How Did The 'Unlawful' Popular Front Of India Become So Popular?
BOOM spoke to historians, authors and political researchers to understand how the now banned PFI that was formed in Kerala became notorious and popular at the same time, over the years.
One of the reasons cited by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for banning the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its affiliated organisations was the killing of Hindutva activists in Karnataka.
The murder cases of Hindutva activists R. Rudresh (2016), Praveen Pujari (2016), Sharath Madiwala (2017) and Praveen Nettaru (2022), apart from six other murder cases from Kerala and Tamil Nadu — in all of which PFI has been accused — made the case for declaring it as an "unlawful association".
Fakhruddin Ali, a political analyst and researcher, said that Kerala is notorious for violent politics. "PFI became notorious because of its way of functioning. In Kerala, they have indulged in many violent activities, " he said.
The Hijab row in Karnataka had brought back the spotlight on the Islamist organisation that have long been related to attacks, killings and terrorist organisations.
Months later, following a series of raids in several states including Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi, and arrests of more than 170 cadres, the organisation has now been banned for five years in India as the centre accused it of "covertly working" to increase radicalization of one community by promoting a sense of insecurity in the country.
The organisation and its affiliates have been accused of fanning multiple controversial instances witnessed in the past few years. Some of the most recent controversies against PFI was that the outfit allegedly had backed the months-long anti-CAA protest, they have been accused of trigerring instances of 'Love Jihad' in South India, they have also been accused of playing a role in Sri Lanka's Easter bombings that killed 200 people.
However, rejecting the allegations, a member of PFI, on the condition of anonymity, told BOOM that the move is designed to "suppress the voices of Muslims who fight against the draconian policies and actions by the government over minorities".
"The RSS, BJP are terrorising the Muslims by denying them basic rights, spreading extreme hatred, openly discriminating, lynching and abusing them in the streets, bulldozing their tax-paying homes with wild justifications by keeping the country's judicial system as their puppet," he told BOOM.
The PFI, he said, has been democratising the Muslim youth by "making them aware of their constitutional rights, encouraging them to participate in the political process of the country and promoting education among the community."
BOOM spoke to historians, authors and political researchers to understand how the now banned Popular Front Of India that was formed in Kerala became notorious and popular at the same time, over the years.
What Is The PFI?
Started in 2007, the Popular Front Of India came to be through the merger of three organisations in southern India- the National Democratic Front in Kerala, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu.
Political commentators often use the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists as the key moment to explain the emergence of the PFI before making some vague references that PFI is the successor of the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Both statements are only partially accurate.
Author of 'Islamic Movements in India', Arndt Emmerich told BOOM that to understand the history of the PFI, one has to at least go back to the State of Emergency under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi between 1975 to 1977, which led to substantive disillusion among Muslim and other minority populations.
Emmerich, post-doctoral research fellow at the Max-Weber-Institute of Sociology of Heidelberg University in Germany, said that Muslim youth in particular struggled with how their own Islamic leaders within the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Ulama-led organisations responded to the democratic crisis. "Hence, the concrete idea of the PFI happened in Kerala in the late 1980s, and is correlated to the internal Muslim political debate on how to respond to the rise of authoritarian governance, the increasing fabrication of the Muslim scapegoat by mainstream political leaders as well as the re-emergence of Hindu nationalism, which culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid," Emmerich said.
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To understand PFI's growing appeal, the author said that it is important to look at the organisation's professional outlook and importance of an Islamic work ethic which originated in South India, and is shaped by IT-hubs like Bangalore and high literacy rates and educational standards in Kerala.
"This somewhat counters the image and religious authority of the traditional ulama of Lucknow or Delhi," he said. He said that the "modern and professional outlook" that is embodied by the PFI combined with Islamic notions of piety and prudence as well as human rights and empowerment discourses have become appealing for the disenfranchised Muslims and other marginalized communities.
Emmerich agreed that some PFI leaders were members of SIMI but he said that it is too "simplistic" to describe the organisation as a mere mirror image of it.
"The PFI have been influenced by the Dravidian movement and communist parties as well as from SIMI. SIMI and PFI coexisted for nearly ten years," he told BOOM in an email interview.
For a lot of SIMI activists, the PFI represented a distorted legacy of Maududi (Islamist ideologue and Muslim Philosopher), by having embarked on a 'parliamentarian route' and thereby departing from the Islamic principle of the Caliphate, the author said.
"Former SIMI members who joined the PFI in the early 1990s have admitted that they learned from 'past mistakes', conceding that SIMI's approach to politics, proclaiming an Islamic state on Indian soil and threatening to kill Hindus, was wrong and a result of youthful immaturity," he told BOOM.
What Is The Politics Of PFI?
The PFI has projected itself as an organisation that fights for the rights of minorities— Muslims, Dalits, and marginalised communities. Just like the Hindu right-wing groups such as the RSS, VHP, and Hindu Jagaran Vedike - the PFI has been involved in carrying out social and religious work among Muslims but has never fought elections.
Over the years, the organisation has frequently targeted the "anti-people policies" of successive governments - the Congress, the BJP, and the JD-S in Karnataka. However, often the mainstream parties have accused each other of working in tandem with the PFI to garner Muslim votes at the time of elections.
