Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

The Popular Front of India and Muslim Responses to Hindu Nationalism

Popular Front of India activists stage a protest in Jaipur, India, on December 11, 2020. (Vishal Bhatnagar via Getty Images)
Popular Front of India activists stage a protest in Jaipur, India, on December 11, 2020. (Vishal Bhatnagar via Getty Images)

On September 27, 2022, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification declaring the Popular Front of India (PFI) an “unlawful association” under the country’s most stringent anti-terror law, effectively banning PFI and its affiliates for five years.1 The government said PFI was a “major threat to internal security” and alleged that the organization was involved in terror financing, had links to global terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and was radicalizing “a particular section of society.”2 Following investigations in March 2023, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) filed two chargesheets (official documents listing offenses against the accused) against nearly 60 individuals and issued a statement that PFI was engaged in a criminal conspiracy to radicalize Muslim youth and provide weapons training with the ultimate objective of establishing Islamic rule in India by 2047.3

In public and media discourse, the emphasis on this alleged plot to turn India into an Islamic nation and discussions of “Islamic jihad” overshadowed a central aspect of PFI’s complex politics: resistance to Hindu nationalism. With Indian Muslims being a very diverse group—religiously, culturally, and politically—responses to the rise of Hindu nationalism and the consequent oppression of Muslims have been disparate and rarely coordinated on a national scale. In this context, the Popular Front of India has constituted a departure due to its formation as an attempt to build a grassroots socio-political movement across the country, with a purported aim to defend Muslims and other marginalized communities in India against the rising tide of Hindu nationalism. PFI’s politics have combined an assertive rights-based discourse of resistance with an aggressive, confrontational approach. The latter aspect of its politics justifies violence in the name of self-defense, which has often taken the form of deadly cycles of attacks involving its activists and those of right-wing Hindu nationalist groups. 

Although PFI is now banned, its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), remains active, having escaped due to the legal complications of banning a registered political party. SDPI’s politics are informed by the same ideas as PFI and the two organizations are closely linked with overlapping membership in many instances. With the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) predicted to return to power for a third term in India’s 2024 general elections, it is important to understand the politics of PFI and SDPI and their appeal as a resistance to Hindu nationalism. This study examines the politics of PFI and SDPI in Kerala, the southern state where the organizations were founded and have their strongest base, and show how fear, insecurity, and anger are leading to greater support for their confrontational resistance to Hindu nationalism, particularly among Muslim youth. It examines the challenges that any Muslim political response to Hindu nationalism faces in the context of India’s electoral system and majoritarian politics today. The article is based on interviews conducted by the author in May and June 2022 with leaders of PFI, SDPI, and other Muslim political and religious organizations in Kasaragod district and Kozhikode city in Kerala. It also draws on existing literature on PFI and SDPI, including the autobiography of the movement’s founder, and the groups’ social media channels.

Muslim Politics and Responses to Hindu Nationalism

Hindu nationalism is an ideological movement, originating in the nineteenth century, that aims to create a “Hindu Rashtra” or Hindu nation where Hindu culture, religion, and values are dominant in social and political life.4 The movement has been driven by upper-caste elite through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a voluntary organization with networks that run deep in Indian society today. RSS and other organizations in its fold view Muslims and Christians as internal threats whose loyalty to the country is suspect and whose culture and religion pose a threat to the Hindu majority. Muslims have been a greater target for Hindu nationalists. They believe that Muslim rulers such as the Mughals, a dynasty of Central Asian origin that ruled large parts of the Indian subcontinent from the sixteenth to nineteenth century, colonized and enslaved a Hindu India, destroying Hindu temples and culture. This view of history leads them to see ordinary Muslims today as permanent enemies who conspire to dominate Hindus, convert them to Islam, outnumber them demographically, and carry out terror attacks against the country.5

Having built momentum over the years, the ideology gained greater dominance in Indian politics and society since 2014 when BJP, the political party of RSS, came to power in the national elections under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since then, Muslims in India have been facing increasing physical attacks and threats to their identity, livelihood, and religious practices from the state and Hindu nationalist vigilante groups.6 Principles of secularism have been undermined and state institutions such as the police and courts are seen as facilitating majoritarianism. The following examples are illustrative of the systemic violence Muslims in India face today. In Uttar Pradesh, police used bulldozers to demolish the homes of Muslims who led protests against a BJP spokesperson’s derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, on the pretext that the construction was illegal.7 Similar extrajudicial actions have been carried out against Muslims under BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh and Haryana.8 Hindu vigilante groups have called for Hindus to economically boycott Muslims in Karnataka, Haryana, and Chattisgarh.9 Vigilante groups have also routinely carried out physical attacks against Muslims under the accusation of slaughtering cows, an animal many Hindus consider sacred.10 Islamophobia in society is also on the rise and many ordinary Muslims have talked about living in fear of being attacked in public places because of their Muslim identity.11

