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23 January 2013, Gateway House

India and the OIC: To join or not to join?

India’s relations with Islamic nations, many of which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), have become even more prolific over the last decade. While India does not visualise becoming a member of a religious international body, many reasons militate against our formally joining the OIC.

Professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University

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The question of India joining the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was reportedly raised once again. This time it was at the Congress Party’s Japiur chintan shivir, at a discussion on ‘India and the World.’ It was turned down as being inconsistent with India’s secular policy which militates against joining religious organisations.

The question is nevertheless important given that it comes on the eve of the 12th Islamic Summit Conference in Cairo from February 2-7, 2013. Following the misnamed ‘Arab Spring,’ we are seeing Islamic-oriented parties taking office in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen and Libya. This trend can be expected to embrace other Arab countries in the throes of political upheaval and sectarian militancy – like Syria and Bahrain. India will have to re-calibrate its traditional policy towards these countries in a way that it continues friendly relations, trade, investments and remittances without subjecting the former to religious and sectarian considerations.

An important plank of this re-evaluation will be the question raised at thechintan shivir: Will India joining the OIC give us any particular advantage in dealing with these countries? These countries remain crucial for our energy requirements, provide employment for almost 6 million Indians, account for annual remittances of almost $ 40 billion and are a source of religious and spiritual sustenance to our large Muslim community which goes to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria for the Haj, umra and ziyarat.

The OIC was founded mainly at the behest of Saudi Arabia which still considers the body as an instrument of its foreign policy. India, after being formally invited on the grounds of having the world’s second largest Muslim community, was ejected from the 1969 inaugural Summit of the Islamic Conference Organisation in Rabat, Morocco, due to Pakistan’s machinations. Since then the OIC has had a hostile relationship with India, once again because of Pakistani perfidy. There is a plethora of one-sided and biased OIC Resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir and the ‘state’ of the Indian Muslim community, all of which have been categorically rejected by India.

Not surprisingly, over the years most OIC member-states from the Gulf and others like Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco to name a few, have told us to disregard these resolutions as they did not reflect their excellent bilateral relations with us. These relationships have become even more prolific over the last decade with our economic success and the OIC member countries’ pervasive realisation that Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror outfits has come home to roost.

It was after 9/11, when educated young Saudi men were involved in the terror attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the spread of Al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden, that the OIC was forced to look inward at its role and purpose. Clearly it had failed to promote the stated goals in its Charter of ‘promoting lofty Islamic values of peace, compassion, tolerance, equality, justice and human dignity; contribute to international peace and security; understanding and dialogue among civilizations, cultures and religions; and promote and encourage friendly relations and good neighbourliness, mutual respect and cooperation.’

At the OIC meetings preceding their Summit in 2003, for the first time, the question of looking differently at India was raised when a senior Qatari official proposed that India should be invited to join the organisation – a move that is anathema to countries like Pakistan. While the proposal was quickly nipped in the bud, its point that the Indian Muslim community lived and flourished in a secular environment, continued to resonate within the larger membership of the OIC especially those which had seen an exponential growth in their economic relations with India.

India’s phenomenal economic success in the subsequent years and its growing relationship with the United States had the demonstration effect of the monarchs in the Gulf making a bee-line for India to find ways of marrying their hydrocarbon and financial resources with India’s skills, human resource talent and exponentially growing market. This effort at building asymmetric complementarities eclipsed the hitherto important religious dimension of the relationships. In this context, during his State visit to Delhi in January 2006, King Abdulla bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia proposed that India join the OIC as an ‘Observer’ member.

India has still to respond to this Saudi initiative. While India does not visualise becoming a member of any religiously-oriented international organisation, other reasons also militate against our formally joining the OIC in any capacity. First, it will make us party to the plethora of partisan, biased and anti-Indian OIC resolutions on India. That will bring us under pressure to abide by some of its particularly deplorable resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir, such as the unsolicited visit by an OIC fact-finding team. Second, if at all we decide to join, it must be as a founder-member, having been ejected from the inaugural conference in Rabat. Finally, it all boils down to whether the OIC has genuinely changed its view of India under the influence of a more progressive and tolerant membership. This has yet to be tested.

At the same time Saudi Arabia’s offer needs a response, given that the two countries are now looking at a strategic partnership and that Saudi Arabia is, and could become, our largest and reserve supplier of crude. A via mediawould be to propose an annual institutional-level dialogue between the OIC and an appropriate Indian organisation to work at improving the atmosphere between the OIC and India by promoting a dialogue on civilisation, culture and society.

Our bilateral relations with all the Arab and Islamic countries – including those which have seen a change towards democratic governance – have not suffered a dip so far. We will need to look at creative ways to ensure that they continue to grow without being held hostage to the Islamic factor.

Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, was Director, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He now teaches at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington.

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