Cover Story

Marching for Jihad

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The rise and rage of Popular Front of India

ONE NIGHT, SOME MONTHS ago in Kannur, northern Kerala, a group of assailants pounced on a local leader of the BJP, Sushil Kumar, attacking him with a sharp blade. It was like a surgical knife, and though Kumar was seriously injured, he survived. He lost no time in blaming the rival CPM for this attempt on his life—and even claimed that he knew some of his attackers. The initial probe led to a battalion of pro-Marxist hired guns he had ‘identified’. After a round of interrogation, the police decided that Kumar could be wrong about the masked men who stabbed him. Surgical knives had been used against a Muslim League worker in the district some time earlier, prompting them to examine the link between the two acts of crime. Weeks of investigation led to the arrests of workers of the Campus Front, a feeder outfit of the Popular Front of India (PFI), which the National Investigation Agency (NIA) wants banned after having conducted a thorough inquiry into multiple acts of terror. The NIA sent its report to the Ministry of Home Affairs early last month.

PFI chairman E Abubacker tells Open that he has written to the NIA chief and several others in the Union Government justifying the activities of his organisation that he proclaims as legal. A vilification campaign is being run against the PFI, he alleges, adding that this is par for the course in this post-truth age where Islamophobia has acquired global legitimacy. “Rule by proxy by the RSS should end. The police and agencies are getting increasingly communalised, and any move to villainise us stems from that motive. We are not a radicalised group,” he says, emphasising that allegations need to be substantiated with proof. Abubacker, who is also the founder president of Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), PFI’s political arm which made a mark in a recent Kerala bypoll, says he has approached the Press Council of India to complain against the peddling of falsehoods against the outfit. “We have no idea and we don’t think there will be a ban on us,” he says of the NIA’s recommendation to proscribe the PFI.

Founded in 2006 through a merger of hardline Islamic organisations such as the National Development Front, Karnataka Forum for Dignity and Manitha Neethi Pasarai of Tamil Nadu, the PFI also brought into its fold Goa’s Citizen’s Forum, Community Social and Educational Society of Rajasthan, Nagarik Adhikar Suraksha Samiti of West Bengal, Manipur’s Lilong Social Forum and Association of Social Justice of Andhra Pradesh over the next few years. At the same time, the organisation earned itself notoriety for what federal agencies call fomenting communal hatred and terrorism. According to these agencies, the organisation wields influence among Muslims in 23 states and many more cities, and in the process has spread its ‘tentacles’ at a fast clip in the past decade. Ever since former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in 2012 that Kerala—along with Jammu & Kashmir, Assam and a few other states—had seen a spurt in religious extremism, the PFI had been on the Centre’s radar, especially over allegedly masterminding a 2012 hate campaign against Northeastern students who fled home from boomtowns such as Bangalore, Pune and others in the face of online rumours of retaliation against them over attacks on Muslims in Assam. The PFI had denied any wrongdoing. Abubacker says that PFI (and its predecessor NDF) had always had to face such charges, beginning with a news report that Rs 336 crore had landed in NDF coffers some years ago. “Frankly, I didn’t get a single penny from that,” he says with a guffaw.

With the NDF having transformed itself from an obscure entity in North Malabar that it was in 1993 to the PFI it is now, its presence spanning the country through numerous feeder units, the NIA has zoomed in on its activities to arrive at the conclusion that it needs to be banned. Ironically, the CPM, which has been at the receiving end of PFI’s violent ways, has opposed the proposal of its ban. In a high-profile murder case of a PFI activist, Mohammed Fasal, the organisation was in a hurry to implicate the CPM, despite an apparent disclosure by an RSS worker, Subeesh, who was arrested in the murder of CPM activist Mohanan last year, that he, along with a few other RSS workers, had killed Fazal in 2006 in the Thalasseri area of Kannur to exact revenge over previous clashes.

