Volume 27 - Issue 25 :: Dec. 04-17, 2010
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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India cannot ignore the Organisation of the Islamic Conference but should interact with it only on issues and when it is in its interest to do so.

INDIA must take the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) with a measure of seriousness that is just its due. It must not take the OIC too seriously. The OIC accounts for about 29 per cent of the total membership of the United Nations, 47 per cent of the African Union, and 100 per cent of the membership of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO). Nearer home, three of the seven members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are in the OIC and so are three ASEAN states, with two others (the Philippines and Thailand) attending meetings as guests. The OIC influences the outcome of elections to U.N. bodies, and their decisions. What, exactly, has it to show by way of results in the 40 years of its chequered career?

The Ministry of External Affairs spokesman must stop doling out angry comments in the traditionally pompous manner every time the OIC passes a resolution on Kashmir. It serves as a platform for the promotion of the narrow interests of its leading and more voluble members. Pakistan is by no means a leading member, only a loudly voluble one. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is an intelligent and educated man. But he does not use his head to craft effective politics. He relies instead on the OIC and the United States to help him in a wasteful contest with Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his “five points”. Appropriately, Dr. Noor Ahmad Baba, a leading political scientist who teaches in the University of Kashmir, wrote an able work entitled Organization of Islamic Conference: Theory & Practice of Pan Islamic Cooperation (Sterling, New Delhi, 1994).

We now have an up-to-date history by a distinguished Turkish scholar, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. His association with the OIC goes back to 1980 when he took office as founding Director-General of the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) based in Istanbul. In 2005 he became the first democratically elected Secretary-General of the OIC.

His book, with its nine appendices including the OIC's charter, bears the hallmarks of training as an academic. It is a veritable textbook. An index would not have detracted from its worth.

Russia enjoys observer status in the OIC. India has sensibly resisted the temptation to respond to hints to accept one. It is as much a noisy Tower of Babel as the Non-Aligned Movement always was. Like NAM, the OIC does matter, to an extent. In 1991 it proposed a fact-finding mission to Kashmir. It could only visit “Pakistan-held Kashmir”. India refused the visas. In 1994 it established an OIC Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir, which met the same fate as P. Chidambaram's three highly enthusiastic interlocutors – those who matter shunned them. “The OIC has supported the four-point plan of the former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf for settlement of the (Kashmir) dispute,” the author informs us. With this, it exhausted its slender resources of good sense on Kashmir.

This meticulously detailed and well-researched book is very useful for reference. Its account of the First Islamic Conference of the heads of state and government of the OIC member states in Rabat (Morocco) in September 1969 omits an important truth. India was invited and welcomed and it participated briefly. It was thus one of the founding members of the OIC. The President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, was warned by officials in Islamabad that, in the wake of the Ahmedabad riots, India's participation would ensure a nasty reception for him when he returned to Islamabad. He threw a tantrum. The result was India's exclusion.

If October 1962 is remembered as a humiliating military debacle, Rabat ranks as a humiliating diplomatic debacle. The Congress was facing a split. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was ill served by a flamboyant Foreign Minister, Dinesh Singh, whom her Principal Secretary P.N. Haksar skilfully cut to size. She had yet to acquire and exercise the tactical skills that later made her a feared opponent. The Syndicate of party bosses, the Jan Sangh, Swatantra and the Lohiaites, created a ruckus. The government chose a singularly shoddy and devious route to explain why its representatives went there and what really happened there. Its Ambassador to Morocco was a respected career diplomat, Gurbachan Singh, who did his duties ably. The leader of the rebuffed Indian delegation was Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

India has moved far ahead in these four decades. It can afford to take a calm view of the episode and draw apt lessons. One of them is summed up in Talleyrand's famous aphorism – not too much zeal.

Genesis of the OIC

The history of the OIC, the reasons for India's participation, the government's clumsy attempts to respond to criticism, and the aftermath are instructive. We get an excellent account of the genesis of the OIC from reports by British envoys in West Asia and India published in an invaluable 12-volume set by the British government in 2004, Islam: Political Impact 1908 -1972: British Documentary Sources; Volume 12: 1962-1972 edited by Jone Priestland; Archive Editions. It should put our illiberal governments and our supine historians to shame.

