Late one February evening in 2001, Sadiq Israr Sheikh received an invitation to tea at the Medina Hotel, cradled inside the lanes of Mumbai’s Cheeta Camp. Like many young Muslims of his generation, enraged by the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Sheikh had joined the Students’ Islamic Movement of India. Within months, though, the air-conditioning mechanic had become bored with listening to impassioned speeches on Islam. Then, a year after he drifted away from SIMI, came the meeting at the Medina—one which would leave deep scars across India.
Two weeks after the carnage of 9/11, India moved to ban SIMI, charging the organisation with sedition. Even though hundreds of key SIMI operatives were arrested and interrogated, police forces and the intelligence services missed the real story.
Following his meeting at the Medina Hotel, Sheikh crossed the border into Bangladesh, boarded an Emirates flight headed from Dhaka to Karachi through Dubai. From Karachi, Sheikh told police—in testimony which under Indian law cannot be used against him during trial—he drove on to a Lashkar-e-Taiba camp near Bahawalpur. There, he began training with the core of former SIMI members who were forming the Indian Mujahideen.
Lessons learned from the SIMI story help understand the prospects—and perils—of this week’s decision to proscribe the Popular Front of India (PFI). The SIMI ban choked visible Islamist political mobilisation, but it didn’t cut off air to jihadist groups. Worse, jihadist networks became more walled off, operating with a discipline and secrecy that blinded India’s security services.
For almost six years—from 2005 to 2011—India’s police and intelligence services were to flail, clueless, in the face of the lethal urban terrorism campaign the country had ever faced.
PFI’s terror connection
Ever since 2016, the PFI has regularly faced allegations of its members joining transnational jihadist groups like the Islamic State. Kerala resident Shajeer Mangalassery Abdulla, accused by the NIA of recruiting for the Islamic State in Afghanistan, was a supporter of the PFI’s political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). Safwan Pookatail, a graphic designer with the PFI house-journal Thejas, is alleged to be among Shajeer’s recruits, along with Manseed Bin Mohamed, who researched Hindutva for the now-banned group.
Kannur-origin Muhammad Sameer—who took his wife, Fauziya, and three children to the Islamic State caliphate in Syria, where they are suspected to be incarcerated in a prison camp following his death—once served as sub-divisional convenor of the PFI as Valapattanam.
Earlier this year, police in Assam charged Maqibul Hussain, the former PFI district head of Barpeta, of recruiting for Ansarullah Bangla Team—a Bangladeshi al-Qaeda affiliate that has carried out multiple attacks targeting Left-wing secularists and the Hindu religious minority.
Telangana police arrested PFI activist Abdul Khader on charges of providing Kung-Fu combat training to hundreds of young men—although local media later reported that in this case, nothing more dangerous was recovered than “three sets of loose paper bunches, three hand books, a notebook, [and] some bus and train tickets.”
Long before recent killings in Karnataka and Kerala, PFI cadre have been alleged to be involved in religion-driven violence. Two members of the National Development Front—one of three organisations that formed the PFI, together with the Karnataka Forum for Dignity and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu—were charged with involvement in the hacking to death of eight Hindus at Marad in 2003. Far larger numbers of cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) were, however, reported to have been arrested.
Then, in 2011, PFI members chopped off the hand of Idukki college professor T.J. Joseph, over a question he had set for second-year BCom students during an internal examination. In 2013, the Kerala Police discovered a camp in Narath, near Kannur, where PFI members were receiving training in bomb-making and use of swords.
Like in the case of SIMI, the exact connection between the organisation and jihadist groups like the Islamic State isn’t clear. In most cases, Islamic State recruits were former PFI members, rather than active cadres. The case of Sadiq Sheikh is instructive. Failing to find jihadist opportunities in SIMI, Sheikh turned to distant relative Salim Azmi—later killed in a controversial shootout with police—to make the right connections. Azmi is alleged to have put him in touch with the ganglord Amir Reza Khan, who financed the training of the core Indian Mujahideen members.
The recruitment of former PFI members like Sameer into the Islamic State took place in the diaspora, clouding the details of their stories. Islamic State recruiters, moreover, have drawn several Indians with no known PFI link—underlining the influence of personal ties and online propaganda.
Politics of piety
From the demolition of the Babri Masjid, SIMI’s language had become explicitly pro-jihadist. At its Kanpur convention in 1999, seven-year-old Gulrez Siddiqui was held up before an estimated 20,000 cheering members: ‘Islam ka ghazi, butshikan, mera sher, Osama bin Laden,” the child intoned [‘warrior of Islam, destroyer of idols/My lion, Osama bin Laden’]. SIMI called for a caliphate, claiming democracy had failed India’s Muslims, and even appealed to God to send an avatar of the temple-pillaging eleventh-century conqueror, Mahmud of Ghazni.
Learning from SIMI’s mistakes, the PFI has studiously avoided inflammatory language. The organisation’s constitution, researcher Mohammed Sinan Siyech notes, commits it to “upholding the country’s democratic and secular order, working for peace, [and] advancing the cause of minorities.”
Through an extensive network of social-work organisations, the PFI also engaged in large-scale welfare activities. The organisation’s cadre, for example, built schools for poorly served Bengali-speaking Muslim communities in Assam. The organisation engaged in anti-drugs programmes in Kerala, and medical outreach across north Indian states. Funding for these programmes came, the PFI claims, through Rs 10-a-month donations from its 500,000 members, as well as affluent donors across India and West Asia.
Early in its trajectory, SIMI had used the same tactics. In 1982, for example, it organised what was called an “anti-immorality” week, burning purportedly obscene books. It won approval among communities with programmes seeking to draw young people away from drugs and alcohol.
The historians Irfan Habib, Iqtidar Alam Khan and KP Singh observed in a 1976 essay that SIMI’s social service wasn’t altruistic: Its motive was “preservation of Muslim separateness, not the end of Muslim backwardness.”
The dangers ahead
Like the PFI, SIMI thrived, scholar Yoginder Sikand has perceptively observed, because it gave its young Muslim supporters “a sense of power and agency which they were denied in their actual lives.” The organisation flourished in a political landscape where Muslim political representation within the large mainstream parties had atrophied. This created a vacuum which Islamist organisations like SIMI could fill, their rhetoric offering the illusion of a solution to the challenges faced by Muslims.
The ban on SIMI ensured an end to the toxic Islamism the organisation peddled, which could have led to a dangerous escalation of communal violence. This came at a cost, though. Large-scale arrests of young Muslims accused of SIMI membership, most of whom were acquitted, engendered deep bitterness. Former SIMI president Shahid Badr Falahi—ironically, among a group of political Islamists who sought to resist the jihadist current—spent fourteen years under trial accused of having pasted a sticker on a wall.
Local police, moreover, found SIMI members a convenient scapegoat for the Indian Mujahideen bombings which began in 2005—allowing the real perpetrators to continue their attacks for years, unchecked.
The toxic influence of Islamism represented by the PFI shows a complex matrix of deeply embedded political and social problems. The fight against it needs political action, not just police.