The Faces of Fear

The leaders of the banned Popular Front of India are erudite and committed masterminds, who spearheaded murders and conversions in the name of protecting Indian Islam.
(From left) Abubacker, P Koya, Nasarudeen Elamaram
(From left) Abubacker, P Koya, Nasarudeen Elamaram

Amar C Bakshi, correspondent of The Washington Post, couldn’t believe that the person sitting opposite him was an admirer of Osama bin Laden. Adjusting his spectacles and leaning over the table, the former English professor muttered, “Osama bin Laden gave Americans back what they had done to the world.” The opinion belonged to P Koya, the intellectual face of the Popular Front of India (PFI), who Bakshi was interviewing at the office of Thejas daily in Kozhikode in 2007. The journalist was in India for a project titled ‘How the world sees America’ and had spoken to people who nurture a deep-seated hatred toward the US.

Koya continued, “I was very happy, excited on September 11. Someone called me to switch on the BBC and I saw the aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center and I saw it crumbling down— down like the US, and I was laughing.” Koya was a member of the supreme council of the National Development Front (NDF), the precursor of the PFI. Koya, who loves to read Arundhati Roy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens, Chomsky, Sartre, Camus and Pilger, didn’t look like a radical to Bakshi. But for security agencies, he, the founder-member of the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), is the PFI’s mastermind and ideological fountainhead.“Dying is not a bad thing. It depends on how you view things. Americans eulogise their soldiers after they kill children in Iraq. Young African-Americans die for their country. Young Muslims die for their belief,” Koya told Bakshi.

The journalist was desperately trying to figure out the thought process of the radical thinker. Koya went on, “India is a democracy so we can protest and vote when we disagree. We don’t need to kill. But India is coming after Muslims slowly and if we lose our rights, our right to even think, we will be left with no other choice. Islam is not hypocritical in that way. Violence can be justified,” the Islamist ideologue summed up his argument.

Fifteen years down the line, Koya’s organisation has concluded that since ‘the electoral autocracy’ has failed to protect the lives and dignity of Muslims in the country, they have no choice but to launch physical resistance. A seminar on media freedom in contemporary India was the last public function Koya attended before his arrest.

At a personal level, he may not be a hate-monger, but the ideology he believes in is deeply entrenched in violence. Arndt Emmerich, a German researcher who travelled throughout India and interviewed many as part of his study, encountered PFI leaders who celebrated violence. In his book Islamic Movement in India: Moderation and its discontents, Emmerich narrates his conversation with the state vice-president of the PFI in Kerala, who said, “There is nothing wrong with being physical. It attracts the youth. No other organisation is ready to fight fascism in the way we do it. Our argument is that you cannot fight fascism only through seminars, symposia and conferences.” Another PFI member asserted to Emmerich that the leadership has given its silent nod to attack the enemy in self-defence though they oppose it in public. “The leadership won’t encourage violent action and advises against it. But we know that they also believe in self-defence. We are always prepared and ready to fight back,” he told Emmerich, clenched fist raised.

Koya belongs to the tribe of Muslim intellectuals who felt uneasy after L K Advani’s Rath Yathra, which drummed up support to demolish Babri Masjid and construct Ram Mandir. Abdul NazarMadani, the maverick founder of the Islamic Seva Sangh (ISS) created to counter the RSS, symbolised the mood of a furious section of the Muslim community. He roamed around with the security cover of his own version of Black Cat commandos. The group led by Koya and E Abubacker, the NDF’s founder chairman, thought Madani was the wrong model. “Madani was led by an organisational structure that revolved around hero worship and an individual-centric style. Such transient phenomena can only create temporary ripple, and cannot lead society in the long run,” wrote Abubacker in his autobiography. Madani disbanded the ISS, when it was banned after the demolition of Babri Masjid, and formed the political outfit, People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He is currently in Bengaluru after being released on bail in a 2008 case related to bomb blasts in the city.

