India and the OIC: The Act of Balancing

“Muslim government would consult with a view to promoting among themselves close cooperation and mutual assistance in the economic, scientific, cultural and spiritual fields, inspired by the immortal teachings of Islam.”

The aforementioned lines are from the resolution passed by the Islamic Conference at Rabat, Morocco, in the wake of the fire at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, which led to greater co-operation among the pan World Islamic Community and eventually, resulted in the formation of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1972 which was later renamed as Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2011 which represented the organization’s intentions to increase dialogue and ensure a greater level of cooperation. The Collapse of the Ottoman Empire as well as the Caliphate, or the leader of the Global Islamic Community, post World War I, left the community without a guiding force or institution, to lead it on the political, social and most importantly on the religious front. 

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) with 57 member states is the 2nd largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations. Many consider it to be a collective voice of the Islamic Community to safeguard and protect their interests. Although in the past, we have seen conflicts ravaging the OIC countries as well as building tensions among the members of the OIC, one cannot undermine the strength and authority of the OIC as a political, social and religious global force. The Organization also has permanent delegations to the United Nations as well as the European Union (EU).

Image source: Arab News

However, like most other International Organizations, the resolutions and decisions of the OIC, are not binding but do represent the collective views and ideologies of the Islamic world to a certain extent.

“But much like the General Assembly, OIC resolutions aren’t binding. They are just a declaration of the general feeling of the leaders of the Islamic world,”

Talha Abdulrazaq, Middle East Expert,
University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute

In this article, we discuss the relations between India and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the factors which have impacted the relations over the past and what changes to expect in the ties between the two global powers in the near future. We also incorporate the thoughts and insights of Dr Khushnam PN, on these pressing issues, who give us a much more informed understanding and perspective to the social and political phenomena associated with Indo-OIC relations.

Dr Khushnam PN, is an independent IR and Regional Security researcher and Analyst, with specialization on Iran, US and Gulf Security. His quotes have been highlighted in blue in the article.

Image source: TRT

India and the OIC

India has claimed for membership in the OIC, right from the First Islamic Summit, in Rabat, Morocco in 1969. However, India’s repeated requests have been rejected owing to tensions and frictional relations with Pakistan, which was not only a founding member but also an immensely important part of the OIC and has had strong influence within the inter-governmental body as well.

India has the largest Muslim population among all non-Muslim majority states, and almost 11% of all Muslims in the world live in India. Given these prerequisites, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan agreed on the fact that India should be made a member of the OIC, but a boycott call by Pakistan’s the then President, General Yahya Khan, forced The Islamic Summit to retract their decision.

The appointment of a non-Muslim individual to represent India at the OIC also angered the organization’s hierarchy, and also triggered the Saudi and Jordanian rulers to heed to the demands of Pakistan at the 1969 Islamic Summit in Rabat. The Pakistani delegation emphasized the human rights issues face by Kashmiris, who were predominantly Muslims, to garner support against India’s membership at the then Organization of Islamic Conference. Although countries like the Russian federation (Muslim Population approx. 9 million) have obtained observer status, but India (Muslim population approx. 172 million) still remains an outsider to the OIC.

Image source: IRNA

There is a common apprehension, which has also been backed by recent incidents in status quo that the current Indian Government is a pro-Hindu entity and its domestic policies are discriminative against Muslims in the Country.

However, this ‘ideology’ of the Indian Government has not reflected in India’s foreign policy measures. Whereas, contrastingly under the current BJP rule, India has managed to emerge from the shadow of the Global superpowers, with respect to, geopolitical involvement in the Middle East. Although, tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir, have had an influence on India’s relations with Middle Eastern countries, but overall India’s diplomatic relations with the Arab World as well other Muslim majority countries are considerably better as compared to previous governments.

India’s emerging “Look West” policy is a clear indicator of the Middle East being one of the most important Foreign Policy targets for the current Indian Government. Throughout, the last two terms of the Government, PM Modi has been harshly criticized for his excessive foreign trips. Although it can be predicted that with over the head expenditure on these Diplomatic visits, certain budgetary tradeoffs were made in terms of domestic expenditure, one cannot deny the fact that India, over the past few years, has taken noteworthy strides in terms of improving relations and gaining geopolitical significance in the world community. 

“To understand India’s relations with the OIC, we need to take into account the context in which the OIC was formed, its role in global politics and more importantly the goals of the two entities, i.e. India and the OIC. It is imperative to study the goals of the OIC and India. Diplomatic relations will be feasible if the goals of the two political powers coincide, at least to some extent.

India is a democratic, secular state whereas the OIC follows and represents Islamic ideologies. But we need to acknowledge the fact, that until 2000 India followed a policy of Non-Alignment but since the Vajpayee Government, has adopted a strategic policy, with national interest being at the forefront. Hence, India will maintain diplomatic ties with OIC and its member states, given that its national interest is adequately served. ”

There are numerous factors driving India’s relations with the OIC and its members; ranging from expanding trade to a huge Indian Diaspora settled in these nations to joint anti-terrorism campaigns. Given these factors, it is essential that India does not enter into partisan politics or other conflicts in the Middle East. Instead, India should use its increasing soft power, constituting of its emerging economic status, its huge Diaspora as well as greater cooperation in fields of defence, science and technology R&D, tourism and so on to incentivize the OIC and its member nations to improve their ties; if not accept India as a member.

