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How can India counter Pak-OIC meet on Kashmir, CAA?

By Lieutenant General SYED ATA HASNAIN (retd)
January 03, 2020 19:18 IST
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'Quiet back channel advice will probably be rendered by Saudi Arabia to India that international perception on both issues does not favour India and that it should be prudent to look inwards and introspect on where the failing has been,' notes Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd).

IMAGE: A huge protest in Bengaluru on December 23, 2019 against the Citizen (Amendment) Bill and National Register of Citizens. Photograph: ANI

If you have been deeply involved with following the nuances of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the turbulence that has followed, it is very likely that you missed the news announced first only by Pakistan that a special foreign ministers's meeting of the Saudi Arabia-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation will be held in all probability at Islamabad in April.

The main agenda at the event that Pakistan announced with unabashed glee is that of Kashmir and even the CAA.

For Pakistan this is equivalent to being in seventh heaven, never mind that there is little enthusiasm from Saudi Arabia during who's Foreign Ministers' visit to Islamabad the event seems to have been discussed.

Pakistan's enthusiasm appears to have remained short lived as it is now being reported that the meeting will only be one of members of parliament of OIC countries and not at the ministerial level.

A complex set of Islamic politics and diplomatic competitiveness for cultivation of respective narratives of India and Pakistan forms the backdrop to these happenings.

It is worth analysing to get the right perspective and how much of a difference it makes to India.

An Islamic summit was held in Kuala Lumpur between December 18-21, 2019.

It was sponsored under the stewardship of the world's oldest head of government, Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir of Malaysia and the Islamic world's latest aspirant for higher leadership, President Recep Erdogan of Turkey.

It was a decision taken on the sidelines of the UN general assemby in August 2019 and included Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan as one of the originators of the proposal.

The meeting was purported to be for discussions on countering Islamophobia around the world, but it was outside the format of the OIC, the Saudi-sponsored 57-strong Islamic grouping headquartered in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia is extremely sensitive to anything about the Islamic world being discussed outside the OIC's ambit and views it as a threat to its primacy in the Islamic world perceived due to its rich energy reserves and custodianship of the two most holy shrines of Islam.

The three sponsors were joined by Qatar, Iran and Indonesia lending their weight before the meeting, the former two adding to the irritation of Saudi Arabia, being its two nemeses.

Pakistan is the last among Islamic nations who could be expected to proceed against the desire of Saudi Arabia, being tethered and beholden to it for several economic bailouts, including a current one.

However, its own desire to punch much above its economic weight appeared to force it to step out of tune.

Just before the Kuala Lumpur meeting, the Saudis spoke to Indonesia and coerced it into not attending the event.

The same did not work with Malaysia.

As for Pakistan, Imran Khan was summoned to Riyadh after which he pulled Pakistan out too, much to the chagrin of strategic commentators in his country who questioned both decisions; to agree to attend and then to pull out under Saudi pressure thus affecting Pakistan's independent and sovereign credentials.

Considering that Malaysia and Turkey's efforts to dilute the Saudi leadership of the Islamic world could be serious, especially with Qatar and Iran too attending the meeting, the Saudis attempted to mollify Pakistan with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan's day-long visit to Islamabad.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi exploited the opportunity to brief the visiting prince about the Pakistan perceived situation in J&K and the new developments involving India's Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

The Saudi concession of accepting an OIC meeting (yet undetermined at what level) to discuss these issues even after the solid support extended to India through the Pulwama, Balakot and Constitutional abrogation episodes may seem surprising to India.

India is one of Saudi Arabia's largest purchasers of energy and has a Diaspora of 3 million workers and other professionals in that country.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi welcomes Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Palam air force station in New Delhi, February 19, 2019. Photograph: PTI Photo

In the last few years, and especially under Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, the India-Saudi Arabia relationship has flowered and along with it India's relationship with other Gulf States -- the UAE and Bahrain in particular.

In fact, under its current leadership, India's overall relationship with the Islamic world has seen much improvement, a major foreign policy achievement.

The late external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj attended and addressed the OIC's foreign ministers's meeting in Abu Dhabi on March 1, 2019.

There are two issues of significance here.

The first is that the Saudis were concerned enough to attempt mollifying Pakistan after it had been coerced not to attend the Kuala Lumpur meeting.

It meant that the challenge from Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar is considered serious enough to Saudi pre-eminence, especially since arch adversary Iran seems to be with them too.

Pakistan is a country of 207 million Muslims and therefore cannot be taken lightly.

The Saudis would like to keep such nations cultivated with an odd concession; Pakistan sought one such concession, an OIC discussion on Kashmir and the CAA.

Second, Saudi Arabia has been prudent enough not to jump the gun and accept an immediate OIC meeting at whatever level.

It has given India a clear four month lead to ensure that it gets its diplomacy going as also its perception management about both issues -- Kashmir and the CAA.

Quiet back channel advice will probably be rendered by Saudi Arabia to India that international perception on both issues does not favour India and that it should be prudent to look inwards and introspect on where the failing has been.

On Kashmir, Indian diplomacy was proactive and the pace of engagement has to be maintained.

Lots of questions are being put to us in India and our responses are now appearing defensive.

Refusal to engage with those who do not accept or agree to our point of view is an unconvincing strategy and must be replaced by readiness to engage in the spirit of debate and alternative opinion.

Knowledgeable and experienced Kashmir hands must be extensively used for this to keep our missions fully proficient with their confidence to justify our stance.

The international media has been less than kind to India and our efforts need to redouble in that domain.

The issue of CAA will prove to be a greater challenge since the government itself says that perceptions about it even within India are incorrect.

When such issues reach the street international perceptions tend to go along with the street and need to be contested more vigorously.

The Saudis under pressure within the Islamic world must not turn their back against India on these two issues.

Although there are four months yet to an unconfirmed OIC meeting which may ultimately be inconsequential, it is the manner in which Pakistan plays its diplomatic hand as also the way Saudi Arabia perceives the dynamics of its influence waning or enhancing, which will decide which way the latter will play its hand.

India's engagement not only with the Islamic world but also with many other influential nations must rise to the level of being transformational.

It's what the navy calls out in emergency -- 'all hands on deck'

Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd) is the former GOC 15 and 21 Corps and one of India's leading strategic analysts. The general is a frequent contributor to

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Lieutenant General SYED ATA HASNAIN (retd)