The 15 years it has been in existence have been a time of communally charged politics. And the Popular Front of India (PFI) has amassed a good amount of infamy on that front. The first time many would have heard of them was in 2010—in Kerala, their place of birth—when a bunch of their members chopped off the hands of a professor who had set a question to his students that they deemed insulting of the Prophet. If that Talibanesque act is what brought attention to a new-generation hardline Islamist outfit, their most recent outing was during the hijab controversy in Karnataka early this year. While questions of freedom remain debatable in that state’s ban on wearing the hijab in educational institutions, it did not go unnoticed that the PFI was an active presence among those who insisted that the Islamic attire was mandatory religious observance for Muslim girl students. A claim that may be subject to intense debate even within Islam—witness only the protests in Iran—but not exactly illegal. Either way, the points of debate loomed large as the hitherto little-known outfit was banned this week by the government, which charged it with having links with acts of foreign-funded terror and violence.
So what exactly is the PFI? Not a classic grouping of orthodox clerics, nor an outright terror outfit like ISIS, it has been claiming a space within the constitutional realm that India grants. Investigating agencies say that, ideologically, PFI members are aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a transnational Sunni Islamist organisation that took root in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood was aimed at establishing an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law and is well known for its slogan: “Islam is the solution.” Many Indian Muslim organisations, including the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, that saw MB as a socio-religious organisation were influenced by its ideals. While the Jamaat embraced India’s Constitution and remained moderate in its approach, its youth wing—called the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), formed in Aligarh in April 1977—turned radical. SIMI’s mission was to “liberate India” from western materialistic influence and was aligned to MB’s ideal that Muslim society needs to live according to an Islamic code. Some of its oft-repeated objectives were restoration of the ‘khilafat’ (caliphate), emphasis on ‘ummah’ (a worldwide community of Muslims), and the need for jihad to establish the supremacy of Islam. The Jamaat distanced itself from SIMI; and a ban was imposed on the latter in 2001, because of its alleged involvement in several terror cases in the country, in the aftermath of 9/11.
Investigating agencies saw the PFI, formed in 2006, as a far more sophisticated, rebranded version of SIMI—especially because many of its top leaders were ex-officebearers of the banned organisation. Unlike SIMI, which flaunted its Islamic credentials, the PFI didn’t want to be branded as a fundamentalist Islamic organisation. Investigating agencies say the PFI’s strategy was to establish itself as an assertive Muslim organisation that would play within the rules granted by democracy and law, while straining at the leashes. It took its curious political blend of religious radicalism within constitutionality to the far corners of the country. For instance, its political front, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), has been contesting elections since 2013—local, assembly, as well as Lok Sabha—though without much success, garnering only three per cent votes even in an area it considers a stronghold, Dakshina Kannada. But the PFI’s rapid expansion nationwide, which included floating multiple innocuous-sounding organisations in line with its self-description as a ‘neo-social movement for the empowerment of marginalised sections in India’, had India’s internal security establishment deeply concerned. While the PFI professes to support democratic and secularist institutions, investigating agencies say they have been quietly building muscle power both at the city and village level across the country—including training hit squads to foment strife and disorder. Agencies charge the PFI with becoming the centre of a covert network of Islamic terrorism, funded by foreign forces, including the ISIS and other extremist groups. The central government notification banning the outfit categorically charges the PFI with pursuing a secret agenda to radicalise Muslims, in ways that would strain the law and threaten communal harmony.
With some 400,000 members nationwide by now, as executive editor Kaushik Deka reports for our cover story this week, the ban is going to set off ripples everywhere. The classic evasive manoeuvre of extremist groupings of all ilks—plausible deniability on the grounds that those found guilty of acts of violence are not formally members—is part of the PFI playbook too. As is their announcement that the PFI was being dissolved. But there is also a place beyond the legal—and questions of banning—where this debate will play out. One noticeable fact about Indian democracy is that it does not have a party to represent its largest minority—and the absence is more keenly felt in a time of crisis for the community, with a Hindutva ideology entrenched in government. The likes of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM have been attempting to fill that space, but its sporadic electoral forays beyond Hyderabad have not been without controversy. Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF is a strictly regional presence in Assam, despite the “All India” in its name. More to the point, pro-secular parties that the Muslim community voted for—the Congress, the Left or those born of the Janata parivar—have been in retreat for years. This is the vacuum into which the PFI has been sliding in, painting itself as the voice of an orphaned community—indeed, apparently building bridges with other disempowered communities like the Dalits. What went against it, despite its constitutional vocabulary, is the extremism it backs. There will be critics of the ban, speaking from a legal position. And the fact that critics of the PFI will not extend the same argument of political violence to Hindutva outfits like the Bajrang Dal problematises their stand—indeed, the PFI models itself visibly on the RSS. The good news is that several moderate Muslim organisations have welcomed the ban on the PFI. It may morph itself into another organisation as the SIMI did after the ban, so the threat of extremism remains. The Indian state must be on constant vigil even as it ensures that citizen’s right to form law-abiding organisations and institutions is not curtailed. But the real arguments will be advanced, and won, not legally but socially.