In the classes, they first talked about the oppression of Muslims in Palestine and other parts of the world. Then they showed how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was attacking us and how the RSS wanted to destroy Babri Masjid,” Saifuddin reminisces about his induction into a militant group in 1991. “We were told Muslims should come together against the RSS. Then in the Quran classes, verses about jihad were discussed in a way that showed it was our duty to wage jihad against persecution.”

Saifuddin’s home is behind a shawarma stall and bakery. Outside the bakery are a dozen tables with chairs grouped around them for anyone who wants to sit down and pass the time of day. He’s standing outside his door waiting for me. Thin and slightly built, the chevron-moustached schoolteacher looks 10 years younger than his 42. He’s wearing brown sunglasses as he’s recovering from eye surgery.

Saifuddin is a former member of the National Development Front (NDF, now Popular Front of India or PFI), a Muslim organisation formally founded in Kerala in 1993. It claims to be a group dedicated to minority empowerment, but its detractors, within the Muslim community and outside, call it fundamentalist and extremist. PFI grabbed national headlines in 2010 when some of its cadres chopped off the hand of T. J. Joseph, a college professor, for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad in a question paper.

NDF spread rapidly in north Kerala after its founding. While thousands joined the organisation, as many have left over the years. But former activists don’t like to be identified or advertise their past. The search for Saifuddin (name changed on request) has taken me three weeks.

NDF attracted youngsters in the name of religion. But their aim was to use religion as a doorway to intervene in social and political issues. One of the good things was that it brought order and discipline. But it stopped there.

“Our instructors never gave the how, why or where of the verses on jihad that they quoted from the Quran,” he recalls. “For example, one verse says you should kill a kafir. But it was said in a particular context. Think of the harm it could do if introduced as a general statement. At the end of the initial session we all stood together, linked hands, and swore in the name of Allah that we would never leave the group or give it away.”

This oath was the baiyat, says Saifuddin, from the Arabic Bai’yah, which means an oath of allegiance given to a leader. It is believed that in the time of the Prophet, anyone who wished to enter Islam had to take the Bai’yah.

The drawing room doubles as bedroom for the convalescing Saifuddin, who lies back down on the bed as we enter. The room is dark and as we start to talk, he gets up to draw the curtains before returning to his bed. I wonder how much he’s willing to tell me.

Saifuddin grew up in Nilambur, a small riverside town in Malappuram district and comes from a family of Mujahids, a sect in Kerala that broke away from the Sunnis in the 1920s over opposition to what they considered superstitious practices. Though it happened more than 20 years ago, he clearly remembers his introduction to NDF.

He had been invited by a friend who was a member and attended four classes before joining. What drew him to the organisation was interest in religion. But he soon realised that the group’s activities had nothing to do with religion.

“NDF attracted youngsters in the name of religion. But their aim was to use religion as a doorway to intervene in social and political issues. One of the good things about the group was that it brought order and discipline to religious things. But it stopped there.”

That was a time of intense polarisation, with the Sangh Parivar on the road demanding the handover of the Babri Masjid so that they could build a Ram temple on the site. The sense of fear and exclusion among Muslims was palpable. The indoctrination played its own part.

Saifuddin recounts his own state of mind.

“During those years I was afraid to walk the streets. I started thinking that everyone I met was RSS. If I saw someone with sandalwood paste on the forehead or a thread around the wrist, I would think that this was a communal person. I couldn’t trust anyone who was not a Muslim. I was always afraid of being attacked and felt hostile towards perfectly ordinary people. This is exactly how a lot of people see a Muslim with a beard and think he is a terrorist.

“That is why I oppose the Popular Front. I experienced first-hand the kind of mentality it produced.”

Saifuddin is no longer with PFI. He is a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind.

The organisation Saifuddin joined in 1991 did not have a name. That came later. But the acronym NDF was used among senior cadre. He was told it expanded to “National Defence Force”. NDF meetings were held in secret and people could attend only by invitation. One had to usually attend four or five classes before being accepted.

It is almost certain that the first mosque in India is Cheraman Juma Masjid in Thrissur, built in 629 AD. The Zamorins patronised the Arabs and the Mappilas who converted to Islam. The result has been no alienation.

