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The Popular Front of India: Looking Beyond the Sensationalism
Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel stand guard beside a banner installed by the supporters and activists of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during a protest demanding ban on Popular Front of India (Getty Images)
(Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The Popular Front of India: Looking Beyond the Sensationalism

Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Amid the emergence of new-age political and activist groups across India over the last two decades, the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), have come under increasing scrutiny. Formed in the mid-2000s, the PFI has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years, particularly due to violent incidents in the southwestern state of Kerala. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-run national government, for its part, has continuously attempted to ban the group.

This essay looks to understand the PFI and its role in Muslim politics across India while also interrogating the allegations of jihadist activities that are frequently levelled against it. In doing so, this essay seeks to chart the origins, expansion, ideology, and political affiliations of the group as well as the ways in which the organization operates and recruits today. By relying on both the group’s public messaging as well as author interviews conducted in India, this essay will shed light on this frequently misunderstood organization.

History of the PFI

The roots of the PFI can be traced to a state organization that existed in Kerala in the 1990s, the National Development Front (NDF). The NDF was formed in 1997, in the wake of a reactionary Islamist wave that emerged in response to the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid by a Hindu mob.1 The original NDF leadership comprised nineteen so-called Supreme Members of which one, P. Koya, had previously founded a now-disbanded terrorist group, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). SIMI had been responsible for a wave of terrorist attacks between 1992 and 2002 and former members of the group have been involved in other illegal terrorist organizations like the Indian Mujahideen and the Islamic State.2

The stated objective of the NDF was to work for the socio-economic advancement of minorities, with a particular focus on the Muslims of Kerala.3In line with this objective, the group began to agitate for the implementation of quotas for Muslims in the civil service while also protesting police brutality against Muslims and other forms anti-Muslim discrimination. The organization also advocated aggressive preaching of Islam (known as daw’a in Arabic) across Kerala in a bid to win converts.4

The NDF was soon implicated in several incidents of intercommunal violence, including the Marad massacres of 2002-03 that saw both Hindus and Muslims killed in a series of brawls and planned attacks (only two NDF members were arrested in relation to the Marad violence, however; most of those arrested were members of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayam Sevak or the Indian Union Muslim League).5 The then-State Secretary of the Communist Party of India, Pinarayi Vijayan, accused the NDF of being a terrorist organization.6 The BJP even accused the party of being funded by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, an accusation later echoed by two police officials in 2005.7 However, the enquiring commission that prepared a 490-page document on the Marad massacres claimed that there was no evidence to support this claim.8 The damage had already been done to the NDF’s reputation, however. The group therefore merged with several other organizations from neighboring states and changed its name to the Popular Front of India in 2006.

The involvement of certain ex-SIMI members in the PFI, namely P. Koya, perhaps explains why some government authorities considered the PFI to have merely been a rebranded SIMI.9 There is reason to doubt such claims, however. Over the years, the PFI expanded into many other states by merging with organizations that count non-Muslims among their ranks. As of 2017, the PFI claimed to be present in 22 states and a few union territories such as Puducherry while boasting a nationwide membership of over 500,000.10

PFI Objectives, Structure, and Funding

The PFI’s constitution was drafted in 2010 and last updated in 2014.11 According to this 24-page document, the PFI has an 18-point agenda which includes issues such as promoting national integration and social harmony, upholding the country’s democratic and secular order, working for peace, advancing the cause of minorities, protecting civil and political rights, and speaking out against human rights violations.12

While some observers label the PFI a Salafist organization, this is not correct. According to interviews with some of their members and press releases by group representatives, the group purports to follow Islam and does not specify which tradition or sect it adheres to. Moreover, according to one interviewee, the PFI makes no distinction between any Muslim who shows interest in becoming a member, so long as they pray regularly and observe what they consider basic Islamic rituals.13 The group membership includes Sufis, Tablighis, and even Shias (although not Ahmadis). The political arm of the PFI, the SDPI, is even more open and allows non-Muslims to join, including Christians and Dalits (the “untouchable” cast).14 This diversity indicates that the group is interested in unity among Muslims as well as among traditionally marginalized communities in India. Thus, at least on the surface, the PFI’s appeal is not limited to any single religious community, which likely helps the organization garner a broad base of support.

