russia, which came on board as an observer in 2005, two years after then president Vladimir Putin declared that Russia was a “Muslim power” that desired to play a role among Muslim countries. With less than 25 million Muslims in its ranks, the real reason may have well been Moscow’s attempt to assuage the Muslims over Chechnya and increase its influence in the Islamic world in order to tip the balance in its favour in its power politics with Washington.
Thailand — a predominantly Buddhist country — received the same recognition in 1998.
It is also an irony of sorts that the Non-Aligned Movement, of which India is a founding member and has several non-Muslim countries, got observer status in 1977.
Why not India, then?
India is making rapid progress in terms of its influence in the international arena, not just as a trillion-dollar economic powerhouse, but also as a military and technological giant, all combining to make it a political heavyweight. Given the current buoyant state of the Indian economy amid a bleak world scenario, India’s formal association with the OIC could help forge mutually beneficial economic deals.
Equally important are factors that were highlighted by Hamid Ansari in 2006. The former diplomat and current Indian Vice-President said India deserves to be an OIC member, not just an observer, because though India is not a part of the Muslim world, “it is not away from it; not a Muslim majority state in statistical terms yet host to the second largest community of Muslims in the world; not a society focussed on Muslim welfare only but one in which Muslims, as an integral part of a larger whole, get the attention that every other section does.”
As a result, a formal place for India in the OIC would add to the collective credibility and bargaining power of the organisation. The OIC would be able to leverage India in relation to important issues of the Muslim world. This would help the OIC address the “state of disunity” among Muslims, which many see as one of the worst in 14 centuries of Islamic history.
In a post-9/11 21st century, the Muslim world faces numerous challenges – poverty, terrorism, calls for political reform and unemployment.
In addressing these and implementing the Ten-Year Programme of Action that was laid out at the OIC Summit in Makkah in 2005, India’s experiences would be more of an asset than a liability — especially envisaging joint action to promote tolerance and moderation, modernisation, extensive reforms in all spheres of activities including science and technology, education, trade, and good governance and promotion of human rights.
With more than 150 million Muslims, most of them part of the world’s largest democratic process, India deserves to be associated with the OIC. It is also important to note that many OIC members are sympathetic to the idea.
At the same time, one needs to also see the issue from the angle that by denying India any role in the OIC, one is, in fact, abandoning the duty of promoting theinterests of the Muslim population of India.
Thus, just like summits have been called in the past to search for common ground among members of the Muslim world on various issues, would it be too far-fetched to call another to find consensus over formalising India’s OIC connection?
Abdulaziz Sager is Chairman of the Gulf Research Center. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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