On Friday, when the Popular Front of India (PFI) observed a violence-ridden flash hartal in Kerala to protest the nationwide clampdown on over 100 of its top leaders by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), along with the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the local police the previous day, the message it wanted to send across was loud and clear.
“Come to the streets face-to-face sans the NIA and the ED if you’ve got guts,” a speaker at a march taken out by the PFI in Ernakulam on the hartal day dared the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), amidst loud cheers.
Such sloganeering against the Hindutva forces and their perceived non-Muslim accomplices is typical of the PFI. Video footage of a minor boy raising communally loaded slogans, as he sat on the shoulders of a man at a ‘Save the Republic’ rally taken out by the PFI in Kerala’s Alappuzha district in May this year, had raised the hackles of the court and the general public.
But it’s this belligerent self-assertion and commitment to “defend” the community physically, legally, morally and ideologically that has helped the PFI expand its footprint across some 26 Indian States with considerable clout in at least 15 of them.
The PFI was born in 2006 when the National Development Front (NDF), set up in Kerala’s Kozhikode a year after the demolition of the Babri Masjid with some helmsmen of the now-banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) on its top council, merged with the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, which was gaining ground among the Muslim youth of coastal Karnataka, and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu.
Built behind the façade of a ‘neo-social movement’ seeking social and economic justice and political representation for Muslims, Dalits and tribals, the PFI comprises ultra-religious, radical Muslim men fiercely protective of what they see as tenets of their faith. The outfit has been accused on more than one occasion of resorting to violence against what it perceives as blasphemy — the most notorious case in point was the brutal attack on college lecturer T.J. Joseph in 2010 over a question paper prepared by him.
“For the PFI, in contrast to the conventional Muslim parties, religion and religious identity constitute a blueprint for sociopolitical action — and need constant protection from external threats,” R. Santhosh and Dayal Paleri of IIT-Madras observed in a paper on ‘Crisis of Secularism and Changing Contours of Minority Politics in India: Lessons from the Analysis of a Muslim Political Organisation’, published in Asian Survey last year. They argue that this mode of religious identity, while it emerged as a defence against Hindu nationalism, often subscribes to almost similar modes of thinking as the Hindu rightwing and is propelled by a belief in the political prospects of a homogenised religious identity.
While it floated the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) as its political arm open to all citizens in 2009, the thrust has always remained on politically and socially mobilising the community around the rights and duties of Muslims in protecting themselves against othering by the Hindutva groups, a kind of ‘defensive ethnicisation’, as Santhosh and Paleri put it.
This model, while it drew flak from conventional Muslim political parties such as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), found traction among many Muslim youth for its assertiveness; thrust on educating the minorities on their legal and constitutional rights, even supporting them as in the Hadiya case in which a Hindu girl converted to Islam and married a Muslim youth; and its sustained campaigns for civil rights by brandishing a narrative of victimhood and aligning it with episodes of Islamophobia from around the world.
Observers say the PFI’s women’s wing, the National Women’s Front, was actively involved in appropriating the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests and its students’ wing, the Campus Front of India, was in the dock for political violence and murder.
Central agencies such as the ED have accused the PFI of using its feeder organisations such as the Rehab India Foundation, which has been active in social service and disaster relief in many States, as channels of money laundering.