Hamid Ansari And PFI: The Iran Connection

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Nov 12, 2017 04:26 PM +05:30 IST
Hamid Ansari And PFI: The Iran ConnectionHamid Ansari (Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Jihad, PFI, Hamid Ansari, and his years as India’s ambassador to Iran. 

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the outgoing vice-president Hamid Ansari, what was perceived mostly as a left-handed compliment, perhaps he knew what he was doing. He told Ansari that he was now free to pursue his own ‘fundamental thought process’. Ansari did exactly that and he chose to attend the conference of Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Islamist organisation.

However, the common strands that connect the ‘fundamental thought process’ of the former vice-president and the fundamentalist organisation may be more than sharing of dais in public.

The reason why Ansari was invited to the PFI conference may go beyond the fact that he was former vice-president. He had served as Indian ambassador to Iran from 1990 to 1992. Now it has become widely known through the book Mission R & AW, written by a former high official of RAW, R K Yadav, how non-cooperative and even detrimental Ansari was to Indian intelligence operations in Iran. According to Yadav, Ansari was non-cooperative and unmoved when a RAW agent working in Tehran was abducted by Iranian intelligence. It took the efforts of Atal Behari Vajpayee, then leader of the opposition, to nudge prime minister Narasimha Rao into forcing Iran to release the abducted Indian official. However, this jeopardised Indian operations in Iran. Yadav explains:

Most of the operations of R&AW received setback after this incident since its operatives became insecure due to inaction of Ansari. R&AW operatives had penetrated inside the Qom religious centre to monitor the activities of some Kashmiri elements whose activities were detrimental to the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir but this incident made them to abort further infiltration inside that centre at that juncture.
R K Yadav, Mission R&AW, Manas Publications, 2014

According to Yadav, Ansari also told Muhammad Umar, an Indian security official posted in Tehran to remain silent, when the latter was approached by Iranian intelligence to cooperate with them. On his refusal to cooperate, he was abducted and tortured. Ansari strangely remained silent and asked Umar not to make it an issue.

The years Ansari was posted in Iran was a very crucial period for international jihadi apparatus. It was the time when the global network of jihadi organisations, which we see today, were getting forged. Tehran was an important player in the unfolding scenario. So the setback R&AW suffered during those two crucial years provided a great boost to jihad in Jammu and Kashmir.

In this connection, it is pertinent to observe how Iran has been, despite being a Shia state, an important instigator of jihadi movement in India which are largely Sunni-fundamentalist. The history is decades long and it starts with Kashmir.

Organisationally, it was Jammat-e-Islami (JeI) that was founded with the aim of establishing a pan-Islamic state sans national boundaries. After Partition JeI had to deal with the reality of India and Pakistan as two separate nation states with a grave conflict in Kashmir. While a transnational JeI established ‘JeI-J&K’ on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir, they set up ‘JeI-Azad Kashmir’ on the side of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Dr Mumtaz Ahmad, professor of political science at Hampton University in his paper on Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia observes:

During the first three decades of its existence, the Kashmir Jamaat operated mainly as a religious revivalist movement and did not actively participate in state politics. ...It was only after the Iranian revolution in 1979 that the Jamaat-i-Islami Kashmir came into the forefront of the political struggle for ‘the liberation of Kashmir’ and for ‘Islamic revolution’.  In August 1980, the leader of the student wing of the Jamaat in Kashmir politically called upon Kashmiri youth to work for an Iranian-type Islamic revolution in Kashmir in order to achieve ‘independence’ from India. This call was issued a few days before a proposed international conference to discuss the relevance of the Iranian revolutionary experience for the Kashmiri Muslims. The Indian government reacted swiftly and banned the conference. Foreign guests including an Iranian official delegation, were sent back from Srinagar airport.
Mumtaj Ahmed, Islamic Fundamentalism in South Asia (in ‘Fundamentalisms Observed’, Vol-1, University of Chicago Press, 1994)

Here, perhaps, we see for the first time the tendency of Iran to join hands with radical Sunni movement to fight against a kafir nation. But there was a long way to go. Inspired and supported by Iran, Sudanese leader Hasan Al Turabi (1932-2016) had launched Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC). It provided a global platform for all the jihadists to meet, discuss and form coordinated strategies. By December 1990, Iran was ready to overlook the Sunni-Shia difference and support the mostly Sunni dominated international jihadi efforts, which were taking shape in Sudan.