Like Koya, Abubacker, a former schoolteacher from Kozhikode, was moulded in the Jamaat-SIMI school of thought. In 1978, the duo set up Islamic Youth Centre (IYC), an NGO that remained the intellectual hub of radical Muslims. One day in 1989, a group of persons from neighbouring Vadakara approached Abubacker seeking help in their fight against the CPI(M). At that time, CPI(M) workers were engaged in a bloody fight with IUML men in places like Nadapuram, Kuttiady and Vadakara. Muslims under the leadership of K P Mammu had formed a local outfit called Muslim Cultural Centre (MCC), which trained them in martial arts, including kalari.

Abubacker and company realised that a well-knit organisation that looks beyond immediate needs should be formed to tackle the violence against Muslims. “We met at a madrasa hall at Mayyannur near Vadakara on October 12. Babri Masjid Action Committee was formed with 17 persons present at the meeting as members,” says Abubacker in the book. It marked the birth of an organisation that became NDF in 1993 and subsequently PFI in 2006.

Ironically, the outfit that was purportedly aimed at physically resisting the RSS, locked horns with the CPI(M) instead, in the initial days. EnthullathilBinu, a CPI(M) worker, was hacked to death in broad daylight at Kallachi town in Kozhikode district in 2001. He had allegedly molested a Muslim woman for which the NDF wanted to ‘punish’ him. His murder was the first high-profile case in which NDF workers were arrayed as accused. Abubacker was summoned by the judicial commission, constituted to probe the conspiracy behind the massacre of nine persons at Marad, a coastal area in Kozhikode, in 2003.

Sitting in the witness box for two full days, Abubacker tried to defend his organisation, which was accused of plotting and executing the massacre. He projected NDF as a socio-cultural organisation engaged in the empowerment of the weaker sections of society, and that it did not target Hindus. But the commission was not impressed. Its head Thomas P Joseph’s report elaborated that NDF workers indeed played a role in the killings. “It is quite unlikely that the NDF activists would be involved in the planning and execution of the massacre without the blessings of their local leadership, at least,” it recorded.

Meanwhile, the PFI ideologues decided to take the banner beyond Kerala’s borders. As a member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, All-India Milli Council and Rehab India Foundation, Abubacker toured India and established contact with Muslim leaders in different parts of the country, including Syed Shahabudin and MoulanaWaliRehmani. A cancer survivor with serious health issues, Abubacker’s admirers have brought out

a documentary on his life, narrating his journey from Ideal Students League, Jamaat-e-Islami, SIMI, NDF and PFI. Hundreds of people gathered at the release of his autobiography in Kozhikode last year, where he was hailed as the ‘leader who created a mammoth organisation out of nothing’.

Soon after the arrest of the PFI leaders on September 22, a Facebook post in the name of Krishnapriya, referred to one of the arrested men as ‘uppa’ (father). He was none other than NasarudeenElamaram, PFI national secretary at the time of the ban. The girl called Elamaram her ‘father’; she had left her parents after her conversion to Islam. Elamaram is neither an ideologue like Koya nor a towering personality like Abubacker. A former non-journalist staff of a Malayalam daily, he is the key figure behind NDF/PFI’s project of ‘giving physical protection’ for converts to Islam. His first foray into public life was through an agitation against Gwalior Rayons factory in Mavoor in Kozhikode. Elamaram had served the NDF, PFI and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), PFI’s political front. He was associated with Sathya Sarani, the charitable trust run by PFI in Malappuram where new converts are taught the basic tenets of Islam. The PFI believes that it is the religious duty of Muslims to shield the converts against Sangh Parivar backlash.

PFI national executive member AS Ismail, who was taken into NIA from Coimbatore
PFI national executive member AS Ismail, who was taken into NIA from Coimbatore

The conversion issue had been sparking controversies and at times even resulting in murders in Malabar for decades. Unnyen, a Muslim man living in Malappuram, and his family had converted to Hinduism; they were killed by Muslims in 1947. Anil Kumar, a young Hindu man from Malappuram, was murdered in 2017 allegedly by RSS activists after he converted to Islam and took the name Faisal. Apparently in retaliation, an RSS worker, who was the second accused in the case, was killed after two months. These are only a few instances of the violent manifestations of issues related to religious conversions in Kerala.

Elamaram spearheaded the ‘Justice for Hadiya’ movement, which asserted that Hindu girl Akhila Ashokan has the right to embrace the religion of her choice and select her life partner. The PFI conducted a march to the Kerala High Court when Hadiya’s marriage with ShafinJehan was annulled by court. Elamaram succeeded in getting prominent lawyers, including Kapil Sibal, to take up her case. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Akhila. Under Elamaram’s leadership, PFI collected around `90 lakh from the public for legal fees.

Some of his activities for ‘the protection of Islam’ had attracted criticism. The NDF cadres allegedly harassed Fr. Alavi, who left Islam to become a Christian priest and establish an institution in Malappuram, which was accused of ‘spreading misinformation’ on Islam. Alavi was forced to leave Malappuram to escape NDF harassment. Sathya Sarani claimed to have convinced Muslims who had converted at Fr. Alavi’s behest to return to Islam’s fold. The mother of a married Hindu woman, a schoolteacher in Kozhikode with two children, had alleged that her daughter converted to Islam under the persuasion of a colleauge. She alleged that the woman was staying at Sathya Sarani after her conversion and Elamaram had prohibited her from meeting her daughter.

Elamaram was a public face of the Islamist movement in the state and reveled in his role as a ‘source’ for journalists who was always ready to give comments on important developments related to the Muslim community. He was at the helm of the SDPI when Kerala witnessed the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest in 2014 when Sangh Parivar activists attacked a restaurant ‘which made arrangements for young girls and boys to mingle freely’. Though the SDPI was against such moral policing by the Parivar, Elamaram was not enthused by the ‘Kiss of Love’ either, since he found it contrary to Islamic moral principles. “We do many things in closed rooms, but they cannot be paraded in public places,” was his view. The PFI’s activities that took place in closed rooms, however, have been busted by the NIA.

On Their Case
“The evidence on record shows that first accused (Abdul Azeez PB) was delivering a speech on the necessity of arms training to defend torture faced by Muslims from other religions, especially Hindus. Agents seized bombs, iron nails, glass pieces, aluminium powder, human target, sword, lathies; clearly the purpose of assembly was unlawful and it was imparting arms training to PFI cadres.” - NIA court Judge S Santhosh Kumar in the 2013 Narath Armed Training case

What is the Valapattanam IS recruitment case?

In 2017, the Kerala police registered a case against members of the Kannur module of the Islamic State after Turkish Police deported Midhilaj and Razaq who were trying to cross into Syria to join IS. So was ShajahanValluva Kandy, an important member of the module. Salafi Hamsa aka Jihadi Hamsa was nabbed from Kannur for recruiting fighters for the IS. According to intelligence reports, about 40-50 alleged PFI activists, mainly from Valapattanam in Kannur district, had joined the IS in Syria. Kandy told the NIA that his purpose of joining the IS was to establish Shariah rule in the subcontinent.

Training Assassins of Ideology
Right from 1995, the Kerala Police had prepared voluminous intelligence reports, perhaps now languishing on a dingy rack in a store room at the police headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram, which had clearly warned of the growing fundamentalist base of groups like NDF. The reports also mentioned the financial support such Islamist outfits were getting from abroad to fuel radical activities in the state. Neera Rawat, Kozhikode City Police Commissioner from March 1997 to May 1999, had deposed before the Justice Thomas P Joseph Commission on the Marad communal riots regarding police reports on the NDF’s extremist activities. A former state police chief told this newspaper that the force has been tracking their activities continuously despite their new name and shape. “Though NDF was banned, its radical activities never ceased. It just took shape in a new format and continued operating more vigorously. They lay low for a while after NDF and SIMI were banned. But in 2006, PFI was formed, which gave a new dimension to their radical operations in the state,” the retired officer said.

IS training camp in eastern Afghanistan
IS training camp in eastern Afghanistan

The Kerala Police got shocking evidence on the PFI training camps in the state when a special team led by then Aluva ASP, J Jayanath, conducted raids on the premises of PFI activists following the Professor T J Joseph hand-chopping incident in July 2010. The cops seized CDs sent from abroad being used by PFI at its alleged ideological camps. The CDs reportedly prepared by foreign terrorist organisations, mainly the Taliban, were used to instigate hatred and violence in the minds of youngsters and prepare them to unleash cold-blooded murders. The CDs also contained visuals of beheadings. Certain videos depict the murder of hostages by the Taliban and other terrorist organisations. The CDs, which depict various means used to kill a person, were repeatedly played at the camps for new recruits. A probe by the Internal Security Investigation Team (ISIT), however, into the CDs and details of the camps couldn’t make much headway. An officer, who was on the team, said the contents were horrifying. The recruits were shown the CDs repeatedly so that the brutal visuals remove all humane inhibitions while committing violence. The police also seized a flow chart used by the radical organisation in their ideological camps (ICs) to set up ‘jihad’ modules in Kerala. The chart was a brief description of the missions and activities a militant, mainly beginners, must pursue to reach heaven after his martyrdom. The chart also attempted to ignite communal passions by briefing recruits of the camps about the alleged agonies and hardships faced by the Muslims. They were directed to undertake various missions for the empowerment of the community. The flow chart called on camp participants to affiliate themselves with the organisation, which claimed a vital role in such endeavours.

- by Ajay Kanth

A Calender of Murders

By Bala Chauhan

In December last year, six Muslim college girls in Udupi were stopped at the gate of the Government PU College for Girls. They were not allowed to attend classes because they were wearing hijabs. Local BJP MLA, Raghupathi Bhat, who heads the college’s development committee, told the girls to follow the dress code. The girls refused and dropped classes instead of their hijabs. They also filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court, and approached the National Human Rights Commission. The case, which reached the Supreme Court, did not get them relief.

A week before the ban, the Karnataka government had told the apex court that the petitioners were influenced by the PFI. “This is not a spontaneous act of a few individual children that they want to wear the hijab. They were part of a planned conspiracy. These children are acting as advised by PFI. In 2022,

a movement started on social media by PFI (was) designed to create agitation based on religious feelings of the people,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Bench. The controversy had snowballed across the globe. Minority rights in India were questioned. The hijab ban and subsequent agitations caught the attention of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as chief of al-Qaeda; in April, he came out in support of the poster girl for the hijab row. He was recently killed by an American drone in Afghanistan. But the hijab row hasn’t died out yet.

On July 26 this year, Praveen Nettaru, a BJP Yuva Morcha leader in Karnataka, was hacked to death in Bellare in coastal Karnataka. The culprits are allegedly PFI members. Ten of them were arrested, and the state police handed the case to NIA. The Central agency’s investigation revealed that the accused persons, who are “active members of PFI, had planned and committed Nettaru’s murder as part of a larger conspiracy to strike terror among the members of a section of society.”

On August 11, 2020, a violent mob of thousands of arsonists had attacked KG Halli and DJ Halli police stations. It vandalised public and private property. It torched the house of Congress MLA from Pulkeshinagar, Akhand Srinivas Murthy. His nephew, Naveen, had posted inflammatory content on social media. Scores of people, including 50 cops, were injured in the violence. Three people died in police firing. The case, initially investigated and chargesheeted by the City Crime Branch of Bengaluru Police, was handed over to the NIA, which filed a 7,000-page chargesheet against 247 people in February 2021, under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Out of the chargesheeted persons, 47 were from the PFI and its political wing SDPI. On July 7, 2017, RSS activist Sharath Madiwala was hacked to death in Mangaluru. The police arrested 17 men. The main accused Mohammed Sharief is a PFI member.

Vehicles set afire during violence in Shivamogga riots
Vehicles set afire during violence in Shivamogga riots

