Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj addresses the OIC holding in Abu Dhabi on February 28, 2019. Photo: Twitter / @MEAIndia

It would matter little to India that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) adopted, once again, a resolution on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir that was sharply critical of India’s policies. It has been routinely and regularly doing so for almost three decades, and India has been rejecting them in similar fashion.

What did matter was the invitation by the organization’s current chair, the United Arab Emirates, to Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to address the inaugural session of the OIC’s 46th foreign ministers’ meeting in Abu Dhabi on March 1 as the guest of honor. In doing so the UAE made history, beginning a process to correct a historic wrong committed 50 years and not forgotten by the Indians.

It is essential to recall that grave slight at some length, for it would help to put the invitation’s significance in perspective. It would also explain the reason for Pakistan’s outrage, which led its foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, to boycott the meeting and for the Pakistani chair remaining vacant at the inaugural session.

Islamic countries convened a summit in Morocco in September 1969 to protest against an attempt to set on fire Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, by an Australian Christian that August. The incident in Jerusalem had angered the Muslim world.

The summit opened on September 22. The next morning Morocco’s foreign minister personally conveyed to the Indian ambassador that the conference had “unanimously” decided to ask India to send an “official” delegation to attend it. He clarified that Pakistan’s president at the time, General Yahya Khan, was a participant and was part of the consensus. He also revealed that King Faisal of Saudi Arabia had proposed that India be invited.

The foreign minister requested that until the arrival of an Indian delegation, its ambassador should occupy the Indian chair as acting head of the delegation. India accepted the invitation and the ambassador was “authorized” to attend the afternoon session. He did so and in a brief statement to the plenary noted the “unanimous” decision to invite India. He also conveyed that a delegation led by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the then minister for urban development (who later became India’s president), was coming to participate in the summit.

The next morning Yahya Khan demanded that the official Indian delegation not be allowed to attend the conference. He refused to leave his villa and also refused to meet or talk to anyone. He gave some communal riots that had taken place in India as the reason for his insistence; in fact, Pakistan’s opposition parties were furious at his not objecting to Indian participation in the conference.

Ahmed arrived that afternoon and was met by a Moroccan representative who gave various proposals for downgraded Indian participation, which were rejected. Finally, the leaders decided to leave India out to “save” the conference, for Pakistan had been able to secure the support of Turkey, Iran and Jordan.

That conference led to the setting up of the OIC.

Naturally these events led to great anger in India. While India’s relations with many members of the OIC remained on an even keel and recovered with those that had supported Pakistan, great wariness and distrust has remained for the organization itself.

The world of 2019 is completely different from that of 1969, when the UAE had not even come into being as a country; it did so in 1971. The UAE’s decision to invite India as a guest of honor and its refusal to buckle under Pakistani pressure reflects this new world with its power and geo-economic dynamics as much it does of the great Arab traditions of never dishonoring a guest.

In 1969 the Arabian Peninsula countries that then existed, including Saudi Arabia, were overshadowed by other countries of the Islamic world; their great wealth was yet to come. It did, beginning with the oil-price rise of 1973, and with it came power. Thus Saudi Arabia saw a proposal it had mooted come to naught in Morocco.

In 1969 Pakistan was the largest Islamic country and carried great influence in the Ummah. Today despite its possession of nuclear weapons and the most powerful army in the Muslim world, it is critically dependent on Saudi and UAE generosity. It is no surprise, then, that its plea was ignored by the UAE.

There is another aspect that shows Pakistan is in a time warp. It simply did not factor in the great ideological change taking place in some sections of society in the Arabian Peninsula states. UAE leaders led by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and the Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid are promoting gradual social openness even while maintaining firm political control.

This is what has led Abu Dhabi to provide land for the construction of Hindu temples and Sikh gurudwaras (temples) for the expatriate communities. The invitation to the Pope and agreeing that he could conduct a mass at the Abu Dhabi stadium where some government ministers were present was a major step reflecting the new thinking. The invitation to Swaraj, whose very presence at the inaugural ceremony of the OIC ministerial conference dressed in traditional Hindu attire and representing a secular state, was also reflective as much of a new social vision as a political statement recognizing the India of 2019.

Swaraj’s address to the plenary emphasized India’s plural reality. It specifically mentioned India’s 185 million Muslim citizens who are part of the cultural milieu of the regions they live in and are socially integrated. This was a subtle rejection of the two-nation theory that is Pakistan’s foundational principle. It holds that the Muslims of South Asia are a separate nation on account of their Islamic faith. Notably Swaraj stressed India’s secular moorings, which are far removed from the sharp Hindutva ideas of a section of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Will this invitation lead to India becoming an observer in the OIC and at a later stage a member?

Pakistan is implacably opposed to the idea. But as the UAE foreign minister and chairman of the meeting, Abdullah bin Zayed, told the media, “OIC has sent a very clear and positive sign to India … that OIC appreciates the relationship with India and looks forward to strengthening such a relationship to a point where we can embrace India one day in OIC”.

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