By Shrideep Biswas
A November 2, 2010, CNN-IBN report, citing the Intelligence Bureau (IB), claimed that the Popular Front of India (PFI), a confederation of Islamic Organisations, was collaborating with the banned Islamist terrorist Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The report stated, further, that organisations such as the Citizen’s Forum in Goa, Community Social and Educational Society of Rajasthan, Nagrik Adhikar Suraksha Samiti (Committee for the Protection of Citizens’ Right) in West Bengal, Liong Social Forum in Manipur and the Association of Social Justice in Andhra Pradesh were all part of PFI’s growing network.
An earlier report quoting Uttar Pradesh (UP) intelligence officials on August 23, 2010, had indicated that the PFI’s presence had been noticed in about a dozen Districts in the eastern and western regions of the State, and the organisation was especially active in areas which were already identified as ‘communally sensitive’ and had witnessed communal clashes in the past. According to the report the warnings came after the recovery of a large number of “objectionable” posters from UP’s Barabanki and Muzaffarnagar Districts a few days earlier. The posters contained an appeal to Muslims to fight the “forces” which were behind the blasts at Mecca Masjid (May 18, 2007), Ajmer (October 11, 2007) and Malegaon (September 8, 2006). It added, further, that the organisation was particularly active in the Azamgarh District, which achieved notoriety in connection with a succession of terrorist attacks and activities across the country in the past. Notably, the Ahmedabad 2008 serial blasts mastermind Mufti Abul Bashir Islahi was from Azamgarh. Some of the youth killed in Delhi’s Batla House encounter on September 25, 2008, were also residents of Azamgarh. Azamgarh had earlier been linked with a number of terrorist incidents and activities. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, a total of 24 militants of various outfits have been arrested from the District in nine incidents since 2001. Praveen Swami notes that Maulana Abdul Aleem Islahi — a prominent Hyderabad-based cleric who had graduated from Azamgarh’s well-known Seminary, Madrasat-ul-Islah, was the key figure behind the formation of the Indian Mujahideen (IM), and the ideological mentor to many young radicals who played a key role in the jihadi movement in India. Among the prominent alumni of the jihadi cells operating in Azamgarh were – Abdul Subhan Qureshi, fugitive IM ‘commander’; Mohammed Arif Badruddin Shaikh alias Arif Badar alias Laddan an IM cadre (now in the custody of Mumbai Police); Salman Ahmad, one of a string of alleged jihadis associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s so-called “Karachi Project; among others. Further, Sadiq Israr Sheikh, the key organiser of the Indian Mujahideen network in Nehru Nagar, a suburb of Mumbai, was born in 1978 to working-class parents from Azamgarh. A September 20, 2008, report noted that Azamgarh had earned notoriety as a nursery of terror, and had provided a very fertile ground for SIMI and other such outfits to flourish.
Meanwhile, in response to the CNN-IBN report, a letter was issued by K. M. Shareef, General Secretary of PFI to Rajdeep Sardesai, the Editor of the Channel, on November 4, stating that the State organisations mentioned in the report had merged with the PFI way back in February 2009, and were, therefore, now non-existent. Shareef, however, denied any PFI links with SIMI, and blamed the Sangh Parivar (the coalition of Hindu Right Wing Organisations) and their supposed infiltration of the IB, for the allegations. He interpreted the gradual spread of PFI over India as a sign of the backward Muslim community moving forward on the path to empowerment.
PFI had been growing steadily in Kerala, but was catapulted into the headlines after its cadres waylaid and brutally attacked and maimed T. J. Joseph, a lecturer at Newman College in Moovattupuzha, a town in Ernakulam District, on July 4, 2010. Joseph’s right hand was hacked for preparing a question paper with alleged derogatory reference to Prophet Mohammad, offending Muslim religious sentiments.