A report from the British Embassy to Jeddah on February 9, 1966, set out the background. It said the proposal for an Islamic summit was first made by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia at the opening session of the World Muslim League conference (Rabita-al Alam Al-Islami) held in Mecca (now Makkah) after the Haj in April 1965. It was accepted by the conference, which was attended by (fairly low-key) delegates from most Islamic countries (but not the United Arab Republic, Iraq and Indonesia).

In June, King Hussein of Jordan made a public statement of his support for the idea of the Islamic summit “after allowing sufficient time for preparation and consultation between the competent quarters in the Islamic states to reach an agreement on the general lines of the idea, and to prepare a suitable atmosphere for the meeting”. Little more was heard for some months, although there has been one unconfirmed report to the effect that the Saudis were canvassing the idea at the abortive Afro-Asian summit in Algiers. In November, the Shah of Iran told a Saudi press delegation that he “upheld a proposal by the General Islamic Council held at Mecca last April to establish an Islamic League of Nations”.

Impetus was given by King Faisal's visit to Teheran from December 8 to 13. In a speech to the Iranian Parliament, he castigated those who sought, “against the established tenets of Islam, to overthrow established government by violence, subversion or treachery”. This was widely taken to be an attack on Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. The communiqué issued at the end of the visit called for an Islamic Summit Conference to “review all important issues affecting the Islamic world, to lay the ground for unanimity of views and safeguarding common interests”. The Cairo correspondent of the Russian newspaper Izvestia, the legendary Y. Primakov, who became Prime Minister, attacked the idea of an “Islamic League”.


GURBACHAN SINGH, AS Ambassador in Morocco, led India's brief presence at the first OIC summit in Rabat in 1969.

Much later, on May 29, 1969, on the occasion of Prophet Muhammad's birthday, King Hassan of Morocco publicly advocated “the holding of a Congress of those responsible for the Muslim countries”.

An event on August 21, 1969, had lasting repercussions. The Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest shrine of Islam, was burnt down by an Australian Christian, Michael Rohan.

The rift of old came to the fore. While President Nasser advocated an Arab summit through his Foreign Minister at the Foreign Ministers' meeting on August 24, Saudi Arabia and Morocco asked for an Islamic summit at a meeting in Jeddah on August 29. They went ahead by setting up a preparatory meeting of six Islamic countries, two each from Asia, Africa and the Arab world. The ones nominated were Saudi Arabia and Morocco (Arab); Somalia and Niger (Africa) and Iran and Malaysia (Asia). The six met at Rabat on September 8 and 9 to decide on the date, venue and agenda of the Islamic summit. Pakistan was most upset at its exclusion by Malaysia, which had taken a pro-Indian stand during the 1965 war. It succeeded in muscling its way in.

The preparatory committee defined the issues to be discussed at the summit of Islamic countries, which, it decided, would be held in Rabat on September 22-24. The issues were the burning down of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the situation in Jerusalem. The criteria for issuing invitations were that the country should have a Muslim majority or it should have a Muslim head of state. President Zakir Husain had died in May 1969.

When the plenary met on September 22, it decided to enlarge the agenda to cover Israel's withdrawal from all occupied territories; restitution of the rights of the Palestinian people; implementation of the decision of the Conference and adoption of a unified position on these questions; cooperation among Islamic countries; and the next meeting of the Foreign Ministers. Thereupon Saudi Arabia suggested that India should be invited since it had strongly supported the Arab cause on these issues. It was, as one shall see, not a change of stand. With the U.A.R., Malaysia, Afghanistan and even Morocco, besides others, Saudi Arabia had supported India's inclusion even before the preparatory meeting on September 8.

Accordingly, the invite came through the next day, September 23. At 11 a.m. Ambassador Gurbachan Singh was summoned by Foreign Minister Moulay Ahmed Laraki and informed that the Conference had decided unanimously to invite India as a full-fledged member to participate in the conference. He announced at a press conference on September 24: “After consultations amongst the heads of states, it has been decided that the Conference address an official invitation to India to be represented at the governmental level. The Ambassador of India was received yesterday morning. He will assume the leadership of the Indian delegation while waiting for the arrival of the ministerial delegation which will be here tomorrow morning.”

The Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, Dr. Abdul Aleem, happened to be in Rabat. Ambassador Gurbachan Singh suggested that he represent India. Laraki did not agree. It was a government-level conference and the Ambassador should lead the delegation until the Minister's arrival.

The Conference commenced its plenary session at 5 p.m. on September 23. Shortly before that, delegates mingled in the anteroom exchanging pleasantries. Gurbachan Singh met Yahya Khan then.

When the conference began, the Chairman, the King of Morocco, interrupted the scheduled order of speakers to give the floor “to the Ambassador of India who is representing his country after the Conference has decided that India should be represented”. He was happy to see the Ambassador representing India pending the arrival of a full ministerial delegation. The composition of the delegation was announced. It would be led by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Minister for Industrial Development. Meanwhile, Gurbachan Singh led the delegation, which comprised Dr. Abdul Aleem and the Second Secretary in the Embassy.

Gurbachan Singh took the floor and delivered a speech that received applause. He said: “Your Majesty President, Your Majesties, Your Highnesses, Your Excellencies and Gentlemen: It is a matter of gratification that the interest and concern of the people of India, particularly her 60 million Muslim citizens, in the grave happenings in West Asia have been recognised and that India has been invited to participate in this Conference. I should like to convey to Your Majesty, and through you to this august gathering, our satisfaction at the unanimous invitation which has been conveyed to the Government of India. I have just received a message that a delegation, led by His Excellency Mr. F.A. Ahmed, Minister for Industrial Development, Government of India, has already left New Delhi. God willing, they should be with us tomorrow. In the meanwhile, it is my honour and privilege to assume the leadership of the Indian delegation which has as a member a distinguished scholar, Dr. Abdul Aleem, Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University.

“The Government and the people of India who have throughout been gravely concerned at the serious situation in West Asia have been deeply shocked and pained at the most recent outrage perpetrated in the holy city of Jerusalem. We feel that the continued occupation of Arab lands by Israel and particularly of the city of Jerusalem, in defiance of U.N. resolutions, is a matter of utmost concern. The shocking incident of setting fire to the ancient shrine of Al-Aqsa, which came as the most recent climax, makes it all the more imperative that the Security Council's resolution, calling upon Israel to vacate this aggression, should be implemented.” The meeting ended at 10 p.m. and adjourned to meet the next day, September 24, at 11 a.m. But it was postponed repeatedly by an hour. Yahya Khan had thrown a fit. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed arrived in Rabat at 3-30 p.m. and was received with full official honours on behalf of the Morocco government. The hosts suggested a rest, but he was eager to proceed to the venue of the Conference, the Hilton.

An emissary of the King of Morocco brought a message that explained the touching and tender solicitude the hosts had shown for the distinguished guest's health. The “happenings” in Ahmedabad had provoked other delegations to object to India's participation. The King, the Shah of Iran and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia pleaded with Yahya Khan, but he would not relent, dreading being pilloried at home. The press had whipped up a public fury in Pakistan.

Observer status rejected

To his credit, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed rejected the insulting consolation prize of an observer status. As The Economist once remarked, who wants to be accepted “as a brother” once he has been kicked out of the bed. A senior Minister in the Government of Morocco came over to the villa where the delegation was put up to request that India should voluntarily withdraw lest the conference be wrecked. Syria and Iraq had refused to participate. A walk-out by Pakistan would be a hard blow. He promised that this would not preclude invitations in the future. Ahmed rejected it. Next came the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Vice-President of the U.A.R., Anwar al-Sadat, and the Foreign Minister of Niger. Dr. Etemedi of Afghanistan joined them in their unsuccessful entreaties.

The Conference met the next day, September 25, at 5 p.m. without any notice to India's delegates and adopted a Declaration that cheekily listed among the participants “the Moslem Community of India”. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed's strong protests elicited a disingenuous explanation: “In view of the Muslim character of the Conference, we had, as far as drafting the documents was concerned, to respect the form and the idea. We realised that the word ‘India' could not be included (in the final declaration) and hence the words ‘Muslim community of India'.” The Foreign Minister of Morocco later came to express his regret for what had happened and said: “It was a compromise formula to mention the ‘Muslim Community of India' and not the Government of India just to keep the form!”

