In mid-1993, a humid evening saw a huge crowd assemble at Kozhikode in Kerala to attend a public function called by a little-known outfit – the National Development Front (NDF). Among those who had gathered were thousands of Muslim youth who were ready to take part in ‘Pouratha Nishedhathinethire Pouravakasha Rally’ (Rally for Citizen’s Rights to Protest Denial of Citizenship) in which a Gandhian and well-known orator – Sukumar Azhikode – was one of the speakers.
The protest was organised to condemn what was then considered voters’ list tampering, to deny Muslims their right to vote in a civic poll in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
“The protest was huge but no one knew who the leaders were and what they stood for. NDF was mysterious and till date, the mystery remains,” C Dawood, senior journalist and political observer, who in his teens was curious enough to watch this meeting from a distance, reminisced. NDF was the precursor – the mother organisation – to the Popular Front of India (PFI), an Islamic outfit which is currently facing a massive crackdown by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
On 22 August, the NIA conducted searches in 93 locations in 15 states in the country and arrested 45 persons, including national and state level leaders of PFI. Is this a crackdown on a Muslim outfit that represents the aspirations of the minorities and historically marginalised communities or is it a well-thought-out effort to neutralise a violent, terrorist-linked organisation? Also, is it possible to kill the outfit that has a three-decade-long history by banning it?
A close look at PFI’s history and politics reveals that the NIA’s task has a tall order.
Mandal, Masjid, and Popular Front’s ‘Resistance’
The beginning of PFI was marked by two major events in modern India – VP Singh-led union government’s decision to implement 27 percent reservation for the other backward classes (OBC) in government services in 1990 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindutva organisations in 1992.
While the reservations sanctioned by the Mandal commission's recommendations, which were implemented in 1993, created a climate to oppose caste discrimination, the Babri Masjid demolition had created deep-seated angst among the Muslims in India who were ready for a new leadership voice.
To an extent, the NDF, founded in 1992 and formally declared in 1993, fit in perfectly. Started by former members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), the organisation sought to form a coalition of the backward classes and the Muslim minorities in Kerala.
The organisation voiced the concerns of Muslims in Kerala in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. As per the declaration of its own leaders, the outfit was able to collect Rs 11.5 lakh within 15 minutes from mosque congregations after the Friday prayers towards the rebuilding of the Babri Masjid at the disputed site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.
Similarly, it actively got involved in organising protests against human rights violations, as demonstrated by the organisation of a huge Human Rights Conference, in which activists from subaltern groups too participated, in Kozhikode in 1997.
However, the NDF did spring from a history of what the Popular Front of India still calls “resistance,” even by violent means. A history, the NIA is now referencing.
Violent History & NIA’s Claims
The NIA has accused the PFI of having funded terrorist groups and giving weapon training to its cadre with the intention to strike terror.
In a press release issued on 22 September, the NIA claimed, “Criminal violent acts carried out by PFI such as chopping off the hand of a college professor, cold blooded killings of persons associated with organisations espousing the other faiths, collection of explosives to target prominent people and laces, support to Islamic state, and destruction of public property have had a demonstrative effect of striking terror in the minds of the citizens.”
While the NIA has not yet released any substantial proof to back its claims, the NDF’s beginning was indeed from the Muslim Cultural Centre (MCC) that got its strength from Kalari or the martial arts training camps from the Nadapuram town in Kozhikode, as its founding Chairman E Abubacker, who is now arrested by the NIA, has remarked in his biography of sorts, Sishira Sandhyakal, Greeshma Madhyannangal.
It was built to resist, what Abubacker has referred to as, the onslaught of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s atrocities on Muslims including workers of the Indian Union Muslim League at Nadapuram in Kozhikode. Some still refer to NDF as the Nadapuram Defence Front.
NDF, even in its nascent stage, believed in the Popular Front’s much publicised philosophy – Prathirodham Aparadhamalla, meaning resistance is not a crime. In essence, the NDF which later merged with similar outfits, from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, and Manipur to form the PFI in 2006, did believe in what is popularly referred to by the PFI rank and file as “community resistance.”
The NDF was accused of orchestrating the violent Maradu riots in 2003 where eight persons were killed.
PFI later got accused of having fatally attacked a college professor TJ Joseph in 2010 for having framed an exam question that was believed to have insulted Prophet Muhammed. In 2019, the Campus Front of India, PFI’s student wing, was accused of having murdered Student Federation of India (CPI(M)’s student wing) leader and Adivasi student Abhimanyu in Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam.
“If there is an onslaught of violence, the community resists to defend itself. The PFI does not believe in unleashing violence on unsuspecting people. It will just not allow injustice. We are not a violent outfit,” KM Arafa, PFI's Ernakulam district leader told The Quint.
A member of PFI, who is currently doubling up as a spokesperson of the party in television debates, Usman Hameed, told The Quint, “If you take a list of political violence in Kerala, the PFI is accused far less than several other political parties including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Congress. Why are we then called the only violent outfit in Kerala?”
But according to many political observers, PFI’s formation in 2006 marked an acceptance of the NDF among several Muslim sections and also the consolidation of popular disapproval against the group’s alleged illegal activities.