The PFI has a hierarchical organization with both state- and national-level offices. The most basic functional body is the local Unit, which has 20 members. The body above it is called an Area comprised of anywhere between 3–10 Units, followed by a Division (3–10 Areas), a District (3–10 Divisions), then Zones (2+ Districts). The PFI maintains a State General Assembly in each state where it operates, the purpose of which is to elect members for a State Executive Council which makes state-level decisions for the party.15 The National General Assembly (NGA) is the national body comprised of representatives from each state. Each NGA member represents some 300 party members. The NGA elects fifteen members to the National Executive Council (NEC), from which the Central Secretariat, the chief executive body of the party, is selected. The current party Chairman is O. M. A. Saleem while the current General Secretary is Anis Ahmed 16 The party structure allows the different state branches to keep afloat during times when the national party leaders may be incapacitated due to arrest.

The PFI appears to primarily fundraise through its membership. According to an interview with one party member, all members of the group are expected to contribute at least one percent of their monthly salary to the organization. The author was not able to verify this with other sources, though the party constitution states that every member should contribute at least Rs. 10 (14 cents in U.S. dollars) per month to the party.17 Assuming this is adhered to by all 500,000 members reported to be in the organization, that would mean that the party collects at minimum Rs. 5,000,000 ($68,000) each month. However, this should be treated as a rough and speculative estimate. All of the organization’s finances are subject to periodic audit by the National Executive Council.18

The PFI also uses its networks and social activities to fundraise. According to one interviewee, a real estate salesman, many businessmen who are sympathetic to the PFI contribute large sums when asked.19 This author also witnessed many instances of PFI members collecting donations at mosques at various spots in the country. News reports additionally claim that the PFI raises funds from the Middle East,20 an unverified but plausible claim given how much money flows between the Arab states and India. For example, many people from Kerala, where the PFI has its strongest base, have immigrated to the Gulf states and send remittances from there.

While we do not know the full extent of the PFI’s fundraising, we can glean some understanding from various news reports. For example, when the PFI was fighting a legal case in 2019, it employed the services of Indian National Congress official and lawyer Kapil Sibal for 77 lakh rupees ($105,000), an extraordinary sum in India.21 The PFI’s detractors have also alleged that the group receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from abroad to foment unrest in India. Although the government is currently investigating these allegations,22 the government’s Enforcement Directorate stated as recently as October 2020 that such claims are untrue.23

Unpacking PFI Expansion

Multiple factors have aided the PFI’s notable growth over the past three decades. For starters, no organization with any sort of social activist outlook is likely to sustain itself without the support of local politicians and businessmen. In the case of the PFI and its NDF predecessor, expansion was intertwined with political dynamics within Kerala. The Communist Party of India–Marxist (CPI-M), which is currently in power in Kerala, had an intense rivalry with the National Congress and its regional ally, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), throughout the 2000s.24 Both the IUML and Congress recruited heavily within Kerala’s Sunni Madrasas, including Salafist ones. The CPI-M allegedly cast a blind eye to the NDF’s activities and growth in the hopes that the upstart Islamic party would cut into the Congress and IUML bases.25

Another reason that the NDF grew, especially in places where it did not initially have networks, was its relentless social programming and related programs. For instance, in Bangalore, interviewees noted that the NDF was quite effective in alleviating the problems of slum communities and other economically marginalized segments of society. The group did so by providing loans to various small businessmen, clearing the debts of those who were unable to pay, and helping students apply for government scholarships. Several interviewees in Bangalore claimed that the organization had helped local families advance up the socioeconomic ladder, although official data to verify these claims is lacking. The PFI has also recently engaged in relief activities, including most recently during flooding in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in 2020 and following rioting in Delhi that same year. The group has also provided economic relief for families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, social work that the group has highlighted in its press releases and media.26

