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The PFI journey: From trying to build social acceptance to getting banned

The organisation has had a steady growth in Kerala

A security person keeps vigil outside the Popular Front of India office in Navi Mumbai | PTI A security person keeps vigil outside the Popular Front of India office in Navi Mumbai | PTI

In the late 1980s, K.T. Mammu, a copra businessman from Vadakara in the Kozhikode district of Kerala, started an organisation named Muslim Cultural Centre as a "defensive move" against intimidation from the late A. Kanaran, a CPI(M) strongman from Nadapuram.

Kanaran, who hailed from the Hindu Thiyya community, was a leader who redefined the CPI(M)’s character in the Vadakara-Nadapuram region with aggressive Thiyyanism. This resulted in sporadic clashes between cadres of the Muslim League and CPI(M)—a fight that eventually earned a communal colour. 

"Kanaran tried to whip up communal passion among Thiyya (Hindus) against the Muslims who became financially stronger in the region because of Gulf migration and land reforms," says M.C. Vatakara, writer and IUML leader. "Mammu was not a person of political wisdom, but he used to advocate that Muslims should be prepared against communal intimidations. And, he founded this organisation which used to train certain defensive techniques [to Muslim Youth]."

Mammu’s MCC was centred around kalaris (training centres for the martial art form, Kalaripayatt). He took the help of certain personalities associated with the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI)—which came into existence originally as the student wing of Jamaat-i-Islami and was banned in 2001, immediately after the September 11 attack on the United States—to run the centre. 

NDF and its offshoot PFI

These personalities—E. Abubacker, P. Koya and E.M. Abdurahiman who were all former office-bearers of SIMI—would later form the core team of the National Development Front (NDF), an organisation that was formed on November 14, 1993, inspired by Islamist reactionary movements that emerged in different places in India because of the Mandir-Masjid dispute. Last November, during the release of his autobiography Sisira Sandhyakal Greeshma Madyahnangal, Abubacker—who was the founder chairman of both the NDF and its offshoot PFI—called MCC as the 'prototype' for the NDF, and cited the communal scuffles in Vadakara and Nadapuram as one of the main reasons behind the formation of the organisation in 1993. 

Thirteen years later, NDF, along with two similar outfits that emerged in the post-Babri Masjid period—Karnataka Forum for Dignity of Karnataka and Manitha Neethi Pasari from Tamil Nadu—would form the Popular Front of India. 

"Though some of its tall leaders came from SIMI, PFI cannot be called a continuation of SIMI," says P. Abdul Hameed, Kerala state vice-president of the Social Democratic Party of India—the political outfit floated by PFI. "NDF has had people from Salafi background, Jamaat-i-Islami Hind and Muslim League. NDF and Popular Front, from their beginning, were vocal about the Sangh Parivar threat. It aimed to awaken people to defend against this threat. Now we see that the Indian republic and Constitution are in threat; we are fast losing secularism and diversity. The NDF and Popular Front had been saying this for the last thirty years," he adds.

Before facing the ban on the organisation, P.V. Shuhaib, who had been a national committee member of Campus Front of India—the student’s wing of PFI which got banned along with its parent organisation on September 28—told THE WEEK that the PFI stood for "equal justice for all" in India, and it was open to all downtrodden sections in the country. "We, of course, asserted our Muslim identity. But ours was not a sectarian organisation, but a movement for all those who were facing inequality in the country," he said. 

Social critic and writer Hameed Chennamangulur, however, observes that the NDF and the PFI projected a liberal, progressive face to hide their extremist agenda. 

“They exploited the sense of insecurity created in the Muslim community by events that followed the Babri Masjid demolition to build its supporter base," he said. "The PFI would claim that it is working for downtrodden and marginalised, but Islamism is their actual ideology. But, they won’t say it aloud. Islamist organisations are working in different parts of the world under different names. They have an interpretation of Islam. But, all Muslims do not adhere to their interpretation. They are following the ideas of Islamist theorists like Moulana Abul A’la Maududi who founded the Jamaat-i-Islami and Sayyid Qutb who is the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. They do not believe in democracy, where the sovereignty rests with the people; they call it unIslamic. Their real aim is to bring a rule of law, according to Islam of their interpretation, in every part of the world."

