An essay on the Popular Front of India, a now banned organisation and its antecedents
Note: This is a flowing essay in one sitting on the Popular Front of India, the organisation which has been banned recently. I have not undertaken extensive background research or sourcing, but based it on my own knowledge and information.
Published on October 2, 2022 on the Chhit Substack and then here.
The recent decision by the Union Government to ban the notorious Popular Front of India (PFI) has elicited a variety of responses across the country. PFI, though has not always hogged the limelight nor has it been an organisation with a pan-national presence. Its rise has only been in the past decade or so nationally. Before this, PFI was a fringe organisation with limited reach and cadre. It was one July in 2010 that Kerala became rudely aware of the organisation and its radical aims and objectives. Professor T.J. Joseph had his hand chopped off by PFI cadre for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet Mohammad. Whether Professor Joseph has actually blasphemed is beyond the scope of this essay.1 The fact remains that this barbaric incident shocked the conscience of Kerala society. It was a seismic event which in some ways heralded the rise of the new form of Radical Islam in the state.
Muslim organisations, including the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML/League), organised an event in Kottakkal, Malappuram to condemn the barbarity of PFI’s actions. Along with PFI, the meeting condemned the activities of the Jamaat-e-lslami Hind and its political outfit, the Welfare Party of India. Of course, the organisations that participated, especially the League (IUML) had more to lose at the rise of such organisations. In any case, following the assault of the Professor, the then Chief Minister of Kerala, the veritable V.S. Achuthanandan, stated that the aim of PFI is to create an Islamic Kerala and spoke on “Love Jihad” that he alleged, was being perpetrated by PFI. Around this time the then Left Government also told the Kerala High Court that PFI has radical aims. The calls for its ban were raised not first in 2020 or 2016; it was raised first in 2010 when T.J. Joseph was barbarically and viciously attacked.
Origins Of PFI
What exactly is the aim of this ambiguously named organisation? As per their own assessment, one would believe it was to achieve the aims of the Constitution of India - dignity, equal rights and what not. In practice, they advocated a form of what can be approximately called exclusionist politics in the Muslim community to evoke emotional and if possible, violent responses. In the garb of engagement in public discourse it only reiterated what can only be called supremacist, theological arguments rather than any form of constructive discussion or debate. PFI generated out of the merger of two organisations active in the Malabar coast, whose Muslim communities have similar origins. The Karnataka Forum for Dignity, and the National Development Front. Both organisations, named in a similar vein of being purposely ambiguous and yet acceptable. Who can object to a forum for dignity? or to a “National Front” working for “Development”?
As I have understood it, the NDF was the larger and more popular organisations, which started in Malabar proper in Kerala. The NDF was formed mostly of former members of the Students’ of Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). SIMI, to my Malayali readers would be well known; it is the demon whose ghost that has not been exorcised in Kerala politics. SIMI is the organisation that became the Indian Mujahadeen. responsible for multiple terror attacks. Its former leaders and members are forever tainted with their association with the organisation, to say the least.2
In naming and branding SIMI the leadership and patrons made a mistake, which was rectified in NDF and subsequently the PFI. All the sister organisations that the PFI created was also named in this fashion - Campus Front; National Women’s Front and so on. When it launched the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), it followed the same naming pattern. Its naming and branding were vague enough to make it appear at first glance what it was not. This was also emphasised in the rhetoric and positioning of the PFI and SDPI itself. A “popular front” cannot really be objected; neither can one object to Social Democracy.
The PFI used vague and symbolic appeals to the constitution and constitutional rights; messaging based on social divisions in the Hindu community and more were tools it regularly used to appear more in tune with the Republic and its foundational document. The organisation it is safe to say, never really believed in these goals as a supposed constitutional patriot would. Rather these were performative positions to deter any action against them and their activities.