More interestingly, the PFI has been keen to provide legal assistance across India. This has proven an effective tool in building popular support since the Indian police system has a reputation of bias against minorities. Muslims in particular are overrepresented in prison systems across India and are often subject to arbitrary detention and, in some cases, torture.27 The PFI has therefore made an effort to provide legal aid in many cases of wrongful arrest. According to one PFI activist, legal aid is such an important element of the group’s strategy that the group specifically helps prospective law students get international scholarships on the condition that they join the PFI upon returning to India.28 According to the PFI’s own website, scholarships are prioritized for those studying law, journalism, and social work-related Master’s programs.29

The PFI’s strong legal network has also likely helped the group challenge and evade the many legal hurdles that authorities have attempted to place in its way.30 For example, when authorities investigated the PFI for allegedly forcing a girl from Kerala to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim, the PFI’s extensive legal network ensured that the group would not be subject to any unfair proceedings during the course of the investigation (the National Investigation Agency eventually declared that there had been no foul play).31 In another instance, the group initiated a campaign, “Jail Bharo” (“fill the jail”), in which it asked supporters to voluntarily get arrested in order to protest law enforcement bias against Muslims. In 2013, up to 20,000 members were arrested and released shortly thereafter in the southern state of Tamil Nadu alone.32 Additionally, the PFI has filed multiple complaints against media organizations that have vilified the group, thereby reducing some of the baseless accusations it is subjected to.

In its messaging, the PFI seeks to appeal to various marginalized communities in India. The group’s message seems to resonate most strongly, however, among Muslims. The group deftly plays on existing grievances within India’s Muslim communities, grievances that stem from significant socioeconomic and political marginalization. Decades of discrimination and rising intercommunal tensions have eroded Muslims’ confidence in the Indian political system (other minorities feel similarly).

Against this backdrop, the PFI presents itself as a protector of marginalized groups.33 One interviewee in the southern state of Karnataka claimed, for example, that PFI presence helps Muslims stay safe in what is an increasingly hostile environment.34 The government’s campaign of rhetorical and legal attacks often plays to the PFI’s advantage: The group is able to accuse the government of conducting a witch hunt against Muslim communities that are unfairly maligned as terrorists. By pointing to how the government considers the PFI to be threatening, and thus implicitly strong, the PFI further burnishes its credentials. As one PFI member claimed, the government goes after the group because they know that it is the only one that is strong enough to go head-to-head with the BJP-aligned Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization.35 General Secretary Anis Ahmed made a similar claim in one of his speeches.36

The PFI has also expanded through successful mergers with other like-minded organizations across India. Indeed, the group’s initial formation was the result of a merger between individuals affiliated with other Islamic groups, as noted earlier. Since then, the PFI has reportedly merged with or absorbed various organizations, some of which count non-Muslims among their ranks, in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Manipur.

Finally, the PFI appears to have expanded its membership through increased online engagement. The group’s YouTube channel has approximately 320 different videos, one of which has more than 100,000 views. Similarly, the group has a strong presence on Twitter. A brief search of PFI on the social media platform reveals more than 20 different handles for the national organs of the PFI, many of which command more than 20,000 followers, while the handles of state-level branches generally have between 1,000 and 7,000 followers each.