In the late 1980s, a controversial Islamic cleric Abdul Nazar Mahdani was the tallest one in Kerala among the radical Islamist leaders. In 1989, he formed the Islamic Seva Sangh to "counter the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh." "ISS was an aggressive organisation that gives arms training to its cadres," says Chennamangulur. "But in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition, ISS was banned by the government, and the NDF gained a foothold in Kerala using the gap created by the ban on ISS." Instead of Mahdani’s individual-centric style of leadership, the organisation introduced a "shura (collective leadership)" to run its affairs. And, it has built a hierarchical structure of leadership.

Since its formative years, NDF figured frequently in political and communal killings in the state. The Thomas P. Joseph Commission which investigated the 2002 Marad Massacre—which was started over a trivial scuffle over drinking water at a public tap and resulted in five deaths—found that it was actively involved in the violence and called it a "fundamentalist/terrorist outfit… funded by foreign elements." However, its leadership ingeniously built a soft and sophisticated front face of academics, scholars and professionals for the organisation. They also tried to gain the validation of rights activists and organisations working for backward sections. In May 1997, they organised a conference on human rights, which decided to form an umbrella body of various human rights and civil liberties organisations. Thus formed the Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (CHRO), with veteran activist K. Panur—who worked for Adivasis of Wayanad—as the founding chairman and journalist Mukundan C. Menon as the first general secretary. P. Koya, the top ideologue of NDF and PFI, pioneered the concept of CHRO along with Menon. In the early days, the organisation’s activities were restricted to Kerala. However, in 2007—after the formation of PFI—CHRO also became national. NCHRO was also banned on September 28 as a front organisation of PFI.

The path towards 'acceptance'

The PFI leaders played crucial roles in building several such NGOs, trusts and socio-cultural organisations in the last 15 years. Political observers say that these organisations were used by PFI to gain more acceptance in the community. PFI maintained that all these organisations are independent entities. Many of these front organisations also have been banned now. Their non-profit charity, Rehab India Foundation, claimed to have worked in poverty reduction and educational segment; their think tank Empower India Foundation's flagship project was ‘India 2047’, which envisaged "ameliorating the current socio-political-economic-cultural-educational status of Muslim community in India by 2047." 

PFI leaders P. Koya and E.M. Abdul Rahiman have been trustee members of the organisation. All India Imams Council, their organisation for religious scholars, Imams and madrasa teachers was floated in 2013. In 2009, The year 2019, the PFI launched its political outfit Social Democratic Party of India—with Abubacker as the founder president—its student organisation Campus Front of India and its women’s organisation National Women’s Front. Both CFI and NWF are banned now. Darul Khuda, another organisation they set up in 2009, allegedly acted as a "parallel judiciary" settling family problems, land and property disputes and other grievances under ‘Shariah’ at certain pockets. 

Satya Sarini charitable trust, a missionary centre supported by the PFI, imparted religious lessons to persons who convert to Islam from other religions. The centre was in the eye of controversy when the Hadiya religious conversion case of 2017-2018—in which PFI defended the allegations that it is catering “forced” conversions—became a talking point.

'SDPI, a separate entity'

Ashraf Moulavi, state president of SDPI, maintains that the SDPI has a different ideology and existence than PFI. "SDPI does not have an organisational structure or system that is adhered to any particular religion," he said. “SDPI and PFI had separate funding sources. We have some workers who have been part of PFI. Otherwise, there is no relation. But a lot of people do not wish to see this difference. For instance, Popular Front called for a Hartal in Kerala on September 23 to protest against the arrest of its leaders. SDPI was not at all involved in the planning or organisation of the hartal. So, these are two entities. If you observe it properly, you will understand.” 

Moulavi adds that because SDPI and PFI are two separate entities, the ban against PFI will not affect the SDPI. SDPI is a party registered with the Election Commission, however, without the Union government initiating actions, EC won’t be able to make any major steps against SDPI.

T.P. Senkumar, former DGP of Kerala, points out that the initial constitution approved by the PFI had stated that it will be open only to practising Muslims. “So, when they created SDPI, they placed some non-Muslim leaders—mostly from scheduled caste/scheduled tribe communities—as office-bearers. This was done to give a ‘secular’ face to SDPI. But the control of SDPI was always with the PFI. Later the PFI also changed their constitution and projected it as a ‘secular’ organisation.”

If NDF was primarily a phenomenon in northern Kerala, PFI-SDPI had built a pan-Kerala presence in the last 15 years. Writer and Muslim theologian M. Luqman points out that PFI leaders have been misquoting Quran and Hadees to their whims and fancies for spreading their propaganda. "It followed a model employed by theologically-deviated organisations that propagates the ideas of Muhammad ibn Abd-al Wahhab (founder of the Wahhabi movement), Sayyid Qutb and Maududi,” he said. “The PFI treated those Muslims who do not adhere to their ideology as enemies; they used to call them ‘Sanghis’ or ‘cowards’. They claimed that they were the real Muslims, and called those who oppose them as spineless ones.” Luqman himself had faced cyber attacks from PFI cadres for opposing their ideology via his writings.

