Q&A: Understanding India’s crackdown on Muslim groups

India’s government late last month banned the Popular Front of India (PFI) and affiliated organisations for five years, accusing the groups campaigning for Muslim rights of involvement in “terrorism”.

Authorities also arrested dozens of members of the nine outlawed organisations after conducting raids across the country.

The organisations have denied any links to armed groups and dubbed the action by the Hindu nationalist government a “witch-hunt”.

Critics have said that little evidence has been provided to tie the groups to violence, adding that the government has been ignoring the violence committed by Hindu far-right groups – a charge the government has denied.

Al Jazeera spoke to Irfan Ahmad, professor of sociology and anthropology at Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul and an expert on Indian politics and Islamist parties in India. The interview below has slightly been edited for brevity and clarity.

Al Jazeera: Who are the groups banned by India’s government and what was their agenda?

Irfan Ahmad: The PFI is an organisation that campaigns for issues facing marginalised groups, especially Muslims. But it has made alliance with other marginalised groups such as Dalits, women, Adivasis (the Indigenous communities) and other religious minorities. Eight other organisations reportedly linked to PFI have also been outlawed. The PFI was mainly active in the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, but the group also has a presence in other states.

The PFI’s constitution calls for establishing “an egalitarian society where freedom, justice and security are enjoyed by all”. It is vocal against the marginalisation of Dalits, tribals, religious-cultural minorities and women. In fact, the group stands for national unity, secular order, rule of law and true democracy. The PFI also takes a firm stand against the neo-liberal model of development and “ecological destruction”.

While the media calls the PFI an “Islamic outfit”, its 24-page constitution mentions neither Islam nor Muslim. But in practice, the PFI raised issues facing Muslims.

Al Jazeera: What are the charges levelled against the PFI?

Ahmad: In its notification (PDF), the government accused the PFI of indulging in unlawful activities which harm “the integrity, sovereignty and security of the country”. The interior ministry also accused the PFI of “pursuing a secret agenda to radicalise a particular section of society” -read Muslims – and for links to ISIS (ISIL).

Al Jazeera: What evidence did the government present?

Ahmad: The notification is titled “extraordinary”; so is the anti-terror law used to ban the PFI, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or UAPA. UAPA defines “terrorism” sweepingly to include almost everything under the sun. As the notification itself says, the ban is based more on the government’s opinion than on solid evidence. But an opinion can be sheer prejudice.

The government lists many allegations for the ban but offers no clinching, objective evidence. This is not to say that PFI members did not indulge in violence. They did. There is the notorious case of PFI members attacking a Kerala professor in 2010. But the PFI condemned the brutal attack and distanced itself from the attackers.

Such attacks in Kerala or elsewhere are also carried by other parties, including Hindu far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political affiliate and the ruling BJP. In 2019, a PFI member was killed, for which the police arrested three RSS members.

However, the notification lists only cases of Hindus or RSS members attacked by PFI. Notably, political violence in Kerala is not exclusive to the PFI. In fact, the overwhelming number of cases of political violence involves the members of Kerala’s ruling communist party and the BJP.

Also, nearly 50 percent of members in the current Parliament face criminal charges. The question is: Why media or the government call the murder of a Hindu “terrorism”, but the murder committed by a Hindu simply a crime?

The government justifies the ban in the name of countering “terrorism”. The fact is quite the opposite. To hide the reign of terror unleashed against Muslims and others, the government is creating the bogey of the PFI’s “terrorism”.

The current reign of “terror” is evident, for instance, in the lynching of Muslims in daylight; their houses bulldozed while Hindus applaud it; wearing a hijab or having a beard vilified; and radicalised Hindus calling for genocide against Muslims.

This reign of terror is integral to RSS-BJP’s agenda for an ethnic Hindu state as laid down by Hindu ideologues like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madhav Sadashivrao Golwalkar.

Their ideology is derived from European fascism. Since the PFI opposed fascism, to ban it is hardly surprising.

What the mainstream media has whitewashed is the PFI’s commitment in its constitution to combat “neo-colonial, fascist and racist forces”. Which party other than the PFI has such an agenda? And if there is one, how sincere is it in pursuing it?

Al Jazeera: Are you suggesting the ban was politically motivated?

Ahmad: Indeed it is political. If the mere allegation of terrorism becomes the basis of banning the PFI, the reason to ban the BJP is stronger. Its member, Sadhvi Pargaya, was jailed for nine years for her role in terror attacks. Though now on bail, she is still on trial under the same antiterrorism law used to ban the PFI.

The government justifies the ban, saying that some PFI members were leaders of the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned after the 9/11 attacks in the US. But the government is yet to prove its charge of terrorism against SIMI.

Now the old fiction of SIMI terrorism is being used to legitimise a new fiction, of PFI as a terror organisation.

Going by the government’s own logic, if the link to a previously banned outfit is enough to outlaw a current organisation, it is more logical to outlaw the RSS because it was banned twice in the past – in one instance it was banned in connection with the murder of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many ministers in his cabinet are members of the RSS.

Al Jazeera: Are Muslim organisations being singled out?

Ahmad: No party, including the Left, opposed the ban, the notification of which refers to Muslims as a specific community getting radicalised.

It refers to Hindus as people of other faiths and under attack. The depiction of Muslims as an enemy is clear. Such a divisive politics naturally results in Muslims being singled out, particularly those who, invoking the Constitution and human rights, assert for equality and dignity.

Many Muslim student activists and community leaders were jailed for criticising the government’s Hindu majoritarian agenda and protesting against the 2019 anti-Muslim citizenship law that the UN called “fundamentally discriminatory”.

The PFI was one key group that rallied against the ethnic citizenship law. Refusing to accept the second-class status, the PFI wanted Muslims to be treated as equals.

In his book on PFI and based on long fieldwork, German sociologist Arndt Emmerich describes the PFI as a voice fighting for “full citizenship for Muslims and other minorities”. He also records how Hindu activists held that India should treat Muslims the way Israel treats Palestinians.

Clearly, the government, which critics see as working for a Hindu state, will silence voices like PFI’s that contest the violence of ethnic democracy and ask for unqualified equality.

Al Jazeera: Can this be compared to the US “war on terror”, as a result of which Muslims and their organisations were often falsely implicated?

Ahmad: The parallel between crackdown on Muslims in America after 9/11 and the one in India is chilling. In many respects, the terrorism discourse in India is almost a photocopy of Western discourse on terrorism.

Sweeping anti-terror laws have been used to target Muslims with complete disregard to “due process” and the rule of law.

In both the US and India, politicians and media often depict “terrorism” as a threat to democracy. However, it is conveniently forgotten that the lives of so many citizens and non-citizens have been “terrorised” in the name of democracy and by the supposed upholders of human rights and the rule of law. Even when acquitted by courts, the previously jailed “terrorists” and their family members continue to live in a state of “terror” such that friends, relatives and civil society activists “fighting for” democracy prefer not have any relation with them.

In the world’s largest democracy, Muslims are publicly flogged while the crowd cheerfully chants Hindu slogans.

Look at the recent case of the police brutally flogging Muslims men, while the crowd watches on with applause. This is in Gujarat – Modi’s home state. Is this how democracy treats its Muslim citizens?

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