The classes were held in a building, rented for the purpose for a couple of days. The instructor was not a local man, Saifuddin recalls. “This helped maintain secrecy. If 10 people attended classes, perhaps two might end up joining. During the class, the instructor did not share any personal details with us.”

The pan-Islamist trend that Saifuddin describes is new to Kerala, which was among the more inclusive societies until recently. Its Muslims often point out that their history differs from what happened in other parts of India, especially vadakku (north). Except for Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s occupations of Malabar in the 18th century, there is no history of Islamic conquest in Kerala.

Islam arrived here earlier than in any part of the country through Arab trading ships in the 7th century, a commerce with the coastal kingdom of the Zamorins that predates the Prophet. According to a popular legend, Cheruman Perumal, a Chera king from Kerala went to Mecca after he converted to Islam, and met Prophet Muhammad.

While the legend is disputed, it is almost certain that the first mosque in India is Cheraman Juma Masjid in Thrissur, built in 629 AD. The Zamorins patronised the Arabs and the Mappilas who converted to Islam. The result has been no alienation, few communal riots, and that Muslims played a significant part in shaping a shared culture.

The communal harmony of post-Independence Kerala was broken by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.But Babri Masjid wasn’t the only turning point. There was an older imperative at work as well, migration to the Gulf for work. It meant more money and more clout in the local community but it also led to a “return to the roots” religiosity. The two made a potent combination, fuelling an empowerment that was extremely conservative in its religious outlook.

According to a study by the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, in 2011, 36.6 per cent of Muslim households in Kerala received remittances from relatives in the Middle-East. Of the total Rs.15,129 crore received by households in the state, 46.5 per cent went to Muslim households. Malappuram district saw the maximum, with every household receiving Rs.1,14,313 per annum on average.

Twenty years ago, Malappuram was one of the less developed districts of Kerala. The smaller towns had few schools, good roads or big shops. To the educated middle-class of Kochi or Thiruvananthapuram, Malappuram and its majority Muslim population was synonymous with rustic life and educational backwardness. Today its towns reflect the same consumerist culture that is rampant in the cities of post-globalisation Kerala. There is little to differentiate towns like Perinthalmanna, Manjeri or Kottakkal; they have the same shopping complexes, branded clothing outlets, fancy stores and eateries selling junk food. They’re both a sign of prosperity and the fact that the district has more than its share of newly enriched families of Gulf émigrés.

Young men sport beards in a way that youngsters of my generation did not. It has become a kind of identity statement. Nothing religious about this.

Along with increased financial prosperity, however, returning migrants have brought a form of religion borrowed from the Salafism prevalent in UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. It has combined with the proliferation of mass media to refashion religious life.

“When I was young, my grandmother used to wear thattam (a headscarf won by Malabar Muslim women), but purdah or hijab was uncommon,” says Salauddin Ayyubi. “When someone wanted to go on Haj, purdahs were requisitioned from Bombay and Bangalore. Nowadays, they are increasingly used by a large section of women, even young children. Recently, the Ustad at the madarsa told my daughters to wear purdah when coming to pray. I talked to him and pointed out that the verses in the Quran only prohibit immodest dress as un-Islamic.

“Young men sport beards in a way that youngsters of my generation did not. It has become a kind of identity statement,” he adds disapprovingly. “There is nothing religious about this. It is part of a culture of showing religion through outward symbols. Now religious programmes on television abound, with both Jamaat-e-Islami and Sunnis owning TV channels. Religious lectures used to be simple affairs but now they are grand stage programmes with multi-media, and so on.

“The nature of religious discourse has changed,” Salauddin says shaking his head. “Religious institutes too have grown. There are so many Quran colleges and Hadith colleges. Even ordinary people attend them because they now believe it is part of being religious.”

Imeet Mustafa at a private school in Kozhikode. He meets me at the request of the man running the institution, Abu Bakr. A tall man in his sixties, Abu Bakr (name changed on request) insists that neither his nor his guest’s identity be revealed. He speaks of people being targeted for violence by PFI activists for making public remarks against it.

“It’s better to be cautious. We meet these people after all, and as a man in charge of an educational institute, I can’t make enemies,” he says.

“Growing religious identity has translated into politics based around religion,” Abu Bakr says. “Each religious sect or caste has become a vote bank. Religious leaders need a social group and political parties need these leaders. Whether it is the CPI(M), the Congress, or the Muslim League, no one can afford to not do business with religious leaders. This is true of all religions in Kerala.