A day later, on July 5, two PFI cadres, Ashraf and Jaffer, were arrested and remanded to judicial custody for their alleged involvement in the incident. Another two cadres, Sajeer and Kamaruddhin, were arrested on July 8. On July 13, a dentist named Rinees and Abdul Salam, a Divisional Secretary of PFI, were also arrested in the case and on charges of sedition, along with 20 other PFI activists from different parts of Kerala. On the same day, Police seized country-made bombs, weapons and incriminating material in raids at the offices of the PFI and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) from Kozhikode in Kerala. Again, on August 6, Yunus, a ‘divisional leader’ of the PFI, was arrested and remanded to judicial custody by a magistrate court in Moovattupuzha. Meanwhile, the Special Investigation Team probing the assault on T. J. Joseph issued summons to Abdul Hamid (PFI Kerala State General Secretary), P. Koya (PFI National Executive member and editor of PFI mouthpiece, Thejas) and Nasiruddin Elamaram (PFI Kerala State President), for questioning in connection with the case. On September 8, the Kerala High Court dismissed the bail applications of seven of the 27 PFI cadres arrested in connection with the attack.
Further, Rakesh Maira, chief of the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) told journalists in Mumbai that Himayat Baig, the alleged mastermind of the German Bakery blast (February 13, 2010) in Pune, arrested by the ATS on September 7, became a member of the PFI to recruit and send youth for training to Pakistan.
There is significant cumulative evidence of progressive extremism in the PFI. Worryingly, the Asom United Democratic Front (AUDF), led by perfume magnate Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, has declared solidarity with the group. The AUDF, with 11 MLAs in the 126-member Assam legislature, is a significant player in Assam politics. Political midgets like the Milli Ettehad Parishad in West Bengal and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhgam (TMMK) have also joined the PFI-led national alliance of Muslim groups and parties.
The PFI was formed in November 22, 2006, when three organisations, the National Development Front (NDF) of Kerala, the Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP) of Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KDF), merged together. The PFI and the SDPI, which already have a significant following in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, have set up committees in 15 States, over the past two years, according to reports.
The PFI denies any communal agenda, and its constitution declares dissatisfaction over the failure of the existing socio-economic models of development in alleviating the poverty and backwardness of the people of the country and over the lack of equity, and the deprivation of the masses, especially religious and linguistic minorities. It also claims to act as a pressure group, coordinate the activities of several cognate organisations which are operating in isolation and to provide a common platform for all. The organization claims frustration with the Indian state and its ‘collusion’ with neo-colonial, fascist and racist forces; expresses solidarity with the Dalits (scheduled caste), tribals, religious, linguistic and cultural minorities, backward classes and women. According to PFI sources, its activists conducted nation-wide health awareness programs and relief operations during floods in north Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Assam in 2009 and volunteered in relief operations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu during the Tsunami disaster in December 2004. PFI offers career counseling, distributes educational aids and study material, and runs motivational programmes like the School Chalo (come to school) campaign every summer, and organizes medical camps.
The communist Government of Kerala has, however, recognized a threat in the activities and growth of PFI. V.S. Achuthanandan, the State’s Chief Minister and a Politburo member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), at a press conference in New Delhi on July 24, 2010, declared that the PFI and its allies were plotting to make Kerala a “Muslim-dominated” State within 20 years: “For achieving that goal, the outfit is pumping money to attract youth and giving them weapons… Youngsters are being given money and lured to convert to marry Muslim women…” On August 4, 2010, Kerala’s Education Minister M. A. Baby declared that the State Government would ban the Freedom Parade, an event organized by the PFI on August 15, India’s Independence Day, every year, where its cadres, dressed in uniforms similar to para military organisations, carry out synchronized marches across cities of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, in the light of the attack on Joseph. On September 6, the Kerala Government informed the State High Court that investigators had obtained evidence regarding PFI’s connection with terrorist outfits such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and al Qaeda. The submission in this regard was made by R. Rajashekharan Nair, Deputy Secretary (Home) in a counter affidavit filed in a Public Interest Litigation by a citizen, Gireesh Babu, seeking a ban on the PFI and the handover of the investigation into the attack on the lecturer to the National Investigation Agency.
The PFI has denied these allegations and accused the Chief Minister of trying to spread misunderstanding. The organisation declares it has no intention of creating an Islamic State by eliminating the Hindu majority in the country and challenged the Chief Minister to prove that the documents cited against the PFI were taken from any leaflet, publication or speech of any of its leaders.
The Kerala State Government and the Union Government are yet to arrive at a consensus about their stance towards the PFI. On September 26, the Union Home Secretary, G. K. Pillai stated that the State Police was aware of the activities of the PFI and it was under close watch, but there had been no discussion about banning the outfit. What is clear, however, is that the communal equilibrium in ‘God’s own country’ is under increasing threat from the progressive radicalization of the PFI and its cognate groups.
Shrideep Biswas, Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
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