In the formative years, NDF—which projected itself as a socio-cultural outfit—had attracted many youths from Indian Union Muslim League. Many IUML members had kept a membership in NDF also in the early years. “We have to consider the Muslim psyche here,” says Muslim Youth League Kerala state president K.M. Shaji. “The Muslim psyche is a minority psyche here. The minority psyche is insecure in every part of the world. Terror outfits are taking advantage of this insecurity everywhere. The PFI used the insecurity of the Muslim psyche here. The IUML’s defence against it was…we kept saying that the best thing [for the Muslims] to do is to stay close to the “we” feeling of India. That was a challenging thing to do, but we did it. Also, it is not just the IUML cadres that PFI attracted. Especially in places like Kannur where an ‘eye for an eye' became the norm… it is Muslims who were earlier associated with CPI(M) who had gone to PFI and SDPI. Every organisation is facing a challenge from these outfits. All these things that came to light about PFI now…we have been talking about these things for the last 20-25 years. I am living under police protection for the last 16 years because I was vocal against PFI.”

The crucial turn

It was in the late 2000s that the IUML and other Muslim organisations openly started coming up with measures to isolate the NDF and PFI. A crucial incident that led to this was when the PFI activists chopped off the right hand of professor T.J. Joseph on July 4, 2010, accusing him of blasphemy. Joseph told THE WEEK that he does not want to comment on the arrests of PFI leaders. "It won't be a good idea to comment when they are already in a provoked state," he said. After the brutal attack on Joseph, IUML had organised a meeting of over half a dozen Muslim organisations in Malappuram, dropping PFI and Jamaat-i-Islami citing that they had damaged the image of the community. The then IUML secretary Kutty Ahmedkutty had even announced that the IUML and other like-minded organisations would campaign against Jamaat and PFI if required. However, the league or any other organisation could not sustain the campaign and PFI continued its growth even after the horrific incident. “It is only the places where they are weak PFI follow the liberal outlook,” says Senkumar. “If you got to Erattupetta (a stronghold of the organisation in Kottayam district) you won’t get that feeling. There you would experience their rule. In 2009, the Union home minister wrote a letter saying that there are certain pockets in Kerala where the police do not have any access and that it should not be allowed. So, the governments knew that they are developing such Sharia-ruled pockets. There are hundreds of such pockets in Kerala now. Even for the government forces, it is not easy to enter such areas.”

Ban, a solution?

On December 4, 2019, the home ministry sought information from all states about cases registered against PFI activists from November 2016 to November 2019. The maximum number of cases registered against PFI activists was in Kerala. In those three years, the maximum number of cases (104) was registered in Kerala. This was primarily for stoking communal tension, violent clashes, attempts to murder, provocative sloganeering, possession of arms, illegal assembly and sedition. The PFI activists were allegedly involved in at least five murder cases—including the murder of a Dalit SFI activist Abhimanyu—in the same period. Abhimanyu was murdered on July 1, 2018, over a mural against communalism. The official statement CPI(M) termed the murder a “Taliban Model” and said it would carry out an extensive campaign against PFI and its allied organisations. A few months before Abhimanyu's murder, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiran Rijiju reportedly said that Kerala had asked for a ban on PFI. However, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan had denied the reports that his government had asked for a ban. "It is not the Kerala government’s duty to ban any communal outfit... The threats that such communal and terrorist organisations pose and their ideology cannot be obliterated through a ban,” Vijayan told the media then. The CPI(M)’s official stance on the current ban is also on the same lines. The CPI(M) politburo released the statement that though PFI is an extremist organisation, a ban would not be a solution. “Bans have not worked in the past. The same people can work with a different name in a different organisation,” CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury told the media. 

The history of SIMI, NDF and PFI suggests that it is a view that should be given some weightage. In May 2012, a special tribunal headed by Justice V.K. Shali—that was formed after the union government extended the ban on SIMI for two more years on February 3, 2012—held a hearing at Thycaud guest house in Kerala. State Internal Security IG S. Anathakrishnan represented the state in the meeting. In a report that was submitted to the tribunal, the state government had stated that SIMI’s presence was found in multiple cases in the investigation conducted in the aftermath of the 2010 Muvattupuzha hand chopping case—when a Kerala professor, T.J. Joseph’s right palm was chopped by PFI activists. A crucial point the state government presented in front of the tribunal while requesting to extend the ban on SIMI was that many extremists who were associated with SIMI have been continuing their work via many authorised organisations and they have even penetrated mainstream political parties.