Indian Muslims are a heterogeneous community of about 200 million, made up of different sects, religious practices, castes, classes, languages, and cultures. The resultant diversity of political interests combined with other factors such as geographically dispersed populations, a first-past-the-post electoral system, and lack of reserved constituencies for Muslims, have constrained the emergence of Muslim political parties, let alone a unified one at the national level.12 Muslims have largely supported mainstream political parties such as the Indian National Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist) [known as CPI(M)], and regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, a party of “backward “caste groups and religious minorities in Uttar Pradesh. However, the ability and willingness of these parties to articulate the political demands of Muslims has been wanting and, in recent times, constrained by the rise of majoritarian politics. In these circumstances, the capacity of Muslim politics to respond to the crisis of Hindu nationalism has been limited. In fact, political scientist Hilal Ahmed argues that the diversity of Indian Islamic communities is such that “the idea of having a defined strategy to counter Hindutva seems unreasonable and vague.”13

The most significant Muslim political coalition to challenge Hindu nationalism was formed in response to the dispute over the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Hindu nationalist groups claimed that the sixteenth-century mosque had been built over a temple that marked the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. In the 1980s, Hindu nationalist groups, including the RSS and BJP, led a concerted movement to construct a Ram temple at the site.14 The conflict became a national issue in February 1986 when a local court allowed Hindu devotees to worship at the site which had been closed off to both Hindus and Muslims since 1949.15 This prompted the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat (a federation of various Muslim organizations), the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) (an organization of religious scholars) and Syed Abdullah Bukhari, the influential imam of Jama Masjid in Delhi, to form a coalition to strategize on political and legal responses.16 The result was the creation of a 10-member All India Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee (AIBMMCC) in 1986, and the adoption of a plan of action involving mass public campaigns and a legal-constitutional response. The committee was composed of mainly North Indian Muslim elite from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and New Delhi, with only two representatives from South Indian Muslim parties.

The trajectory of the AIBMMCC and its internal conflicts highlight the challenges of claiming to speak for a national Muslim community and the predicament of a minority responding to majoritarian pressures. AIBMMCC called for Muslims across the country to not participate in the observance of Republic Day on January 26, 1987, to register their protest against the government.17 This became very controversial and several Muslim ministers, academics, journalists, and industrialists criticized the call as “anti-national” and “inflammatory,” forcing AIBMMCC to withdraw its call.18 This episode underscored the delicate tightrope minority political actors have to walk under majoritarian pressures. AIBMMCC’s non-observance call was publicized by mainstream national media as a “boycott call”; this led to anxieties over the “separatist communalism” of Babri Masjid politics, reflecting the post-partition suspicion of Indian Muslims’ loyalty to the nation.19 AIBMMCC clarified that the non-observance call was intended to question the government of the day for violating constitutional principles and was not a boycott of the state. However, even within the community, Muslim leaders and thinkers expressed concern that such confrontational politics would alienate the community and provoke further inter-communal conflict. 

AIBMMCC split in 1987 and, while it successfully lobbied the Union government to pass a law to protect other places of worship from similar disputes, it couldn’t prevent the destruction of Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalist groups on December 6, 1992.20 The coalition, which later splintered, pursued the matter legally through the courts and was unsuccessful. In 2019, the Supreme Court acknowledged the illegality of the demolition but awarded the land to the Hindu party and, in January 2024, a Ram Temple was inaugurated at the site of the mosque by Prime Minister Modi in a grand ceremony.21

The deadly communal clashes across the country following the Babri Masjid demolition, and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, also catalyzed another kind of response–violent acts of terror perpetrated by members of the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian Mujahideen. SIMI started as a student group of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in Uttar Pradesh which later separated itself when SIMI took a radical Islamist turn and expressed commitment to establishing an Islamic Caliphate.22 Among other things, the growth of the Hindu nationalist movement in the 1990s had been a factor in the radicalization of SIMI. The group was banned in 2001 over allegations of violence and connections with global terror groups. Similarly, the Indian Mujahideen, a jihadist group that carried out several terror attacks in India in the 2000s, was also formed as a Muslim ‘self-defense’ and to take revenge for Hindu nationalist violence.23 Notably, some PFI leaders were previously members of SIMI.24

Muslim Political Responses since 2014

With the rise of the BJP and the political and ideological domination of Hindu nationalism, the avenues for Muslim responses are significantly narrowed compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Over a decade of BJP rule, Muslim religious and political bodies have adopted diverse strategies of response.

