As external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj addressed the foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), there was a palpable sense of history and pervasive consciousness that the OIC was not just opening a new chapter in its relationship with India, it was also at the cusp of reinventing itself. The Indian minister understood well the significance of the moment and rose to the challenge of the occasion.
Her address was marked by an extraordinary graciousness towards the forum that had unceremoniously expelled India at its inauguration half a century ago and, over the past three decades had allowed itself to be used by Pakistan to heap unrestrained abuse and calumny upon India. In fact, even as Pakistan chafed at India’s intrusion as the “guest of honour” into its exclusive preserve, it convened just before Ms Swaraj’s landmark speech an emergency meeting of the OIC’s “contact group” on Jammu and Kashmir.
And, true to form, this group trotted out the words that Pakistan had inscribed — it “strongly condemned the recent wave of repression, brutal killing of innocent Kashmiri civilians” by the Indian security forces and of “Indian threats to regional peace and security”.
But the Indian minister refused to be provoked. Unperturbed, she applauded the OIC’s “key role in shaping our world”, recalled its “roadmap for prosperity and development”, and expressed India’s support and solidarity “in your quest for stability, peace, harmony, economic growth and prosperity for your people and the world”.
The minister’s remarks resonated with the history, values and interests of the entire assemblage. She began with references to India’s close ties with Islam and Muslim civilisation, but noted that India’s Muslims were an integral part of India’s diverse but harmonious culture, and had categorically rejected the allure of extremist violence.
She spoke at length about the substantial ties that India has developed with individual member-countries of the OIC — a shared history of the anti-colonial struggle, joint shaping of global institutions, joint trade ties of $230 billion, new links opened up by connectivity projects being promoted by India to Central Asia, deep security and strategic ties with the Gulf countries, and shared concerns relating to contemporary global challenges, such as climate change.
She noted that the international order was changing. Asia is emerging as a major influence in international economic affairs and large sections of the global community now have access to affordable technologies and can enjoy the benefits of “freedom, opportunities, connectivity, education and prosperity”.
She then came to the core of her message — that all these achievements are threatened by “the terrible face of terror”. She described its wellsprings as a “distortion of religion”. But she rejected the security approach to combating this scourge and instead advocated using “the strength of our values and the real message of religions”. She gave central importance to engagement and dialogue across faiths and cultures so that moderation, harmony and respect for pluralism could inform our world order. She extended India’s hand of partnership to the OIC, placing at its disposal India’s “markets, resources, opportunities and skills” and, above all, the promotion of bridges across cultures to achieve understanding and accommodation.
Finally, she noted that the OIC, now 50 years old, was making a “new beginning” and that “the choices you make... will have a profound impact on humanity”. Does this address mark a “new beginning” in India’s ties with the OIC? Though the Abu Dhabi declaration did not specifically refer to Kashmir, some other things have not changed. The OIC secretary-general, in published remarks, added lines that he had not uttered at the plenary — he now referred to “bloody events and transgressions” against the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and called for “restraint and peaceful resolution of conflicts, in line with international legitimacy resolutions”; however, India was not specifically named in this statement.
Again, Pakistan pushed through two resolutions — on the Kashmir issue and on India-Pakistan relations. These referred to human rights violations by India, called for a “plebiscite” in Kashmir and saw the Kashmir issue as the “core dispute” between Pakistan and India. They also sought “third party mediation” by the international community. Another Pakistan-sponsored resolution referred to the destruction of the Babri Masjid and “forced conversions” of Muslims in India.
These resolutions have a very dated reek about them, as if they are being tiredly pushed through to complete a formality, with little expectation that anything will come of them. Quite appropriately, India responded dismissively, pointing out that Jammu and Kashmir “is an integral part of India and is a matter strictly internal to India”.
Ms Swaraj’s host, UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, said what was important was that India had been able to deliver a “positive, strong, dedicated speech” at the OIC platform. The OIC, he said, had sent “a very clear and positive sign to India... that the OIC appreciates the relationship with India and looks forward to strengthening such a relationship with India”. He looked forward to full membership for India.
The invitation to India to address the OIC foreign ministers affirms the shift in balance of influence within Islamic counsels from Pakistan to India — 50 years after Pakistan had succeeded in getting India evicted from this Islamic forum, India was now the “guest of honour”, while its foreign minister was absent.
India is speaking of contemporary achievements and challenges — of technology, equitable economic growth and social justice, and of uncertainty, tensions and violence engendered by conflicts within and between societies. Pakistan appears mired in a time warp, talking mechanically of plebiscites and mediation, as if 70 years have not passed since this verbiage was trotted out. Above all, India speaks of commitment to moderation, accommodation, pluralism and multi-culturalism. Pakistan instead is synonymous with faith-based doctrines of hate, revenge and violence, and sponsorship of organisations that wreak havoc upon the innocent and the vulnerable in the name of their belief system. The choice before the OIC is clear — does it seek a “new beginning”, or does it wish to remain in the quagmire of outdated postures and animosities and continued irrelevance.