The fall of Babri Masjid acted as a catalyst for Islamic politics in Kerala. It was a time of great anxiety for Muslims.

“It allows fundamentalists to seek cover under religion. In 1993, Chekannur Maulavi, who preached a reformist theology, was murdered for that. His relatives accused the leader of the AP Sunnis, Aboobacker Musliyar, of ordering the murder to check the Moulavi’s growing influence. There was no proper investigation and the real culprits were never caught. It isn’t surprising, seeing that the AP Sunnis are a vote bank. In the same way, it is only relatively recently that Muslim League has started strongly opposing NDF. In many places, they have taken the help of NDF cadres to win elections.”

Kanthapuram A. P. Aboobacker Musliyar is the leader of the orthodox AP Sunnis, a sect that split from the larger EK Sunni group in 1989. In 2010, one person was convicted for the murder of Chekannur Maulavi. The AP Sunnis have traditionally supported the Left though recently they have been wooed actively by the Muslim League.

Mustafa (name changed), a bespectacled man with a beard, joins us. He’s dressed in spotless white shirt and mundu, with a skull cap covering his head. “The politics of religion started in Kerala with Madauni,” he says. Mustafa is an office bearer of the Ithihadu Shubbanul Mujahideen (ISM) in Kozhikode. ISM represents the Mujahids, the largest Muslim sect in Kerala after the Sunnis.

Since 1992, ISM has been vocal about what Mustafa terms the politics of religion. He believes PFI poses a threat to communal harmony and to Muslim society and that its democratic pretences are a deliberate ploy to gain political acceptance.

“After Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) was banned, several members went to NDF, which became popular in Kerala by preaching religion. Youngsters attended its classes, and families allowed them to because they thought it was about the Quran. Instead they promoted a rhetoric of jihad to protect Islam. They called it self-defence to gain legitimacy but it was basically an ideology of violence. Right after the Babri demolition, NDF spread so rapidly that perhaps one in three of IUML’s youth wing was also an NDF activist. It allowed cadres to join other political organisations as long as they kept their NDF membership a secret. One of the group’s greatest successes was its ability to penetrate other political parties like IUML and CPI(M).”

Ayodhya was a turning point, he believes. “The fall of Babri Masjid acted as a catalyst for Islamic politics in Kerala. It was a time of great anxiety for Muslims and through his fiery speeches Maudani unleashed a wave of religious sentiment that attracted many youngsters. Allegations that the Muslim League (IUML) could do nothing to protect Muslims against the Sangh Parivar resonated with people,” he says.

Abdul Nasser Maudani started the Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) in 1989 and later the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which combined fiery rhetoric and appeal to a Muslim identity, with a social programme that promised to empower marginalised sections. Accused of involvement and arrested in the Coimbatore serial blasts, he was acquitted of all charges after more than nine years in prison. He was later arrested on charges of masterminding bomb blasts in Bangalore. Human rights activists as well as media investigations have raised doubts about the evidence against him.

Nasser Faizi Koodathai, joint secretary of the state committee of the Samastha Kerala Sunni Students Federation (SKSF) (EK Sunni Group), also agrees with Mustafa. The group has been vocal in its opposition to PFI, accusing it in public meetings of leading Muslim youth down the path to religious extremism.

“Since its formation, PFI has presented a democratic façade, but the ideology remains the same as in the days of NDF. In the years following Babri, a number of extremist groups became active in north Kerala, exploiting Muslim anxiety. After ISS, Jama Iyyathul Ihsania, Sunni Tigers, SIMI, etc. were banned or became inactive, NDF was the most active group. It went by no name in the beginning. It secretly held classes in playgrounds, school buildings, and in the guise of martial arts training. It was mainly young people who attended. No outsider had any idea who the members were in any area,” according to Faizi.

“They used different code words to designate the organisation in different districts. They attracted people from all sections—the EK Sunnis, the AP Sunnis, the Mujahids, Jamaat and members of all political parties. They asked Muslims to unite against the RSS because no one else would protect Muslims. When the group came out in 1994, it had a considerable following in several districts and called itself the National Development Front. But the cadres referred to themselves as the National Defence Front. They have organised arms training camps in several places.”

