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Banning PFI Won’t Help the Cause of Kerala’s Secular Parties

A mere ban will not exterminate the ideas that made the PFI popular among some sections of society.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
PFI members taking part in a rally. Image used for representational purposes.
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The last decade of the twentieth century has been the most polarising period in recent Indian history. The run-up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid saw disenchantment among Muslims, especially among the youth. Large-scale violence and communal riots in different parts of the country weakened Indian secularism.

Though skirmishes occurred in different parts, Kerala, with a sizeable Muslim population, was an exception during that tumultuous period. No big riot was reported from the state. 

Presence of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), an important constituent of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), was seen by many observers as the force which diffused the anger within the community from blowing over into a major law-and order-situation. There may be some merit in that observation.

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NDF’s Attack on Liberals

However, disenchantment with the Muslim League also got momentum during this period. It was accused of catering to the interest of the elites among the community. But IUML survived the attempts by many radical Muslim groups to take advantage of this situation and continued as the main representative of the Muslim community in Kerala.

Then emerged the National Democratic Front (NDF), the earlier avatar of the controversial Popular Front of India, the organisation which has been banned by the Centre after the Kerala government pitched for the same.

Right from its inception, the NDF courted controversy for its extremist stance on several issues. Though it tried to camouflage itself as a social organisation concerned with the well-being of the marginalised, its political intention was never in doubt. The organisation targeted liberals within the community ‘who do not strictly follow Islamic law’.

The ‘wayward’ youths within the community who mingled with the opposite gender, and who tried to marry persons from other religions, were all allegedly targeted by this group. Strict adherence to the conservative values helped them gain credence from the orthodox sections within the community. The NDF was seen by the liberals and the state police as the force behind the sudden increase in the Muslim radicalism in the state.

In 2007, the NDF refashioned itself as the Popular Front after it merged with similar organisations from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The new organisation now claims to have presence even in north Indian states.

It now has a political party (Socialist Democratic Party of India), a women’s wing (Women’s Front) and a students’ wing (Campus Front). Despite the severe criticism and isolation it faces from mainstream political parties and media, the organisation continues to grow in Kerala.

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Resistance Against RSS

Senior journalist and political commentator PT Nasar tells The Quint:

SDPI has been consistently increasing its vote share in recent elections. By pitching itself as a resistance movement against what they call anti-Muslim policies of the government, the Popular Front has become a major player at least in the Muslim-dominated areas of the state. Popular Front’s growth in these areas has been phenomenal. In fact, by taking extremist positions with an intention to polarise the society, many political parties including the IUML think that they have become a challenge to the secular society of Kerala.

Resistance against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is the main plank upon which the PFI activities are centred. Violent clashes between the Sangh Parivar and the PFI have been occurring at regular intervals in Kerala. At least among the disgruntled youth, the PFI is being seen as an organisation that can physically combat the RSS.

Popular Front is not the first organisation which tried to radicalise Muslim youths. Now defunct Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and Islamic Sevak Sangh of Abdul Nasar Maudani were two groups that earlier attempted polarisation. Despite the vociferous campaign they unleashed, both these groups could not capture the imagination of the Muslim community. After the SIMI was banned, some of its leaders shifted to the NDF. Abdul Nasar Maudani disbanded ISS before forming Peoples Democratic Party.

The ‘Muslim Version’ of RSS

What differentiates SIMI from PFI is the ideology, says senior journalist MP Basheer. According to him, while SIMI was founded on the ideals of Political Islam, the PFI can’t be said to be following the same. “It wants to present itself as the Muslim version of the RSS,” Basheer adds.

And this seems to have succeeded. Despite the brickbats it used to receive from the political community, the growth trajectory of the SDPI shows that it has caught the imagination of a sizeable section of the Muslim community.

Even after the gruesome attack it carried out against professor TJ Joseph for his alleged act of blasphemy, the SDPI continued to perform well in electoral politics. It came third in the Vengara Assembly by polls held last year.

National Investigation Agency (NIA) had earlier submitted a report to the home ministry recommending a ban on the organisation for its involvement in four cases. Apart from the attack on Joseph, the NIA had cited three other cases to support its claim.

Organising arms training camps in Kannur and plans to carry out terror attacks in south India were the other cases cited by the NIA. According to newspaper reports the issue was discussed at length in the DGP meet held in January.

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PFI Thriving With Divisive Agenda

What is important is the fact that the Popular Front has been able to frame social issues the way it wants to. When the Hadiya issue was discussed, the Popular Front activists were seen campaigning for individual choices and right to religion. The patriarchal position it takes when it comes to conversion from the Muslim community did not deter it from arguing for Hadiya’s personal liberty.

Though the organisation has been denying its role in religious conversions, a sting operation conducted by India Today, last year, allegedly showed its leaders admitting to encouraging conversions by using hawala money.

Right from its inception, first the NDF and now the PFI have been accused of everything that goes against a modern plural society. Their adherence to conservative and patriarchal values is being censured by the Kerala’s mainstream whenever they get a chance. But despite this and Kerala’s professed progressive culture, Popular Front is thriving with all its divisive agenda.

A ban will not exterminate the ideas that made the PFI popular among some sections of the society.

The PFI in a way is a manifestation of the limitations of secular parties. Unless secular parties can fathom the social undercurrents that enable an organisation like the PFI to thrive, the alleged ban could turn out to be counterproductive.

(The writer is an independent journalist. He can be reached @NKBhoopesh . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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