New Models of Muslim Politics in India

In the absence of a cohesive political party of their own, Indian Muslims have historically been courted by various parties. In return for their votes, they have traditionally been rewarded with limited patronage, little more than political scraps. After a Hindu mob demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992, however, Muslim communities across India were forced to dispel any notion that the government could be guaranteed to protect and provide for them. These concerns have been exacerbated in recent years by the increasing arrests of Muslims, shrinking political space for Muslim activists, and pervasive poverty and economic marginalization.37 Many Muslims have begun to feel that their community representatives spend too much time fighting over symbolic issues while ignoring the worsening socioeconomic conditions of their communities.38 Some Muslims have accused the ‘ulama (clerical establishment) of being elitist, upper-class organizations that only seek to benefit themselves.39

Such grievances and fears gave rise to a new brand of Muslim politics in the 2000s, a politics that it based more on grievance, and is in some ways more inclusive than the inward-looking, symbolic politics of the 20th century. Lower caste groups have organized similar political movements across the country in recent years. According to Arndt Emmerich, the PFI embodies such a movement, crafting a genuine grievance-based politics that is inclusive of non-Muslims and seeks to use legal means to advance its cause.40 The leadership of the PFI comprises a mix of both traditionally trained clerics as well as university-educated professionals, underscoring the group’s diverse and grassroots nature.

The PFI gains support by framing Muslims as victims and by capitalizing on the moral injuries sustained by the community, including the persistent violence that India’s Muslims have endured since the destruction of Babri Masjid. Such violence includes the Gujarat riots and pogrom of 2002, the Uttar Pradesh riots of 2012, and many other incidents.41 The PFI’s primary opponent is the Hindu right, as various speeches by key members of the PFI make clear. For instance, in 2015 then-Vice Chairman E.M. Abdur Rahman declared that “Hindutva fascism” was the biggest challenge facing India.42 General Secretary Anis Ahmed similarly noted in early 2021 that India was under the dictatorship of “Hindutva and fascism.”43 At the same time, the group presents itself as patriotic, often asserting its allegiance to the Indian constitution. Moreover, the group has released statements condemning foreign attacks on Indian soil, such as during the India-China skirmishes in Ladakh in 2020.44

Allegations of Violence and Extremism

While the PFI has worked tirelessly across India to expand its base, it has come to prominence in a less-than-flattering light as a result of several violent incidents. In 2010, PFI activists chopped off the hand of a professor in Kerala for drafting an exam question that disrespected the Prophet Mohammed.45 Several years later, the group was implicated in a string of revenge killings of approximately 30 people, including RSS and Congress members, in Kerala and parts of coastal Karnataka state.46 While the PFI officially denied involvement in these incidents, this author’s interviews suggest that low-level party activists were most likely involved in some violent incidents over the years. However, it is not clear to what extent this violence was sanctioned by senior party officials.47 A 2017 report by the newspaper Scroll noted that in 14 out of 24 cases in which the PFI was held responsible for the murder of Hindu activists, the violence was not connected to the PFI and was rooted in personal issues rather than communal or political issues.48

The PFI’s national prominence increased throughout 2019 and 2020. At the peak of protests that began in December 2019 against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (which excludes Muslim immigrants from an eased pathway to citizenship), various media outlets reported, without providing evidence, that most of the protests were coordinated by the PFI with the support of foreign benefactors (specifically the Gulf states). Additionally, there have been allegations that PFI activists have been involved in riots across Mangalore and parts of Uttar Pradesh.49 Most recently, in August 2020, several key PFI figures were arrested in Bangalore for allegedly instigating riots that had left four dead earlier that year.50

At this point, many Indian media outlets are quick to allege a connection between the PFI and virtually any anti-government protest that occurs.51 Such allegations are routinely refuted by the PFI and even government agencies, often after a degree of investigation.52 Indeed, these allegations have become so commonplace that PFI General Secretary Anis Ahmed often pre-empts them. For instance, one of his recent tweets questioned, perhaps sarcastically, when the media would begin to blame the PFI for protests conducted by farmers in New Delhi.53

The branding of the PFI as an extremist group reflects a securitized view of Islam that has increasingly taken hold in India, one that construes Muslim organizations as inherently threatening regardless of their actual proclivity for violence.54 An ex-police official based in Bangalore noted to the author, for example, that the state government benefits from the PFI presence since the group provides an easy scapegoat during any social unrest.55 As a result, the group faces frequent threats of proscription from the government. Indeed, the group was banned twice (in 2018 and 2019, respectively) in the state of Jharkhand.56

The PFI has no professed international ambitions, the sensationalist allegations of the Indian media notwithstanding. The group does not officially sanction violence, although it may turn a blind eye when its members engage in violence over personal or local disputes (which are not uncommon in India), and particularly when the violence is defensive or retributory in nature.57 It therefore seems unlikely that the group would have any interest in engaging in any sort of international terrorist plots or in allowing its members to fight in conflicts abroad.