Another SKSF office bearer spoke on condition of anonymity about what Sunnis who left NDF said about its activities. “To become a member you have to attend five classes. In the first class they tell you about atrocities against Muslims in many parts of the world as well as India. They narrate incidents of RSS attacks against Muslims, the Gujarat riots, and so on. In the second and third they would take verses on jihad from the Quran out of the original context and connect them with what is happening today. They would tell students that it is their religious duty to wage jihad to protect Muslims against those who attack them. In the last class they pick students who they feel can be loyal to the organisation. They are made to take the baiyat, saying they will never leave the organisation or disclose its secrets.”

After he joined NDF, Saifuddin attended classes every week. There were physical training and martial arts classes where they learnt a combination of kung-fu, karate and yoga. “It was not very scientific. It helped us be fit but I doubt whether the martial arts lessons were very useful. Some people were enthusiastic about it though.”

The classes and meetings had to be attended without fail and there were penalties if people were absent. But it was rarely necessary. “We considered it part of our religious life to attend the sessions.”

Meetings were held in secret. The organisation did not have an office so they met in public places. Open grounds, unused sheds, and mosques where the party had influence were all used, under the cover of Quran or martial arts classes. “People knew some outfit was active in the area, but thought we were the banned SIMI or ISS. We did not call ourselves by any name, but I was told by senior members that we were the National Defence Front.”

The classes continued the theme of persecution and the religious imperative of self-defence through jihad. “We were told that if we did our duty by being active in the organisation, we would go to heaven without a doubt. All issues were attached to the idea of jihad and we believed that to act as the organisation wanted us to was a religious duty. Those who were not enthusiastic invited the label of false believers.”

Saifuddin effectively left NDF in 1994, after the organisation came out openly. He remembers going to Thalassery for a public meeting followed by a huge parade. He chose not to attend the parade, going instead to the beach with his friends.

“A famous human rights activist from Tamil Nadu, a Hindu, attended the meeting. This was just eyewash to show that the organisation was not communal.”

As Ram Janmabhoomi movement gathered momentum in north India, Kerala witnessed sporadic violence between RSS activists and members of Muslim organisations.

Saifuddin left Nilambur to pursue his B.Ed and was given a letter to join the NDF unit at the new place. He never used it.

He briefly came into contact with the organisation again in 2004, as a teacher in Kottakkal, another town in Malappuram. Many of the friends he made there were NDF members and they attended meetings regularly. He briefly considered joining again, but as he hung out more with the group, he was disturbed by their attitude. “They were very different from the people who joined with me. These men were angry and aggressive. Their approach to all issues was confrontational and their world view was also like that. I soon distanced myself from them and when I left Kottakkal for a government job, I lost all contact.”

Salauddin Ayyubi is also from Malappuram district and almost the same age as Saifuddin. He too is a child of the Eighties and Nineties, when religiosity became the fashionable option. He started his activist career with meetings of the Students Federation of India (SFI), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) but was soon drawn to the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind, which he joined roughly at the same time as Saifuddin joined NDF.

“Many Muslim students moved away from mainstream political parties because there was an increasing perception that we were being used as fodder for political violence. SIO on the other hand offered cultural and artistic activities. As an aspiring sketch artist I got a lot of opportunities to showcase my talents.” His family were followers of the Jamaat and soon he started attending religious classes by the parent organisation.

The Jamaat was founded in 1941 by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, who wanted to create an Islamic state through peaceful means. Till the Seventies, Jamaat had declared all the institutions of democracy including Parliament and elections un-Islamic. After the Emergency, during which it was banned by the Indira Gandhi government and its leaders imprisoned, the Jamaat allowed its members to vote.

As Ram Janmabhoomi movement gathered momentum in north India, Kerala witnessed sporadic violence between RSS activists and members of Muslim organisations. The Jamaat at that time was largely non-political. But other organisations with a politically aggressive, and many allege, extremist ideology, attracted Muslim youth dissatisfied by the way mainstream organisations responded to their anxieties. The most visible among them was the now-banned SIMI.

“I didn’t interact much with SIMI activists in my neighbourhood. The Jamaat told us they were extremists and terrorists. But there were even more cultural activities in SIMI. I remember hearing a cassette of devotional songs released by some SIMI members. It had nothing to do with ideology and the songs were excellent.”

