Chequered past of PFI: Formed to confront CPI-M, now in crosshairs of right wing

Chequered past of PFI: Formed to confront CPI-M, now in crosshairs of right wing

Speculation is rife that the central government is preparing the ground to ban the Popular Front of India (PFI) since the raids on the Front’s offices across the country and arrests of PFI leaders earlier this week. PFI, which originated in Kerala and spread its branches all over the country, has often been caught up in controversies connected to communal conflicts since 1990s.

To trace the history of PFI, one has to trace the political history of Kerala’s North Malabar region. Ever since the birth of PFI in its earlier avatar as NDF (National Democratic Front), its combative enemy had been the CPI-M and not the RSS in Kerala as now. The very birth of the organisation was the culmination of a series of violent events between the Muslim League and CPI-M in North Malabar in the 1980s. During the time, Nadapuram and Vadakara of rural Kozhikode witnessed frequent incidents of communally coloured violence. Though the violence was manifested in form of political clashes between the Muslim League and the CPI-M, the undercurrents were deeply connected with the communal, class and caste character of the social life of the Muslim and Thiyya (Hindu middle caste, belonging to the OBC category) communities in the region.

Also read: Nationwide PFI raids and arrests: What NIA says in its report

The origins of NDF

The formation of NDF was the ‘natural progression’ of coming into being a number of smaller groups that had been formed with the common purpose to defend Muslims from violence and aggression of the communist party, incidents that played out as League-CPI-M conflict.

In the second half of the 1980s, Nadapuram witnessed a series of incidents which claimed lives of eight people which ‘tallied’ in equal numbers on both sides. E Abubacker, the founder chairman of PFI — one among the many leaders arrested by National Investigation Agency (NIA) on September 22 – mentions the events in his autobiography published last year. According to him, communal intimidation by the CPI-M was one of the reasons that lead to the formation of PFI.

The core idea of forming an organisation was to display muscle power against the political enemy.  In the late 1980s, a person named K T Mammu formed the Muslim Cultural Centre (MCC) with the support of IUML in Vadakara, in Kozhikkode. The focus of the organisaiton was to provide training in martial arts to Muslims to resist the aggression of CPI-M cadre. In his autobiography, Abubacker says that MCC could be considered as the prototype of NDF, which later turned into PFI. According to him, “CPI-M converted class struggle into communal fight against Muslims. The economic growth achieved by the Muslim community in North Malabar as a result of Gulf migration created unrest among the socially backward Hindu community, which was exploited by the CPI-M for political gains”.

The Left in Kerala though has a different version about the events. “The Nairs and Mappilas (the Malabar Muslims are called Mappilas) in Nadapuram and Vadakara were landlords who received land from the local king. The backward Thiyya community were mostly doing manual labour for them which led to a class struggle under the leadership of the communist party,” K T Kunjikkannan, Kozhikkode district secretariat member of CPI-M told The Federal.

Kunjikkannan, who was earlier an activist of the CPI-ML, recollects how NDF was born and its subsequent growth. “The first meeting for the formation of NDF was at Mayyannur village in Vadakara. Their first activity was to launch a campaign against TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act). I was working with CPI-ML and was invited to a public meeting against TADA, but I kept away because we could not agree with the kind of extremism they stood for,” says Kunjikkannan.

There are multiple narratives about the formation of NDF. According to A M Shinas, assistant professor at Maharajas College in the department of history in Ernakulam, the prototype of NDF was formed even before the MCC; it was called the Nadapuram Defence Forum. “It was not a formal organisation; it was an informal collective formed with an objective to resist CPI-M’s aggression in the locality. They established connection with other similar local groups in other places in Malabar,” Shinas explained to The Federal.

However, the existence of Nadapuram Defence Forum has not been recorded anywhere, even in the autobiography of Abubacker.

The early times

There was an organisation called Islamic Youth Front under the leadership of those who had connection with SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) in the same period when MCC was formed. SIMI was not a banned organisation that time. The Babri Masjid movement was the burning issue of the time and all these groups together decided to launch a broader platform. Thus was formed the Babri Masjid Protection Committee in a meeting at Mayyannur on October 12, 1989, with 17 members, including Abubacker and Professor P Koya.

The formation of NDF was officially announced years later, on November 14, 1993, through a press release, 11 months after the demolition of Babri Masjid. Professor Koya and Abubacker were the office bearers of the organisation. NDF ceased to exist in 2006 when the PFI was formed following a merger of similar organisations, such as Manitha Neethi Pasarai (Tamil Nadu) and Karnataka Forum for Dignity.

Despite such a long and consistent history of collectivising Muslims, PFI existed as a fringe group in Kerala. If electoral politics is any indicator of the political characteristics of a society, it is apparently clear that the majority of Muslims in Kerala do not have any sense of belonging to the PFI. Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which is largely regarded as the political wing of the PFI, has not been able to gather more than 1 per cent of the vote share in the assembly or Parliament elections in the state so far.

Kept at an arm’s distance

The other mainstream Muslim organisations in Kerala have also kept a deliberate distance from PFI. The Muslim Coordination Committee — a common platform of Muslim organisations — took a conscious decision not to include PFI in the platform. Muslim Coordination Committee, formed with a purpose of taking uniform decisions regarding matters of faith and religious customs, was set-up under the initiative of IUML. It is an umbrella Muslim organisation, including all Sunni factions, three factions of Mujahid movement, South Kerala Jamiyathul Ulma and Jamaat-e-Islami.

“Muslim Coordination Committee is a loose structure that existed even before the formation of PFI, but we unanimously decided not to include PFI in the committee when the organisation was formed,” KPA Majeed MLA, the leader of IUML told The Federal. “We cannot afford to go with their extreme positions that make other communities hostile,” Majeed said.

Also read: PFI hartal in Kerala turns violent; HC takes suo motu case

“Muslim Coordination Committee is a non-political platform and not a permanent one. The committee is convened whenever there is a matter to be decided related to the conventions and faith. Two years ago, the committee was convened during the time of anti-CAA protests. Even then we decided not to include PFI,” says Hamid Faizy Ambalakkadavu, the working Secretary of SYS (Sunni Yuvajana Samgam), the youth organisaiton of Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulema, the prominent Sunni faction that is the backbone of IUML.

Ambalakkadavu is one among the Muslim scholars in Kerala who have consistently raised their voice against PFI. He has even written a book ‘Why should PFI be opposed’. In the book, he gives two main reasons to oppose PFI. “First of all, Islam does not permit individuals and organisations to take law and order into their hands. It is the duty and the role of the state. Hence, what they do is purely un-Islamic. Second, when you live in a democratic, secular country, you have to respect the law of the land,” Ambalakkadavu told The Federal. He thinks that the extremism practiced by PFI will never help the Muslims in India, but will only be harmful to them.

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