The PFI did not have explicit theological aims, it is not meant to reform Islam or Islamic society in the way Jamat is. Its aims as can be ascertained from its actions was to try and be the focal point of Muslim political, social and cultural assertion in India, promote the interests of the Muslim community and protect its adherents in any from necessary; and to raise issues that would in any form negatively affect Hindu political assertion, whatever form they take. This willingness to go to any ends was necessary in the political environment in the Malabar coast that has consistently experienced communal and political violence. The difference however lied in the targets that PFI cadre chose; a murder of young political activist in Kannur would (most unfortunately) not be an incident without precedent.3 But the assault on T.J. Joseph sets it apart; not only the location (Thodupuzha, Idukki) but also the reasons behind it. The viciousness of the PFI and its cadre was displayed time and time again in Kerala and Karnataka, from the killing of Abhimanyu, a 20-year-old SFI cadre to Praveen Nettaru, an ABVP activist and so much more. Its cadre was actively involved in the Hadiya-Athira Love Jihad controversy that reached the Supreme Court a few years back as well. Most damningly, many of its cadre members became involved in the Islamic State.
In my mind, there is no question that PFI deserved to be banned. Whether the ban will see results is a different matter altogether.
In Kerala & National Politics
What is scary for me, and what has been scary for me in the past few years me is how well adapted PFI was to the politics of Kerala. The cadre of the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) has long been opposed to the communalist practices of the SDPI. The CPM has long prided itself on being supposed “true secularism”, and for a long time was broadly opposed to the exclusionist politics of PFI.4
The story though here is that the reformist or progressive elements of the Muslim community in Kerala failed to engage in resisting PFI’s growth and strength. In fact, it turned a blind eye - or even supported it. At the launch of the SDPI, the President of the supposedly reformist Muslim Educational Society, P.A. Fazal Ghafoor, praised the organisation. The League, for all its supposed stand against the communalism and radicalism of PFI found it more than happy to cooperate when it came to elections. A combination of the rise of Modi and the sucess of Pinarayi though, was the godsend for PFI’s real rise both in the country and in Kerala.
Pinarayi is the first out and out machine politician of the CPM, a supreme organiser whose current image of populism is an invention of the past couple of years. He has found himself comfortable with Islamists for a long time; there is an infamous image of him participating in events with PDP supremo and Bangalore blasts accused Maudani. Under him, the CPM’s resistance of the PFI has been replaced by what can only be described as political cognitive dissonance. There are gram panchayats in Kerala that the CPM is ruling with the support of SDPI. In multiple elections, the LDF has taken the cooperation of SDPI. There can easily be a non-exhaustive list created of those known leaders in the CPM who covertly support, or believe in SDPI. They exist within the CPM under Pinarayi because it believes that it needs to utilise PFI and its radicalism to secure votes from the Muslims of the state.
The increased unsettlement of the established “secular” national politics provided PFI even more cover fire for its radical activities. PFI positioned itself as the radical organisation that “gets stuff done”, which is most evident in how it has engaged in a low-scale warfare against the Sangh organisations in Kerala, and then in Karnataka. The explicit calls to violence and death of Hindus and Christians in Kerala by a child in a PFI rally was not the result of covert activities that happened overnight, but an end goal it was always striving towards. Their radicalism was not a product of the times or communalism that supposedly originated in 2014. Its real roots are that of radical terrorist group that only sought exclusionary objectives that only set back the Muslim community in India. Its objectives and actions were not given enough scrutiny because it justified its actions on the rise of Hindu political assertion in front of many.
PFI grew and prospered across the country rising from its costal home because it found willing cooperation for its radical objectives. After its ban, false equivalencies are raised, especially from Kerala, but none were really capable of supporting PFI without disclaimers.
Even Owaisi, that most disdainful practitioner of constitutional buffoonery said he could not support “PFI’s approach” (but did not support its ban).
The inability of the opposition to engage with the rise of Modi (and Hindu assertion, in turn) other than in shrill, contemptuous tones is certainly one reason among many responsible for the rise of the Popular Front.
1It is quite clear that Joseph’s supposed blasphemy - that of setting a question paper with a question insulting the Prophet, was in reference to a character in a famous Malayalam Novel, Khazakhinte Ithihasam. Of course, this in any case does not justify the assault or any violence even if Joseph had blasphemed.
2KT Jaleel, the former Minister and current MLA of the LDF is a former SIMI member. There are in fact many examples in this regard. An entire line of leadership in Muslim student politics was involved in SIMI.
3Yes, there has been more vicious murders that have happened in Kannur but there is an element of degrees involved in what all things PFI and its cadre was involved in.
4CPM and its treatment of Islamism is a rather complex subject which is beyond the scope of this essay.