Formed in the Seventies, SIMI was initially mentored by the Jamaat but broke away in the Eighties. It inherited Maududi’s ideology from the Jamaat. But SIMI rhetoric was far more provocative than the Jamaat. Active in several colleges in Kerala, SIMI used slogans like “Janadhipatyam thalarate, khilafat valarate” (Let democracy weaken and Khilafat grow) and “Indiayude mochanam Islamiloode” (India shall be saved through Islam).

Even as the Jamaat criticised SIMI for being extremist, the outfit Salauddin joined was itself undergoing radical change. In 1987, it launched the Malayalam mass daily Madhyamam, beginning a process of increasing political engagement as well as public presence. In the years that followed, it launched several publications and a television channel. In 2013, it started its own political front, the Welfare Party of India. In term of followers, madarsas and mosques, Jamaat is dwarfed by the Sunnis in Kerala, but its influence on public opinion is deeply disproportionate to its numbers.

In these years, the community it catered to has also changed. Wealth from Gulf remittances has translated into better education and living conditions for many, consumerism, and widespread exposure to globalisation.

Salauddin is no longer a part of these developments. He left the Jamaat in 2002 to become a Sufi. SIMI, along with a few other hardline outfits, had been banned or become inactive. He doesn’t have much to say about anyone but NDF which he first encountered in Perinthalmanna in 1997. Their aggressive sloganeering against the Sangh and their veiled threats attracted his attention as he watched a procession. He found out that the group was organising classes in a local mosque without revealing their identity to the committee members.

“I talked to the members and made sure they were not allowed to hold meetings in the mosque. We worked to make sure NDF did not acquire a major following in the area. I found their ideology dangerous.”

But elsewhere in Kerala, it continued to grow. A year after leaving Jamaat, Salauddin witnessed NDF’s Independence Day parade in Tirur, a small town in Malappuram district. The Freedom March had hundreds of cadres in uniform marching to a band. “The crowd was massive. A couple of years later, I saw the march in Malappuram town. Only supporters were allowed in the stadium, yet it was overflowing. And thousands of people had gathered outside to watch.”

Salauddin was not content with fighting NDF propaganda as a Jamaat member. He says he often talked to NDF members to turn them from the organisation. And he succeeded with at least a few. “During one Onam when I was a teacher, I was approached by a man who had recently joined NDF. He was disturbed that I was celebrating Onam. He had converted to Islam not long back and he asked how as someone born into the religion I could celebrate a Hindu festival. I told him Onam was a traditional harvest festival that everyone celebrated. Whether it had a Hindu side or not, I did not know, neither did it matter to me. From then, I started having regular discussions with him. He eventually left NDF.”

The state government banned the Freedom March in 2011, citing possibility of communal unrest. Civil society activists have criticised the action as biased. When in 2006, NDF amalgamated with the Karnataka Forum for Dignity and Manitha Neethi Pasarai, it became the Popular Front of India. It has a membership of 40,000; 20,000 in Kerala. In 2009, it launched a political party called the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). In the last parliamentary elections, it contested 30 seats in six states and reportedly put up a decent show in some north Kerala constituencies.

Salauddin blames the Jamaat for creating the ideological ground that bred more hard line organisations like SIMI and PFI. While it is not clear that PFI leaders believe in the notion of an Islamic state, Salauddin believes they have been formed by the Islamic exclusivity promoted by the Jamaat. He points to the fact that several NDF founders were former SIMI members.

In 2010 when its cadres chopped off the hand of T. J. Joseph, a college professor, at Muvattupuzha in Malappuram district, PFI leadership condemned the attack and said it was a local issue. But organisations such as the Samastha Kerala Sunni Students Federation, the Jamaat and Mujahid organisations accused PFI of promoting religious extremism.

P. Koya, vice-chairman of the PFI national executive committee, is forceful in his denial of such accusations. The former English professor at the Arts and Science College, Kozhikode, is still addressed as Professor Koya.

He is sitting behind the desk of his cabin, in the offices of Thejas, a daily newspaper published by PFI. Thejas is a Malayalam daily published from Kozhikode and launched by PFI in 2009. It has several editions in Kerala, as well as Doha and Bahrain, and publishes a weekly of the same name. PFI also launched a youth wing called Campus Front in the same year, and it has a presence in many campuses across Kerala and in Mangalore.

