By K.M. Seethi
Living in a pluralist society with a bit of courage and confidence is anything but comforting today. A major reason is the role of self-styled ‘agencies’ with ascriptive claims of representation. South Asia has an array of such organizations with multiple but dubious characteristics. Many work in fertile social circumstances attracting large pools of youth who remain susceptible to recruitment into militant outfits.
India has also become vulnerable to such ‘youth-bulge’-related mobilization and violence. Many believe that the emergence of such militant outfits is symptomatic of the decline and decay of mainstream political parties and social organizations that betray the real interests of the people. Whatever may be the causative factors, the upshot of such devious groups and their proliferating dynamic is clear enough.
Islamist ‘Popular’ Front
The now banned Popular Front of India (PFI) is an embodiment of this ‘youth-bulge’ that has been attracting youngsters who became prone to a malevolent brand of Islam as an alternative agency for social mobility. The social cost of such campaigns is enormous with escalating inter-communal tensions and conflicts. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) Report, the crime statistics showed that a total of 378 communal riots took place across the country in 2021 alone. It means more than a riot a day!
PFI has already earned notoriety for its multiple involvements in Islamist assertations in the name of “fighting fascism and Hindutva,” on the one hand and “protecting minorities and Dalits,” on the other hand. The beguiling ‘secular’ slogans and appealing communal homilies were characteristic of its operation. Evidently, its recent involvements in several communally sensitive zones across the country had already attracted the attention of security agencies. Four months back, in a ‘Save the Republic’ rally organised by PFI and its political formation—Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI)—in Kerala, there was a boy, sitting on the shoulders of a campaigner, chanting provocative communal slogans against Hindu and Christian communities. The boy was heard shouting:
Keep puffed rice ready (used for Hindu cremations),
and keep incense ready (used for Christian burial) in their homes.
Kalan (God of death) will visit your home.
If you live respectfully, you can live in our place.
If not, we don’t know what will happen.
The boy was obviously trained to chant slogans, that too in a place like Alappuzha which witnessed some communal disturbances in the past. The video clip of the rally went viral on social media attracting a police case under the Indian Penal Code for hate speech.
A week before the official ban, there was a mass rally organised by PFI in Kozhikode, Kerala, where the All-India Imam’s Council state general secretary made a provocative statement saying that the Muslim community should be “ready to fight and lay down our lives against the Sangh Parivar who is the enemy of Islam and of the country.” The statement was condemned by Muslim religious leaders, who attacked Qasim saying that the imam indulged himself in misinterpreting the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Mohammad.
In less than a few days after the rally, nationwide raids were held in 15 states across the country with the National Investigation Agency (NIA), Enforcement Directorate (ED), and other agencies being involved in the operation (code-named ‘Operation Octopus’), which led to the arrest of hundreds of PFI workers. The crackdown continued with fresh arrests on Tuesday in the follow-up of the September 22 raids in a multi-agency operation led by the NIA against PFI for allegedly supporting terror activities in the country.
By Tuesday night (27 September), India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) through a Gazette notification banned PFI and its allied outfits [Rehab India Foundation (RIF), Campus Front of India (CFI), All India Imams Council (AIIC), National Confederation of Human Rights Organization, (NCHRO), National Women’s Front, Junior Front, Empower India Foundation and Rehab Foundation, Kerala] for five years for their alleged involvement in terror funding and links to global terror groups under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
The Union Government’s notification came after the second round of raids by central probe agencies on PFI functionaries across different states. The grounds for the ban are stated in the notification very clearly. PFI, which has its activities in over 17 states, has been characterized as one of the most potent radical Islamic outfits. Security agencies noted that the PFI encouraged its cadres to undertake actions that were harmful to the maintenance of peace and harmony between different religious groups, and disrupted the secular fabric of the country. The notification says that the outfit was “involved in several criminal and terror cases and shows sheer disrespect towards the constitutional authority of the country and with funds and ideological support from outside it has become a major threat to internal security of the country.” It further noted that “Criminal violent acts carried out by PFI include chopping-off limb of a college professor, cold blooded killings of persons associated with organisations espousing other faiths, obtaining explosives to target prominent people and places and destruction of public property.”
