Illustration | Vijesh Viswam
Popular Front of India (PFI) certainly deserves to be severely critiqued. Most often, their actions have appeared most detrimental to the Muslim community, which is under unprecedented stress today. For the first time in history, BJP, India’s ruling party, has not a single Muslim member in the parliament. Ditto is with the assembly of Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims form 20% of the population. The legitimate interests of minorities would be served not by harping on their sectarian identity, but by a collective resistance from all democratic and secular forces, despite all their warts.
However, that doesn’t mean that the society, state, or judiciary can deny PFI what is legitimately and constitutionally due to everyone in the country. The accused in even the most heinous crime is entitled to fairness and non-discrimination. In a society where the rule of law reigns, it is not right to award different punishments to different persons or organizations for the same crime. The recent steps initiated by various agencies like the governments, judiciary or enforcement agencies against the PFI appear unfair, discriminatory, and arbitrary. So is the attitude of civil society and media. I hear the question: “Why should an organization that doesn’t believe in democracy be entitled to democratic rights?”. Well, a society qualifies to be called a mature democracy only when it does so. The reigning mood on PFI in Kerala makes one wonder if North Indian Islamophobia has reached our shores, too, which was believed to be immune to the virus. Or, perhaps, the growing fangs have only been revealed now?
The flurry of steps began with the nationwide raids on PFI’s offices and arrests by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) on September 22. PFI retaliated with a violent flash hartal. A week later came the Central Home Ministry’s ban on PFI and its eight affiliates. The hartal provoked the Kerala High court, which ordered PFI to pay immediate compensation for the damages. Following the court’s repeated warnings, a diffident state government initiated the widespread seizure of properties owned by PFI leaders. Did anything similar happen to any other organizations, including those responsible for the genocide and carnage in Delhi (1984) or Gujarat (2002)?
All actions against PFI are met with silence or even a consensus (barring very few exceptions) in favour, even in Kerala, which is supposed to be more secular and inclusive than other states. None of the secular or progressive political parties, the “organic intellectuals,” or the aggressive media seem to care. However, PFI, too, has to introspect why they face such collective hostility.
Kerala High Court’s Division Bench consisting of Justice AK Jayasankaran Nambiar and Justice Mohammed Nias has been particularly belligerent to the PFI’s violent hartal. The bench registered a suo motu case on the same day against PFI State Secretary Abdus Sattar for damages to public property. It directed the state government to deal with the illegal hartal with an iron hand as it was held without the mandatory seven-day notice. On 30 December, the bench ordered PFI to deposit Rs 5.2 crore within two weeks as compensation and directed the government to recover the leaders' assets if the money was not paid. PFI refused to comply, and on December 19, the furious bench pulled up the government for failing to attach the properties and called its attitude disrespectful and callous. This forced the Additional Chief Secretary V. Venu to appear personally on December 23 and tender an unconditional apology. The court issued an ultimatum to seize properties by January 23, 2023. On January 21, assets of about 300 persons were attached across the state by District Collectors, which triggered another big row as even properties owned by Muslim League leaders were attached. The Division bench’s anger has never been seen before from any other court until now towards any other parties credited with holding innumerable hartals in the past, which certainly smacked of discrimination. Why were the honourable judges particularly incensed this time? It may be better to act late than never. But it could invite the charge of double standards.
Five days after the NIA raids and arrests, the central Home Department issued notifications banning PFI and its eight affiliates on 27 September. The five-year-long ban was declared under Section 3 of the UAPA,1967. The order accuses PFI of undertaking unlawful activities that are prejudicial to the country's integrity, sovereignty, and security. It accused the organization of having links with the banned SIMI, Jamat-ul-Mujahdeen Bangladesh (JMB), and even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “They have been pursuing a secret agenda to radicalize a particular section of the society working toward undermining the concept of democracy.” said the ban order
Specific charges mentioned as “violent, subversive and terrorist” include the chopping of Professor T J Joseph’s hand in 2010 and the murder of ten persons in Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu over six years from 2016 to 2022. The victims were Bibin, Nandu, Abhimanyu, and Sanjit (Kerala), Sharath, Rudresh, Praveen Pujary, Praveen Nettaru (Karnataka), and Ramalingam and Sasikumar (Tamil Nadu). The brutal attack on Prof. Joseph shell-shocked the entire nation and made the PFI one of India’s most hated organizations. In 2015, a special NIA court convicted 13 PFI workers, of whom ten were sentenced to 8 years imprisonment. PFI never expressed any remorse over the incident.
