Amidst the ongoing repercussions of the punitive air strike made by the Indian Air Force to take out the training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, the address of India’s External Affairs Minister – Sushma Swaraj – at the Foreign Ministers conference of OIC at Abu Dhabi on March 1 was an event of extraordinary significance for the geopolitics of South Asia, the future of India-Pakistan relations and the so-called Islamic world itself.
The Crown Prince of UAE hosting the meet had invited India’s External Affairs Minister to be the guest of honour at the inaugural day of the OIC meet and thus for the first time put the stamp of official recognition on India’s association with the Islamic block – even as India did not have an Observer’s status yet. Brief attempts made by our diplomats in the Cold War Era to secure that position on the ground that India had the second largest Muslim population in the world, had been successfully thwarted by Pakistan. But this time around the UAE, apparently in consultation with OIC Chairman Saudi Arabia, rejected Pakistan’s objection to the very presence of India at the OIC.
This resulted in Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, registering his ‘protest’ by skipping the meet and sending his juniors there to represent the country. This was a new situation that Pakistan faced – as a founder member of OIC – at a time when India had militarily challenged it on the issue of cross-border terrorism. It is enough for India, which is not an ‘Islamic’ country, that we were able to present at the OIC platform India’s stand against the new terror fomented from the soil of Pakistan in the name of religion.
In her address, which was noted for its boldness and finesse, Sushma Swaraj raised the issue of terrorism upfront and pointed out how the menace was caused by ‘distortion of religion’ and emphasised how in India Muslims and non-Muslims practised their respective beliefs and lived in harmony. She specially thanked UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh but went on to name a whole lot of Muslim countries of West Asia, North Africa and South East Asia with whom India, with its resurgent economy, was developing bilateral relations. She talked of ‘indispensable strategic and security partnership and a natural economic collaboration with the Gulf countries’ but also declared that India shared ‘civilisational and cultural links with Iran’ whose partnership with India was something vital for ‘stability and prosperity in our region’.
Without naming Pakistan Sushma Swaraj called upon the world to tell the states who provided shelter and funding to the terrorists to dismantle the infrastructure of the terror outfits on their soil. She did well to counter the ‘exclusivism’ of Islamic extremists by referring to the Indian approach to religion that maintained that ‘God is one though He was described by many names’. The base of indoctrination of Mujahideen lay in the fundamentalist line of Islamic radicals and extremists that ‘there was no God save Allah’ and that the political decline of Islam was to be attributed to the ‘deviation’ of Muslims from the puritanic Islam that existed in the days of the Pious Caliphs. It is the faith-based motivation that was producing Fidayeen and it is to be seen if OIC would muster courage to pronounce that in today’s times Jehad was not the answer to any political problem.
One cannot be sanguine about this. India’s strategists have to factor in the more pronounced crosscurrents that are operating in the Islamic world at present. The US-led ‘war on terror’ targeted Islamic radicals of the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine – and later of ISIS – who all carried the legacy of the anti-West Jehad that the Ulema of the 19th century led by Abdul Wahab had conducted unsuccessfully against ‘the Western encroachment on Muslim lands’.
The withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan gave the radicals a chance to establish an Islamic Emirate at Kabul in 1996 with full backing of Pakistan. Meanwhile, OIC had built an Islamic movement with large funding from Saudi Arabia that also rested on adherence to fundamentalism and aimed at countering the influence of Communism much to the delight of the US. Pakistan, a key member of OIC, housed not only the Islamic radicals of Al Qaeda and Taliban but also the Islamic extremists of Jamaat-e-Islami’s Hizbul Mujahideen and Maulana Hafiz Sayeed’s Lashkare Toiba. The latter were easily available to Pakistan for being channelised by its agencies against India on the Kashmir front.
When 9/11 tested Pakistan for leading the fight against Islamic radicals on its soil it hoodwinked the US by just pretending to be active against Al Qaeda and Taliban, the same group it had put in power in Afghanistan. Before 9/11, Pakistan had no problem with radicals. It needed all militant groups as its strategic assets to run its proxy war against India. This is precisely what Pakistan is doing now. It feels encouraged by the US dependence on Pakistan’s potential to mediate with the Taliban for a negotiated settlement at Kabul.
There is convergence between Saudi Arabia, UAE and the US against Islamic radicals who considered the US their prime enemy and who were also inimical to the Saudis for the latter’s identification with the Americans. The ‘war on terror’ has thus created a division in the Muslim world because large sections of it are not ready to side with the US or condemn Islamic radicals. In India, the influential Darul Uloom Deoband known for its hold on Sunnis, claims nationalist credentials but is firmly against the West. It is in this context that India raising its voice at OIC against all groups indulging in terrorism in the name of Islam is a diplomatic success even though it is doubtful if it would give us any leverage against Pakistan on that platform.
India cannot be happy with the hostile pronouncements of OIC on Kashmir – a resolution surfaced ‘condemning the atrocities and human rights violations by India’ in the state, denouncing ‘mass blindings’ inflicted by security forces on protesting youth and, what is worse, charging Indian occupation forces with ‘escalating’ ceasefire violations on the LOC. It called upon member states to contribute funds for humanitarian assistance to Kashmiri people. OIC voiced Pakistan’s line that Kashmir was the ‘core issue’ between India and Pakistan and that its resolution was a must for establishing peace in South Asia. It welcomed Prime Minister Imran Khan‘s offer of talks with India. India has, in a prompt rejoinder, declared that J&K is an integral part of India and is a matter ‘strictly internal’ to India. It seems Pakistan continues to have its way against India as far as the forum of OIC is concerned. We must seek a response from Saudi Arabia, as OIC Chairman, reiterating that Pakistan must take action against terror outfits operating on its soil as was being demanded by the US as well.
India has brought in clarity on Iran by not linking our approach to that country with our relations with other Muslim countries. India has to stay away from the extreme hostility that always existed between the Sunni fundamentalist states like Saudi Arabia and UAE and the Shia regime of Ayatollahs in Iran – reflecting the historical legacy of the Kharijite revolt against Caliph Ali. India has rightly dealt with every nation bilaterally regardless of the Shia-Sunni divide that prevails in the Muslim world. Incidentally, both Islamic radicals and Shia fundamentalists regard the US as their enemy for their own political and ideological reasons respectively. India’s foreign policy will have to reckon with this.
Our stand is basically against injection of violence into national and international politics in the name of religion. India’s deep military strike against the JeM training camp at Balkot in Pakistan is hastening the process of the world beginning to realise the danger of faith-based terror arising from within the Islamic world. It is, therefore, a matter of great satisfaction for India that we have carried a message against this kind of violence right to the apex of the 56-member Islamic block itself. This vindicates India’s role as a frontline leader of the democratic world engaged in fighting terrorists across the Islamic spectrum as a matter of principled strategy.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)