India withdrew its Ambassador from Rabat, without insisting on reciprocity, and its Charge d'Affaires from Jordan. In New Delhi, the opposition was up in arms. The winter session of Parliament was not far away. There was, though, none of the obscene and wilful obstruction of proceedings one finds in these fallen days.

A PTI report bearing a New Delhi, October 19 dateline put out the government's views: “The External Affairs Ministry has completed a comprehensive study of the circumstances that led to India's official participation at the recent Rabat summit and its eventual exclusion from it. Details of the study are expected to be published shortly in the form of a pamphlet with supporting documents.


Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.He, then a Union Minister, was supposed to take over the leadership of the delegation from Gurbachan Singh.

“That study has further reinforced conviction in the correctness of the government's decision to participate at the Rabat meeting and by its sheer presence prevent such forums being used for anti-Indian propaganda by Pakistan, according to the External Affairs Ministry sources.” (Emphasis added, throughout.)

This writer happened to be in New Delhi then and asked the Joint Secretary at the Pakistan desk what had really happened. He promised to send me the papers. That evening I received in a Press Information Bureau (PIB) envelope three priceless pamphlets, each purporting to be a private venture.

K. Rangaswami of The Hindu wrote on “India and West Asia”. It was “printed by him at the United India Press”, and was priced at paise 40 only, presumably to ensure a high turnover in sales, a consideration that, evidently, was not far from the minds of two equally distinguished contributors. Dr. Gopal Singh, M.P., wrote on “Rabat: Before and After”. It was published on November 10, 1969, and printed and published by him at The Statesman press in New Delhi and was priced at a rupee. It must have cost him a lot, for that press was a fairly expensive one. It was an elaborate and documented defence of the government. But its marshalling of the facts was commendable. The writer has drawn on it. Pran Chopra's pamphlet “Rabat: Five Questions on the Summit” was priced at Rs.1.75 and was published by the company that published the journal he edited from C-7 Nizammuddin East, New Delhi-13.

More royalist than the king

While Gopal Singh's defence drew on official sources, Pran Chopra's apologia did so with greater ardour; it was more royalist than the king. Sample this: “The following discussion on these questions draws heavily upon information already published or otherwise available in India as well as other countries. Inevitably, much of it comes from the Government of India from its documents and in replies to questions addressed to it. No government, whether of India or any other country, can claim that the information it gives out is always infallible and truthful. But there is no reason for doubting information merely because it comes from government sources. It deserves to be accepted unless it is implausible or in conflict with information available from better sources or with the judgment of authorities better qualified to judge. A few critics of India's participation in the conference at Rabat have given more credence to unofficial reports from Pakistan than to the denial thereof by the Government of India. This the present author has declined to do although the government's interpretation of the facts presented by it or others has been subjected to scrutiny.”One learnt a lot more than one suspected: “If these be the criteria, India was right in seeking an invitation to Rabat, and it did so with success and without loss of dignity. This may seem an excessively charitable comment, seen in retrospect and in the light of what was to happen before the conference ended. But it may be useful to look at the epilogue and prologue in the actual time sequence and not to mistake one for the other. The rebuff India suffered at Rabat was very serious and damaging; no attempt should be made to whitewash that fact. At the same time, however, facts should be seen in the setting in which they occurred and not smuggled into another.

“The proposal to hold an Islamic summit conference was first made in public by King Hassan of Morocco, speaking on the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in Rabat on May 29. Immediately afterwards the Indian Ambassador to Morocco, Mr. Gurbachan Singh, was asked on his arrival in Rabat whether India would attend the conference. He welcomed this recognition by the Moroccan government of India's interest in Islamic countries but said that before deciding whether India should join the conference, India would like to know more about it. It is explained in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi that the intention at that time was to keep India's options open both as regards participation and its level. It had been India's experience in the past that abstention from various kinds of Islamic conferences was not proving very helpful. Pakistani representatives at these gatherings were succeeding in getting resolutions adverse to India passed by the representatives of countries with which, at the governmental level, India had reasonably friendly relations. It was, therefore, decided, sometime in 1964, that India should not leave this arena so completely to Pakistan and, depending upon the nature of the conference and its agenda, should send delegations of appropriate level. This policy has been followed since. Not, unfortunately, with results which can be described as a uniform success.”