While federal agencies have unearthed illegal activities of the PFI across states, including in Jharkhand where the outfit seems to be gaining strength in the name of resisting acts of aggression by the Hindu loony fringe and the Sangh, several police officers in Kerala say that a large proportion of those who left the state to join the ISIS in Syria and Afghanistan are members of the PFI. According to a senior intelligence officer, at least 100 people left Kerala to join ISIS—and the figure includes families that are currently in the Middle East, and those killed in anti-ISIS strikes. “Many of them made it to ISIS camps via Malaysia and Bahrain,” says this officer, reeling out the names of PFI activists, including Shameer and Manaf who were killed while they were there. The PFI maintains that the two had snapped ties with the organisation before they left the country. Abubacker also contends that the PFI was one of the first to decry ISIS as anti-Islamic and Abu•• Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Caliph claim as unIslamic.

The list of crimes attributed to the PFI include possession of arms, forced conversions, ‘love jihad’, murder, kidnapping, hate campaigns and rioting. For its part, the NIA has probed several cases—including a 2010 conspiracy that resulted in the chopping off of the right hand of Kerala professor TJ Joseph for placing in a Malayalam exam a controversial question seen as an insult to Prophet Muhammad. According to police sources, all the 40-plus accused in the case—which also involved hurling of bombs at people who tried to protect the professor—are either workers of the PFI or its political outfit SDPI, which has emerged in the third slot in Kerala’s recent bypoll for the Vengara Assembly seat .

The PFI, which is spreading wider across the country while making deep inroads within states it already had a presence, was in the news in 2013 for organising an arms training camp at Narath, Kannur. A police officer who has investigated the case in the district tells Open that PFI trained some Muslim youths to make explosives and handle swords and other weapons. Some leaders also made inflammatory speeches to incite believers against other religious communities. An NIA court has sentenced most of the accused in the case to varying jail terms.

Dwelling at length on the radicalisation that is rampant among Muslims in various parts of the country, Islamic scholar Mohiyuddin Nadukkandiyil Karassery, popularly known as MN Karassery, accuses the Jamaat-e-Islami for providing the “theoretical base” for the rise of Islamism. The Jamaat-e-Islami, he says, did this by masquerading as a social organisation and co-opting Leftist intellectuals to champion their thoughts in the garb of fighting “imperialist forces”. Hameed Chennamangalur, a critic of Muslim identity politics, tells Open in an interview that outfits such as the PFI have invaded the intellectual space through the use of media and “sheer cunning”. While “jealousy” among others of the growing affluence of Muslims in south India cannot be ruled out as a cause for anti-Islamic sentiments, many scholars, including Karassery, argue that the Jamaat-e-Islami has radicalised Muslim youths through the teachings of Abul A’la Maududi and Hassan al-Banna, “who are divisive and purveyors of monotheism and the Muslim nation theory”. The PFI is said to have tapped such opportunities to gain an edge against other Muslim organisations. It also ran loud ‘Islam in danger’ campaigns following the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and later when the 9/11 attacks in the US altered the rules of global engagement.

Leftists have often argued that it is the anti-Muslim propaganda of the hardline right-wing organisations such as the RSS and others that led to the radicalisation of Muslims in various parts of India. They also say that the alienation of Muslims from mainstream society was set in motion by the Ramjanmabhoomi movement led by LK Advani and the resultant demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya on December 6th, 1992. Paradoxically, the CPM and other Leftists have earned the wrath of Karassery and others who accuse them of not treating all communal elements alike, and take them to task for their silence following the killing of Islamic Chekannur Maulavi allegedly by Islamic fundamentalists for his contrarian interpretation of the Qur’an.

