India's first official representation at OIC seen as a diplomatic triumph for New Delhi

India, which has the world's second largest Muslim population, has been excluded from the OIC since its formation in 1969.
India, which has the world's second largest Muslim population, has been excluded from the OIC since its formation in 1969.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India will be represented officially at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for the first time this weekend at a meeting of its foreign ministers, a move seen in New Delhi as a diplomatic triumph.

Formed 50 years ago, the Jeddah-based OIC groups 57 member states and describes itself as the "collective voice of the Muslim world".

India has been invited to the inaugural plenary of the two-day meet on Friday and Saturday (March 1 and 2) in Abu Dhabi.

India, which has the world's second largest Muslim population - after Indonesia - has been excluded from the OIC since its formation in 1969, allegedly at the behest of Pakistan.

The invitation was issued by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation, to his Indian counterpart Ms Sushma Swaraj.

A statement from the UAE government said India had been named "the guest of honour in view of its great global political stature as well as its time-honoured and deeply rooted cultural and historical legacy, and its important Islamic component".

The Indian government has described the invitation "as a milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE".

"We also see this invitation as a welcome recognition of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and of their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, and of India's contribution to the Islamic world," an Indian Ministry of External Affairs statement issued last Saturday said.

Ms Swaraj will be representing India at the plenary, it added. This is the first time India will be officially represented at the body.

The move marks a significant turnaround for the OIC, which had invited India to be part of the inaugural conference in 1969 in Rabat, Morocco, but subsequently did not allow the Indian official delegation to participate in the meeting.

Mr Gurbachan Singh, who was then India's ambassador to Morocco, told The Wire, an Indian news website, this was because of Pakistan's opposition to India's attendance.

While Islamabad had agreed to the "unanimous" invitation for India, domestic protests in Pakistan sparked by news of India's official presence in Rabat led to an eventual volte-face.

Pakistan, along with some other supporting member states, had threatened to pull out of the opening summit if India was allowed to participate.

Since then, the OIC has been used by Pakistan to criticise India, particularly its role in Jammu and Kashmir. India has protested these OIC statements, arguing the body has "no locus standi" to comment on India's internal affairs.

Mr Talmiz Ahmad, a retired diplomat who served as India's ambassador to Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE, says Pakistan's utilisation of the OIC platform to criticise India has been made possible because its member countries "get a free hand to use the platform to issue any resolution against a non-member state in return for supporting the Saudi position (on different international issues)".

"This Faustian bargain has made the OIC the only platform where Pakistan is able to launch unfettered assaults upon India diplomatically," he tells The Straits Times. "However, the stature that India enjoys today globally and the close ties it has established with some member countries of the OIC allows this dreadful scenario to be corrected," he adds.

That India, a non-member of the OIC, has been invited as a guest of honour is a "diplomatic triumph" for the country and indicative of a "sea change" in the OIC's approach, Mr Ahmad argues.

"I will not pretend things will change overnight. Pakistan is not going to give up. What the UAE has done must have happened following some consultation with Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen to what extent Saudi Arabia decides to restrain Pakistan," he adds.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has already made its displeasure known. Its foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Geo News, a Pakistani channel, on Wednesday that he will not attend the OIC meeting if his Indian counterpart participates in it.

India's presence at the OIC comes at a critical juncture when it has been directing its diplomatic efforts to "isolate" Pakistan internationally following the Pulwama terror attack on Feb 14 that claimed the lives of 40 Indian troops.

The two countries remain locked in a tense environment following tit-for-tat cross-border strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday.

India's decision to attend the OIC meet has also been criticised by some, including a few opposition leaders, who feel India should not have accepted to be part of the body that has long criticised it.

"OIC condemns India 5 times in 2018, calls our security operation 'wicked terrorist act' & we're happy to be hosted by them? We used to have a foreign policy, now @PMOIndia @SushmaSwaraj have replaced it with whatever floundering, fumbling thing this is," Mr Asaduddin Owaisi, an member of Parliament from the opposition All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party, tweeted.

That is why the upcoming OIC meet will be watched closely to see if the body will somewhat tone down its criticism of India.

Early signs have not been encouraging. Not only did the OIC "condemn" the Indian cross-border strike on Pakistan on Tuesday, but a contact group within the Muslim body had some especially harsh words for India on the Kashmir issue.

"Our unequivocal commitment to the cause of Jammu and Kashmir is unwavering. This issue is close to our hearts and with every human and international law violation by the Indian occupation forces, our commitment to our Kashmiri brethren becomes even stronger," read a tweet from the OIC on Tuesday.

These are lines that have always rankled India and will seem more galling if they are reiterated at the end of the two-day meet.

Mr Anil Trigunayat, a former Indian diplomat who served as an ambassador to Libya and Jordan, feels India's growing clout with countries in the Gulf, something that has been reinforced by expanding energy, people-to-people and strategic ties, has reduced Pakistan's bargaining position.

"I feel this time they will not succeed in keeping the OIC hostage despite the contact group issuing some rabid statements on Jammu and Kashmir," he tells ST.

"The major OIC countries will have to weigh their own national interests and put their eggs where they can hatch," he adds.