(It would not be fair if I do not begin this story by admitting my prejudice, which is broadly aimed against all religious outfits. Yet, since this is about a personality who is associated with an organisation which bears resemblance to a ‘religious outfit’, I feel it is only appropriate to admit my prejudice beforehand. I do not want to be held guilty for bias.)
The man I had met was the general secretary of the Popular Front of India, K M Shareef. His organization has slowly gained acceptance and popularity among an admirable section of minorities, especially in three southern Indian states. Enough popularity and acceptance in a few regions of the country for its political wing SDPI to field a candidate in Manipur assembly elections recently. (The candidate was Mohammed Khalid for Lilong constituency)
At first glance he appeared to be unpretentious and about six feet tall. He said he was 47 and had a good number of books, a majorly of them being related to Islam and the life of prophet Muhammed with “The Last Mughal” by William Dalrymple on top of his bookshelf. There were several works on history, human rights, communal riots and the like. Hope you get the idea.
I start asking questions immediately. He smiles and reminds me that I haven’t introduced myself. And we maraud two minutes mostly saying things what we both knew; our names and occupation. Without further ado…..
What is PFI?
This was the first question I had asked. Though the organization is known in all circles across our district, several including me were sceptical about the motives of the organization. And I had my opportunity to clear my doubts.
PFI stood for Popular Front of India. Shareef recalled that in Kerala, NDF (National Democratic Front) was born in 1993. The movement initiated for ‘community development’ of the minorities gained ground and seeds for such movement in Karnataka were sown in 1999. He says that when the organization was started, it was yet to be christened. “We started it as KFD (Karnataka Forum for Dignity) in 2004. Later, NDF, KFD and MNP (Manitha Neethi Pasarai), an organization in Tamil Nadu united and launched PFI in 2007.”
The organization has offices in 23 states including Kerala, Karnataka, Manipur, Tami Nadu, Rajasthan, New Delhi, West Bengal etc. As it was apparent from the offices it had across the country that it was enjoying some support from some sections of the populace, it was time to look at a few stands the Front held.
To know what objectives does the organization wants to achieve was a curiosity of mine. “Total empowerment of weaker sections, minorities and the downtrodden, especially Muslims.” Empowerment constituted political, educational and economic empowerment of the masses in concern.
There is a manner in which PFI strives to achieve empowerment. Shareef says that the first step in empowering the impoverished sections was to create awareness to the fact that they are not empowered yet. “We try and educate people about what conditions should have prevailed in the society if there was empowerment and what situation in the future will prevail if there is empowerment.”
The organization has “around 100,000” cadre members in India. He noted that there was a difference between ‘cadre’ members and the supporters that throng their rallies. The cadre members are trained and committed to their work, community, organization and God. (One of the causes of my prejudice was ‘God’)
When I asked about the funds being raised by the organization in the region, he revealed that PFI has a national-level fund-raising programme. Funds are raised through membership fees and special fund-raising programmes held by the Front. He assures that there is no coercion on anyone to contribute, as even membership fees, he assures, are dependent on economic conditions of the member.
Can anyone ask how much funds have been collected?, I ask. “If the donors or the government ask us, we will provide the necessary details,” he replied.
Meanwhile, PFI is an organization exclusively for Muslims and believes in religious guidance of its members. PFI, Shareef said he supports the struggle of Irom Sharmila and recalled his efforts to meet the Iron Lady. Though the organization is sympathetic towards the struggle of the Adivasis, they have a problem with Naxals fighting against the government and police. “We do not encourage that.” notes Shareef.
The Saffron Brigade and Babri Masjid
Though it is unfortunate that we have associated colours with religious hooliganism, I am afraid we will have to stick to the same terminology for a while. Apologies.
A doctor by qualification (and a provocative public speaker by profession?) Dr Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, RSS leader came to mind. When asked about the recent provocative speech by this MBBS graduate, which as a newspaper reported, resulted in ‘sporadic stone-throwing incidents’ at Uppinangady, Shareef said that words of Kalladka Bhat was not a surprise for PFI.
“The agenda of RSS is out in the open now. They are training their members against India and its constitution,” he alleges. “Irrespective of its leaders having significant influence on state politics and a part of Hindu populace, they have a constrained mindset. They lack co-operation and tolerance. Communal disharmony and communal violence among religions will perish with the fall of RSS. The ideology of RSS should perish.” he stresses.