In the early days of the NDF’s formation, an apocryphal story has it that Abdul Nazer Mahdani, a controversial Muslim leader from Kerala, had visited a health club in a densely Muslim populated area of Kannur and told his audience to wait and see what would happen to those who advocate namaaz three instead of five times a day. Chekannur Maulavi had said that Muslims needn’t perform prayers five times a day and that thrice was enough. Shortly, the Maulavi disappeared. Stories did the rounds of teenagers stealthily sneaking out of homes to erect banners in public places and drop NDF pamphlets outside Muslim homes in the dead of the night. “As of now, even the RSS is scared of the PFI because of the ferocious nature of the organisation. Hindutva activists know only too well that taking them on is like playing with fire. This is especially so after the killing of RSS activist Rudresh R last year in Bangalore and Sharath Madiwala in Mangalore this year,” says a senior intelligence officer who has closely watched PFI’s activities. A police officer from Kannur says that the NDF, PFI’s earlier avatar, also believed in “an eye for an eye” logic and killed an RSS activist, Ashwini Kumar, in Kannur because it suspected Kumar of being behind the murder of one of its cadres, Muhammad.

That the organisation plays on Muslim pride is clear from the support it gets. Abdul, a Chennai-based trader, says that the PFI protects Muslim interests. “Earlier, Sangh workers used to harass Muslim traders. I assume this is true of a larger part of the country. But as of now, wherever PFI is active, such efforts to corner Muslims and browbeat them have come down because these Hindutva outfits are scared of the extent to which the organisation will go to protect Muslim interests under threat from others.” He does not disclose his full name, but adds that he doesn’t know about other PFI projects or whether it is associated with ISIS.

Abubacker tells Open in an interview that ISIS is similar to the RSS and not the PFI. “We have meticulously campaigned against ISIS, which is waging a war against Muslims themselves. Also, we would never do anything that hurts India’s national interests,” says the PFI chairman, alleging that ISIS is a creation of Israel and the US. He also says it is unthinkable that the PFI would recruit any Muslim to die for an organisation as dreaded as ISIS. He denies that the PFI receives any ‘external help’ to solve domestic problems, including harassment at the hands of those who profess to champion Hindu rights. The PFI has initiated a campaign called ‘We Also Have Something to Say’ in the face of reports suggesting a ban would be imposed on it.

For now, with the NIA putting its foot down, the killing of Rudresh and cases that include forced conversions and ‘love jihad’ are in focus. Rudresh was killed in broad daylight on a busy street, and the arrest of one Khaleelullah, a PFI activist, seems to have offered new clues to the outfit’s bid to trigger communal clashes in parts of Karnataka. Federal and state agencies in southern states say they have also uncovered various plans of the PFI to collude with external terror outfits such as ISIS to attack targets in India to spur religious hostilities. Various former PFI/SDPI members and sympathisers are found to be recruiters of the ISIS in south India, according to intelligence agencies that Open spoke to. According to a Times of India report from Kozhikode on October 25th, 2016, Shajeer Managalasseri Abdulla, who was a regular at a Facebook group titled SDPI Keralam, “formed by party cadres and sympathisers”, turned out to be a key recruiter for the ISIS through the Telegram app. Says a senior police officer based in Kannur: “It is not unusual that once you are abreast of global events, especially in the world of Islam, through the PFI/SDPI circuit, you get disillusioned with them after a while, arguing that they aren’t Islamic enough, and then shift loyalties to more radicalised outfits. In that sense, PFI is often a launch pad for potential terrorists who wage war against the world in the name of Islam.”

Abubacker is of the view that the PFI can’t be accused of what its former members do. However, agencies argue that its involvement in radicalising the youth and driving a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims cannot be swept under the carpet in the name of secularism. “PFI activists often are highly indoctrinated and their stark display of religious pride in densely Muslim populated areas in some parts of south India tends to alienate people of other communities, including Ahmadiyas and non-Sunnis,” notes a Mangalore-based police officer. “Such posturing could be deliberate—to create a chasm between communities. Essentially, that is the aim of all fundamentalist outfits,” he says, drawing out a reason why so many PFI cadres are charge-sheeted or convicted under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. He mentions the Islamic State Al-Hindi module case, in which attacks were plotted in south India, as the most vicious of all.

