A few weeks ago, India’s minister of foreign affairs, S Jaishankar, responding to a question from a journalist who asked whether India was losing friends because of some of its policies said: “Maybe weʼre getting to know who our friends really are”. This response applies particularly well vis-à-vis the Muslim world. The clarification process is accelerating these days after the Organisation of the Islamic Conference condemned in a tweet on April 19, “the unrelenting vicious #Islamophobic campaign in #India maligning Muslims for spread of #COVID-19 as well as their negative profiling in media subjecting them to discrimination & violence with impunity”. At the same time Princess Hend Al Qassimi, a member of the royal family of United Arab Emirates, citing tweets by Hindus living in the UAE, denounced those who were arraigning Muslims in her country.
But the clarification process had started earlier when Al Jazeera reported on the victims of the Delhi riots and even before, when Muslim countries reacted to the abolition of Article 370. Turkey held an international conference on Kashmir on November 21, 2019 — in which Pakistan Senator Sherry Rehman also participated. Erdogan’s visit to Pakistan in early 2020 showed how consistent he had been into putting up with the cause of Kashmiris. Even before he visited New Delhi on May 1, 2017, he had called for a “multilateral-dialogue” towards a solution to the Kashmir problem, unlike what India has always stood for — bilateralism. India, just before Erdogan visit, had received the Cyprus President, engaged in a dispute with Ankara, in order to circumvent Erdogan in hardball diplomacy. Yet, Erdogan was unfazed by India’s posturing, and expressed the desire to be a “peace-maker” on Kashmir.
In his address to the Pakistan joint parliament session on February 14, Erdogan referred to Kashmir about half a dozen times in his 25 minutes long speech. He said that Kashmir is as important to Turkey as it is to Pakistan and likened the struggle in Kashmir to the battle of Turkey’s independence. “It was Çanakkale yesterday, and it is Kashmir today. There is no difference,” in reference to the battle for Gallipoli in North Western Turkey between Turkey and Allied Powers in 1915 and 1916. India denounced this as an interference in its internal matters and has issued a demarche to the Turkish ambassador in New Delhi.
Malaysia – another country with which Pakistan has been increasingly friendly – has also criticised India. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had said in September 2019 that India had “invaded and occupied” Kashmir, just before resigning, denounced the way New Delhi was “taking action to deprive some Muslims of their citizenship”, in reference to the CAA.
Even Iran, an old friend of New Delhi, has not lagged behind. Tehran is very resentful of the way India, bowing to Trump’s America, has stopped importing its oil and is losing interest in Chabahar, and is also focusing now on Kashmir and the CAA — as well as the Delhi riots. The foreign affairs minister has asked India to stop this “organised violence” and “senseless thuggery” (and to respect the “rule of law”). Before that, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader had said in a post Article 370 abolition tweet: “We expect the Indian government to adopt a just policy towards the noble people of Kashmir and prevent the oppression & bullying of Muslims in the region”. Regarding the CAA and the Delhi riots, Ali Khamenei went one step further, asking the Indian government to “confront the extremist Hindus” and to stop the “massacre of Muslims”, which may result India’s “isolation from the world of Islam”.
This risk somewhat materialised after the Indonesian foreign ministry summoned the Indian ambassador in Jakarta to discuss the Delhi riots. Indonesia, more than Malaysia and Turkey, matter to India’s attempts to promote a Indo-Pacific partnership in order to contain Chinese expansion.
Even more importantly, in South Asia itself, Muslim countries with which India had increasingly good relations have become less friendly. Bangladesh is a case in point. In December last year, Bangladeshi foreign minister and home minister cancelled their visits to India over the situation arising out of the passage of the CAA in Parliament, as Bangladeshis felt targeted by this law – a law that Sheikh Hasina described as “unnecessary” in January. In Afghanistan – another important country whose ruling elites were close to India – demonstrators have protested against the CAA and the Delhi riots in March.
New Delhi’s retaliations – the summons of the Turkish as well as Iranian ambassador, the end of imports of palm oil from Malaysia as well as oil and steel products from Turkey – may not make any significant difference.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emphasised that these matters pertain to India’s domestic politics. Since 2015, and Pakistan’s refusal to help Riyad in its fight against Iran’s proxies in Yemen, Saudis and Emiratis have distanced themselves from Islamabad and become closer to New Delhi. This shift has something to do with economic considerations, as evident from the huge investments that MBS has announced during his 2019 Indian visit (including those in refineries).
This rapprochement has found expression in several symbols: In the UAE, Narendra Modi received the Order of Zayed, the highest civilian award of the country, after the President of the UAE had been the guest of honour of the Independence Day in 2019. But beyond symbols, substantial developments have taken place, like the joint naval exercises between India and Saudi Arabia, a country that has mentioned India as one of its eight strategic partners in its “Vision-2030”. In parallel, India got access to the Duqm port in Oman for military use.
However, the general secretary of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a grouping traditionally dominated by Arab countries, visited Pakistan in March 2020, and reiterated the fact that Kashmir topped the OIC agenda. This interference in India’s domestic affairs contrasted with the impression that had arisen from the invitation to India to the OIC meeting in Abu Dhabi in March 2019. But this contrast needs to be qualified. Certainly, the Abu Dhabi meeting – where Sushma Swaraj was invited to address the OIC as a guest of honour – was a success for India – a country that was trying to join the OIC since 1969. But in the Abu Dhabi meeting, Swaraj had to reject a resolution on “Indian atrocities” in J&K and another one reminding India of its obligation to implement the UN resolutions on the J&K dispute. On February 9, during the senior officials meeting of the OIC in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia showed reluctance to accept Pakistanʼs request for an immediate meeting of the council of foreign ministers on Kashmir — a clear sign of persisting tensions.
The new contrast between the support Pakistan has received from Turkey, Malaysia and even Iran on Kashmir and the very cautious attitude of Saudi Arabia and the UAE may bring Pakistan back to the 1960s when Islamabad was close to non-Arab Muslim countries, including Turkey and Iran with which the country finally formed the Economic Cooperation Organisation. Eventually, two coalitions of Muslim countries may crystallise: On one hand the Arab-supported one and on the other, the “global Islamic forum” that Turkey and Malaysia intend to build in order to create an alternative to the Arab-dominated OIC. If this forum takes the lead on issues like Kashmir, the OIC may have to take a stand. Already, Riyadh has reluctantly agreed to convene a special foreign ministersʼ meeting of the OIC devoted to Kashmir. The clarification process is continuing, as evident from the recent tweet of the OIC mentioned at the beginning of this piece.