Political observers cite that a lenient attitude shown towards these extremist elements by the successive governments in Kerala catered for their transition from one form to another. According to political observer N.M. Pearson, the ban on PFI is less likely to be implemented aggressively even now in Kerala. "Mainstream parties in Kerala have been using organisations like PFI for their political gains,” said Shaji. This is something that had made a big hole in the defence against these extremist organisations. If the mainstream parties are ready to isolate these fringe elements, they will be forced to leave their ways. But unfortunately, this has not been happening."

A fertile ground

Following the NIA raids and arrests of PFI leaders, the leaders of CPI(M) and the Muslim League engaged in a blame game for catering to the PFI’s growth in the state. LDF convenor E.P. Jayarajan accused the IUML of supporting the PFI, veteran IUML legislator P.K. Kunhalikutty hit back saying “the CPI(M) joined with the SDPI to finish us, and now they are holding us responsible for its growth.” Notably, the SDPI improved its performance in local body elections by ten times in the last decade. In the 2010 local body elections, the party had just 11 members. Currently, it has 103 members in the local bodies in Kerala. These include 81 grama panchayat members, 20 municipality members, one corporation member and one block panchayat member. It has helped both LDF and UDF to gain power in many local bodies. 

Over the years, the PFI build its money power also. The NIA estimates that it received over Rs120 crore as foreign funds. "These sort of organisations have financial motives at their core. They have been using financial help from outside," says Shaji. "The growth of these terror outfits shows the failure of the government to block these flow routes of money. And, this is a problem that just stops with PFI. Many other organisations are receiving foreign funds."

Adv Adeeb Salah, a political observer, says that the PFI leaders, who were all professionals, have had a saintly image in front of their cadres—which is mainly drawn from the poorer section of Muslims. "The cadres never get a glimpse of this huge money coming to the organisation," he says. It is believed that the organisation earned a big part of its donations from abroad in the name of social welfare activities and zakat (religious donations). Salah points out that the PFI tried to portray themselves as the “protectors” of poor Muslims. "They used to run a propaganda in Kerala that they are the only force to fight RSS in north India," he says. "In certain high-profile cases, they could manage to get their people out of jail. Showing this, they created an image that they can protect anybody which is a bluff. They also spread propaganda about their so-called ‘charity works’ in north India." 

The observer adds that the BJP and the RSS will use the current ban to gain more strength among Hindu sections. “Interestingly, the PFI cadres also have started using the ban for their propaganda purpose,” he says. “They are presenting this ban as an emotional moment in front of ordinary Muslims; they say that they got banned because they fought strongly against RSS. Once all this hullabaloo ends, they would surely bounce back to the game with another name.” 

After the raid and arrests of top leaders of PFI on September 22, one of the earliest social media posts of the son-in-law of PFI Kerala state president C.P. Muhammad Basheer said: “Those who had left PFI are now requesting to accept them back to the fold. It is in the struggles that one would realise his iman (faith),” wrote the son-in-law of PFI state president Muhammad Basheer, on his Facebook page. In another post, he added: “On this occasion, we have just one thing to say to Sangh Parivar. We do not need PFI itself to continue our work.” 

Abubacker’s daughter Leena Thabassum, PFI National secretary Nasarudheen Elamaram’s daughter Nasira, PFI chairman O.M.A. Salam’s daughter Thazkiya Salam, Basheer’s daughter Sumayya Shaheedha and SDPI state secretary P.K. Usman’s wife Hasi Mathilakath also wrote emotional accounts in the social media about the leaders' arrests. All these posts reflected the idea that the PFI leaders have always been prepared for an eventuality where the organisation gets banned. These posts also promise to continue the work the leaders have started.

Before his organisation got banned, Shuhaib told THE WEEK that even if a ban comes, the organisation would fight it in court. "We are not doing any anti-national activity. So, first of all, there are no grounds to ban it," he says. "Even if the current dispensation bans us, it won’t be on democratic grounds. But we have a strong belief in the Indian judiciary. We will fight it in court. I am sure their evidence against us will not stand in court." After the ban, the CFI leader's phone went to switch-off mode. How far the government can keep his "banned" organisation's activities also in a switch-off mode? The time will answer that question.


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