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Here come the pious: Kerala’s radical turn

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This cover story by Tehelka magazine was published in its October 2010 issue (Vol 7, Issue 40, Dated October 09, 2010). The piece is no longer available on their website. Canary Trap has reproduced the piece as is with permission from its author.


Engineering student Rayana Khasi returned home to north Kerala from Chennai four months ago, charmed and unaware that she was carrying deadly arsenal in her baggage. She had just finished with a course in aeronautical engineering, and was considering a career in the civil services. From Chennai she brought a few of her favourite things. Dreams. Knickknacks. Jeans. In Kasargod, northern Kerala, where she lived, Rayana got the shock of her life. They hated her jeans. They called her at odd times, men she didn’t know, and told her what they would do with her if she didn’t dump the jeans and put on purdah. Each time Rayana stepped out, they stared and said horrible things.

Then, four months later, she wrote to the Women’s Commission asking that she be allowed to wear what she likes. The state posted constables to protect Rayana so she could sport denim. Now, they stalked her. One day Rayana was returning after meeting her lawyer in Ernakulam, a town near the middle of Kerala. The constable got off midway. A group tried to block the car Rayana was in. She drove off. They chased the car and attacked her with stones. She had to drive to a town nearby, where the locals lent a touch of security. All this, because they didn’t like what she wore. Because they thought she was impious.

“They said they were from the Popular Front of India. Initially it was teasing and harassment. But harassment is worse than a threat to life. The comments and staring each time I ventured out, as if I was a criminal, was intolerable. They wrote to me saying they want me to wear purdah. They said what I did was blasphemy. But I don’t think it is a problem of Islam. This is an issue of the right over one’s body. It is sad that everybody is making it out as a religious problem, even those who support me,” says Rayana. Soon after the stone attack, she met Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and the DGP. “They promised me they would do their best.”

The Popular Front of India (PFI), with its headquarters in Kozhikode, Kerala, is throwing up a curious test for India’s secularism. In classified central government reports, the PFI is accused of introducing an extremist pan-Islamist movement to India. In submissions to the High Court, the Kerala police claim it is linked to the Al Qaeda. Achuthanandan suggested the PFI has a 20-year plan to Islamicise Kerala. And then, Keralites were jolted out of their secular somnambulism on the first Sunday of July when a bunch of PFI cadres chopped the right palm of a college teacher, TJ Joseph, for setting a question paper that allegedly insulted Prophet Mohammad.

Hindus and Christians are beginning to feel uncomfortable with this brand of assertive, militant religion-centred politics. “They are the Indian Taliban, but they cannot overcome the syncretic culture of Kerala,” says Raveendran, a building contractor in Thrissur. According to him, the PFI is a temporary fad funded by petrodollars from Saudi Arabia. Mathew Nethumpara, a lawyer in Ernakulam, says he is not surprised because “intolerance has been brewing for several years”. Rayana’s struggle is a graphic illustration of the holes in Kerala’s secular net. This young student from Cherkalam in Kasargod has already received two death threats from the PFI for refusing to wear the veil. “I will not succumb to their pressure,” she says.

The PFI is a four-year-old organisation that has thrived on the controversy it generates. It was formed in December 2006, when three organisations, the National Development Front (NDF) of Kerala, the Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP) of Tamil Nadu, and the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) merged to form the new entity. The NDF was involved in the Marad Beach carnage, Kerala, in May 2003. Its cadres killed eight Hindu fishermen after a scuffle over drinking water at a public tap spiraled into a communal conflict. In 2009, a special court sentenced 65 NDF cadres to life imprisonment for this. The MNP is believed to be the new avatar of Al Umma, accused of attacking an office of the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Chennai in November 1993. Eleven RSS cadres were killed here. The PFI considers the members of Hamas, Taliban, and Al Qaeda as freedom fighters. In one of its publications, it says: “We declare solidarity to the freedom fighters in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Confidential missives of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and the Kerala Police accessed by TEHELKA suggest the PFI is the fastest-growing cadre-based Muslim organisation in India. It held its first political conference in 2009 in Kozhikode, where it came out with its influential Kozhikode Declaration. In it, the PFI said: “The War on Terror is a US agenda. It is a political tactic shaped by hegemonic forces bent upon world domination. The Muslims are the victims of the war on terror. The Indian government supports the WOT and makes available the county’s machinery for implementing the plan hatched by the US-Israel axis. It’s in the wake of this alliance that we witness the increase in bomb blasts in the country.”

The Muslims, on the other hand, have been pushed down by inferiority complex created by peculiar historic developments. They are under the wrong impression that any political move of their own is wrong. While the national secular parties are anxious to use the Muslim votes, they have been reluctant to take them in as equal partners. They have failed to secure the rights of the Muslims as citizens and refused to give even legal protection to them during communal riots which are a byword for collective anti-Muslim attacks. When the administration joined hands with anti-Muslim forces it created fear in Muslim minds. There is strong suspicion that plans are being hatched and implemented deliberately to break the Muslims economically and socially.”

“The denial of basic needs and willful negligence of their just demands have imposed social slavery. No political party can shrug off responsibility for creating this situation. So it is imperative that Muslim organisations come to the forefront for the advancement of the community and to create awareness about their rights.”

It is impossible to judge whether the PFI has really sown the seeds of Talibanisation in India. For instance, Kerala’s Director General of Police Jacob Punnose says, “I realise the danger but I don’t want to exaggerate it.” Unnikrishnan, a well-known Malayalam filmmaker and culture critic says educated Muslim youth in Kerala cannot be seen in a monolithic context. “But we cannot deny that the consolidation of pan-Islamism can be seen in Kerala.” He considers the PFI’s militant retaliation for perceived injustices “a dangerously romantic imagery”. He says Muslim radicalisation in Kerala would have a big impact.

The PFI’s Kerala head Nasrudheen Elamaram says his organisation is expanding because there is a feeling among Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis that they have been cheated. The PFI sees the State as the enemy. That there are visible signs of Islamisation is accepted by all. Unnikrishnan describes this as “hybrid Islamisation”. Suddenly, over the past decade, Kerala’s 26 percent Muslims appear to be twice their number. That’s because the dress code of Kerala Muslims has been made Arabic. All across Kerala most Muslim women wear head scarves or purdah or hijab. “It is fashionable to wear hijab,” says Salima, a student of BSc, Applied Statistics, in Kozhikode’s Ferook College. When first-generation educated Muslims went to the Gulf countries, they returned far more conservative than they might have been when they left India. This has been subsequently imbibed by friends, relatives and neighbours. While Elamaram admits “Gulf influence” is a factor, he adds, “Purdah is matter of faith. There is no compulsion.”

Sunil Kumar KK, is an administrator in Calicut University. He has been an anti-communalism activist working primarily among students. “In the past few years I have seen more women, and more educated women, for instance my neighbour who has a Phd, take to the hijab. There is radicalisation but that would be in small pockets. Also, one must not underestimate the role of the mafia in fuelling terror activities or easing recruitment. Go to a remote town and promise jobs or college admissions or just money. Tell people that ‘another community’ has lots of college seats and Muslims don’t. This seems to be what works for groups like the PFI,” he says.

Part of the PFI’s growth is because it has a separate media company, the Inter Media Private Limited, held by the Thejas Publishing Charitable Trust. Thejas is the name of the PFI’s Malayalam daily that started publishing in January 2006. Since then the PFI has launched four news publications in Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada. It also has four book publishing ventures in the same languages. It has a website and a dedicated web team. It has set up an ‘Empower India Press’ to publish titles in English, Hindi and Urdu. Another organisation, called ‘Media Research and Development’ produces audiovisual products and documentaries. “We see the media as a vehicle for political empowerment,” says NP Chekkutty, Executive Editor of Thejas. “The PFI’s membership is only for Muslims because a cadre-based organisation is important for social mobilisation. So, it is not the Talibanisation or radicalisation in the sense of what is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he adds. Soon Thejas will start an edition in Saudi Arabia. So far, Thejas has employed more than 400 media professionals and is working on a Saudi Arabia edition.

All this has caught the Centre’s attention. A letter classified as secret issued by the union home ministry on 25 November 2009 states: “Thejas is part of a pan-Islamic publication network catering to the communal agenda of certain organisations. The publication invariably takes anti-establishment views on issues like plight of Muslims, Kashmir, and India’s relations with the US and Israel. Occasionally, it describes the government’s counter-militancy effort as state-sponsored terrorism, thereby endorsing the stance of militant elements. More importantly, contemporary developments and issues are invariably projected with a communal slant.” The Kerala Government took this seriously and withdrew all advertisements from Thejas on 14 May this year. “In the past financial year we got more than Rs 80 lakh as revenue from government advertisements. The decision to withdraw them from Thejas is a political decision aimed at destroying the newspaper,” says Chekkutty. But, in strange twist, the Centre’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity revived government advertisements in Thejas. The first one was an appeal by the central government to maintain calm and peace in the aftermath of the Allahabad High Court’s Babri Masjid verdict!

In the period after the Babri Masjid verdict, the PFI is gearing up to bring all Muslim groups in India under its banner. At its Kozhikode conference, Zafaryab Jilani, the convener of the Babri Masjid Action Committee, articulated a long-cherished dream. “The Front should make sure that under its banner all the suppressed sections close ranks.” The Kozhikode Declaration also called for the unification and consolidation of Muslims, Dalits and Backwards as a ‘genuine Third Force’ in Indian politics.

The PFI has garnered rapid support within the Muslim community because it has been able to demonstrate its organisational capability. Its ‘Freedom Parade’ is the shining showpiece of its cadrestrength. On 15 August in the past two years, PFI cadres dressed in uniforms similar to paramilitary organisations staged a perfectly synchronised march in cities across Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Muslims in Kozhikode thronged the roads and packed into the city stadium to watch the march. In 2008, the PFI chose to stage the Freedom March in Mangalore, a town known for its Hindutva extremist groups like the Sri Ram Sene. PFI seniors take pains to explain the rationale of the Freedom Parade. “The Muslim community needs to show its strength for political mobilisation. A disciplined cadre-based organisation is necessary for the progress of the community,” says Elamaram.

This year the Kerala Government banned the parade. Kerala police officers point to a few curious features of the PFI’s show of strength. It was always held in the afternoon or evening after the official Independence Day functions were over. No PFI senior has ever turned up for official I-Day functions. The PFI has consistently refused to furnish the list of names and contact details of its marching cadres to the police so their strength is not precisely known. Police officers claim the cadres have been trained by former police and army personnel. The police claim that within the PFI, there is an Ideology Wing, Intelligence Wing and an Action Group.

Some South Indian Muslims admire the PFI for its educational, social and public health initiatives. It offers career counselling, distributes educational aids and study material, and runs motivational programmes like the ‘School Chalo’ campaign every summer. Its medical camps are also popular. But the biggest inducement for Muslim youth to join the PFI is jobs. “We have been fairly successful in building an organisation. There was a change because employment was given to Muslim girls, boys and Dalits,” says Elamaram. The police claim PFI goes beyond providing jobs. “All Muslim youth joining the PFI are given mobile phones, motorcycles and money. The organisation also assists in job recruitments in the Gulf,” says Vinson M Paul, ADGP, Crime.

The PFI says it tapped into the anger of the Indian Muslim community after the release of the Sachar Committee Report. The official admission by the government that the Muslim community is the most backward in India set the ground for the PFI’s spectacular growth. Its assertive, militant brand of politics aimed at acquiring political power at the national level appealed to Muslims who felt powerless. The PFI’s political rationale, that the Indian Muslim community’s absence in the corridors of power is the root cause for genocidal attacks on Muslims, has resonated deeply within the community. This powerlessness leads to systematic killings of Muslims in fake encounters and communal pogroms, the PFI holds.

The Babri Masjid demolition, the riots in its wake and the Gujarat genocide are often cited in PFI literature. The organisation believes the American war on terror and India’s new-found friendship with Israel has furthered weakened Muslim “servility”. They claim that India’s security and strategic establishment have been irreparably influenced by American and Israeli intelligence and security agencies. PFI claims that Indian Muslims are victimised by Hindus for eating beef. The media constantly questions their patriotism and unquestioningly accept the role of Muslims in terrorist activities.

Much of this is true and a decision by Indian Muslims to consolidate themselves as a self-confident political force, partaking of democracy as equal players not second-class citizens dependent on “appeasements”, could have been a welcome move. Like the social churn Lalu Prasad and Mayawati brought in their wake, it could bring positive yield: more jobs, more education, more leverage. What makes the growth of the PFI and its associate organisations worrying though is its undertow of violence and Islamic fundamentalism.

Says Hameed Chennamangalur, former Calicut University professor and social commentator, “It’s not just the PFI. There are many other groups that share their Islamist ideology. They are like the Al Qaeda and similar groupings in Egypt, Pakistan or Bangladesh. They oppose America not because it is imperialist but because it is Christian imperialism and they see Islam as the only truth. The PFI, unlike older avatars, is extremely well funded and has been steadily building institutions — newspapers, publishing, schools.

“Mainstream Muslims in Kerala may not come out and applaud them when they do things like cutting the professor’s hand but they support them inwardly. They have supported them quietly earlier when, as the NDF, they conducted similar moral policing. The question paper incident was a small issue that they blew up because groups like them do not tolerate criticism or perceived criticism of Islam. Just like the Ram Sene or the Shiv Sena they are geared to blowing up tiny incidents.

A Muslim school in Kannur that took boys and girls out on a normal school excursion gets attacked. Their bus gets blocked because the NDF does not want boys or girls to mix. Or in Malapurram they tell Muslim owners of restaurants that they cannot open during Ramadan. Or decades ago in the same region the NDF burnt movie theatres they suspected were showing pornographic films. The people who need to worry in Kerala are liberal Muslims. The people who supported the professor who had his hand chopped off, pro-Rushdie people, pro-Taslima Nasreen people … they are the ones who need to watch out. People like the Chekkanur Moulvi who was a progressive cleric who was kidnapped and killed in 1993 … those are the kind of people who need to worry.”

There is evidently big following for the PFI even in states other than Kerala. In the past two years the PFI and its political wing, Social Democratic Party of India, have set up committees in 15 states and already have a significant following in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The PFI’s formulations of “total empowerment” for Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and Backward Castes have connected with other Muslim political groups and parties. The Asom United Democratic Front (AUDF), led by perfume magnate Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, has declared solidarity with the PFI. The AUDF, with 11 MLAs in the 126-member Assam legislature, is a significant player in Assam politics. Political midgets like the Milli Ettehad Parishad in West Bengal and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhgam (TMMK) have joined the PFI-led national alliance of Muslim groups and parties. Much of this comes from the Kozhikode conference. There, Ebrahim Rasool, then advisor to the South African President, energised the PFI leadership with a simple proposition: “Muslims in South Africa account for 3 percent of its population, but have 15 percent representation in Parliament. If we can do it, why can’t the 13 percent Muslims in India do the same thing?”

Stuff like this is raising an alarm in New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram. Achuthanandan said the PFI was trying to make Kerala a “Muslim country.” “How can we convert all the people of Kerala to Islam in 20 years?” rebuts Elamaram. “If this is true, then Achuthanandan and his children too will have to change their religion.”

Taking a cue from the freedom guaranteed in the Indian Constitution to propagate religion, the PFI has set up religious propagation and education centres in Theni and Ervadi in Tamil Nadu. While Kerala police officials allege that these Arivagam centres for men and women are basically conversion centres, the PFI claims these are institutions for teaching the basic tenets of Islam over four months to those who voluntarily accept it as their religion. The course covers “reading Quran, performing salah, learning basic duas and hadiths and also conveys the message of Islam to the people. Accommodation, food and other basic requirements are given free for those who undergo these courses.” The ‘Q’ (intelligence) Branch of the Tamil Nadu Police has despatched several missives to the government alleging that the PFI is conducting a conversion campaign through its Arivagam centres.

The PFI also mobilised the Imams in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to form the Imams Council “for unity among the ulema”. The eventual aim is to string together a National Imams Council “to undertake (Muslim) social causes more effectively. But this is being viewed suspiciously by central intelligence agencies and the Kerala police because one of the first acts of the Imam Council was to republish a controversial 55-page book, ‘Asavarnarkku Nallathu Islam’ (Islam is Good for Non-Savarnas).

This book was first published by the Thiyya Youth League of Kochi in 1936. It contained essays by well known Ezhava and Thiyya intellectuals like Sahodaran K. Ayyappan, K. Sukumaran, K.C. Vallon and AK Bhaskar. They advocated mass conversion to Islam because of stubborn denial of temple entry rights to backward castes by the rulers of Travancore. The Kerala Police claims that in the present circumstances this book is “highly inflammatory”. The police interrogated the President of the Imam Council, Abdul Rehman Bakhiq, on the grounds that the Council was promoting communal discord. “What I am seeing is not radicalisation in the traditional sense. We understand what we are doing here is very effective. We are giving voice to a segment of people who have been ignored. We are becoming assertive through reasoned argument,” says Chekkutty. “And keeping it within the limits of the Indian Constitution.”

One argument the PFI is making is the implementation of Sharia or Islamic Banking in India. In early September, a team of Islamic scholars assembled by the PFI met RBI officials to present their case on Islamic Banking. According to the PFI, banking in accordance with Sharia laws “is the answer to abolish economic inequality and discrimination”. But RBI officials have already informed the government that under the current banking laws and regulations, Islamic banking cannot be legally implemented. The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the Muslim World League (MWL) or Rabitha, both funded by Saudi Arabia’s royal family are actively engaged in the propagation of Islam and Sharia banking in India.

Muslim politicians from Kerala, like Minister of State for Railways E. Ahmed and PV Wahab have been pushing the agenda of Islamic banking. WAMY’s representative Abdul Rahman and the MWL or Rabitha’s advisor Khalaf Bin Sulaiman Namary have also been in touch with Kerala Government and Muslim politicians for this. “The PFI is one of the beneficiaries of WAMY and Rabitha largesse,” says a police officer involved in investigating the PFI’s alleged terror linkages. For the sake of context, it is instructive to recall that American and European governments have severely curtailed the activities of WAMY and MWL on grounds of “terror financing”.

The funding requirements are channeled through these representatives, often through the hawala route. Union Home Secretary GK Pillai, during a recent visit to Kollam in Kerala, told journalists that “the funding (for Muslim organisations) seems to be more from outside than from locals.” These funds are then apportioned by WAMY and MWL’s local representatives to mosques and local Muslim community organisations for religious propagation, relief activities and education. More often than not these funds are used for religious indoctrination and radicalisation.

Taking a cue from the freedom guaranteed to propagate religion, the PFI has set up religious education centres in Theni and Ervadi in Tamil Nadu.

Remittances to Kerala via legal channels show a 135 percent growth in the past five years. In 2003, remittance from the Gulf was $38 billion. In 2008 it was $90 billion. It is well known that funds transferred through hawala are 300 times the officially documented remittance. The Kerala Government has also come up with a curious nugget on land purchases. In several districts nearly 70 percent land ownership is held by Muslims, of which a considerable chunk is held by Muslim religious institutions and organisations through proxies. “We do not have a mechanism to monitor these activities. India will be taken by surprise,” says Dr Siby Mathew, ADGP Intelligence, Kerala Police. There are 25 lakh Malayali expatriates in the Gulf. More than half are Muslims. A significant amount of funding to fundamentalist and religious organisation is through their donation. A classified home ministry report alleges that rich Muslim businessmen in India and abroad fund PFI activities.

Also, the Internal Security Investigation Team (ISIT) of the Kerala Police is probing PFI activities. They claim to have seized Talibanic material, videos and “highly communal” and subversive literature, in raids conducted across Kerala. In an affidavit submitted to the Kerala High Court by R. Rajashekharan Nair, Deputy Secretary (Home), the government claimed the ISIT found CDs linked to the Al Qaeda. The court was also informed of the PFI’s alleged connections with the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT). The suspected PFI terror links were backed by revelations made the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad when it arrested LeT operatives Mirza Himayat Baig and Shaikh Lal Baba Mohammad Hussain Farid, alias Bilal, for carrying out the German Bakery blast in Pune. According to the Maharashtra ATS, Baig was an active PFI cadre and was involved in arranging recruits for the LeT. None of this has been proved, of course, and PFI leaders rubbish the investigations as a fallout of India’s proximity to the US.

The Indian government believes that Kerala is turning into a cauldron of competing religious and communal interests. “Kerala should be concerned about religious fundamentalism,” warned Home Secretary Pillai in the first week of September. Surely, Kerala’s citizenry are aware of their responsibility. Only they can goad their political representatives to find a power-sharing solution for its large-sized religious minorities. It might become a role model for rest of India.

(VK Shashikumar is an investigative journalist and a strategist.  The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)

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