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'PFI crackdown doesn't mean all Muslims are terrorists'

By SHOBHA WARRIER
September 29, 2022 07:03 IST
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'Now that an extremist organisation like the PFI has been banned, it is time for the leaders to reach out to the minority community.'
'You need to have co-ordination between the State and the social fabric to send out the message that it is not directed at the community, and they should not feel vulnerable.'

IMAGE: Police in Hubballi, September 22, 2022, attempt to detain Popular Front of India and Social Democratic Party of India workers during a protest against the raids by the National Investigation Agency. Photograph: PTI Photo

After raiding Popular Front of India offices across India and arresting many of its leaders, the Government of India decided to ban the organisation for five years.

The reason cited was that 'some of the PFI's founding members are the leaders of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the PFI has linkages with Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB)'.

Dr Anshuman Behera, Associate Professor in Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, below, left, discusses the PFI with Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.

 

As a political scientist, how do you view an organisation like the Popular Front of India?
Their Twitter handle says, 'it's a Neo-Social Movement that strives for the empowerment of marginalised sections of India', but the general perception of PFI is that of a militant organisation.

I will say the perception people have of PFI that it is a militant organisation is not entirely wrong.

If you look at the activities of PFI, you see that it represents only the Muslim community and not the other marginalised sections of the society like it claims.

You call it a militant organisation because of their activities?

Yes, because of some of their violent activities. What they claim they are as a neo-social movement, and what they do are drastically different.

Do you think these violent activities are there all over India, or are they restricted to Kerala?

If you look at the affidavit by the Kerala government in 2011, the major violent activities were confined to Kerala then.

If the media reports have to be believed, we see their presence in some other places in India, but such claims remain to be proved. As a political scientist, I would like to adhere to only very credible information.

But from the affidavit filed by the Kerala government of 2011 and the recent actions by the security forces in Kerala after the recent crackdown of the PFI, we can say that their activities are largely confined to Kerala.

From its documents it can be observed that the PFI is actually an offshoot of the Jamaat-e-Islamic Hind. The registration was done in Delhi and many of the members were from SIMI including Abdul Rehman, the national chairman of PFI, who was the national secretary of SIMI.

IMAGE: PFI members Yahiya Thangal, Karamana Asharaf Maulavi and P K Usman after being produced before a court in Kochi, September 24, 2022. Photograph: PTI Photo

You mean, they just changed the name when SIMI was banned?

It is very simplistic to say that because if you see the trajectory of PFI, you will see that it is a very clever organisation.

I would actually say that the modus operandi of the PFI is very close to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international pan-Islamist organisation which is not a militant organisation in the strict sense of definition, but certainly a radical Islamic one.

The modus operandi creates an environment that is conducive to violent Islamic militancy and terrorism.

Students from elite universities are members of that. You will be surprised to know that Hizb-ut-Tahrir has substantial presence in the educational institutions in Indonesia and Bangladesh.

This is where I see some kind of similarity between PFI and Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

The difference is, the PFI carries out certain militant activities.

Talking about the SIMI connection of the PFI: After the banning of SIMI and (Abdul Nasser) Madani's group, the National Democratic Front in Kerala, it created an opportune situation for another organisation.

The Jamaat-Islamic Hind after creating SIMI, had disbanded its student wing called Student Islamist Organisation (SIO).

With SIMI banned and SIO not working on expected lines, there was a vacuum for another radical Islamic organisation to emerge. But they have to create one very cleverly.

If you read some of the documents of PFI, you will see that they don't mention Islam anywhere. They have Women Front of India, Campus Front of India, Karnataka Front of Dignity, etc etc.

They also started a political party called the Welfare Party of India which was confined mainly to UP, and even won some local elections. Then they started the Social Democratic Party of India.

And, you will not find Muslim or Islamic names attached to these organisations anywhere.

The motive is to get people who are anti-government, if not anti-State, to legitimise or send out a message that it is not merely an Islamic organisation.

In fact, the PFI has been successful in fooling or creating a kind of smoke screen that it is not an Islamic organisation but an organisation that works for the marginalised.

IMAGE: A protest against the PFI at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, February 28, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

Do you see any connection between the rise of the PFI and the rise of Hindu right-wing politics in India?

If you look at the rise of Islamic right-wing politics in India, it started a few decades before the rise of political Hindu consciousness.

When there is a BJP government at the Centre and in many of the states, the radical elements find a scope to manufacture a narrative that Hindu rule has finally come in secular India.

This is the way they create fear in the minds of the Muslims. The leaders of PFI say that the Indian Constitution is under threat, democracy is under threat, etc.

This manufactured narrative attempts to project Muslims as a vulnerable community.

IMAGE: PFI activists march in Thiruvananthapuram, September 23, 2022, during the hartal called in Kerala to protest against the nationwide arrest of its leaders by NIA and the Enforcement Directorate. Photograph: PTI Photo

It is said that Muslims now feel vulnerable and subjugated...

We have to differentiate between Muslims as a community, and Islamists as a radical force.

Crackdown on SIMI or crackdown on PFI doesn't mean that all Muslims are terrorists. It is an unfortunate and unfair way to look at the situation.

The PFI does not represent the entire Muslim community. Similarly, the RSS does not represent the entire Hindu community.

When there is a secular rule and democracy in India, there has to be a clear distinction between the perception and reality. The crackdown on any radical outfit should not be seen as a kind of subjugation of the entire Muslim community or the minority community.

It is high time to see the difference between Muslims as a community and the radical outfits. It is unfair to say that all of them align with this kind of radical outfits. If that is so, we are talking about 200 million people here!

Moreover, you can also observe that the PFI only furthers the radical political Islam ideas of Maulana Mawdudi and hence, it can be safely argued that it barely represents just a minor section of radical Islamic thoughts.

If you look at the history of Indian Muslims, it is quite different from the Muslims of other countries. Here, they identify very proudly with the state.

The undeniable issue is, the Muslim community has to rise from poverty. Yes, there are other social issues too.

So, it depends on how Muslim leaders look at; whether the crackdowns are an attack on Muslims or not.

Barring a few, I have not seen any well-meaning Islamic scholars and intellectuals coming in support of the PFI.

IMAGE: Popular Front of India General Secretary Anis Ahmed, second from right, being produced in the Patiala court in New Delhi after a nationwide raid spearheaded by the National Investigation Agency. Photograph: PTI Photo

So, you feel what is needed is communication; to send out the message that this is not an attack on the community, but only on the radical elements?

Yes, the State has to reach out to the common Muslims saying that they are a very proud and dignified citizens of India.

We also see in Islamic countries like Afghanistan where Muslims are the victims of Islamic terrorism.

Now that an extremist organisation like the PFI has been banned, it is time for the leaders to reach out to the minority community.

You need to have co-ordination between the State and the social fabric to send out the message that it is not directed at the community, and they should not feel vulnerable.

You have done extensive research on Maoist insurgencies in India and militancy in South Asia. How do you differentiate between Maoists, jihadis and PFI activists?

One simple difference is that the Maoists go by an ideology, and the PFI and the others go by religious fundamentalism.

The commonality is that all of them use violence to achieve their goals.

But the approach of the Maoists has always been more humane that cut across society. There is no room for any religious divide in it.

When the Maoists go against the sovereign integrity of the State, these extremist organisations go against the secular and democratic fabric of the State.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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