Image source: Al Jazeera

Influence of the Arab Spring on Indo-OIC relations

If we ask the question; which political events in world politics have brought about the most significant altercations in India’s relations with Muslim countries in the past decade, the answer will most probably be The Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring has brought about unprecedented changes in political and social structures in several countries in the Middle East and Africa many of which are members of the OIC; the likes of Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, et cetera. How has the Arab Spring affected the foreign policy measures of countries? To answer this we essentially have to recognize the changes in the Foreign Policy of countries across the world.

We answer this question examining the scenario of India. Although Islamist parties have come to power but India being a strategic player in world politics will continue its diplomatic ties with the nations, if its National Interest, which is the primary driving force of foreign policy measures, is adequately satisfied. By means of illustration, although Syria is torn with civil war, but India has sided with the incumbent Assad Government. On the contrary, India took a neutral stand in the Yemeni Civil war.

It is very evident from the political changes panning out, that the Indian Government has taken such a stand keeping in mind the National Interest. Hence, we can conclude, that in the 21st Century, an incident like Arab Spring will have a very significant impact on a country’s policies, if its National Interest is not harmed.

We cannot deny that the Arab Spring has had a significant social and political impact on the Middle East and countries in Africa. In some countries, we have seen Islamist parties coming to power. But to explain the influence of Arab spring on relations between India and the OIC members we need to understand that India has diplomatic ties with a particular country and not any particular party or organization. Hence, even if there is a change in government, our country will continue to maintain ties with a particular country, if its goals are accomplished and such relations are in favour of India’s National Interest.   

Image source: Tribune India

What lies ahead for India’s relations with the OIC vis-à-vis tensions with Pakistan?

When two brothers can’t have the same interest, how do you expect two countries to do so? Middle Eastern countries have grown in power and strategic autonomy over the years. Though Pakistan has a soft power over religion, India also has soft power in the form of culture and a rapidly growing economy. Allying with India provides an incentive to OIC members, as India has a much stronger standing in world politics. Frequent visits by Indian Prime Minister have created an attraction towards India. We have seen recently countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Maldives defending India at the OIC. To put this into perspective, for the OIC countries, Pakistan is a brother but India is a friend. It is important for OIC members to decouple with their religious sentiments and consider issues like National Security, development and progress. India should not bother about Pakistan and continue in its attempt to gain influence in its neighbourhood as well as the extended neighbourhood, i.e. the Middle East and try to create a bridge between the SAARC and the OIC.

And talking about membership, we need to study the criteria for joining the OIC. According to the charter, only Muslim majority countries can join with the consensus of the Foreign Ministers of all member nations. Here, India faces a problem as it is not a Muslim majority country, though it has a huge Muslim population, but more importantly, it is difficult to get a consensus of countries like Pakistan. Also, the OIC espouses Islamist ideologies whereas India is a secular state. Hence, India should as of now, push for Observer status in the OIC, and see if there are any changes in the policies and ideologies of the OIC, and they go for permanent membership.

With India emerging as a dominant political and economic power in the world community and challenging the existing hegemonic geopolitical structures set up by other countries in the past, at this time, it is necessary to get an understanding of what the future holds in store for India with respect to relations with the Organization of Islamic Corporation (OIC).

We must also take cognizance of the fact that growing tensions with Pakistan, as mentioned earlier, will also have a strong impact on the maintenance of cordial ties with the OIC and its member states. The emerging conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and other internal tensions within the OIC gives India a golden chance to exert its influence over the organization, which will eventually help India get immense geopolitical weight in the member states as well as in the global political system.

Moreover, many Middle Eastern countries have attempted to combine their resources with India’s skills and know-how, opening a new line of cooperation. Furthermore, with Malaysia, recently convening an Islamic summit in December 2019 with countries like Qatar in attendance and the absence of Saudi Arabia also indicates a possible rift in the OIC.  Though India can utilize its relations with Saudi Arabia to enter the OIC, but it must also realize the slippery slope it will be stepping upon. Joining the OIC will compel India to become a party to partisan politics in the Islamic world.

The OIC has always been critical of India’s policies towards Kashmir, and hence joining the organization may also lead to OIC’s unwanted involvement in the region. Hence, India must tread this path of becoming a part of the Muslim world with utmost caution and in conclusion, I would like to second to what Dr Kushnam said, that, India should push for Observer status and add that, India should call for regular dialogue and discussion between the two entities and increase cooperation on economic, social and political fronts instead of directly claiming a permanent seat at the table.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Swapneel Biswas

Swapneel Biswas is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti. His areas of research include Indian Foreign Policy vis-à-vis Middle-East

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