India has “categorically rejected” the “unacceptable reference” to Jammu and Kashmir by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at its Summit meeting last week, saying the body “has no locus standi in matters relating to… an integral part of India”, and reiterated that OIC “should refrain from making such unwarranted references”. What is the context of India’s statement?
What the OIC said
The Final Communique of the 14th Islamic Summit Conference in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, “reaffirmed its principled support for the people of Jammu and Kashmir for the realization of their legitimate right to self-determination, in accordance with relevant UN resolutions”. The Conference “condemned the recent outbreaks of violence in the region and invited India to implement the relevant Security Council resolutions to settle its protracted conflict with its neighbour”. It also called for “the expedited establishment of a UN commission of inquiry to investigate into the grave human rights violations in Kashmir, and called on India to allow this proposed commission and international human rights organizations to access Indian-occupied Kashmir”.
The Conference approved the appointment of Saudi Arabia’s Yousef Aldobeay as its Special Envoy for Jammu and Kashmir.
Why the OIC matters
OIC — formerly Organisation of the Islamic Conference — is the second largest inter-governmental organisation in the world after the United Nations, with a membership of 57 states in four continents. The OIC describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world”, and its stated objective is “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”. The OIC has reserved its membership for Muslim-majority countries. Russia, Thailand, and a couple of other small countries have Observer status. At the 45th session of the Foreign Ministers’ Summit in May 2018, Bangladesh, the host country, had suggested that India, where more than 10% of the world’s Muslims live, should be given Observer status, but Pakistan had opposed the proposal.
However, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had addressed the Inaugural Plenary of the 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OIC in Abu Dhabi on March 1 this year, after having been invited by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the Guest of Honour. The Ministry of External Affairs had said that the invitation was 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”.
The first-time invitation to India to be a Guest of Honour at the Plenary had been a significant diplomatic victory for New Delhi, especially at a time of heightened tensions with Pakistan following the Pulwama terrorist attack. Pakistan had strongly opposed the invitation to Swaraj, and it’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had boycotted the Plenary after the UAE turned down his demand that the invitation to Swaraj be rescinded. Pakistan is a founding member of the OIC.
OIC on Kashmir
The Final Communique issued in Mecca is not new or unusual — the OIC has been generally supportive of Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir, and has repeatedly issued statements criticising the alleged Indian “atrocities” in the state. Only months before Swaraj spoke at the Council of Foreign Ministers, in December 2018, the OIC General Secretariat had “expressed strong condemnation of the killing of innocent Kashmiris by Indian forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir”, described the “direct shooting at demonstrators” as a “terrorist act”, and “called upon the international community to play its role in order to reach a just and lasting solution to the conflict in Kashmir”.
The December 2018 statement had come soon after Qureshi announced that he had contacted the OIC Secretary General “to apprise him about the latest situation in occupied Kashmir and Pakistan’s desire for the convening of the meeting of the member states in Islamabad”. Dr Yousef Ahmed Al-Othaimeen of Saudi Arabia has been the OIC Secretary General since November 2016.
Earlier, the 2017 session of the Council of OIC Foreign Ministers had adopted a resolution “reaffirming the unwavering support for the Kashmiri people in their just cause”, “expressing deep concern at atrocious human rights violations being committed by the Indian occupation forces since 1947”, and “paying rich tribute to the valiant people of IoK who continue to wage heroic struggle”.
At the 2018 meeting in Dhaka, however, “Jammu and Kashmir” figured in only one of the 39 resolutions adopted, that too, along with 12 other states or regions worldwide. Pakistan had complained about the Dhaka Declaration and accused Bangladesh of circulating the text very late. Even the resolution that was adopted in Abu Dhabi only the day after Swaraj spoke, condemned the “atrocities and human rights violations” in Kashmir.
Just as criticism of India’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir has been part of the standard template for all OIC statements over the last several decades, India has consistently and emphatically underlined that Jammu and Kashmir is an “integral part of India and is a matter strictly internal to India”. The strength with which India has made this assertion has varied slightly at times, but never the core message. Thus, after the March 2 statement, India, while taking exception to it and stressing New Delhi’s “consistent and well known” stand, refrained from saying that the OIC had no locus standi, and that India rejected its statement. But the latest statement is stronger.
Individually, India has excellent relations with almost all member nations of the OIC. Ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, especially, have looked up significantly in recent years. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was a very special Chief Guest at the 68th Republic Day celebrations in 2017, the first time that India laid out the Republic Day red carpet for a leader who was neither a Head of State nor Head of Government. The Crown Prince, an extremely popular leader across the Middle East who is often known by his initials MBZ, had earlier visited India in February 2016, following a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the UAE in August 2015.
Days before the invitation to Swaraj to address the OIC Foreign Ministers’ meeting, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, had visited India. The invite may have been an important outcome of the MBS visit, apart from being an indication of India’s improved ties with both Saudi and the UAE, and the Gulf region as a whole.
Before 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”. The MEA in its statement said the invitation to Swaraj indicated “the desire of the enlightened leadership of the UAE to go beyond our rapidly growing close bilateral ties and forge a true multifaceted partnership at the multilateral and international level” and a “milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE”.