However, it is also possible that some PFI members may leave the group out of frustration with its non-violent stance, choosing instead to pick up arms. This has happened on several occasions, although the PFI has been quick to distance itself from such individuals. For instance, the PFI categorically denied its involvement in the aforementioned attack on the professor in Kerala in 2010.58 Similarly, the PFI has condemned the killing of innocent people by jihadist groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram.59 Such disavowals were also communicated to the author by the group’s press secretary in 2019. As such, while security agencies might do well to maintain awareness of the group’s membership and activities, it is highly unlikely that the group as a whole will pose a direct threat to India or any other nation.

While much of the criticism of the PFI comes from government quarters, the group does not enjoy unquestioning or universal support from Muslim communities. Muslims may oppose the group for a variety of ideological or practical reasons. Some individuals have expressed consternation that the PFI and allied groups have encouraged gangster-like behavior among their members. For instance, this author has heard complaints that PFI members have often been overly aggressive in their opposition to pre-marital relationships, resulting in a great deal of “moral policing.” Similarly, some Muslims have criticized the PFI for being too extremist. For instance, the Salafist Jamaat in Kerala accused the PFI (and another group, Jamaat e-Islami) of radicalizing Muslims in the state.60 Alternatively, some Muslims have criticized the PFI on practical grounds, arguing that many of the group’s policies are short-sighted or brash and will thus prove counterproductive in the long run.61

Observers should understand the context in which some of these criticisms arise: Muslim organizations in India often try to fit themselves within boundaries set by the government for what constitutes a mainstream or “acceptable” Islamic organization so as to avoid vilification. One way of doing so is to point fingers at other organizations in order to deflect charges of extremism. Thus, it is common for the Barelvis to single out Deobandis and accuse them of radical tendencies, for the Deobandis to, in turn, single out Ahle Hadeeth and other Salafist organizations, and for the Salafists to then point fingers at the PFI.62 Muslim politics, in short, are far from homogenous.

Conclusion

The Popular Front of India and its predecessors were formed as a reaction to right-wing Hindu activism and violence. Yet the group has long tried to present itself as more than a mirror image of Hindu extremism, as seen in the group’s political alliances with diverse local and state-level parties across India.63 Moreover, it has worked hard to project itself as a responsible and charitable organization committed to upholding the Indian constitutional system. In doing so, it has reaped dividends in the form of significant grassroots support and has even managed to field candidates for office in some places.

However, the group has had many run-ins with the authorities, which have not always helped its reputation, especially given the ubiquitous misperceptions about Muslim politics in India and the ease with which the tag of extremist or terrorist is thrown around. The participation of the PFI in different anti-government protests since 2019 has further sharpened the government’s crosshairs on the group.

There is a need for the Indian government, its international partners, and commentators and analysts (both Indian and foreign) to understand the nuances of Muslim politics across India and refrain from branding any political engagement on the part of Muslim groups as a form of extremism. This does not mean that concerns about extremism are never warranted. Splinter groups or local elements within the PFI or similar organizations may indeed engage in violence, as noted throughout this piece. But merely monitoring the group’s activities for signs of extremism would be a shortsighted approach. There is a greater need for stakeholders to engage with the group’s leadership, which has repeatedly expressed its willingness to participate in the legal and democratic process. A failure to do so could lead to further unrest and evermore poor intercommunal relations at a time when India can ill afford such troubles.