Koya was one of the founding members of SIMI and one of the earliest members of NDF’s Supreme Council. Thin metal-framed spectacles sit below a wide forehead and a head of wiry hair. There is a hint of sarcasm in his voice, even while it is urbane and courteous. He gestures to the desktop on his right. “I looked up your magazine online. Some of the articles are right-wing.”

When I spoke to Koya on the phone earlier, he had asked whether the magazine I report for was affiliated to the RSS. I explain for a couple of minutes that the article in question was written from an anti-Hindutva standpoint. With a wave of his hand he dismisses the question as not being too important.

“The Joseph incident is being used by the media to brand PFI as fundamentalist. The day after the incident, we called a press conference in Delhi and condemned the attack. What he said about the Prophet was highly insulting, but what happened to Joseph and his family was tragic. It was a freak incident at the local level and is not supported by PFI,” Koya said.

What about moral policing? PFI cadres have been accused of it in Kozhikode, Malappuram and Kasargod districts as well as in parts of Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka. They have attacked Hindu and Muslim couples seen together in public as well as subjected Hindu men fraternising with Muslim girls to physical violence.

In the late Nineties, PFI was accused of beating up Muslims drinking alcohol, harassing women not wearing purdah, forcing shops to close during Ramzan and other acts of moral policing.

Koya denies this too. “PFI was never involved in any case of moral policing. No cadre has been involved in such acts. The organisation has always condemned it.”

The legend however, is different. In 2009, PFI cadres allegedly beat up a Hindu boy during Ramzan for talking to a Muslim girl. In a later incident they attacked a Muslim boy in a case of mistaken identity and one PFI member was arrested by the Vatakara police. In a Muslim household in Vatakara, a Hindu tutor was allegedly beaten up by NDF activists for teaching in Muslim households.

In 2009, Anwar Haji, mosque committee president of Azhiyoor Juma Masjid, was allegedly attacked by PFI activists for opposing its diktat on a local issue. In 2012, in Bajpe in Karnataka, alleged PFI activists beat up a young Muslim woman named Deeba Algani and a Hindu man for travelling together. And in November 2013, a mob of alleged PFI activists assaulted journalist V. T. Prasad in Bantwal, Karnataka, for writing on the plight of a widowed Muslim woman. Prasad was grievously injured.

“There is large-scale moral policing by Popular Front in Mangalore,” says Naveen Soorinjee, a journalist with BTV in Mangalore. “If a Muslim girl is seen with a Hindu boy, they attack them. But unlike Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva organisations they operate cleverly. It is very difficult to catch them at it.” Soorinjee has extensively covered communal policing in Mangalore and his video of a vigilante attack on a homestay in Mangalore led to the arrest and prosecution of several Hindu Jagaran Vedike activists.

The result of their strategy, according to Soorinje, is that only a few FIRs have been registered. But he has no doubts about their record.

“Three years ago, PFI activists beat up and kidnapped a Muslim girl and boy eating together at Swagath hotel. They handed over the girl to her relative but kept the boy captive at a PFI office for several hours. When I called the PFI president in Mangalore over the phone, he admitted it brazenly,” Soorinje said.

In the late Nineties, PFI was accused of beating up Muslims drinking alcohol, harassing women not wearing purdah, forcing shops to close during Ramzan, and other acts of moral policing in Malappuram and Kozhikode. In all these cases, it either denied the attacks or said the individuals involved were not members.

There’s still something of the professor when Koya speaks and the occasional humour can be charming. I remembered Saifuudin telling me Koya spoke at the annual NDF camp he attended when he joined. “I liked his lecture very much. He spoke about very casual things and was very humorous.”

Both the state government and police have accused PFI of terror links. But so far they have failed to produce any evidence that stands up in court.

Koya says he has moved away from SIMI and Jamaat’s Maududism. Both he and PFI, he says, are about empowering minorities, Dalits and tribals and opposing the neo-liberal economic agenda which disenfranchises these communities. Above all, he adds, it is about fighting Hindutva fascism that has been institutionalised in the state, civil society, and mainstream media. He says the allegations against PFI are motivated.