PFI, Politics of the Downtrodden, and Public Disapproval
“If you look at PFI members, a majority of them would be Muslims from socio-economically backward communities who are way below in the class ladder. You’ll see that a majority of members are working class people,” Reny Aylin, an activist who has been working with the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO), which also includes PFI, told The Quint.
The organisation's top leadership, however, have mostly been people from dominant caste backgrounds, several backward class Muslim groups including Pasamanda Muslims have accused.
The only thing that could have created a diverse composition of the party was the outlook that it had inculcated since the 1990s. NDF, in its nascent stage, had formed an alliance with the Kerala Dalit Panthers and the Adivasi Gothra Samithi.
“Though NDF’s foundation was Islamic ideology, they had this subaltern political outlook and believed in forming alliances with other marginalised groups since the very beginning. This tradition was carried forward by the PFI,” said NP Chekutty who was once the editor of the newspaper, Tejas. Tejas’ operations and funding are currently under the ED’s scrutiny.
“Organisationally, neither the PFI nor the NDF had links with extreme left wing groups, but individuals including K Murali and VM Ravunni (aligned with the Maoist movement) were invited to their meetings. These were for issue-based protests and not for lasting alliances,” Chekutty explained.
A former naxalite and trade union leader A Vasu, popularly referred to as Grow Vasu, had collaborated with the NDF in a people’s movement against the Gwalior Rayons’ industry polluting the Chaliyar River.
On the other hand, PFI gathered members from different sects among Kerala Muslims – Sunni, Mujahid, and Jamaat-e-Islami. “From the times of the NDF, Popular Front allowed dual membership. That is people who belong to other outfits (mainly religious outfits) could join the PFI and work as its members. In a way, they could transcend the religious difference between different sects of Muslims,” C Dawood said. The outfit managed to replicate the model across India, where it currently has presence in 20 states according to its leadership.
PFI also successfully managed to replicate this model of subaltern identity politics, militant tendencies, and human rights crusades in other states. “After Kerala, our highest strength is in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. After that, we have strength in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh,” said PFI’s Ernakulam leader Arafa. In Tamil Nadu, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) has condemned the arrest of PFI leaders.
Mainstream Muslim outfits, however, have widely condemned the PFI during some of the most turbulent incidents of violence that the outfit and its mother organisation, the NDF, were linked to.
“The Sunni and Mujahid outfits were the ones to condemn the PFI first because their supporters were being sucked in by the organisation. At the same time, the Muslim League too kept its distance from the organisation,” a senior Muslim journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. But on the whole, the community did not give up on PFI.
“There is a general belief among the community that the widespread attacks on Muslims in the country should be resisted and that PFI has been brave enough to stand up to Hindutva forces. The outfit has capitalised on this sentiment,” the journalist said.
However, this acceptance of sorts has not yet translated into electoral victory. PFI's political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), is far behind the IUML in Kerala and has not yet challenged parties including Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. In Karnataka, however, SDPI has been making inroads into local bodies, especially in coastal Karnataka.
A ban on the PFI would sound the dead knell for SDPI. Are PFI members worried?
Will the Crackdown Kill PFI?
The PFI definitely is shaken as several state and district level leaders are now behind bars.
From members with no organisational role to national level leaders, including Chairman OMA Salam, Vice Chairman EM Abdul Rahiman, and National Secretary Anees Ahmed, many have been arrested. Founding stalwarts of the NDF including Prof P Koya and E Abubacker too were arrested, dealing an ideological blow to the outfit.
But the PFI is a regimented outfit where second level leaders can reorganise themselves. “A breed of young leadership who are second generation leaders have already come up and there is another generation of youth in the waiting,” Reny Aylin said.
In the present political climate, where the Bharatiya Janata Party is still in power in the Centre, the PFI can reorganise as its ideology has pitted the Sangh Parivar as "people's prime enemy." “Even if we get banned, the ideas we have been inculcating will not die,” said Usman Hameed of PFI.
Following widespread violence where around 70 Kerala State Road Transport Corporation Buses were torched during the hartal called by the PFI on 23 September to condemn the NIA and ED raids, the CPI(M) government too cracked down on the outfit and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that stringent action will be taken against the “hooligans.”
Chekutty meanwhile referred to a similar, yet state-level, crackdown which the NDF had faced in the early 2000s following its alleged involvement in the Maradu killings. “At that time, in 2003, NDF was in its fledgling stage. But they made a comeback. Now, PFI is huge and spread across the country. This action could affect the outfit for a period of three months at most,” Chekutty said. Will history repeat itself?
According to an NIA official, who is in the know, the crackdown that played out recently could just be the beginning of a more organised attempt to rein in the outfit, especially in south India where it is thriving. “We have enough to go by, to prove that PFI has been involved in illegal, criminally motivated, terror activities. The outfit will be wiped out,” the NIA source said.
Meanwhile, widespread disapproval among the general public could dent the chances of PFI's revival. "The hand-chopping case in Kerala is one of the most widely condemned cases of violence in Kerala history. Since then it has been difficult for the outfit to get public approval," C Dawood said. Because Muslim political parties too have not condemned the raids, it is clear that PFI is isolated.