India's PFI chooses militant path

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LAST week I happened to watch Asianet News in which Chairman of the Popular Front of India (PFI) Nasruddin Elamaram answered some questions from Unni in what is the "equivalent" of Karan Thapar's 'Devil's Advocate'. Unfortunately, a power failure prevented me from watching it in full but some of the comments he made provoked me to put on my thinking cap. Allow me to digress a little. I considered the PFI as a fringe organization until I read a centre-spread article in The Indian Express. What struck me most was the photograph it carried of a fearsome march by PFI volunteers which resembled the show of strength by Iraq's Baathist Party during the heydays of Saddam Hussein. The impression I got might have been due to the striking resemblance the PFI's flag has with the Iraqi flag.

The reason why the PFI is now on the centre stage of Kerala politics is not far to seek. It is the incident in which the right palm of Professor T.J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha was cut off for setting a question in which the name "Mohammed" figured. Elamaram described it as a "minor incident" which the media and the government are using to hound his volunteers.

Let us give him the benefit of the doubt that the PFI is not involved in the barbarous attack on the professor and it stands for the punishment of its perpetrators, though articles continue to be published in the PFI's mouthpiece 'Tejas' virtually defending the attack because of the "blasphemy" involved. In a previous column I explained that the reference in the question was to a "Mohammed" and not the Prophet Mohammed.

During the programme, he mentioned the clashes that frequently occur between the CPM and the RSS in Kannur district and other places in which worse incidents happen. "Are those killed in the incidents lily-white Gandhians? No, they too have a criminal past". Elamaram is certainly not wide of the mark.

As I heard the PFI chairman, the words of a "theyyam" artiste and jail warden Hari Das mentioned by William Darlymple in his latest book "Nine Lives" (Knopf) echoed in my mind: "The inmates rule the jail. Many have got political backing. No one dares to mess with them. The jail authorities are totally under their control". He shrugs. "Every day the local newspaper has some new horror story. They are always cutting off the noses and hands of their political rivals on the parade ground, or in the cells at night.

"In fact, there are two jails around here: one for the RSS in Tellicherry, and the other in Kannur for their political rivals, the CPM. The two parties are at war: only yesterday the RSS attacked a CPM village near Mahe, killing three people with home-made bombs. In Kannur it is said that the mouth does not speak, the sword does. If you abuse someone's father he may forgive you. But if you abuse his party, then he will instantly cut you into pieces.

"Both jails contain those the police catch for such crimes and they're notorious for housing all the worst political goons (thugs). If a Communist ever end up in Tellicherry or an RSS kar sevak (volunteer) is put in Kannur you can guarantee he won't last 24 hours -- or at least will have lost several body parts by the time he comes to eat his next breakfast".

Elamaram's description of the situation in Kerala is similar to Hari Das's. The question still remains: Why was Prof Joseph's palm cut off when he did not commit any blasphemy? Let's leave it at that. Towards the end of the programme, justifying the setting up of the PFI, he asked a rhetorical question, "What have the Indian Muslims achieved during the last 63 years?" In other words, the militarised PFI seeks to enhance the interests of Muslims.

In L.K. Advani's autobiography, 'My Country My Life', he mentions that the RSS became strong in pre-Partition Sindh attracting Hindu young men like him. It gave the Hindus a sense of security. Of course, he does not mention what impact the marches by the lathi-wielding RSS men had on the young Muslims in the province. Suffice it to say, it not only did not protect Hindus but they all, Advani included, had to leave for India.

In fact, the growth of the RSS in the north of pre-Partition India encouraged Muslim communalism that led to the Partition and mass killings. It would not, therefore, be far-fetched to claim that the RSS, too, contributed to the vivisection of the country. The point to be noted is that military-style parades give only a false sense of security.

It would not be out of place to mention that I grew up in a Muslim-dominated village. I had a friend, whose mother was a widow. She brought him up by hawking rice. Her income was not enough to eat rice every day. She and her son subsisted on tapioca, the poor man's food brought to the state by Christian missionaries to help Malayalis fight hunger in the 19th century. After returning from school, he would visit door to door to sell roasted groundnut.

To cut the story short, he did M.A. in History from Catholicate College, Pathanamthitta, in first class and superannuated from a senior position in KSRTC. Early this month, I was in Kerala and consulted a specialist in diabetics. I was pleasantly surprised to know that her mother was another classmate of mine.

During the trip, I also visited Kozhikkode, Kayamkulam, and Aluva which all have sizeable Muslim populations.

I did not find the kind of poverty my Muslim neighbours suffered in the late fifties and the whole of sixties. Today they are all doing well. It was not because there was an organization like the PFI to espouse their cause. What transformed their life was education. In the last column I mentioned that my daughter-in-law was admitted to Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi. "This sprawling hospital complex belongs to a Muslim", I was told.

