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Jihad in India is headed for rebirth. PFI knows riding the communal tiger is perilous

Since the Karnataka hijab row, there’s been a sharp rise in support for PFI. But authorities have long alleged it to be an incubator for Indian jihadists.

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Five minutes,” read the rage-filled email that arrived in newsrooms, moments before multiple bombs ripped through Ahmedabad in 2008, killing 38 people, “Await, only for 5 minutes, to feel the fear of death… Five and a half crore multitude of pathetic infidels who tortured us in the post-Godhra riots asking ‘where is your Allah?’: Here He is, the most supreme, the most sublime, with His punishment.”

Last week, several perpetrators of the Ahmedabad serial bombings, including some accused of authoring that email, were sentenced to death by a trial court. Some involved in the Indian Mujahideen bombings are already dead, killed fighting with the Islamic State.

The jihadist movement, though, might be headed towards rebirth. Fuelled by anti-Muslim violence, hate polemics and the communal schisms bred by the Karnataka hijab controversy slowly spreading elsewhere in the country, there’s been a sharp rise in support for the Popular Front of India (PFI) — an organisation that police and intelligence services have long alleged is serving as an incubator for the next generation of Indian jihadists.

Also Read: Gujarat 2002 was independent India’s first full-blooded pogrom. Delhi 1984 was a semi-pogrom

PFI’s birth and growth

Formed in 2006, the PFI brought together several organisations that formed across southern India in the wake of the Babri Masjid’s demolition — among them, the National Development Front, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai. The PFI’s front organisations include the Campus Front of India and National Women’s Front, as well as a political party, the Social Democratic Party of India. Affiliates have joined the front from across India.

Members of the organisation — among them Abdul Rehman and Abdul Hameed — had occupied leadership positions in the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), leading to accusations that the PFI was at its core a rebranding of the Islamist student organisation. The PFI has, however, pointed out that they did so before SIMI was proscribed in 2001.

The organisation’s public agenda focuses on mainstream questions of Muslim rights: action against anti-Muslim violence, job reservations for the community, and the defence of religion-based personal law. There’s no hint, in its official literature, of jihadist sympathies.

From at least 2011, though, disturbing evidence began to mount that the PFI cadre was involved in violence. That year, PFI members hacked off the hand of Idukki college professor T.J. Joseph, for teaching a purportedly blasphemous short story.

Then, in 2013, the Kerala Police discovered a camp in Narath, near Kannur, where the National Investigation Agency (NIA) claimed PFI members were receiving training in bomb-making and the use of swords.

Also Read: Gujarat’s fear and suspicion for Muslims predates Modi—he just knows how to exploit it best

Linkages to Islamic State

In 2014, the Kerala government filed an affidavit claiming the organisation had a clandestine Islamist agenda. The government claimed that PFI members had been involved in 27 communally motived murders, and another 86 other attempts to kill — part of a grim, subterranean war involving the state’s communists, Hindu nationalists and Islamists.

Linkages between members of the PFI and the Islamic State popped up, intelligence services allege, within months of the so-called caliphate being declared in Iraq and Syria.

In 2016, the NIA made arrests in Kannur, where they claimed members of the PFI were plotting to set up the al-Zarul Khalifa, a new jihadist group inspired by the Islamic State. The group, the NIA said, hoped to execute terrorist attacks across India.

Former PFI members were also among 22 Kerala residents who joined a proselytising cult, and then left to join the Islamic State in Afghanistan — and have been accused of conducting fundraising drives and propaganda in support of the jihadist group.

The PFI, for its part, said members who joined the Islamic State acted in defiance of “organisational education,” and notes it has long warned against the jihadist group’s “anti‐religious and anti‐national nature.” There is, in NIA records, no evidence that the organisation and its leadership — as opposed to its rank-and-file — endorse jihadism. Instead, its language is studiously constitutionalist.

New Delhi hasn’t so far proscribed the PFI, in spite of calls by the chief ministers of Assam and Uttar Pradesh — fuelling suspicions it sees political utility in the organisation, which is challenging established Muslim leadership.

Also Read: Indira Gandhi’s ‘Hinduism in danger’ to Karnataka hijab row — This is what jihadists want

Lessons from SIMI

Like SIMI before it, though, the PFI ended up discovering that riding the communal tiger was a perilous business. SIMI’s genesis lay in the Jama’at-e-Islami, founded by the influential ideologue Sayyid Abu A’la Mawdudi.

In a 1939 essay, Maududi argued that the pursuit of political power — rather than what he called “a hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals” — was integral to the practice of Islam. “Islam,” he insisted, “is a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals.” Although these ideas would lay the foundations for the modern jihadist movement in west Asia, the Jama’at came to the conclusion that defending the secular state was the sole viable defence against Hindu communalism.

The Jama’at founded SIMI in 1977, in an effort to reach out to young people. Five years later, it distanced itself from SIMI, concerned with the radical polemics of its leaders. SIMI, though, continued to grow, building mass legitimacy through campaigns against pornography and drug use, and holding religious education classes — much like the PFI.

Also Read: Viral photos, bruised egos, radical student groups: Inside story of Karnataka’s hijab crisis

Riding the communal tiger

From the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, SIMI’s language, scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded, grew “combative and vitriolic”, with pamphlets warning that Muslims comfortable living in secular societies were headed to hell. Soon after, the movement put up posters calling on Muslims to follow the example of medieval warlord Mahmood Ghaznavi to avenge the destruction of mosques in India.

In a 1996 statement, SIMI declared that since democracy and secularism had failed to protect Muslims, the sole option for Muslims was to struggle for the caliphate.

Like the PFI’s Islamic State-leaning members, the Indian Mujahideen’s founders decided talk wasn’t enough — and split from SIMI. From 2001, core members of these groups travelled to Pakistan for military training. The communal massacres that ripped through Gujarat in 2002 gave this core of jihadists momentum.

In 2004, dozens of new recruits met in Bhatkal, for the first in a series of training exercises; and a network of safe-houses and bomb-fabrication facilities were set up for the Indian Mujahideen’s 2005-2008 urban terrorism campaign.

Although Indian police and intelligence services have, since 2008, become increasingly adept at disrupting terrorist cells like the Indian Mujahideen, the problem goes deeper.

There has been a steady flow of jihadists, often from middle-class, educated families, into the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The PFI isn’t the only platform for mobilisation. The NIA has made arrests involving several separate networks, some centred around fundamentalist clerics and others that grew online.

Like in 1992 and 2002, anti-Muslim political invective and communal violence are pushing some young Muslims to seek vengeance against their homeland. For students of jihadist terrorism in India, the lesson is a simple one: Organisations like the PFI might be incubating jihadists, but they’re being reared on hate.

The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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