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India bans PFI but the real battle is with political Islam

The Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) affiliated to the PFI protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in New Delhi in 2019 (Photo: IANS)

After years of deliberation by state governments, intellectuals and experts, the Modi Government in a surprising move banned the Popular Front of India (PFI) for five years in the early hours of 28 September 2022 under the stringent anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019.

Other than PFI, the Centre also banned its affiliates including Rehab India Foundation (RIF), Campus Front of India (CFI), All India Imams Council (AIIC), National Confederation of Human Rights Organization (NCHRO), National Women’s Front, Junior Front, Empower India Foundation and Rehab Foundation Kerala as ‘unlawful association’.

The Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political arm of PFI, has been left out because of legal complications. It falls under the purview of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and not the Ministry of Home Affairs. Legally also, under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, the ECI doesn’t have the power to de-register a political party.

In my previous article on PFI, I have tried to highlight PFI’s prolonged criminal activities like killings, destruction of property, threats to the internal security of the country, linkages with terrorist organisations like the ISIS, involvement in money laundering and how a ban will be justified. Now that the ban is in place, this article delves into whether a ban is enough or more efforts are required to curtail the PFI threat.

The Centre’s main contention is that the PFI will continue to propagate anti-national sentiments by radicalising a particular community against the country and constitutional authority. This in turn will be a threat to the integrity, security and sovereignty of the country.

But banning the PFI wouldn’t reduce the country’s threat quotient because it is a resurrected form of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned in 2001 for terror activities. The objectives of SIMI were clear—to lead life according to the Quran, propagate Islam and wage jihad.

When the PFI was born, it chose to be more pragmatic. It presented itself as an organisation working for the upliftment of the Muslims, Dalit Hindus and promoting national integration while upholding the democratic and secular fabric of the country. But on the contrary, its acts run contrary to what it claimed. On 14th July 2022, the Bihar Police conducted a raid in Phulwari Sharif and arrested three individuals for providing training to youths for terror activities. Among the arrested were a retired police sub-inspector and a former SIMI member. Along with PFI and SDPI material, the police also found literature titled ‘India 2047–Towards rule of Islam in India’. PFI’s internal document calls to make India into an Islamic state by 2047 and this would be done by uniting Muslims under the flag of PFI, highlighting grievances, infiltrating power corridors, terrorising opponents and liaising with Islamic countries for funding.

Banning PFI will not solve the problem as it will mutate into something else. Therefore, it is its ideology that needs to be thwarted, attacked and neutralised in whatever way possible.

There are two kinds of groups under political Islam–the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadi groups like Al-Qaeda. In 1920, Hassan al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn in Egypt, whose idea was that an Islamic Caliphate will pronounce over the world but it has to be done in a strategic manner where you create conditions where society becomes more Islamic; it can be through social means like health, education etc. and eventually society will be overturned and Islam will prevail. Then there are the Jihadi groups like Al-Qaeda which say that you don’t have to wait for the right conditions because changes can be introduced by way of Jihad.

PFI in all its understanding is a dangerous cocktail of political Islam, whose ideology bears characteristics of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda. The Muslim Brotherhood is banned in Egypt and several other countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia. Like the PFI, the Muslim Brotherhood is being backed by Qatar and Turkey. Despite being banned for most of the time in its history, the organisation was able to increase its footprint during the Egyptian dictatorship to an extent that after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the then President Hosni Mubarak had to resign and in 2012 Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt through a democratic process. Within a year, protests broke out against the government and Morsi was deposed in a coup d’etat by General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization.

On 24 March 2014, an Egyptian court sentenced 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death and On 2 February 2015, another 183 members were sentenced to death while thousands were arrested.

Even with so many death sentences, brutality and incarceration; Egypt is not able to neutralise the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has taken a four-fold approach in the last eight years: first–ban the organization, second–arrest members of the Guidance Office and the Shura Council which were the organisation’s two collective bodies, third–curb the influence of Muslim Brotherhood in public services, the military, the judiciary, media, universities, NGO’s; and fourth–confiscate the organisation’s assets and shut down affiliated social welfare organisations.

It caused a ripple in the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood but in turn, the old guard was replaced with the new guard which had a different approach to dealing with the regime. The Brotherhood’s vertical command structure has been replaced by non-hierarchical networks and lines of communication, which enable the younger generation to play a decisive role and grow up the ladder with the office of Supreme Guide and the Guidance office remaining symbolic centres of command.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s pyramid structure remains unbroken with the opening of Brotherhood offices in foreign lands which continue to function and operate without fear in a friendly atmosphere.

The public spectacle of the trial of the Brotherhood’s leadership has restored respect for its senior leaders and ideology among grassroots members and prospective members.

Along with the command structure, even communication was not kept hierarchical. Communication is done through personal channels rather than a top-down approach and social media has further benefited the organisation.

Personal relationships remain an important tool and marriages solidify them. Various marriages have been solemnised between the families of Brotherhood members.

The most important factor that kept the individual and organisation going was the ideological servitude and willingness to carry on for their ultimate goal.

Even under dictatorial Egypt’s harsh punishments, Muslim Brotherhood has continued to survive and India’s counterpart–PFI will most likely survive given the Indian nation’s ethos and its secular legal structure. PFI has already learnt its lessons from the SIMI days and the organisation and its leadership have undergone a metamorphosis in this regard.

The Modi Government has duly followed the Egyptian approach in dealing with the PFI.

The organisation has changed—it is no longer hierarchical. The now arrested General Secretary of the PFI, Anis Ahmed in a BBC interview said that as of 2020 there were about 4,00,000 members. Ahmed added that there is no centralised data repository from where one can know who is a member of the PFI. He said that the members do not have identity cards and all the data is kept at local units.

The PFI receives funding and support from Muslim Brotherhood and countries such as Qatar and Turkey. If the situation warrants, their coordinators will not shy away from getting their external office opened in these friendly countries.

Though the PFI official Twitter handle has been banned, that doesn’t include encrypted social media and communication platforms where the members can interact.

Lastly, its ideology remains steadfast and unwavering considering the response of their family members and support by a section of civil society, politicians and media.

To lower PFI influence in society and make it irrelevant, the government needs to do the following–make inroads into the PFI apparatus and highlight before the society how the PFI is dangerous for the integrity of this country by proving to people how the PFI indoctrinates youth towards terrorism.

It will have to give space to non-Hindu voices like Christians who have faced the brunt of PFI in communal violence, highlight crimes by PFI in foreign countries which have become a haven for their functionaries and get them extradited to India. The government will have to impress upon the members of the PFI that their support to the PFI is not only offensive to the sovereignty of India but is also causing damage to the reputation of their religion and family.

Above all, the government will have to convince the supporters of the PFI that it will automatically become unsustainable for the PFI to survive as an organisation.