Off-centre | The PFI ban and the anti-India campaign abroad

Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 2022, we must, once again, reiterate this sad but inevitable realisation: appeasement is a slippery slope that must be avoided if India is to be saved. Why? Appeasement only encourages the bully. Identity politics gets more and more aggressive as unreasonable demands are met. In the end, the free, the liberal, the tolerant, and the reasonable position gets pushed into a corner. It is forced to abdicate, to capitulate, to give in. The vocal and intolerant minority continues to browbeat and tyrannise the silent majority into remaining silent, looking the other way, and holding their peace. All, supposedly, for the larger good, but actually indirectly supporting cultural and civilisational division, weakness, even breakdown.

Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, unfortunately, is liable to be misused by enemies of the Indian state, including several Islamic, Dalit, and so-called human rights organisations in the US, possibly supported by Pakistan, as the paid advertisement in today’s New York Times illustrates. This sort of anti-Indian propaganda comes close on the heels of the banning of the Popular Front of India (PFI). There is rejoicing in certain circles, possibly premature, that this has at last happened.

Unlike what its name asserts, the PFI was certainly not popular among Indian Muslims, let alone the general population. At most, it was a vocal, even violent, protest group, often in the news for the wrong reasons. Going by the almost complete absence of any widespread protests over its being declared “an unlawful association” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, its popularity was thus a myth, if not wishful thinking. In fact, most Muslim leaders and intellectuals actually welcomed the ban, some going so far as to ask why it was not enforced earlier and why the PFI, which was founded in 2006, was allowed to operate with impunity for so long.

Though not at all popular, the PFI was certainly a “front”. For it served to camouflage a militant Islamist organisation as a social movement. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided its offices and premises in several parts of the country on 22 September. After a follow-up clampdown on 27 September, the PFI was declared unlawful by invoking sections 153A and 153B of the IPC for “promoting enmity between groups and making imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration.” Over 270 activists and members with supposed links to PFI were also arrested. The suppression order, issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, was notified in the Gazette of India on 28 September and will be effective for five years. PFI associates, Rehab India Foundation (RIF) and Campus Front of India, have also been banned.

The Gazette notification states that “the PFI and its associates or affiliates or fronts operate openly as socio-economic, educational and political organization but, they have been pursuing a secret agenda to radicalize a particular section of the society working towards undermining the concept of democracy and show sheer disrespect towards the constitutional authority and constitutional set up of the country.” Furthermore, that “the PFI and its associates or affiliates or fronts have been indulging 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.”

The ban not only means the government can seize funds, take over properties, and freeze the accounts of PFI, but any person who “is and continues to be a member of such (unlawful) association; or takes part in meetings of such association; or contributes to, or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of, such association; or in any way assists the operations of such association” can be punished with two-year jail term in addition to paying a fine.

To return to our “Sar Tan Se Juda” theme, is it any surprise that Asaduddin Owaisi, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) supremo, spoke against the ban at his party headquarters in Darussalaam, in the Aghapura locality of Nampally, Hyderabad? In the same breath, he said he was opposed to radicalisation of Muslims in India. If so, why didn’t he speak out against PFI earlier? How else to stop an openly militant and radical organisation? The sad fact is that there is only a thin line that divides “constitutional communalists” and radical Islamists.

off-centre | the pfi ban and the anti-india campaign abroad

AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi. ANI

The latter, using the freedoms and protections guaranteed by free societies, continue to function, even flourish, in one guise or another. Earlier, it was the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), founded in 1977 in Aligarh. SIMI was first banned in 2001, and the ban was periodically extended except in 2008, when it was lifted briefly, by a special tribunal led by Justice Gita Mittal. The Supreme Court stayed the order. The ban was extended in 2014 and 2019. What this means, however, is that after five years it is possible that the ban on PFI may also be lifted. SIMI was heavily funded from abroad as PFI may, awaiting facts, may also be proven to be.

Let us be clear: it is not that Gandhi believed in or encouraged appeasement. Instead, he operated from the notion that generosity would be returned in like measure, with trust and partnership. He believed that Hindus and Muslims were one nation and could live together harmoniously. He felt that no sacrifice on the part of the Hindus, whom he saw as the elder brother in this fraternal relationship between the two communities, was too big if only national unity could be its outcome. Alas, he failed, as he acknowledged in his last days, and as I have tried to document in my book, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (Penguin Random House, 2015).

When it comes both to radical Islamists and constitutional communalists, a vigilant state strictly enforcing the law of the land, not appeasement and apologetics are the way forward.

<[To be concluded]

The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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