Yet, those who hate PFI may be asked a question. Is PFI the only organization that has committed such brutal acts? What about the hundreds of murders committed by our prominent political parties or other “cultural” organizations? How many lives have been snuffed out, hands and limbs chopped, at the altar of political or communal rivalry? Why should PFI alone be seen as evil incarnate? Was another similar savagery committed after Prof. Joseph’s incident by PFI? What about the records of other parties?
Ten murders are listed in the Home Ministry notification, which are all under NIA investigation. Four each occurred in Kerala and Karnataka, and two in Tamil Nadu. Much as they were marked by sheer barbarity, five of the incidents were acts of revenge, while one happened during a clash and another was a case of mistaken identity, according to police. Only two murders, including that of SFI activist Abhimanyu, were committed without serious provocation. In one case, the accused were acquitted by a Karnataka court in December 2021. The trial has not been completed in any.
The first among the four murders in Kerala was of Bibin (24) of Malappuram. The young RSS worker was killed in August 2017 by a masked six-member gang at Tirur. Bibin was the second accused in the murder of 30-year-old K Faisal, a former Hindu converted to Islam. Next was Abhimanyu (20), an SFI activist at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. He was stabbed during a campus clash in July 2018. The accused were workers of Campus Front and SDPI. RSS worker Nandu (23) was killed during a conflict between SDPI and RSS workers near Cherthala in February 2021. In the fourth incident, A. Sanjith (27), an RSS worker, was fatally hit by a car while travelling on a motorbike with his wife in November 2021 in Mambram, Palakkad. Sanjit’s murder triggered a blood bath in Palakkad between RSS and PFI/SDPI activists, which witnessed four more gruesome murders, two from each side.
Among the four murders in Karnataka, three were retaliatory. The accused were acquitted in one, and the other three are still under trial. Praveen Poojary, a Hindu Jagaran Vedhike worker, was killed in Kodagu in August 2016. According to Karnataka Police, he was killed in retaliation for pelting stones at a Muslim prayer hall and houses. In December 2021, a Karnataka court acquitted all the accused PFI workers in the case for want of evidence. The case is now being investigated by NIA. RSS worker R. Rudresh was hacked to death by alleged PFI activists in December 2016, which is currently under NIA investigation. Two RSS activists, Sharath Madiwala (28) and Praveen Nettaru (32) were killed in Bellaru and Mangaluru in 2017 and 2022, respectively, by alleged PFI workers. According to Karnataka Police, both were committed to retaliate against the murder of two SDPI workers.
Of the two murders in Tamil Nadu, one was a case of mistaken identity when C. Sasikumar, a Hindu Munnani spokesperson, was killed in September 2016 in Coimbatore, mistaking him for another Hindu Munnani leader by the same name. The next victim was V Ramalingam (42) of Thanjavur, a Pattali Makkal Katchi leader, in February 2019. He was killed when he opposed alleged attempts by PFI to convert a group of Dalits to Islam.
Though retaliatory, none of these cold-blooded murders should be condoned. Yet, are these enough to brand PFI as a terrorist organization and ban it for five years? What about other parties or organizations like the RSS that have much more blood on their hands? I hear outraged liberals asking, “Can crimes by other groups be cited to justify PFI’s criminal deeds?” Never, indeed. But the fairness of a system demands the non-discriminatory treatment of all, including criminals. Moreover, the trial is not over in any case, and no accused has yet been convicted.
Following the ban in September, hundreds of PFI activists were arrested from various parts of the country. The entire leadership is now kept in custody in Tihar jail. Those who are not yet held have ceased all public activities and confined to their homes. Family members are terrified, and according to some reports, colleagues and friends keep away, and phone calls go unanswered.
Despite widespread arrests and seizure of “incriminating” documents by agencies like NIA and ED, nothing significant has been unearthed until now, even by the national or regional media. Except for the “unearthing” by Bihar Police of some suspicious documents like “Vision 2047,” allegedly prepared by the PFI to Islamise India by the time the nation completes 100 years of independence, nothing has come out even after six months of the ban. Given the recent record of agencies like NIA and ED, nothing much needs to be expected either. Call it the devil but don't deny its due.