“When the BJP government came to power in Karnataka, they tried a lot to make a Gujarat out of Karnataka,” he said with relation to the genocide in Gujarat as a result of communal violence. He feels that the recent incident at Uppinangady like the many events preceding it, was an attempt to spark communal riots in volatile regions of the state. “We do not have a problem with Hindus, but with RSS,” he said.
Babri Masjid, as we all know, tops the list of perennial problems of our pestered democracy posing a threat to secular ideals of the nation. When I ask Shareef about the judgement of Allahbad High Court, he says that the Front has agitated against the judgement which divided 2.77 acres of land of the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya into three parts among Hindus, Muslims and the Nirmohi Akhara.
“It was not mere demolition of a mosque. It was a demolition of the Constitutional values of the nation.” he said. Disapproving strongly of the court verdict, he maintains that a verdict should be based on evidence and not on Manuvada and fascist communalism. PFI also runs a poster campaign every year in regions of its prominence on the issue.
The demolition took place because of the agenda of the fascist forces in the country. This was a failure of the democratic system in India. The only solution to rectify the error is to rebuild it, he says. Criticizing the lack of political will-power by ‘pro-minority’ governments to initiate action against the accused in the demolition, he demands the arrest of 64 leaders involved in the act, including former home minister L K Advani.
Since such topics have been hotly discussed with allegations hurled on both sides of the court, I found it only safe to deviate to other concerns. I did not prefer to be caught in the centre of mutual destruction and distrust.
The Empowerment Problem
Minorities have been quite a headache, shrewdly misguided by politics, since the term ‘minority’ was defined in the Constitution. By sheer luck and planned manipulation, they have been successful in remaining backward and downtrodden. How and by what measures does PFI achieve the goal of empowerment of Muslims?
Affirming his faith in the Constitution of India, he finds faults with the implementation of the socialist, secular and democratic ideals enshrined therein.
Pointing out a need for better legislators and officers, he remembered the two-month campaign the Front had conducted in 2010, demanding the implementation of Sachar Committee and Ranganath Mishra reports. “We have submitted a memorandum to the prime minister. The government has promised to think it over. We will campaign again for their implementation.” he said. The report as you might hardly recall recommends 27% reservation for minorities with 10% reservation to Muslims in the country.
He feels that the electoral system requires immediate reforms. Criminals should not be allowed to be elected into the legislature, he says. He is also an enthusiastic supporter of proportional representation in state and centre assemblies. An increased efficiency in our judicial system can solve a lot of problems, he feels.
Services offered by his organization in the field of education among Muslims is commendable and requires another story in its own right. But, for starters, it would be enough to know that they had distributed Rs 24 lakh in 8 states in accordance with their scholarship schemes. They run tuition centres, have started ‘School Chalo’ programme for minorities in Karnataka and will adopt a village as part of their ‘Sarva Shiksha Gram’, a village where everyone will be literate.
Media and Rushdie
Media is biased, he said which surprisingly wasn’t much of a surprise for a fresher journalist like me. One of the most memorable statements he made in the course of the interview was, “If media had fulfilled its responsibility(towards people), India would have been a different nation.”
Squarely accusing the media of serving the imperialism of the West, he has little doubt that media has become a tool in the hands of the capitalists of the country. “It is working for MNCs and large corporations without a concern towards poverty and communal disharmony in the nation.” He even feels that an agenda of the media is to raise communal disharmony. Was I guilty?, I thought.
The cause for such bias, according to Shareef is Indian media blindly propagating what the United States has proliferated against Islam. “They are using the media propaganda of the West against Indian Muslims. Media is not after the truth.” Of course, there were exceptions.
He, I felt was slightly cryptic, when it came to Salman Rushdie. Defending Rushdie’s right to write what he feels, he adds that nobody has any right to write against religious values of any religion. Same applied to Taslima Nasreen too.
Though there are personal differences between his views on Rushdie and Taslima, this is what one would expect to find with a large proportion of Muslims in the region. Similiar to the feelings evoked when a few Hindus think of the late M F Hussain. I think such feelings are normal for any man with religion to uphold.
As a whole, there was a leader who sat in his humble abode thinking about his suffering community with concern. He spoke authoritatively on empowerment and reforms, on education and electoral system and on Rushdie and RSS. This is not any attempt to pass a judgement here, but his ideals were scarcely political. There he sat, I felt, seeking reformation.
At the end of the interview, I asked him what words would describe him best. He thought for a while, flashed a trademark smile and said, “Friend”. Hopefully.
Author: Akram Mohammed