An English professor, an Arabic language teacher, and a librarian were among those arrested by National Investigation Agency (NIA) in its first nationwide clampdown on the Popular Front of India (PFI) on 22 September 2022. Why? These three frail men in their 70s were once the young leaders who founded and ran the mother outfit of PFI – the National Development Front – in 1992.
On Wednesday, 28 September the Centre banned PFI and its associates including Campus Front of India, Rehab India Foundation, All India Imams Council, National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations, National Women's Front, Junior Front, Empower India Foundation and Rehab Foundation, Kerala. The organisations are now declared as "unlawful associations" for a period of five years.
Here’s a look at the lives of Professor P Koya, E Abubacker, and EM Abdul Rahiman, all arrested in what is being considered an effort by the Union government to wipe out the Islamic outfit. A total of 45 leaders and member of the PFI were arrested on 22 September and a second round of countrywide arrests of PFI functionaries were made on Tuesday, 27 September. In Karnataka and Kerala, state police departments too have cracked down on the PFI.
A Jump-Start by SIMI & Formation of NDF in Kerala
Professor P Koya who taught in Government Arts College, Kozhikode is believed to have been a leftist when he was young. Coming from a middle-income family based in Kozhikode, Kerala, in his teens Koya was an atheist.
As he reached adulthood, the young man moved on to follow the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and joined the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) which had emerged in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, in the 1970s. Around the same time, two other young men – E Abubacker and EM Abdul Rahiman – whose lives were later to be entwined with that of Koya’s, were also part of SIMI. While Abubacker hailed from Kozhikode, Rahiman lived in Ernakulam.
The three left SIMI, which was already making its presence felt in the country as a radical Muslim students’ outfit, when they turned 30 years of age.
“In SIMI’s constitution, the age cap was mandatory. No one could continue to be in the organisation beyond 30 years. But it is a common misconception that Koya, Abubacker and Abdul Rahiman started NDF after breaking away from SIMI,” C Dawood, senior journalist and political observer told The Quint.
Though the duo had to leave SIMI, they were involved with local Muslim youth and students’ outfits that had sprung up in Kerala in the 1980s, primarily those rooting for social change to uplift the Muslim community, such as Wayanad Muslim Association, Muslim Brothers Club, Muslim Task Force, and Youngsters Association. But it was in the early 1990s that National Democratic Front really took shape.
“It began with the active involvement of E Abubacker in cases where Muslim youth were allegedly attacked by local CPI(M) activists at Nadapuram in Kozhikode. He and his friends were able to put CPI(M) cadre on the backfoot. The coalition later grew to include other streams and became National Development Front,” NP Chekutty, former editor of PFI’s newspaper Tejas (which is now out of print) and childhood friend of Abubacker, told The Quint.
However, it was the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 that gave a boost to the NDF as it positioned itself as a political force powered by young blood and strong enough to take on the Sangh Parivar. The NDF was founded in 1992 and was declared public in 1993 at Kozhikode.
In this outfit, Koya became the ideologue, Abubacker the organiser, and Abdul Rahiman the planner. The three men have been playing their respective roles till date, even as their active involvement in Popular Front of India (PFI) has dwindled over time.
Ideologue, Organiser, Planner: Building an Outfit Out of Thin Air
“In Kozhikode, at a time when the internet was not widely used, Prof P Koya’s home library was one haunt where youth would gather to learn new trends in western literature, political thought, and social discourse. He was always known as a knowledgeable, welcoming person,” says Dawood.
Koya loved English literature, and was soft spoken. But, to the young workers of a fledgling NDF, he gave ideological clarity. The NDF, through Koya’s guidance, was established as an Islamic group with a social outlook.
It was Koya who expanded the scope of NDF to include voices from other marginalised groups including Dalits and Adivasis. NDF formed alliances with the Kerala Dalit Panthers and the Adivasi Gothra Samithi. The outfit did not shy away from associating with staunch Maoist leaders, who were critical of the Left parties that subscribed to parliamentary democracy.
However, without E Abubacker the organisation would have died a natural death in Kozhikode – a district in the Malabar region of Kerala where the Indian Union Muslim League held sway. The NDF got a crowd-puller in Abubacker, a man who hardly came across as an orator.
Abubacker, who was an Arabic language teacher, travelled across Kerala to build local-level units of NDF. While several small Muslim organisations struggled to gather funds for the Babri Masjid cause, Abubacker’s team of young men, according to his own version of events, gathered Rs 11.5 lakh within minutes from congregations at different mosques across the state. At the same time, he encouraged lower rung leaders to participate and lead in protests against alleged human rights violations in Kerala and elsewhere in India.
“Abubacker maintained NDF in an amorphous state in the beginning. This allowed Muslim youth who were teeming with different ideas to join NDF and contribute to its growth,” Chekutty said. Youth from three predominant sects among Kerala Muslims – Sunni, Mujahid, and Jamaat-e-Islami – soon joined NDF without drifting away from their parent outfits. NDF at the time used to allow dual membership.
As his success grew in Kerala, young Abubacker’s travels took him to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka where he collaborated with local organisations – Manitha Neethi Pasarai and Karnataka Forum for Dignity – which later merged with NDF to form PFI in 2006.