Several prominent organizations and individuals have chosen to reconcile with their new reality, arguing that Muslim interests will be best served by accepting BJP. Maulana Mahmood Madani, who leads a faction of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, a national body of Deobandi scholars, has often made comments supportive of Prime Minister Modi and his government.25 When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat met Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, chief of the All India Imam Organization, as part of his outreach to Muslims, the Imam described him as the “father of the nation”.26 Firoz Bakht Ahmed, grandson of a celebrated Muslim Independence leader, is one of several prominent voices urging Muslims to “assimilate,” calling on them to support Prime Minister Modi and BJP for their own betterment.27 Muslim political commentators and scholars have criticized such leaders and ulema who speak favorably of the RSS and BJP for contributing to the oppression of Muslims.28

The most iconic Muslim resistance in recent times was the sit-in protests at Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, in late 2019, in response to the central government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excluded only Muslim refugees from a swifter path to citizenship for persecuted minorities from neighboring countries.29 Besides going against the principle of secularism, the law was opposed due to fears that it could be used to selectively render Muslims stateless in the future. In the capital, the protests were led by Muslim women from working-class neighborhoods, who argued on grounds of secularism, the Indian Constitution, and equality to oppose the law. Similar protests were organized in different parts of the country. Although several Muslim political and religious bodies also organized anti-CAA protests, the protests were largely grassroots, a non-party movement without a clear leader.30

Political parties such as the Indian National Congress (INC), the party of the Independence movement, Trinamool Congress, and Samajwadi Party have often been hesitant to speak up about attacks on Muslims, for fear of losing support among their Hindu voters.31 In this context, Asaduddin Owaisi, President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a Muslim political party from Hyderabad, has gained popularity among Muslims for highlighting injustices against Muslims by central and state BJP governments and the failure of secular parties to speak up on their behalf.32 Despite Owaisi’s popularity, his party remains a marginal player with limited success outside its base of Hyderabad; as mentioned previously, minority parties face the constraints of a first-past-the-post electoral system. 

In contrast with the responses discussed above, PFI and its political party affiliate SDPI represent a new form of mobilization. They combine a secular, rights-based politics that draws on constitutional principles, and therefore appeals to the masses, with a confrontational, often violent, response to Hindu nationalism. Moreover, they have attempted to create a unified national movement that is grassroots-based, rather than elite-led, and based on a consistent ideological platform of resisting Hindu nationalism. The next section will discuss the origins, ideology, and strategies of these organizations in detail.

Popular Front of India and Social Democratic Party of India

PFI and SDPI are movements that originated in South India, particularly in the state of Kerala which has a significant population of Muslims. Kerala Muslims are better off in terms of social, developmental, and economic indicators, compared to co-religionists in other parts of India. Kerala also has a rare, successful Muslim political party, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). Muslims in Kerala are very well-organized through the entrenched networks of different religious organizations such as the Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama (a traditionalist Sunni group that follows Sufi practices), Salafi groups, and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (a reformist Islamist group that has adapted to secular democracy). These factors made it possible for a political movement such as the PFI to emerge in the post-Babri political context of Kerala and South India. 

According to the biography of PFI founder Errapungal Abubacker, the organization’s roots go back to the late 1980s. It started as a local group created to protect Muslims from a campaign against Muslim landlords led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which drew its support from backward caste Hindus.33 This group evolved into the Babri Masjid Protection Committee which, following the demolition of Babri, emerged as the National Development Front (NDF) in 1993 to “protect Indian Muslims in the context of Hindu fascism.”34 Abubacker notes that, as Hindu nationalist mobilization around Babri Masjid gained momentum in the 1980s, it became clear that an organized Muslim movement that prioritizes defense and empowerment was necessary.35 This founding emphasis on physical self-defense has also shaped the politics of PFI and SDPI. NDF was mainly active in Kerala, but it was in touch with similar organizations in other parts of South India such as the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD), formed in the wake of communal riots and Hindu nationalist provocations in coastal Karnataka.36 Abubacker notes that NDF provided support to KFD and similar groups in Tamil Nadu, Goa, and Andhra Pradesh, where Muslim organizations were not as institutionalized as in Kerala. In 2006, after consultations among these groups, it was decided to form the Popular Front of India as a united national organization. In 2015, PFI claimed to have a total membership of 300,000 and a presence in 22 of 28 Indian states.37

Per its official mission, the Popular Front of India’s aim was to work for the empowerment and dignity of Indian Muslims and to instill self-confidence in them to face Hindu nationalism. Working for freedom, justice, and security for all, promoting national integration, and upholding democracy were among the stated objectives in its constitution.38 Much like the RSS, PFI too had several affiliates catering to different sections of society. These included Campus Front of India (the student wing), Rehab India Foundation (charity organization), All India Imams Council (for religious scholars), the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (human rights advocacy), and the National Women’s Front.39 The Social Democratic Party of India, PFI’s political party launched in 2009, is the only organization that remains active since the 2022 ban.

PFI as a Grassroots Movement

PFI founder Abubacker notes in his autobiography that, to be effective in the long run, they aimed to build a strong organizational structure that was not driven by any individual.40 PFI was set up with consultative mechanisms and a decentralized, hierarchical organizational structure that built upwards from local units to state and national-level general assemblies and executive decision-making bodies.41 A previous study observed that the leaders were mostly formal sector employees, such as lawyers, teachers, professors, doctors, engineers, and business owners, while supporters and cadre included ulema, laborers, petty shop owners, semi-literate youth, and other working classes.42 PFI also emphasized the unity of Muslims, regardless of their sect, and membership was therefore open to any Muslim, so long as they followed basic Islamic rituals.43 Notably, PFI’s support base is young, with the average age being less than 30.44

Confrontation as a Response to Hindu Nationalism

PFI and SDPI leaders I interviewed in Kerala were well-versed in the writings of Hindu nationalist ideologues and other scholarly work on the movement. They often referred to Hindu nationalism as “fascism” and compared it to the ideologies of Hitler and Mussolini. A founding member of PFI took pride in telling me that theirs was “the first organization in India to warn people about the threat posed by Hindutva forces.”45 PFI and SDPI leaders were very critical of traditional Muslim religious and political leaders, arguing that they do not understand the threat of Hindu nationalism.46 They criticized leaders of competing religious organizations in Kerala, who often clash over their interpretations of Islam, for dividing Muslims at a time when they should stand united. A national leader of PFI and SDPI mocked Muslim religious organizations in Kerala, who advocate communal harmony and tolerance in the face of Hindu nationalist politics. He said, “Traditional Muslim organizations are living in an unreal world where they do not really understand the dynamics of fascism.” PFI and SDPI leaders argued that Muslims who had compromised with the Sangh Parivar for personal gain were doing the community a disservice. They were also very critical of IUML in Kerala for their “soft approach” towards BJP and RSS which they believe enables continued attacks on Muslims. A local SDPI leader in Kasaragod said that IUML had betrayed the community by “acting with fear,” “keeping their head bowed down,” and asking them to be passive because they are a minority.47

PFI and SDPI leaders argued that attacks from RSS and Hindu nationalist groups can only be stopped by confronting the threat strongly and confidently, and theirs was the only organization in India brave enough to do so. Their organization was helping ordinary people gain confidence to resist ‘Hindutva fascism’ and face any eventuality. Their philosophy, as PFI General Secretary Anis Ahmed said in a speech in January 2022, and SDPI leaders told me in interviews, was that it was better to live like a lion for a day than to live like a jackal for 1,000 years, a principle they attributed to Tipu Sultan, an 18th century South Indian Muslim ruler who fought against the British.48 The following section will discuss the strategies PFI and SDPI adopted to create this confidence and to present themselves as a defender against Hindu nationalism.

“A Muscular Message”: PFI’s Violent and Non-Violent Strategies

PFI and SDPI’s strategies to instill confidence among Muslims to resist Hindu nationalism combine elements that are secular, nationalistic, and democratic, with a more radical politics that creates space for violence in the name of self-defense. Through its public campaigns and training for cadres, PFI worked to create awareness among Muslims about constitutional principles and their democratic rights as citizens of India.49 They also assert nationalistic pride through symbols such as the national flag and national song to counter the Hindu nationalist narrative which questions Muslims’ loyalty to India. Another key element of their response to Hindu nationalism is to provide legal support to victims of mob violence, discrimination, wrongful arrests, and media bias, helping them fight their cases in court.50 Discourses of social justice and constitutional rights, and the strategy of legal defense have found appeal, especially among young Muslims in places like coastal Karnataka, where they often face intimidation from Hindu vigilante groups and biased police.51 PFI and SDPI were also engaged in social work, encouraging Muslim families to send their children to school, participating in relief efforts during natural disasters and riots, and providing scholarships and other financial support.52

An important aspect of PFI and SDPI’s strategy of resistance is the idea that self-defense is a fundamental right and is permitted by the Indian Constitution.53 This idea can be traced back to the NDF and has featured heavily in PFI and SDPI’s campaigns through slogans such as “Resistance is not offence” and “Victims and hunters are not equal.” They emphasize both individual preparedness against attacks and displaying physical strength as an organization. A founding member of PFI and SDPI said, “We never promote violence. But at the same time, we tell people not to be pliant or obedient in that sense. You should stand on your feet. You can say it is a muscular message. But that is the message we want to send.“54 He argued that such self-defense could also be collective, giving an example of having to confront armed Hindu nationalist groups in the street. It is the politics emanating from this principle of self-defense through physical confrontation that has led to government action against PFI, and its condemnation as a violent, extremist group, including by various Muslim organizations. 

To project physical strength, PFI organized “Freedom Parades” or “Unity Marches” in which young men dressed in military-like uniforms marched in public in different cities, on Independence Day or Republic Day.55 An SDPI leader in Kasaragod, who previously held a leadership position in PFI, explained that the marches acted as a deterrence by showing the RSS that a “powerful force” existed to respond if they attacked Muslims and other marginalized groups.56 However, the projection of physical strength has taken far more serious and violent turns than public marches. In April 2013, Kerala police raided the premises of a building in Kannur where they found swords, lathis, two home-made bombs, and raw materials to construct such bombs.57 When they arrived, they found a PFI leader delivering a speech about training in weapons to defend against attacks from Hindus. PFI claimed that it was only a health camp imparting training on yoga and physical fitness and that the evidence had been planted by the police.58 The case was later transferred to the National Investigation Agency and 21 people associated with PFI were sentenced to jail in 2016.59

PFI and SDPI workers have also been accused of violence against workers of the RSS and groups affiliated with it. In November 2021, workers of PFI and SDPI were accused of the murder of an RSS worker in Kerala.60 This was followed by the December 2021 murder of a state secretary of SDPI, allegedly by RSS workers. Within 12 hours, another RSS worker was killed, allegedly by workers of PFI and SDPI. A similar cycle of violence and retaliatory violence in the state in April 2022 led to the killing of two workers of PFI/SDPI and RSS. When asked about these incidents, a founding leader of PFI said that the violence was not carried out on the instruction of the organization, but it was the result of a “spontaneous reaction” to an attack from the opposite side.61 Violent killings due to political rivalry are a longstanding feature of Kerala politics. However, the justification in the name of self-defense against Hindutva is a cause for concern. Similar cycles of tit-for-tat violence have also been witnessed in coastal Karnataka, a region where various Hindu nationalist groups and PFI and SDPI are both very active.62 With the victims being from different religions, such clashes risk leading to wider social unrest. Even if the leadership claim to discourage violence, workers on the ground have understood the principle of “self-defense” to be a tacit approval for violent retaliation.63 This endorsement of violence is also seen in SDPI’s decision to give candidature in the 2023 Karnataka state elections to a party member accused in the murder of a BJP worker.64

SDPI: More Than a Political Party?

Since the 2022 ban on PFI, SDPI leaders distanced themselves from the organization and claimed that they worked independently.65 However, the links between them are undeniable. In his autobiography, PFI’s founding chairman wrote that SDPI was launched in 2009 to fulfil PFI’s objective of politically uniting Muslims, Dalits (formerly untouchable castes), Adivasis (indigenous tribes) and other backward castes and religious minorities.66 SDPI leaders talked about the need for these social groups to unite against Hindu nationalism, arguing that the ideology only benefits upper caste groups.67 Unlike PFI whose membership was restricted to Muslims, SDPI is open to all and the party has some prominent non-Muslim leaders such as Kerala General Secretary Roy Arakkal, a Christian, and Bhaskar Prasad, a Dalit leader and Karnataka General Secretary. However, scholars have noted that the party does not have participation from Dalit masses, and SDPI leaders I interviewed also admitted that their membership is majority Muslim.68

SDPI has been contesting in local, state, and national elections in different parts of the country since its inception and has tried to work in alliance with regional parties. In local body elections in Kerala, SDPI made significant improvements going from 40 seats in 2015 to 95 seats in 2020; arguably, this is a minuscule percentage of the total 21,865 seats in Kerala’s local bodies.69 Similarly, SDPI made some inroads to local governing bodies in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and West Bengal.70 However, elections to local governing bodies are significantly different from state and national elections where the constituencies are larger and the party matters more than the individual candidate. In these larger elections, SDPI’s record is unremarkable. For instance, in the 2019 national elections in Kerala, SDPI candidates only secured between 0.33 and 1.85 per cent of the total vote share.71 Nevertheless, local body elections are a starting point for any political party to make themselves and their ideology known to the public. 

There are indications that SDPI is not merely a political party but also functions as a local force of resistance to Hindu nationalism like PFI did. During my fieldwork, many religious and political figures, as well as local Muslims, often used “PFI” and “SDPI” interchangeably and, when asked to clarify, remarked that they were both the same. Emmerich’s 2019 study of PFI noted that they operated as SDPI in politically sensitive states since a political party was less likely to be targeted by the government.72 In Kasaragod, SDPI’s activities were similar to those described in studies on PFI. They showed up at the police station to offer legal support to any Muslim in trouble, they took out street protests on local and national issues affecting Muslims, and they participated in social work such as relief efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. SDPI workers have also allegedly been involved in revenge attacks against RSS workers who attacked local Muslims.73 An SDPI member in an elected position in a village council in Kasaragod told me that Muslim youth in the area were no longer scared of provocations from local Hindu nationalist groups and, when asked to explain why, he said: 

“We don’t say [to Muslim youth] that you will be made a Member of Legislative Assembly or Member of Parliament or Panchayat (village council) President. We say that if, for some reason, you end up in a hospital, or you have a police case, for everything SDPI is ready. At any time. When you have such people behind you, you don’t need to worry about anything.”74

SDPI leaders in Kasaragod, however, denied that violence had any role in creating this assurance. 

At the time of this fieldwork in May-June 2022, before the PFI ban, there was a consensus among my respondents that support for PFI and SDPI as a force of resistance against Hindu nationalism was growing in Kerala, especially among youth. Two key reasons for this were a growing dissatisfaction with how IUML, the main Muslim party in the state, was responding to Hindu nationalism, and growing fear and insecurity over their status in a Hindu nationalist India. The next section will explore these interrelated factors. 

IUML’s Response: Pragmatic Politics and Maintaining Communal Harmony

After partition in 1947, the All India Muslim League (the party that led the movement for the creation of Pakistan) ceased its political activity in India except in the Madras province in the south, where it was reconstituted as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).75 When states were reorganized along linguistic lines in 1956, the Malabar region in north Kerala with its high Muslim population became a part of Kerala, and this geographical distribution gave IUML the conditions for its political success.76 IUML claimed to be the political representative of Kerala’s Muslims, and its agenda was to uplift the community. To deliver on this front, IUML was pragmatic in joining coalitions, first with the Communist parties in 1967, and then with the Indian National Congress with whom they remain in alliance as part of the United Democratic Front (UDF).77 Over the years, IUML held important portfolios such as Education, Local Administration, and Public Works, which it used to provide material and symbolic benefits to the Muslim community.78 IUML fits within the interest-group politics of Kerala, characterized by different caste and religious groups engaging in competition for resources through electoral politics. IUML has also carefully balanced its relationship with the different Muslim religious groups in Kerala, particularly rival Sunni and Salafi groups, to maximize support among its core constituency. 

IUML’s response to Hindu nationalism has been shaped by the social context of Kerala and its character as a regional party whose constituency is only Kerala Muslims. In the aftermath of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, IUML faced an internal crisis when its national president, Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait, and his allies called for the party to leave the alliance with the Congress in the state to protest the Congress-led central government’s failure to protect the mosque.79 However, IUML’s state leadership preferred to remain in the alliance; they argued they could do more for the community by being in power. In many ways, the IUML leadership’s stance today remains unchanged. They argue that the only way forward is to participate in electoral politics and focus on the community’s social, economic, and educational upliftment while challenging Hindu nationalist politics democratically through courts and protests.80 BJP is still a marginal player in Kerala and, having been out of power for two terms now, IUML’s immediate concern is to work with its UDF allies to highlight the shortcomings of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government (the CPI(M)-led alliance) and get elected. 

IUML leadership has called for their cadre and Kerala’s Muslims to remain calm and has warned against confrontational politics. In June 2022, the party took out a statewide rally to promote religious harmony and brotherhood. IUML has long cultivated its image in Kerala as a “guardian of peace,” bolstered by the legacy of the Panakkad Thangal family. The Panakkad Thangals are prominent Sunni spiritual leaders who claim the Prophet Mohammed’s lineage and hold key leadership positions in IUML. The Thangals, particularly former IUML state president late Panakkad Sayed Hyderali Shihab Thangal, are well respected for their role in lowering tensions in the state in the aftermath of the Babri demolition. During the inaugural rally in Kasaragod, IUML’s National General Secretary P K Kunhalikutty warned against PFI and SDPI without naming them: “[T]here is a new thing coming up which is creating a culture of taking an eye for an eye. Who will benefit from that? They may be able to grow their party by doing so, but it will do no good for society or the community. All religious, cultural, and social activities which are happening now will stop… In a country where we are a minority, if we embrace communal extremist violence, the casualty in that will be the minorities.”81 IUML leaders warned that taking to extremism would polarize society and enable BJP to grow its presence in the state. IUML also cannot afford to take any position that may be seen as “extremist” due to the risk of alienating non-Muslim voters in the larger UDF alliance.

However, with growing fear and anger over Hindu nationalist politics, IUML’s pragmatic message may no longer be enough. Many are now dissatisfied with IUMLs passive stance furthered by SDPI’s narrative that IUML is weak, passive, and incapable of protecting Muslims. SDPI is succeeding in convincing supporters that they are the organization bold enough to speak against the fascism that seems to be taking hold. IUML has also stumbled in its attempt to balance its image as a secular party and as a party that stands against Hindu nationalist policies. Days after the inauguration of the Ayodhya Ram Temple on 22 January, IUML state president Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal said that the temple was a symbol of secularism.82 While he was attempting to make a larger point about not rising to provocation and moving on, this opened IUML up to intense criticism online and from political rivals. For instance, an Instagram user commented on an SDPI fan page video: “I used to be a Muslim League worker. I often feel that my party is moving away from its goals. Reference, the recent statement by Thangal on Babri. Now I hate to stay in the League. I often feel that everything Sudapis [a term used for SDPI followers] said in the past is true.”83

If SDPI were to grow in Kerala, it would be at the expense of IUML. However, it is unlikely that a party like IUML which is so entrenched in Kerala’s politics will be displaced by SDPI. The latter’s association with violence is likely to deter mainstream parties in the state from openly working in alliance. But with the rise of Hindu nationalist politics in the country, there is a feeling among some Kerala Muslims that only an organization as bold and assertive as SDPI can resist it. 

Fear, Insecurity, and Growing Support for an Aggressive Response

Muslim religious and political leaders, journalists, and other political observers in Kerala believed that support for PFI and SDPI was growing among Muslim youth in Kerala because of their growing fear and anxiety about their status in an India dominated by Hindu nationalism.84 Social media further fuels these anxieties: news about hate speech by right-wing groups, unjust state action against Muslims in BJP-governed states, and other Islamophobic debates constantly reach people on their phones. As the feeling of helplessness grows, some young Muslims feel the need for a strong force like SDPI that can speak up on their behalf and oppose Hindu nationalist politics. The greater the provocation by BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups, the greater the feeling among some Muslim youth that retaliation is acceptable and necessary. A Muslim lawyer in Kasaragod said, “Even common people are showing interest to fund PFI and SDPI and encourage them because of that insecure feeling. There is no one to look after us. The only way is to take arms and strike back. They have that feeling.”85 Support for SDPI’s politics does not necessarily mean endorsement of its violent tactics. SDPI’s positive messaging on protecting the Constitution, defending secularism against fascism, and standing up for the rights of the marginalized has a wider appeal. In Kerala, however, the pushback against the politics of PFI and SDPI has been strong, especially from Muslim religious organizations which have a significant influence over the community. 

Adding Fuel to the Fire: How Muslim Religious Organizations in Kerala View PFI 

Most Muslim religious organizations in Kerala, where PFI originated, have spoken out against its politics and called it extremist. Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama—the largest Sunni body in the state, controlling 15,000 mosques—has condemned PFI as they believe its confrontational ideology is violent and goes against their religious principles. A senior Samastha scholar explained, “We follow a Sufi tradition of Islam. Our message is that no matter what the provocation, we should forgive and be calm.”86 At the same time, the organization is increasingly concerned about the effect Hindu nationalist politics is having on the social fabric in Kerala. Samastha’s approach is to reiterate the message through their classes and mosque communities that people should stay calm, act within the limits of a democratic state, and be wary of organizations with extremist messages. They have run local campaigns against PFI’s confrontational ideology, and those with known affiliations to PFI and SDPI are not allowed to be Samastha members. The Samastha scholar said that although the religious body has a good hold over Kerala’s Muslims, this could change in the future: “If Kerala Muslims are constantly provoked, there will be a natural reaction. In such a situation, even the Samastha leadership won’t be able to control them. We are worried that Kerala is going towards such a situation.”87

All India Sunni Jamiyyathul Ulama, a small but influential breakaway faction of Samastha, known locally as AP Samastha, has also condemned PFI and SDPI’s politics on similar grounds. A representative of the organization objected to the use of Islam and the Qur’an in PFI’s politics and argued that PFI urging ordinary Muslims to prepare for physical attacks goes against the principles of Islam and of democracy.88 He argued that any response to Hindu nationalism had to be within the democratic framework. AP Samastha’s approach is to focus on creating communal harmony through interactions between religious communities. Besides this, they encourage Muslims to support secular parties that will create development. AP Samastha has traditionally distanced themselves from IUML as they are averse to identity politics and because of IUML’s association with Salafi groups.

A senior scholar of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH) articulated a response to Hindu nationalism very similar to that of the two Samastha factions—to advocate friendship as a response to hate, and to resist through democratic means and not retaliatory violence.89 Beyond this, they aim to dispel fear among Muslims by raising historical awareness such as about the end of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s regimes, and by reminding them of the Islamic principle that ultimate justice will be delivered in the Hereafter, not solely on Earth. 

SDPI since the 2022 PFI Ban

Following the 2022 ban on PFI, political observers in Karnataka and Kerala said that SDPI had gone quiet, with their social activities and street protests being diminished.90 In September 2023, a police officer in Kasaragod, Kerala, observed that SDPI activists don’t turn up anymore at the police station to offer legal support to Muslims in trouble.91 Many of PFI’s national leaders who were arrested in the raids by the National Investigation Agency were also senior leaders of the SDPI. The party’s assets, such as their offices in Karnataka, and likely their finances, too, were impacted.92 However, this is not the end of the road for SDPI. The party has announced that they will contest 60 seats in the upcoming national elections in 2024, in several states including West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.93 In Kerala, where SDPI has its best networks, the party took out a statewide rally in February 2024 to drum up support, with the slogan “In pursuit of the nation’s reclamation.”94 In Tamil Nadu, the leading opposition party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), has included SDPI in its alliance, giving a seat once contested by its founder to SDPI’s president in the state. AIADMK was in alliance with the BJP until 2023 and is allying with SDPI to woo alienated Muslim voters.95 AIADMK was in alliance with the BJP until 2023 and may tie up with SDPI to woo Muslim voters. 

More research is needed to understand how the 2022 PFI ban has affected SDPI’s networks in other parts of the country, and to understand how well-known their ideology and political messages are outside Kerala and South India. As a minority political party in a first-past-the-post electoral system, SDPI is not likely to see much political success. With a few exceptions, most political parties may not work in alliance with a party linked to an outfit banned under an anti-terror law. The results of the 2023 state elections in Karnataka, the first since the 2022 ban on PFI, also indicate that SDPI is not yet seen as a viable political alternative. Fifteen of 16 SDPI candidates polled less than one-sixth of the total votes. 96 Muslims in India will still look to mainstream political parties such as the Indian National Congress to defeat BJP electorally. However, SDPI may continue to work on establishing its networks locally in Muslim-majority areas to offer a force of resistance through its non-violent and violent strategies. In places where Hindu nationalist vigilante groups are active—as in north Kasaragod and southern coastal Karnataka—this could lead to violent clashes between the groups. 

But how long can SDPI survive under a Hindu nationalist government? The BJP government under Prime Minister Modi has cracked down on all forms of dissent and protest, be it farmers protesting agricultural policies in 2020-21 and in 2024, or the anti-CAA protests in Delhi in 2020. The BJP may allow SDPI to continue operating so long as it can benefit from it—SDPI candidates in tightly contested seats may split opposition votes; BJP can accuse opposition parties of working with SDPI or going soft on the “jihadi” threat; BJP governments may also use SDPI and PFI as a pretext to crack down on Muslim resistance. Indeed, the SDPI can help BJP keep alive the threat of Islamic jihad to galvanize its supporters and polarize society. However, any assertion from SDPI, violent or not, that undermines BJP and its appearance of strength is likely to result in the party being banned. 


The contestations in Kerala over how to respond to the dominance of Hindu nationalist politics underscore the challenges that a minority group faces in a majoritarian context where they face discrimination from the state, society, and vigilante groups. The support for SDPI’s ideology in Kerala, whatever the scale, indicates a disappointment among Muslims in avenues like electoral politics, mainstream parties, the judiciary, and civil society safeguarding their rights. Such insecurity creates the space for actors such as SDPI with a more radical politics to gain traction for aggressive, confrontational, and violent responses. The scope for such politics of self-defense will be greater in contexts where Hindu nationalist vigilante groups are able to carry out violence and intimidation against Muslims without repercussions. With the BJP expected to return to power in 2024, it is likely that lawmaking and state policy will continue in the direction of a Hindu majoritarian state. Overtures to Muslims from RSS do not indicate any compromise in their ideology that Hindu culture should be supreme in India and Muslims must accept this to live here.97 The onus is on non-BJP political parties, the judiciary, and civil society to counter the rise of majoritarianism and ensure that democratic institutions function as they should. If not, the political opportunity for violent confrontational responses such as the PFI and SDPI will remain.