Thiruvananthapuram: It is still not clear whether the Popular Front of India (PFI) has committed all of the sins the central agencies say it has. But in the fortnight leading up to the ban, two things happened that would demonstrate why it would be difficult for even Muslim groups to support the PFI.
One was the destruction of public property and the huge public nuisance caused by belligerent PFI cadres during the hartal on September 23. And then, six days before the hartal, there was a speech.
It was delivered by Afsal Qasimi, the Kerala general secretary of All India Imam's Council, a PFI branch that has now been banned along with the parent outfit. The occasion was a massive 'Save the Republic' rally organised by the PFI at Kozhikode beach on September 17.
Pugnacious twist to a Prophet story
By around the eighth minute of his speech, Qasimi told the popular story of the Prophet and his sword; an account found in the Hadith, a collection of Muslim beliefs that are outside the Koran but has the Prophet's approval. It is about a ferocious outlaw who snatches the Prophet's sword while he is asleep and then points it at his face and asks: “Who will save you from me now?”
In Qasimi's telling, the Prophet snatched the sword back in a flash, held it right at the startled bandit's neck and returned the poser. Qasimi thundered: “We should never forget that we are the followers of Mohammed who had kept the sword at the neck of the assailant and asked, 'Now, who is going to save you from me'.”
Muslim religious and political bodies found this utterly offensive. They felt this was a militant version of the original story, quite typical of the PFI. In the original, it is the Prophet's unwavering faith that overpowers the bandit, not superheroism.
When the bandit, with a pointed sword, asks him 'who is going to save you from me', the Prophet answers with a serene smile: “Allah”. On hearing this, the bandit is said to have felt his strength oozing out of him and dropped the sword. Mohammad gracefully picks it up and quite amusedly asks his attacker: “Now who will save you from me?” And he lets him go.
Terrorist bent of mind
“It is quite usual for terrorist organisations to wrongly interpret holy texts, suck it dry of their true objectives and make them seem like they encourage violence. The PFI is no different, and this is exactly what the cleric did at the PFI rally,” said M Luqman, a young writer and an expert in Islamic theology.
Not just Muslim scholars, even a deeply religious body like Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), branded extremist by the ruling LDF government and called as “Islamist” as the PFI for wanting to establish the rule of the Caliphate, has found Qasimi's narration reprehensible.
“That was a very problematic, dangerous, interpretation,” said V T Abdulla Koya Thangal, the state general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami, of Imam Qasim's speech. “This was yet another example of how the PFI leaders infused unintended meanings into holy texts to make a peace-loving faith look violent,” he said.
In fact, Muslim outfits had declared the PFI an outcast long before its men had chopped the hand of Professor T J Joseph for framing a question that, according to PFI, had insulted the Prophet. The Muslim Coordination Committee, a loose coalition of Muslim political, religious and cultural outfits formed to evolve consensus on matters of faith, had always kept the PFI away.
Part of the committee is major Muslim outfits with different political and ideological inclinations like Indian Union Muslim League, Samastha Kerala Jemiyyathul Ulema, A K Samastha, Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, Dakshina Kerala Jemiyyathul Ulema, Wisdom Global Islamic Mission, Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim Educational Society, and Muslim Service Society.
These Muslim outfits do not invite the PFI members to even customary festival events like 'iftars'. “Even if they invite us, we will not attend their programmes or meetings,” said Abdulla Koya Thangal of Jamaat-e-Islami.
“Instead of taking on fascism using secular and democratic means, the PFI has time and again resorted to violent means. When they commit a murder or indulge in an act of violence, it is very evident that they are driven by communal hatred. It is this PFI tendency to take the law into its hands, its 'eye for an eye' policy, that has prompted us to keep them out of our collective,” the JeI leader said.
In 2013, the PFI was accused of running a weapons training camp at Narath in Kannur. An NIA special court sentenced 21 PFI workers in the case in 2016.
The impression of the PFI as an organisation that promoted violence was once again reaffirmed in May this year in the 'rice and frankincense' (ariyum kunthirikkavum) slogan of a little boy during a PFI rally in Alappuzha.
Sudapi's irresistible charm
Social commentator Hamid Chennamangalur is amused by the outward show of anger by Muslim bodies and political parties that claim to be secular like the CPM and the Congress.
“If these religious and political groupings have such contempt for the PFI, why have they not come together on a single platform and openly attacked its violent anti-Islam ideology? They might murmur something in a mock show of anger but will not go all out,” he said.
There is a reason. “They need them to hold on to power. The PFI is especially wooed, though secretly, during the local body polls,” Chennamangaloor said.
Though the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of the PFI and mockingly pronounced 'sudapi' in trolls and memes, is a byword for Muslim extremism, like 'sanghi' is for Hindu extremism, the party has grown in strength in Kerala.
In 2015, the SDPI had won 40 seats including 32 grama panchayat wards, seven municipal wards and one corporation division. Five years later, in 2020, it bagged 95 seats; 75 panchayat wards, one block panchayat ward, 18 municipal wards and one corporation division.
For major parties, the SDPI has thus become an instrument to achieve power at the local level and even subvert election verdicts. Erattupetta municipality, for instance, was wrested by the CPM, though only for a brief period, from the UDF with the help of five SDPI members. The political guilt of having joined forces with the SDPI forced the CPM to reverse the 'coup' quickly.
A different perspective on PFI
Although fraternal outfits call it extremist and violent, German researcher Arndt Emmerich, who had closely studied the functioning of PFI in various states in Indian including Kerala from 2011 to 2015, concluded that the PFI was empowering Muslim youth by making them aware of their legal rights than pushing them into violence. During the period of the study, Emmerich was a Research Associate in the Oxford Department of International Development.
This is what Emmerich says in his study, 'Political education and legal pragmatism of Muslim organizations in India', which appeared in the highly reputed journal Asian Survey in 2020. “My findings indicate that young cadres and supporters had a heightened sense of agency and self-respect after participating in PFI-led programmes that taught Muslims about their legal rights, including the results of the Sachar Report, and political awareness, where they learned how to defend each other from police discrimination through court cases, petitions, boycotts, and public protests.”
Muslim scholars Onmanorama talked to said the PFI did provide legal help but wherever their help was provided, they had pushed their pro-violent ideology. “You could see the PFI literature in these places. Legal help is a means of conversion,” said Hameed Chennamangalur.