In an epochal development, India became the ‘Guest of Honour’ at the 46th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Abu Dhabi in March. The final declaration eschewed the customary reference to Jammu and Kashmir. This can be considered unique since the previous Dhaka Declaration in May 2018 had contained this reference. Credit must go to the strong personal and state-to-state ties built by the Narendra Modi government with important OIC states, especially the UAE. At the same time, one of the resolutions did refer to Kashmir and expressed concern at the situation of Muslims in India.
The OIC, representing 57 member states and a population of about 1.8 billion people, is the world’s second-largest intergovernmental organisation after the UN and is committed to protecting the interests of the Muslim world. It routinely expresses solidarity with Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Bosnia, as well as with the peoples of the Turkish Cypriot state, Kosovo and Jammu and Kashmir.
However, the organisation, while making repeated references to Jammu and Kashmir, has traditionally disregarded the fact that India is a democratic and secular country, where every citizen is protected by the Constitution and is free to practise one’s religion. It has also conveniently disregarded the fact that India regularly holds State and general elections, including in Jammu and Kashmir.
Turning a Nelson’s eye
On the other hand, it has turned a Nelson’s eye to the human rights violations committed by its own members, like the actions of the Pakistani state in Balochistan.
However, the organisation’s record on China’s Xinjiang province, which is in the news on account of alleged violations of human rights and curbs on religious freedom of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups, is far more curious.
The main Abu Dhabi declaration, like the Dhaka Declaration, made no reference to China or its Muslim minorities. Further, it is intriguing that one resolution passed at Abu Dhabi chose to “commend the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens”. This would have come as a huge relief to Beijing, especially after a review held by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2018 had claimed, citing credible reports, that Beijing had turned the Uighur autonomous region into “something that resembles a massive internment camp”.
Earlier, a Human Rights Watch report issued in September 2018 had also criticised Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.
On its part, China has defended its policies and claimed that its so-called ‘internment camps’ are actually vocational centres meant to “to educate and save [the local people of Xinjiang] who were influenced by religious extremism”. In its White Paper in November 2018, Beijing had projected Xinjiang’s culture as an integral part of Chinese culture.
All nations have a right to reject external interference in their internal affairs. However, while the OIC remains critical of India, it is wary of treading on China’s toes. Various OIC resolutions have, in the past, referred only superficially to the matter. For instance, the Islamabad OIC meeting in May 2007 made only an anodyne request to its Secretary General “to make contact with the Government of China” on the matter “and to subsequently report on these consultations”. The Baku OIC resolution of June 2006 made an appeal “to give special attention to the conditions of Muslims in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) and to examine the possibility of working out a formula for cooperation with the Chinese Government”.
China has resented the use of the term “East Turkistan” in OIC documents, reminiscent of the banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement of separatist Uighurs from Xinjiang. Yet, Beijing has engaged the OIC and just before the Abu Dhabi meeting, it welcomed an OIC delegation to Xinjiang, a development which perhaps played a role in the OIC ‘commending’ China.
The organisation remains mindful of how far it can go with its criticism of Beijing considering that China is a major power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a large market for hydrocarbons and a source of arms and investment. Moreover, China refrains from preaching to others about human rights or systems of governance.
As China’s continued import of oil from Iran suggests, countries under U.S. pressure and sanctions often turn to China for relief. In return, they do their best to guard China’s interests at the OIC.
However, OIC countries, under the influence of Pakistan, support resolutions against India despite having excellent bilateral ties with the country. Recent developments — a call from Pakistan’s Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noor-ul-Haq Qadri urging China to lift restrictions on Muslims in Xinjiang and Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan chief Sirajul Haq’s raising concerns about the Uighur issue with the Chinese Ambassador — must, hence, have come as deep embarrassment to the OIC.
The author is director general of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal