India’s PFI Ban: Never-Ending Cycle of Communalism

On 28 September, the Popular Front of India (PFI) was declared an “unlawful association” by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA), as were eight of its affiliate associations. While some on social media celebrated this decision, others called out the BJP government on Twitter for not taking the same line against Hindu right-wing organisations.

In response to the claim that the “PFI conspired to establish Islamic rule”, Rana Ayyub tweeted: “While Right wing bigots in presence of cops and camera take oath in the National capital to convert India into a Hindu rashtra. [sic]” Similarly, a lawyer named Mehmood Pracha suggested that the banning of the PFI was “only a concerted effort to convert India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’” and that it can only be justified if it has exceeded the activities of Hindu right-wing bodies, with the move implying that the activities of these Hindu bodies “do not warrant UAPA.”

It is therefore believed that the decision to outlaw the PFI was politically motivated because, if it had been banned purely for the common good and to maintain public order, some Hindu right-wing bodies, who collectively form the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) -inspired Sangh Parivar, should have been banned too. The RSS, which has been complicit in communal animosity and violence, was banned once under British colonial rule prior to Partition and then three times since, so such a move would not be unprecedented. But the BJP is affiliated with the RSS, and so, while they are not one and the same, it is unlikely that the BJP will be consistent in its banning of associations.

Every time someone answers communal violence with more communal violence, divisions along religious lines will only grow, and the right-wing of each community will revel in what their divisive rhetoric has reaped.

Though banning the PFI is further evidence of the BJP’s anti-Muslim discrimination, because other dangerous groups have not been banned, this does not mean that the PFI is not guilty of communalism. That would require the PFI to be innocent of the accusations made against it in the Gazette notification.

Formed in 2006, the PFI is the evolutionary product of the militant National Development Front,  founded in Kerala in 1993. Since its banning, the PFI website has been taken down, but it describes itself on its Twitter handle bio as a “Neo-Social Movement that strives for the empowerment of marginalised sections of India.” The Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) is considered to be the PFI’s political wing. However, it was not made an unlawful association with the PFI’s other affiliate organisations, even though it is within the remit of UAPA to ban a political party. The SDPI states that it was “founded for the advancement and uniform development of all the citizenry including Muslims, Dalits, Backward Classes and Adivasis.”

The reasons given for the declaration of the PFI and its affiliates as unlawful were that, though they “operate openly as socio-economic, educational and political” organisations, they have a “secret agenda” to radicalise those who have no respect for the constitution and are working to undermine democracy. It is also alleged that they have been involved in “unlawful activities, which are prejudicial to the integrity, sovereignty and security of the country and have the potential of disturbing public peace and communal harmony of the country and supporting militancy in the country.”

Whenever an individual or organisation has been targeted under UAPA, it is often presumed that the accused are innocent of the alleged crimes. This is because UAPA has historically been misused by the authorities to target political opposition and human rights activism, often against Muslims or in the context of Jammu and Kashmir. Its origins lie in the colonial-era Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908, which was used to suppress the Indian independence movement. UAPA is thus heavily laden with colonial and oppressive connotations, creating a strong response from the communities whose members are often targeted through UAPA and rightly so. Shashi Tharoor is among those who have justly called for the repeal of UAPA, which he calls a “tool of abuse,” on account of over half of the accused having not been involved in violence and because of the low conviction rates.

In justifying the use of UAPA against the PFI, the notification lists criminal acts carried about by members of the PFI. These include the attack on Professor TJ Joseph that left his hand amputated, a list of murders dated from 2016 to 2022 carried out by PFI cadres (some of the victims of which were members of the BJP and RSS), association with international terrorist groups, raising funds within and outside India processed in a way to appear legitimate but used for criminal activities, and the disparity between the sources of bank account deposits and their relevant financial profiles. While those associated with the PFI have claimed there is no evidence of these accusations related to terrorism and financing; the organisation can be held responsible for giving membership to those who would go on to commit criminal acts, particularly communal murder, and for any failure to combat communal ideology.

What complicates the banning of the PFI is thus how it openly portrays itself as a movement seeking to empower all marginalised communities while some of its members continue the cycle of communalism. The treatment of marginalised communities, especially Muslims and Dalits, remains a great problem in India. Recent events mean it is reasonable for these communities to believe they are not protected by the law, nor by those who make the law or enforce it. So, some members of these communities advocate for securitisation as a means of self-defence. The impunity with which the police have attacked minorities, especially Muslims, has exacerbated this very real feeling of insecurity.

But one must be cautious of how this self-defensive narrative is deployed and to what ends. Communal violence is a genuine problem in India, but some may capitalise on it to justify their own actions, which are equally based on religious hate or exclusivity. Indeed, Santhosh and Paleri have argued that the PFI is an example of a Muslim organisation formed in response to the “predatory ethnicization executed by militant Hindutva organizations [sic]” to capitalise on the “pervasive sense of alienation and anxiety” among Muslims, using the language of self-defence to “create an exclusive Islamic moral community.”

Communalism, whether orchestrated by Hindus or Muslims against the other, is exclusionary and wrong. To respond to communalism with more communalism is not only hypocritical, but it is unjustifiable and will never lead to any peaceful, sustainable solutions. Therefore, though communalism remains a real threat, it is important to be aware of who might be taking advantage of the narratives of minority abuse and self-defence to sow yet more communal animosity by perpetuating these cycles of hate – and defensive followed by offensive – violence. The BJP government, which sets the tone for societal behaviour, should also be held to account for how it perpetuates communalism. The banning of only Muslim organisations guilty of communal violence, and not Hindu organisations, is a good example of this perpetuation.

Advocates of securitisation and vengeful violence will say that non-violent resistance and civil disobedience are idealistic strategies in the face of the challenges faced by religious minorities in India. They ask how non-violent means can reap any success when communities feel abandoned by the government, by the opposition and by the law and its enforcers. But there are two good reasons to support peaceful means. Firstly, there is precedence for the success of non-violent strategies when used by freedom movements, whether in the form of that led by Martin Luther King in the US struggle for racial equality or in the Gandhi-led civil disobedience movement for an India independent of British colonial rule.

Secondly, even though these communities are pushed to the absolute limits, suffering all kinds of hate and discrimination, still to respond to divisive violence with more divisive violence is to become the very thing that is being resisted in the first place, bringing the oppressed down to the level of the oppressor. But it also makes the struggle for freedom all the more difficult, as the authorities will only use these examples of violent resistance as ammunition for further oppression. The banning of the PFI will likely act as a good example of this, with right-wing extremists using the PFI as an example of their wrongful stereotypes against Muslims.

To be clear, both the BJP government and the members of right-wing Hindu and Muslim organisations who have worsened communal violence must be held to account, including those who respond to real hate and discrimination with violence. Every time someone answers communal violence with more communal violence, divisions along religious lines will only grow, and the right-wing of each community will revel in what their divisive rhetoric has reaped.

Responsibility to resist this outcome falls upon all communities, which is utterly unjust to the oppressed. But, besides the necessity of the government to end its perpetuation of communalism and to act in the interests of all communities, both the Hindu and Muslim communities must take a stand against those within their communities who present communal violence as the solution, even in the face of great oppression. Without resistance to communalism from all quarters, Indian society will continue to tread along this increasingly dangerous path of polarisation.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and also at the London Institute of South Asia. She regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK and is currently undertaking a PhD on Islam in Pakistan.

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