Asked why mainstream Muslim organisations consider PFI to be fundamentalist, Koya says, “Only a few people have that opinion, because of prejudice. As for the Muslim League, it is part of the establishment.” He dismisses police allegations as part of a Hindutva agenda against the group.

Koya claims there is no secrecy about the formation of NDF. Classes and meetings were not clandestine either. “We didn’t go for publicity and fanfare. We organised quietly, that is all.” He didn’t deny that NDF taught cadres to take up jihad to defend the community. “Something like that might have happened. But the whole thing is being misinterpreted. One must understand that in the context of an attack like Babri Masjid demolition, a community can only respond by turning to its own resources. The word jihad is misinterpreted and is being linked to terrorism. Look at the Mujahid sect in Kerala. Just by using that word, do they become extremists?”

Both the state government and police have accused PFI of having terror links. But so far they have failed to produce any evidence that stands up in court. In 2013, PFI activists at Narath in Kannur were arrested on suspicion of conducting an arms training camp. The police says it recovered a sword and bombs from the house and arrested 22 PFI and SDPI activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The investigation was taken over by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) The agency has asked for further investigation into alleged links with the Indian Mujahideen.

PFI says its cadre have been framed and the evidence planted by the police. It also says state police are biased as similar arms hauls from CPI(M), IUML and RSS cadres have not attracted UAPA or investigation by federal agencies. It also says its activists have been tortured in custody.

But suspicions persist. A mid-level officer in the internal security division of the state police’s Special Branch said in a conversation with Fountain Ink that PFI was radicalising a small section of Muslims. “In today’s climate any outfit needs a democratic face to survive. But these groups continue to advocate a fundamentalist ideology behind the scenes, attracting members by using religion to foster a sense of victimhood by selectively talking about atrocities against Muslims. Then they ask leading questions like, ‘shouldn’t we defend against this?’ It creates a mentality where anyone seen as opposing the religion is an enemy. Youngsters can be easily led to acts of violence.”

Like other cadre-based parties in Kerala, PFI activists too have been involved in clashes, sometimes leading to murder, often with CPI(M) and RSS cadres in Kannur district, a part of the state infamous for political violence. Many of the incidents in which PFI is involved have a communal nature.

In February 2014, the state government submitted before the Kerala High Court that PFI activists were involved in 27 communally motivated murder cases, 86 cases of attempt to murder, and 106 communal cases registered in the state.

In 2001, 11 PFI (then NDF) activists were arrested for the murder of Binu, a CPI(M) worker who along with other CPI(M) workers had allegedly gang raped a Muslim girl in Nadapuram. In 2006, a court convicted six of the accused.

In 1998, fakir Upapppa or Siddhan, a local mystic, was killed by alleged NDF activists for “un-Islamic” spiritual practices. In 2003, eight Hindus and a Muslim were killed at Marad in a revenge attack for the murder of two Muslims by Hindus. Police later seized a cache of arms and ammunition from a local mosque, possibly intended for further attacks. A state government probe panel found that the CPI(M), RSS and IUML were stoking communal tensions. It reported that IUML and NDF were involved in the second attack.

The committee said, “NDF activists are actively involved in the planning and execution of the massacre at Marad beach on May 2, 2003. It is quite unlikely that NDF activists were thus involved without the blessings of their leadership, at least at the local level.” The report made the same comments about the IUML. Sixty-four people were convicted for the Marad killings. PFI says none of the guilty belonged to it. They were IUML workers.

Subash Babu, former superintendent of police, Kozhikode, has investigated several cases involving NDF and studied its growth in the district. He prepared a dossier for the Special Branch, which was tasked with investigating fundamentalist groups in Kerala. He has interrogated several NDF leaders arrested for involvement in cases of attacks or murders.

“NDF started growing in Kozhikode after 1995,” he says. “When SIMI was banned (first time), many members went to NDF. The group operated in units of nine or 10 members. Whenever the numbers grew higher, it split the units. They initially committed a few murders and carried out attacks in Kolathur (Thrissur district), Mathilakam and Valanchery (both in Malappuram district).

“They were most active in Manjeri (Malappuram district), Koduvalli (Kozhikode district), Aluva and some parts of Palakkad and a few places in Kasargod. They spread fast by telling Muslims they were being targeted by the administration and the RSS and they needed to unify to defend themselves.”