ZEENAT SHAUKAT ALI, who has taught Islamic History at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College and had made statements such as “Islam is living in the world of medievalism”, has no doubt that activities such as those reportedly of the PFI have to be “condemned and uprooted”. She cannot condone violence in the name of Islam and states that a section of Muslims themselves are to be held responsible for attracting a bad name for Islam. In times when fundamentalists prevail, history shows that moderates and the spiritually inclined are forced to the sidelines.

Meanwhile, there are those who are sceptical of the efficacy of bans on extremist organisations because they can easily regroup. Vikram Sood, former head of India’s external intelligence agency RAW, feels that a ban is often not the best policy when it comes to reining in outfits that create communal trouble. “One has to get to them,” he says, suggesting that uncovering their activities is a smarter way to curb terror. This logic stems from the fact that banned organisations have a knack for regrouping under another name.

Human rights groups have also expressed concern about what they call knee-jerk bans on organisations under political pressure. A case in point is the ban on Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). As reported by Open earlier (‘The Truth About SIMI’, November 18th, 2016), when an Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) tribunal extended the ban on it for the seventh time in 2014—for five years this time as opposed to two years earlier—the Centre had reported in a ‘background note’ that until 2012, 97 of 111 cases against SIMI members had been quashed by courts. Activists of groups like the People’s Union for Democratic Rights have highlighted the surge in such acquittals to argue that the ban on SIMI is a travesty of justice, and have criticised various reviews that upheld the ban for not taking into account the lack of evidence and judicial rejection of police cases.

However, in PFI’s case, though the CPM has opposed a ban on the ground that it would achieve little, Kerala Home Ministry officials and senior police officers who have handled cases related to the PFI (and NDF earlier) are of the view that the organisation has a consistent record of trying to turn young Muslims hostile towards followers of other religions. “They hold classes even for teenagers who are wooed with everything from chocolates to ice- cream and young adults with bikes and mobile phones and other inducements. This requires urgent attention because everything taught there is to hate a majority of Indians,” says a police officer based in Mangalore. He adds that young people are taught to eschew friendship with people of other faiths. “They also insist that carpenters, electricians and others who have to work by entering private rooms must choose homes of customers who belong to Islam. There is massive ghettoisation in the offing, thanks to all this.”

The NIA dossier, which is being reviewed closely by the Home Ministry but is dismissed by the PFI as ‘politically motivated’, has outlined activities of the organisation that it says are aimed at enforcing the Taliban brand of Islam and has on its rolls a large number of volunteers across the country. Over the past several months, the NIA has also drawn attention to cases of ‘forced conversions’, citing the case of Akhila/Hadiya (read ‘Between Love and Jihad in Kerala’, September 26th, 2017) to drive home its charges against the PFI, which is alleged to be using feeder units such as Sathya Sarani in Malappuram district of Kerala for the cause of ‘love jihad’. In his interview with Open, the PFI chief denies these charges, saying an adult has the right to choose her faith and her partner. However, a few police officers that Open spoke to say reports of the ‘brainwashing of young women’ by Muslim women linked to the PFI were confirmed by a probe done by Kerala’s police department now handled by CPM Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself.

The NIA has also mentioned ISIS recruitment in Chennai and PFI’s links with it. “Inputs from states where PFI is active have been very helpful and that includes details of raids ... The police had in some cases got hold of CDs from PFI members of Westerners being tortured by Islamists. Probably, such CDs are used to train young people in India,” says a senior government official based in Delhi. A section of the CPM has always favoured strong action against the PFI and its earlier avatar, NDF. “We in Kerala face a lot of problems from PFI, which is trying to lead young Muslims astray. This is going to result in Islamophobia rising in the country and that is the aim of organisations like these. They have to be called out for what they are,” says a senior CPM leader. The PFI, on its part, has accused the CPM of playing the ‘soft Hindutva’ card to retain its vote base, which mostly comprises Hindus, in the state.

Amid claims and counter-claims, with the PFI’s clout spreading far beyond Kerala and disillusioned Muslims being attracted to it across India, it looks like only a matter of time before the Centre cracks the whip.