In October 2016, RSS member R Rudresh was hacked to death on Kamaraj Road in the Central Business District of Bengaluru. He was returning from ‘Patha Sanchalan’, an RSS function. He was killed by a blow from a machete on the right side of his neck. It was a signature killing, nicknamed the ‘PFI cut’. The case was initially investigated by the city police who arrested five men: Irfan Pasha, Waseem Ahmed alias Wasim, Mohammad Sadiq alias Mohammad Mazar alias Mazar, Mohammed Mujeeb Ulla alias Mujeeb alias Maula, and Bengaluru district president Asim Sheriff, under Sections 302 (murder) r/w 34 (common intention), 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC and Sections 16 1(a), 18, 20 of the UAPA. The case was handed over to NIA. Its chargesheet stated that the accused were members of the PFI and SDPI, and had targeted Rudresh “to strike terror among a section of people. The killing was a clear act of terrorism with the intention of instilling fear in the minds of people and was a step towards establishing the Islamic Caliphate in India by eliminating the kafirs,” the NIA chargesheet stated. In August 2016, RSS activist and auto-rickshaw driver Praveen Pujari was murdered in Kodagu district. Arrested were again PFI members—its district secretary TA Haris, PFI workers M H Tufail, Nayaz, Mohammed Mustafa, Mujeeb Rehman and Irfan Ahmed among others.

In Karnataka, the PFI was red-flagged during the 2009 communal riots in an otherwise peaceful and communally harmonious Mysuru city. Several were injured and two died. The initial murmurs for ban on PFI had come around 2011, when six cadres of the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD)/PFI were arrested and made the accused in the double murder of two students. “Over the last 15-16 years, we have seen the involvement of PFI cadres and followers in many murder cases. In some cases their involvement is obvious,” said the incumbent DG and IGP, Karnataka, Praveen Sood. He believes that acquittal of the accused in some cases does not necessarily rule out their involvement. “Acquittal happens because of a variety of reasons such as witnesses becoming compromised or turning hostile. The involvement of the PFI cadres is a fact,” he added. Sood explains that the demand for the ban on PFI has been there for quite some time, even during the previous (non-BJP) governments. Currently almost all of PFI’s top leaders in Karnataka are in police custody.

On The Record

“The PFI, which is working through its leaders, members and associates, has gone far ahead in creating atrocities among the community.”
The NIA’s remand report in possession of this newspaper notes: “The seized documents contain highly incriminating materials related to the targeting of prominent leaders of a particular community. The ‘hit list’ seized clearly shows that the PFI, which is working through its leaders, members, and associates has gone far ahead in creating atrocities among the community. More investigation is required in this aspect not only to obtain more evidence but also to prevent ‘blood bath’ in society.” It reveals that the PFI members and affiliates in Kerala “have conspired to indulge in unlawful activities by creating enmity between members of different religions and groups, with the intention to disrupt the public tranquillity”. They also aimed to cause disaffection against India, propagating an alternative justice delivery system justifying the use of criminal force, causing alarm and fear among the general public.

Abdul Khayoom from Kerala, who joined IS
Abdul Khayoom from Kerala, who joined IS

The organisation also encourages vulnerable youths to join terrorist outfits, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Islamic State (IS), and al-Qaida, and also “conspired to establish Islamic rule in India by committing a terrorist act as a part of violent jihad. PFI also spreads disaffection against India by wrongful interpretation of government policies to a particular section of people to create hatred against the state and its machinery.” The NIA has seized important documents, digital devices and articles as evidence, which could unravel a larger conspiracy and identify and secure other suspects involved in the case. The accused were actively involved in organised crimes and unlawful activities to “terrorise other religious sections of society”. They used various social media platforms for their secret communications for committing the offence.

Said Savad, first accused in the hand-chopping case while dismembering the right hand of Professor T J Joseph. NIA quoted the assertion of the accused in the supplementary chargesheet filed before the court. The Malayalam professor had set a question in an internal examination paper that asked students to punctuate a dialogue between

a person and god, which many Muslims regarded as blasphemy. According to NIA, the attack failed five times. A six-member gang intercepted the professor’s car, smashed its window pane and forcefully pulled him out. They attacked him with a cleaver, knives and a small axe. They hurled country-made bombs to stop family members from rescuing Joseph. “Shanawas frightened and kept away the people present in the place. K M Muhammed Shobin and Sajil stood on both sides of the road waving their weapons to prevent people. Savad cut on the left wrist using the axe,” the report said. Jamal told Savad, “You are chopping off the wrong hand; chop off the right hand instead.” Shobin pressed down Joseph’s right hand on the road, which Savad cut off. Savad further said, “You have ridiculed the Islam religion using this hand, you don’t write with this hand again,” noted the NIA report. - Ram Das

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