I saw a shopping mall under construction in Kochi. A hoarding outside says each floor in the multi-storied mall will be "larger than eight football grounds". No mall in Gurgaon or Delhi is bigger than the mall under construction. It, too, belongs to a Muslim NRI, who, I am told, has employed one person per family from his village in the companies he runs in the Gulf.

All this did not happen all of a sudden. In my erstwhile district Kollam, Thangal Kunju Musaliar was a prosperous, semi-literate Muslim businessman. He set up one of Kerala's oldest engineering colleges, T.K.M. College of Engineering, from where generations of Muslim and non-Muslim students passed out. In my own home town Kayamkulam, the Muslims set up MSM College. Nobody can forget the role played by the Muslim Education Society (MES) which set up several institutions of higher education in Muslim areas.

Though I am not a supporter of the Muslim League, it has to be admitted that it never fanned communal feelings in Kerala. Instead, the late C.H. Mohammed Koya, who became Chief Minister for a brief while, and other leaders of the party saw to it that the Muslim community's interests in terms of employment and business were protected. The restraint the party showed in 1992 when the Babri Masjid was destroyed earned the appreciation of all peace-loving people.

Seen against this backdrop, Elamaram's rhetorical question "what did the Muslims get in 63 years of Independence?" appears meaningless. Of course, it has to be admitted that development in India has been uneven. The condition of the Muslims in North India has been far from encouraging. There are many reasons for it, educational backwardness of the community being one of them.

But then, can we say that the condition of the Muslims is worse than the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and a majority of the Hindus themselves? I travel in some of the backward regions of Orissa and I know that the condition of the people there is sub-Saharan. Did we not hear about tribals in Madhya Pradesh piercing their stomach to contain hunger? Is the solution to that organising military-style parades?

Elamaram has mentioned two defining events in post-Independence India -- the demolition of Babri Masjid and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. The demolition was a national shame. The BJP still pays for its folly. Does Elamaram know that a majority of the majority community did not approve of the wanton destruction of the shrine as proved in the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh held in the aftermath of the demolition?

Elamaram has a point when he mentions that Muslims are blamed for every terrorist incident. In the Mecca Masjid blast in Hyderabad and the blast in Ajmer, the initial suspects were Muslims. But, over a period of time, truth has come out that they were all engineered by some Hindu fanatics. Again, it is not because of Muslim pressure or activities of outfits like the PFI that the searchlight is now on the "Hindu terrorists". This can only be described as the triumph of the law.

I write this column when Amit Shah, who was no less than the Minister of State for Home in Gujarat and a close confidant of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, is behind the bars. This happened because of a letter written to the Supreme Court.

The letter said that Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi were arrested from a bus and taken to a guesthouse near Ahmedabad. There, he was killed in a fake encounter. Kauser Bi, too, was killed and her body was burnt to destroy evidence. One Prajapati, who was arrested along with them, too, was killed after a few days for fear that he would spill the beans as he was a witness to the cold-blooded murder.

The court asked the CBI to inquire into the complaint. It was during its investigation that the agency stumbled upon details of the telephone calls to the police officers accused of murdering Sohrabuddin that the minister made immediately before and after the murders. It showed that Shah was not just privy to the murders; he probably had a role in the multiple murders. Several IPS officers are already in jail facing charges of murder.

This proves that truth ultimately triumphs. Before I wrote on Prof Joseph's version, I called a Thiruvananthapuram-based senior journalist and asked him what exactly was his crime. A very articulate person, he fumbled for words. All he could say was that the Professor ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed. After my article appeared, he wrote to me that I was right: Prof Joseph was more sinned against than sinning.

Hopefully, Prof Joseph will be able to use his palm once the stitches are removed and he undergoes some more corrective operations. But that luxury was not given to two Christian brothers, Sajjad and Pastor Rashid Emmanuel, who were murdered outside a court in Faisalabad on charges of writing a "blasphemous" pamphlet critical of the Prophet. A policeman was also critically wounded. It's strange that the pamphlet had their names and telephone numbers!

I wish those who cut off Prof Joseph's palm and killed the two Christian brothers had read Emperor Ashoka's edit, written centuries before Islam was born: "For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own, with intent to enhance the splendour of his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts the severest injury on his own sect."

Sufi saint Rahman Baba put the same differently:

I am a lover, and I deal in love. Sow flowers, So your surroundings become a garden. Don't sow thorns; for they will prick your feet. We are all one body, Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.

Yet, on July 1, over 40 people, men, women, and children, were killed in bomb blasts in a famous Sufi shrine of Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore. These are two recent examples of the mindless slaughter of innocent civilians going on in Pakistan for the last few years. Of course, I do not expect the PFI to answer for the violence in Pakistan.

But from the experience I gained while travelling in Pakistan, Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and the mountainous Gilgit areas in the Northwest, I can say with certainty that the average Indian Muslim is better off than the average Pakistani Muslim.

(Courtesy: Indian Currents)

Asia, ConflictAJ Philip