He says NDF mainly functioned as a vigilante group intervening in issues affecting Muslims. This led to violence with RSS and sometimes CPI(M) followers. But they also functioned as a moral police. “If a Muslim faced a problem they would get involved, often without the knowledge of the individual. Muslim girls romancing Hindu boys were often warned off. If they did not listen, they boy would be attacked. There were several such instances. “

Suresh Babu says NDF had a tight organisational structure even before it came out publicly. Each unit had a committee that reported to an area committee. Members of several area committees comprised a divisional committee and at the top of the hierarchy was a Supreme Council. (PFI now has a national executive council as the apex body).

“The group was successful in maintaining secrecy because they did not keep written records. They had no office nor did they keep records of membership or financial accounts that could be seized. There was no literature or ideological material either. The group had five action groups, each dedicated to a particular task. One handled propaganda for social or communal issues. Another dealt with running the organisation, a third with finance. A fourth was in charge of coordinating sub-groups like its women’s wing and student’s wing. The last one was in charge of armed violence and retaliation.”

The various action groups acted independently of each other to maintain confidentiality, he adds. Apart from money collected by members, NDF was involved in gold smuggling and hawala transactions for a significant period. “Couriers who tried to double-cross the group by selling gold on the market were caught by the police in Chavvakadu and Taliparamba.”

So far, however, independent verification of such a structure or involvement in smuggling or hawala transactions has not been possible.

For a group so consistently accused of violence and extremism, PFI’s public profile could not be more different. It is involved in a large number of human rights activities across the country and espouses a secular, egalitarian and politically progressive vision that aims at empowerment of minorities and oppressed sections. It has been involved in land agitations, protests for Dalit rights, and minority rights.

The party’s stated objectives are to “To promote national integration, communal amity and social harmony and uphold the democratic set up, secular order and rule of law in the country; to work for peace, progress and prosperity in the country and to strengthen goodwill and brotherhood among different communities; to help establish a social order based on freedom, justice and security for all; to strive for an alternate non-destructive socio economic development model which is eco-friendly and sustainable; to identify and check the menaces of casteism, communalism and fascism; to work for the welfare and progress of the weaker sections in various parts of India; to endeavour for the protection of the cultural, social and religious identity of the tribals, the Dalits and the minorities, and so on.”

The explanation is that PFI has two faces, according to a top police official of state intelligence who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to the media. He says PFI has maintained this style since its inception in 1993. One is democratic and progressive, the other fundamentalist.

“If you look at their constitution they are not even a Muslim organisation. In their propaganda, writings and literature, they always present a different picture. They say they are fighting upper-caste domination. But their actions reveal a radical Islam kind of functioning.

“Their cadres have been involved in at least 30 murders where the motive was religion. One case I remember is the murder of fakir Uppapa. I met him once. He was a simple man who had a small local following among the poor people. He was not a godman or cult figure. He used to chant some mantras and sprinkle water claiming to cure people of their afflictions. He was killed for this reason, because PFI found his practice un-Islamic. All the murders had religious or communal motives. Mostly it was about someone from one community falling in love with a member from the other community.”

The officer says many of the murders that police claim PFI committed were different from political murders in Kerala. He says the modus operandi is different. “These killings did not happen as the result of a sudden provocation. They were all planned and they took great care to carry it out clandestinely. In the Janardhan Pillai murder case in Thrissur, the death was passed off as an accident. Later investigation by the police revealed that he was killed by NDF cadres. The group goes to great lengths to protect its members. A large number of accused in serious criminal cases have gone absconding and it has taken months in some cases to track them down. It shows they have a good network and resources.”

He links the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Kerala to two factors, a pan-Islamic global movement and the polarisation caused by the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Bombay blasts, and the Gujarat riots were different points that created communal tension in Kerala.

“PFI has used this well and it has been systematically expanding in Kerala from its formation till 2010. The attack on Joseph was a huge setback for them. It revealed their true character to Kerala society, as well as to religious Muslims who used to feel that PFI was doing something for the community. They have found it difficult to overcome the political damage. After that they have been moving very cautiously. I think the leadership now realises that their earlier methods will no longer work in the changed environment. But their motivation remains the same.”