He later travelled to north Indian states including Uttar Pradesh. “You would wonder how a man who is not an orator, who basically reads his speeches in Malayalam, Urdu and English, out of sheets of paper, could gather so many people. Nevertheless, he was instrumental in NDF and later PFI’s growth,” Dawood said.
A former Naxalite and trade union leader A Vasu, popularly known as Grow Vasu, still calls Abubacker the man who "built an outfit out of nothing." Currently PFI, according to its leadership, has presence in 20 Indian states.
While Koya and Abubacker were boosting NDF ideologically and organisationally, EM Abdul Rahiman who worked as a librarian in Cochin University, planned for the future.
“He took up a fight for reservation when the Narendra Commission report was tabled in Kerala, in 2000. This popularised NDF,” Chekutty said. The Justice KK Narendran Commission had found that several Other Backward Classes including Mapila Muslims, Latin Christians, and Nadars, had lost out on government jobs in Kerala.
Abdul Rahiman led a March in 2000 from Trivandrum to Kasargod demanding reservation for Muslims and other backward classes. “This rally was one of the most successful rallies that drew more people to NDF and established it as a popular Muslim outfit,” Chekutty said. Among the trio, only Abdul Rahiman still holds an official position in PFI. He is the current vice chairman of the outfit.
The PFI's flagship programme 'Empower India 2047' is believed to be Rahiman's brainchild. The programme is a developmental plan for the country through PFI's charitable and people outreach measures. The plan had courted controversy as Hindutva outfits misrepresented it as an effort to turn India into an "Islamic country by 2047."
However, it appears, the three leaders have silently condoned violent tendencies within the organisation they had built. Was it by design? “To an extent, Prof P Koya encouraged militant tendencies ideologically, observers say. "The language of what PFI calls “armed resistance" was inculcated by the same leaders from the nascent stage of NDF,” a senior Muslim journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity said.
Has the NIA stricken at the foundation of PFI with the arrest of these leaders?
'Quiet Approval of Violence' and Controversial Leadership
While Abubacker is currently fighting cancer, Koya and Abdul Rahiman too have been in retirement mode, though many young PFI leaders say that they have mostly been just a call away. But in his prime, Koya did court his own share of controversies, which in general has defined the outlook of many outsiders towards the PFI.
In 1994, Koya authored a book Islamic Encyclopedia (Islamika Vignjanakosham) which drew widespread criticism because it had a map that demarcated Muslim-dominated areas in India in green colour.
“I remember seeing this book as a young journalist and noticing that Kashmir was marked in green and so was Malappuram district in Kerala. The BJP raised an objection to this in Kerala and it soon became a controversy where it was misconstrued that Koya demarcated Kashmir as part of Pakistan,” said Chekutty, who was a journalist working with the Indian Express when the controversy broke.
Koya was, however, not deterred by the criticism that he faced, because he allegedly went on to make a controversial statement after the 9/11 World Trade Centre bombing in the US.
“I was happy to see this (the planes crashing into the twin towers),” he allegedly told a journalist, while condemning what he called “American imperialism.” This statement was considered to be a statement in support of the Al-Qaeda.
Two years from then, in 2003, NDF was accused of having orchestrated communal killings of eight people at Marad beach in Kallayi, Kozhikode. The organisation was soon considered to be violent and uncontrollable, leading to a state government-led crackdown.
But the organisation regrouped to form Popular Front of India in 2006. For several Muslim organisations, including the Muslim League, the PFI, like NDF, meant trouble. In 2010, PFI cadre allegedly attacked an English lecturer TJ Joseph, by allegedly hacking off one of his hands, for having framed an exam question that allegedly insulted Prophet Muhammed.
“In our view, PFI is a fascist organisation. The (NIA) crackdown against them maybe unjustified but overall they have harmed the case of Muslim political representation,” an IUML leader told The Quint.
While both Abubacker and Abdul Rahiman have not been as controversial as Koya, they too were accused of having stoked communal tensions around the attack on TJ Joseph.
“The older leadership mostly remained silent and responded only when they were questioned by the police. It was largely believed that they gave silent support for these acts, even as PFI cadre had by then grown under a second rung of younger leadership,” a senior Muslim journalist said.
Abubacker by then had already been part of Muslim Personal Law Board and All India Milli Council – both esteemed posts to hold.
Abdul Rahiman was, however, allegedly sacked from his job as a librarian at Cochin University as Popular Front and its activities became notorious.
Without these leaders, who are now behind bars, can Popular Front of India survive? Will the ban kill the outfit and its activities?
“The older leaders of the outfit did train younger leaders in PFI. They allowed the growth of two generations of leadership to come up under them. The current backlash will affect PFI, but it is unlikely to kill it,” Chekutty said. However, the NIA has also arrested other key leaders of PFI including National Chairman OMA Salam, National General Secretary Anis Ahmed, and Kerala State President Nazeeruddin Elamaram, apart from state and district level leaders from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.
At the moment, it appears, the PFI is truly shaken. “Our older leaders were aware that the path they had chosen at a young age was not easy. Hence we are not shocked by it. But we are concerned,” said KM Arafa, district leader of PFI at Ernakulam, which was also targeted during the massive NIA raids.
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