The disclosure is important. In 1964 New Delhi decided to change its old policy and to participate in Islamic conferences.

Here goes another explanation by the Ministry of External Affairs, which Pran Chopra duly reported: “It is believed in the Ministry of External Affairs that if there had been more time and if the matter had been taken to the full conference in Rabat, Pakistan would have found majority opinion to be in favour of India.”

Nehru's line

Dinesh Singh said in his statement to the Rajya Sabha on November 19: “The late Prime Minister Nehru decided as early as 1955 that we must continue to oppose Pan-Islamic groupings which were attempts to give religious cover to political activities in the interest of a small group of countries.” One would think Nehru anticipated the Rabat summit, so well does his characterisation apply to that conference.

Dinesh Singh's statement in the Lok Sabha on November 17 asserted the direct opposite: “When political issues are to be discussed we should not be too touchy about these labels.” But labels do have a significance or they would not be used at all. The architect of India's secular structure, therefore, advisedly laid down that “a religious cover to political activities” was good ground to eschew both the label and the contents. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was no less wrong when, in her letter to C.C. Desai, Member of Parliament, she argued, “Although the Rabat conference formally styled itself as Islamic, its contents were intensely political.” The style, Nehru had reckoned rightly, was the essence of the matter.

In Rabat it was patently so. Else, why were such powerful supporters of the Arab cause as Russia and China not invited to the First Islamic Summit Conference? It is not denied that India sought the invitation. Which brings us to the most important question of all. Why did the Government of India want to join a grouping to which we do not and should not belong?

It is commonly supposed that the aim was to appease Indian Muslims. The documentation that has come to light destroys that thesis completely. The object was altogether different and insofar as some Indian Muslims played any role at all in securing the invitation to Rabat it was as convenient, if unsuspecting, tools, as some sarkari Muslims readily do.

From Pran Chopra's pamphlet, distributed by the PIB, it came to light that Nehru's directive of 1955 was reversed as early as 1964 and that Rabat was a consequence of the reversal.

Accordingly, India participated in the Sixth World Muslim Conference held in Mogadishu from December 26, 1964, to January 5, 1965. This was the “Motamar-e-Alam-e-Islami” founded in Karachi in 1950. But at least it was at a non-governmental level.

Next came the First Afro-Asian Islamic Conference in Bandung from March 6 to 14, 1965. We are told: “Five Muslim leaders, nominated by government, participated in this conference. They did excellent work in countering Pakistan's propaganda against us.”

There followed the Muslim World League (Rabita-al-Alam-Al-Islami) held in Mecca from April 17 to 24, 1965. “It was a non-governmental conference, but invitation was sent to the President of India to nominate a delegation of Muslims to attend it. Two eminent Muslims are still members of its constituent council which meets every year.”

Lastly there was the International Islamic Conference held in Kuala Lumpur from April 21 to 27, 1969. The Government of Malaysia sent an invitation to the Government of India to send five Muslim representatives. Though they were earlier called “non-governmental observers”, they were finally admitted as “full participants”.

The object was to keep Pakistan in check

Nehru had laid down clearly that “we should, as a government, continue to keep out of purely religious conferences, while we should allow non-official delegations to participate in them”. Why then did the Government of India get involved in all these conferences? To keep Pakistan in check.

The object of attending the Rabat conference was the same. As for Indian Muslims, the PTI report of October 19 explained the position very clearly. “Several Muslim leaders” early requested King Hassan of Morocco that “Indian Muslims should be associated with the discussion on Al-Aqsa. Even then the government did not consider it necessary to participate in the conference, the sources (of the External Affairs Ministry) said.”

Much later, the Government of India “conveyed to Arab Ambassadors in New Delhi the feelings of the Indian Muslim population that they should not be excluded from the conference. It was also pointed out to them that India had a right to be present as political issues were being discussed and the conference was not limited to heads of Islamic states.” Explains a lot, indeed.

Since 1993 India has had occasional ad hoc contacts at the official level with the OIC. We cannot and must not ignore the OIC but interact with it on issues and occasions when it is in our interest to do so. For the rest, leave the OIC to itself. It is futile to try to promote heresy in a church to which we do not belong.

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