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There's no recorded list of PFI members thereby making it difficult for law enforcement to pin the crime on the organisation after arresting alleged members.
A political outfit named Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) evolved out of the PFI in 2009, with the aim of taking up the political issues of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalised communities.
Author Arndt Emmerich told BOOM that in its current manifestation, PFI has tried to build political alliances with Dalits and other non-Muslim minorities, but has had limited success.
"Many Dalits and lower caste Hindus have started supporting the BJP and are put off by PFI's promotion of a conservative Islam and gender segregation at public events, which equally confused and agitated middle class Muslims and liberal Islamic groups," he said.
The Controversies Surrounding PFI
The NIA as early as 2017 had called for a ban on PFI. By then, the organisation been accused of activities like summuggling gold, pushing young Muslims into terrorists groups like ISIS and killing of some rival leaders. In 2010, PFI activists had chopped the wrist of TJ Joseph, a professor in Thodupuzha, on charges of blasphemy. The act was called a "Taliban-style" assault. The organisation has repeatedly condemned the act and distanced itself from the accused members.
Historian MGS Narayanan, in an earlier interview with Open magazine, said that the "indoctrination of Muslim youths in Kerala follows a pattern". Describing Kerala a "recruiting ground for Islamist groups", he said that it is an "odd phenomenon" for a state that is India's most literate and where Muslims are socially, financially and politically much better off than members of the community in other states.
The historian said that the PFI had given "direction to Muslims for idea of an Islamist country".
Talking about PFI's support base in Kerala, Fakhruddin Ali, Assistant Professor at Kerala University, said that the "educated, elite" Muslims are against the idea of the organisation. "Muslims in Kerala are generally apprehensive about the PFI," he told BOOM.
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He said that the large support for the PFI comes from the Southern part of Kerala as the region does not have a political representation while Muslims from the northern part have some political representation in the form of the Muslim League – a recognised state party. "Without any political representation, the Southern part of the state falls prey to the propaganda of the PFI," he added.
"PFI mostly attracts Muslims from the southern part of Kerbela and most of them are from below-average, lower-middle-class sections. The middle class and elite Muslims see them as spoilers. They are actually trying to portray themselves as the guardians and protectors of Muslims from the wrath of RSS," said Ali.
Why Was PFI Banned?
The Home Ministry said PFI operated "openly as a socio-economic, educational and political organisation but they have been pursuing a secret agenda to radicalize a particular section of the society".
"PFI has shown sheer disrespect towards the country's constitutional authority and has become a major threat to the internal security of the country," the Home Ministry said while declaring the organization as "unlawful" under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
However, Dr Ajay Gudavarthy, senior political expert and associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, told BOOM that banning PFI can be the "only thing the government can do mute the Muslim voices".
"They (BJP) have failed on all fronts and the Kashmir issue is also exhausted. So, the next target is PFI. The government wants only one image of the Muslim - unthinkng and aggressive. Any other voice disturbs the image of Muslims that they (BJP) wish to create. So the PFI falls into that reluctance of the popular body," he said.
Gudavarthy said that the support for PFI is missing because of the organisation's underlying sectarianism. "As long as there is a sense of sectarian logic within secular outfits, BJP will continue to play one against the other," the JNU professor added.
The NIA probe revealed that the PFI and its cadres have repeatedly engaged in violent and subversive acts including chopping the limbs of a college professor and cold-blooded killings of those associated with organisations espousing other faiths, the MHA dossier said.
The Home Ministry said that PFI's activities are "militant and anti-national while having the potential of disturbing public peace and communal harmony".
Author Arndt Emmerich said that the allegations against the PFI have been the same for a decade now. "Accusations that the PFI is a terrorist organisation, that they allegedly collected money via hawala routes for subversive activities, instigated "love jihad", hid weapons in secret locations, and operated hospitals and schools where youth are being radicalised existed even in 2011."
He said that the NIA reports from back then is almost identical to that of the 2022 NIA report that was used to arrest PFI leaders and members across several Indian states last week.
The earlier NIA reports from 2010, 2011 and 2012 said the PFI was an "immediate threat" to India's national security. However, as Emmerich pointed out these reports were dismissed not leading to any action against the organisation. "What has changed in India that in 2011 these reports were dismissed while in 2022 these almost identical charges, which remain largely unsubstantiated, lead to the action against the PFI?" he asked.
Apoorvanand, a senior political expert, told BOOM that the argument by the government against the organisation is that they were trying to create unrest and wanted to turn India into an Islamic country. But, he said, that Hindu right wing groups have propagated the idea of 'Hindu Rashtra' too, one that is unconstitutional.
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The political expert said that the aim of the PFI, from the books of the NIA, is not really convincing. "The government has not been able to come up with any credible claim," he said.
Seconding Gudavarthy, he said that the current government has to keep garnering votes with threats of "Hindus are in danger". So, banning the PFI, he said, is a way for the government to keep the pan boiling.
Muslims had seen that mainstream political parties are very reluctant to talk about their issues, the political expert said. "They don't utter even the word Muslims," he said, explaining why the PFI became popular among the masses.
"This gives PFI popularity," he said, adding that the organisation's popularity grew because other political parties have deserted Muslims or don't want them to be vocal. "And now they banned that only organisation that were talking about Muslim rights," the political expert said.
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