“Violence, violence, violence. We don’t like it. We refrain. But violence likes us, we cannot avoid it.”
When fiery Muslim leader Riyaz Faringepete sang these lines from his latest Kannada film, the audience erupted into loud applause. KGF: Chapter 2, during a rally in Mangalore in coastal Karnataka in May this year. Both Hindu and Muslim outfits in the region have been subject to periodic communal violence fueled by competing fundamentalism.
His speech was immediately picked up by local TV channels across Karnataka and played on a loop. “Open threat to Hindus” and “Unfortunate threat of violence” screamed the headlines flashing on television screens alongside a clip of his speech. Like their Hindi counterparts in North India, Kannada TV channels highlight the religious identities of people in conflict, air divisive monologues in prime time and turn every other debate into a scrimmage between fundamentalist leaders of the Hindu and Muslim communities.
“I didn’t say anything wrong,” he says. “I said, ‘we don’t like violence, but violence likes us’… What’s wrong with that?” she asks. “You can’t just sit back when you’ve been victimized over and over again.” Faringepete is the national secretary of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of the Popular Front of India (PFI), which many Hindus accuse of spreading Muslim radicalism. Secular activists and moderate Muslim groups, however, accuse the PFI of creating a self-defeating victim complex among Muslims.
The sense of sacrifice reflects the organization’s growing popularity in coastal Karnataka. But unlike Muslims in India, Muslims here are rich, educated and highly mobile. Since the early 2000s, the region has been a hotbed of communal violence against Muslims and Christians by Hindu vigilantes on “love jihad”, conversion and cattle rustling, long before it became a phenomenon in India. Established in 2007, PFI soon took a decisive place in the zone. For Hindu right-wing organizations, PFI represents a fundamentalist Muslim outfit. For many Muslims, it is the sole, unapologetic representative of the community in a region where politicians of all stripes oscillate between extreme and soft Hindutva politics. For moderate Muslims and Hindus, it is an outfit that claims to fight against a dangerous phenomenon—radical Hindutva—while at the same time representing a mirror image of themselves creating a competing fundamentalism in the region.
In fact, three Muslim groups – PFI, SDPI and CFI (Campus Front of India) – are growing fast on the shores of ever-polarizing Karnataka. In July, about three people were killed in the region.
PFI: Seeks to represent Muslims
Observers say the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat riots in 2002 had a particularly severe impact on coastal Karnataka. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were a lot of violent attacks on Muslims,” said Udupi-based activist and professor Phani Raj. “But broad sections of the ‘secular’ have remained silent.”
“There were riots in Suratkal in 1998 and in Mangalore in 2006. Muslim shops and property were destroyed, but literally nobody spoke,” says a Muslim student at St. Aloysius College, Mangaluru. “PFI filled the vacuum.” The forerunner of PFI in this region was the Karnataka Dignity Forum (KFD). Formed in 2001, the KFD was staunchly anti-RSS, not shying away from street battles with Hindutva activists and often engaged in the moral protection of Muslim girls.
Pushing against the rabid Hindutva forces, the KFD soon became their facsimile. “They spoke the language of Bajrang Dal. Their idea was to take them on. If they saw violence, they agreed to violence,” says Raj. In 2007, KFD merged with other Muslim organizations in South India to form PFI.
Just as Hindutva organizations try to be the only representative of all Hindus, PFI tries to be the only true representative of Muslims. “No one works for Muslims – for organizations like the Congress, the Left or the Jamaat-e-Islami,” says PFI national general secretary Ilyas Muhammed Thumbe. “Only PFI does.” The thumb is the “moderate” face of the organization, but even its words can sometimes border on fear. Between Thumbe and Faringepete they span the spectrum of PFI management.
Concerned with PFI
However, not all Muslims are comfortable with PFI. “They push Muslims into a corner. They generalize every issue and find a Hindu-Muslim angle there,” says Jamaat-e-Islami state secretary Muhammad Kunhi. “They support the issues that the RSS wants.”
Contrary to the image, part of the media paints the PFI as working with covert terror modules, there is very little behind the scenes for the PFI.
The hijab a case in point is the issue that local BJP leaders have successfully milked for months. A Mangalore-based Muslim lawyer and businessman pointed out that the CFI has turned the issue into an “inevitable dichotomy”. “The PFI has completely eroded the space for any negotiation and made it a pro-Islam or anti-Islam issue,” he says. A senior media executive, who did not want to be named, says the organization is not ready to cooperate with any political party. Both Congress and SDPI are equally suspicious of each other. Like Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the SDPI is often referred to as the BJP’s “B Team” because of its share of the Muslim vote eaten away by the Congress. Faringepete says, “All the time, only Muslim parties are called the B team of this or that party. The SDPI considers not only the Congress but also Muslim organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami to be “too soft”.
Muzaffar Asadi, professor of political science at the University of Mysore, says the PFI’s modus operandi bears striking similarities to Hindutva groups. They emerged at the same time as Sri Ram Sene, Bajrang Dal and other right-wing organisations. “There is propaganda, there is a feeling that we are the only ones who provide your physical security, they support Islamic feminism and engage in social work,” says Asadi. “They have infiltrated various power structures – publications, intelligence wings – and are strong on campuses. They do what I call competitive communalism.”
But contrary to the picture that some of the media emphasize that the organization operates covert terrorist modules, there is very little behind the scenes for the PFI. Their style of politics inspires shock and awe – street protests, marches and intense social media campaigns. The organization also engages in social work – providing financial or legal aid and educational assistance to Muslim victims of violence.
Perhaps this is the reason why the organization continues to grow. In the 2020 gram panchayat elections, SDPI-backed candidates won 225 seats. In December of last year, the party won 6 seats in the elections to city local bodies. With Karnataka state elections due next year, SDPI plans to contest every seat in the state.
A unity march is held every year, in which young people in blue military uniforms parade with drums and sticks or PFI flags. “Visual is a show of power. But obviously, there is a perennial minority feeling that creates it,” says Asadi.
There is no easy road to peace for Karnataka.
(This appeared in print as “Filling the Vacuum”)
(Views expressed are personal)
Sanya Dhingra is a journalist and graduate student, South Asian Studies, Columbia University, New York