The notification also said that “there had been a number of instances of international linkages of PFI with Global Terrorist Groups and some activists of the PFI have joined Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and participated in terror activities in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these PFI cadres linked to ISIS have been killed in these conflict theaters and some have been arrested by State Police and Central Agencies and also the PFI has linkages with Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a proscribed terrorist organization, and the Office bearers and cadres of the PFI along with others are conspiring and raising funds from within India and abroad through the banking channels, and the hawala, donations, etc. as part of a well-crafted criminal conspiracy, and then transferring, layering and integrating these funds through multiple accounts to project them as legitimate and eventually using these funds to carry out various criminal, unlawful and terrorist activities in India.” It also pointed out that the State Governments of Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and Gujarat have recommended banning PFI.
Already hundreds of criminal cases were registered by police and NIA against cadres of PFI and its front organisations in different states. Some of these cases were also registered under the UAPA, the Explosive Substances Act, Arms Act, and other sections of IPC. In Kerala, there were a number of cases involving the PFI workers indulging in unlawful activities of violence, killing, military training, and drills. The investigation agencies also found illegal transactions which involved money from foreign countries. The hartal declared in Kerala by PFI on 23 September, following the nation-wide raids and arrests resulted in widespread violence and vandalism in many places. The investigating agencies also took note of this strategy resorted to by PFI.
The PFI emerged in Kerala as the renamed outfit of the National Development Front (NDF) in 2006. Later PFI merged itself with similar organizations in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Manipur. The PFI was also reported to have links with the banned Islamic organization, Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which emerged in the background of the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s.
Many such Islamist outfits sprouted in the years following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. They effectively used Islamic sentiments to mobilise money and muscle power. The Muslim youths—who were disgruntled with the promises of the secular parties, as well as the decay of the Muslim League as a power-seeking party—were the prime target of such militant outfits. The Gulf money also played an important role in strengthening the social base of the PFI. When its political wing, SDPI, was formed, all political parties were a bit afraid of its role in diverting the Muslim vote bank. This was evident in districts like Malappuram and other Muslim-dominant areas. Even as all major political parties pooh-poohed PFI’s potential in public, some of them also negotiated with them, in private, in many sensitive constituencies. Over the years, SDPI was able to secure some seats in local bodies and even shared administrative platforms with other parties. Their presence as a vote back thus strengthened PFI.
PFI earned notoriety in 2010 when T.J. Joseph, head of the department of Malayalam at Newman College in Thodupuzha (Kerala) was attacked for alleged blasphemy. The issue emerged when police registered a case against Joseph for “causing communal hatred” for an alleged reference to the Prophet, in a question paper for a graduate examination. He was later released but suspended from college fearing backlash. On another day, when Joseph was travelling with multiple trauma, a group of PFI men stopped his car, dragged him out, and chopped off his right hand at the wrist with an axe. This was flashed in national and international media, and the NIA later took over the case from the Kerala police given its manifold dimensions. It took another five years to reach its legal end, with 13 PFI activists being found guilty. PFI actually began to grow, from strength to strength, notwithstanding the setbacks in the Joseph case. This has surprised many, and SDPI’s ‘bargaining’ power in constituencies also became a subject of debate, over years.
Meanwhile, PFI has gained a supporting base in other states also. BJP’s ascendancy in Indian politics has been subtly used as a bargaining chip in its mobilization strategy among minorities and Dalits. Curiously, even as PFI employed vituperative communal attacks on others, it also maneuvered the Indian Constitution and its secular ethos to capture the public attention. Its pro-active role in the anti-CAA agitation naturally irked the BJP government.
Though PFI has been banned for five years, its political outfit, SDPI, has been spared for some reason. Perhaps its identity as a registered political party under the Representation of People’s Act, 1951 calls for other legal formalities in pursuance of declaring its disqualification. On 28 September, hours after the ban, PFI declared itself as a body being dissolved—with hundreds of its leaders and workers under custody and its offices across 15 states being sealed by the investigating agencies.
There may be voices of discontent for the ban in a democratic country like India. Their argument is that such organizations must be dealt with ideologically and democratically. Some would compare it with the RSS for its communal hatred and role in various conflicts. However, PFI’s ascriptive identity has an extra-territorial appeal and connectivity that goes beyond mere ‘Islamophobia.’ Such centrifugal forces have become a burden on the secular power of the minorities too. The security agencies are aware of the fact that many Islamist outfits in India and abroad have rebranded themselves following such setbacks. This obviously calls for extreme vigilance and constant surveillance.
The author, an ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.