On Tuesday, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi sharply criticised the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, arguing it had “no locus standi in matters related to Jammu and Kashmir” and that its secretary general, Hissein Brahim Taha, has become Pakistan’s mouth-piece. The remark was in response to Taha reportedly visiting Pakistan-occupied Kashmir from December 10 to December 12 and being briefed by the country’s military.
This acrimony is not new: India has for decades criticised the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for meddling in the country’s internal affairs, particularly on the matter of Kashmir. Often prodded by Pakistan, the intergovernmental organisation comprising mostly Muslim-majority nations has also sought to condemn the Indian government on a host of issues.
However, what this latest sparring bout between India and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation hides is that relations between the two have seen significant improvements compared to their rocky past driven by better links between Delhi and oil-rich West Asian nations.
What is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation?
The bloc has 57 mostly Muslim-majority nations as its members. While it is one of the largest intergovernmental organisations, it draws its political weight by claiming to represent the “collective voice of the Muslim world” – a significant section of the world’s population.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and globally-unrecognised Northern Cyprus which have significant Muslim population, as well as the Russia, Central African Republic and Thailand which have a small minority Muslim population, are all observer members. However, India – despite being home to approximately a tenth of the global Muslim population – is neither a member nor an observer state.
Why does India have such an acrimonious history with OIC?
The organisation’s ties with India over the decades have been shaped by the latter’s long-standing and intense rivalry – including full-fledged wars – with Pakistan, which is a member state. Pakistan was able to veto India’s earlier attempts to become a member of or engage with the organisation.
The Indian delegation to the inaugural summit in Rabat, Morocco in 1969 was unable to attend after Pakistan’s eleventh-hour objection citing communal riots that happened in Gujarat that year. Following this humiliation of being turned away from the meeting, the Indian delegation – led by former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who was then the industrial development and trade minister – rejected the organisation’s offer to become an observer state.
“This was seen as the lowest point in India’s diplomatic history,” Talmiz Ahmad, India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told The Print earlier. “Since then, India also never looked back and had nothing to do with [the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation].”
In 2003, India rejected Qatar’s invitation to attend the organisation’s meeting and become a member saying it was not an official invitation and that all members had not consented to it. Another offer by Saudi Arabia to become an “observer” was rejected in 2006. More recently, in 2018, Pakistan again blocked Bangladesh’s proposal to grant India “observer” status.
How did relations improve?
Over the past five decades, Pakistan had repeatedly persuaded the organisation to criticise the Indian government over the Kashmir dispute. In 2019, Pakistan pushed the organisation to decry the Indian government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, which provided special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Earlier this year, the organisation sought to condemn India over hate speeches and the hijab ban in Karnataka. India rejected all of the organisation’s charges.
Even though the organisation has continued to be critical of Delhi over the Kashmir dispute, it has increasingly sidestepped Islamabad’s objections to building closer ties with India.
This five-decade logjam broke when the United Arab Emirates disallowed Pakistan’s objections to invite India as a “guest of honour” at the organisation’s foreign ministers’ session, which happened just three days after an aerial bombing raid on Pakistan’s Balakot. As a result, the Indian delegation, led by then foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, attended the meeting’s plenary session. Pakistan boycotted it.
The invitation to India for the 2019 foreign minister’s meeting despite flaring tensions with Pakistan was, observers suggest, the result of Delhi’s strengthening cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – two of the most important members of the organisation. The deepening of India’s bilateral ties with them, among other oil-rich West Asian nations, has been on the back of mutual interests and need for economic cooperation.
Between the financial year 2020-’21 and 2021-’22 alone, India’s bilateral trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries jumped from $87.4 billion to $154.7 billion. The Council includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – all of whom are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Delhi’s defence cooperation with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has also deepened substantially.
Similarly, annual two-way trade with the Association of South East Asian Nations – which includes Organisation of Islamic Cooperation members Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – also crossed the $100 billion-mark for the first time in the financial year 2021-’22.
Meanwhile, two other members – Bangladesh and Maldives – retaining importance in India’s “Neighbourhood First” foreign policy has also helped improve the organisation’s ties with India.