The year 1991 saw many important events that would shape the transnational jihad for decades to come. In April that year, Turabi organised a conference for leaders with a pan-Islamic vision. Yosef Bodansky in his study of Osama bin Laden elaborates how Sudan-Iran coordination started taking place:

The conference in Khartoum also established the first real Sunni Islamist revolutionary international, called the Popular International Organization (PIO). Turabi stressed in his address that the PIO’s objective “is to work out a global action plan in order to challenge and defy the tyrannical West, because Allah can no longer remain in our world, in the face of the absolute materialistic power.” The PIO established in Khartoum, a permanent council comprising fifty members, each of whom represented one of the fifty countries where Islamic liberation struggles were taking place. Tehran was duly impressed with the zeal and commitment displayed during the Islamic Arab Peoples’ Conference and offered Turabi professional help to expedite the spread of the Islamist revolution. Most important was the Iranian assistance in establishing a headquarters for the PIO. Toward this end, Colonel Al-Fatih Urwah of Sudanese intelligence travelled to Tehran within days after the conference.
Yossef Bodansky, ‘Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America’, 2011

African historians Robert Oakley Collins and Millard Burr document the presence of Indian Islamists in Khartoum conference:

The militant mujahideen from the Jama’at al-Islami of Pakistan and India, the Hizb-i Islami and Jamiat-i Islami of Afghanistan, and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen of Kashmir soon joined PAIC. ...Eighteen Kashmiri Islamists would receive six months of “highly specialised terrorist training” in Sudan that was personally supervised by “Sudanese leaders Turabi and Mustafa Osman[Ismail].
Millard Burr and Robert Oakley Collins, ‘Revolutionary Sudan: Hasan Al-Turabi and the Islamist State’, 1989-2000, BRILL, 2003

Soon Turabi visited Pakistan and was ready to hand over the trainees resulting in Hizb-ul Mujahideen of Kashmir having 300 Sudan-trained jihadists in their ranks. The same year Maj Gen Mohsin Reza'i of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of Iran's Armed Forces, provided a detailed blueprint for transnational Islamist cooperation in India's Kashmir region:

If there is unity among Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, this will strengthen Muslim solidarity and enable the peoples of Soviet Central Asia and Kashmir to join in. China would also welcome such a development, but I am not sure about the Indian view, although there are a lot of people in India (ie 150 million Muslims) who share a similar heritage with us.

According to one report, "following the organisational principles recommended by Tehran and Khartoum, the (Kashmir) movement has transformed into Kashmiri Jammat-i-Islami, under Abdul-Majid Dar, with a quasi-legal character emphasising educational and social activism, with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen as the clandestine terrorist arm.”

It was in 1993 that Markaz Daw-ul-Irshad (MDI) was brought into Kashmir. MDI was originally founded in Pakistan and had fought along with other jihadist groups in Afghanistan. It was an anti-democratic Sunni group. Yet it was in Tehran, with the support of ISI, A G Lone of J&K People's Conference and Tajmiul Islam of Al Barq were brought together with the officials of MDI. With their acceptance of MDI, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as the armed branch of MDI started its operations in Jammu and Kashmir. By 1994, there were about 300 veteran jihadists from Afghan Jihad in the J&K field. In November 1995, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto visited Iran. According to Bodansky, the agreement between Bhutto and Tehran "stipulated an increase in VEVAK (Iranian intelligence) involvement in and support for the jihad in Kashmir, greatly assisting the ISI”.

Thus the setback, Yadav says, Ansari caused to R&AW operations in Tehran, provided Iran-ISI axis an advantage to strengthen jihad in Kashmir.

Before going into the issue of PFI and the possible Iranian connection, it is essential to understand the role of Iran in Indian jihad. Essentially it is threefold.

1. It helps to ensure the security of the lives of sizable Shia minorities in Pakistan – largely an Islamist state with Sunni allegiance. Though the common enemy of the West may infuse inspiration of the jihadist cadre, with Pakistan’s proximity to the United States, Iran needs a more specific common enemy of Islam which is inevitably provided by the ‘infidel’ India. By providing base and logistic support to ISI operation in India, Iran develops close relations on theo-political grounds with Pakistan, which ensures that the Shias in Pakistan are largely free of severe persecution as against the Ahmadiyas.

2. In nuclear technology transfer, India has consistently refused assistance to Iran. Even while Iran was providing base for Kashmir jihad by ISI on its own soil, it approached India at the same time, in early 1990s, for the acquisition of a heavy water research reactor. The negotiations failed not only because of the US opposition but also because of “India's own doubts about selling the reactor to a country that was also cooperating with Pakistan in the atomic field”. Iran was simultaneously obtaining assistance and cooperation from Pakistan's notorious A Q Khan, a support that had a smooth run from 1987 to 1999.

It was the anti-Shia actions of Taliban in Afghanistan that would end the decade-long nuclear honeymoon between Pakistan and Iran. Now with Taliban, the source of sourness between Iran and Pakistan gone, there is every possibility that an Iran-Pakistan axis may develop again. In 2005, when India voted against Iran's nuclear programme in the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ansari did not hesitate to criticise India's stand. He said that the government of India had acted on 'its own judgement' (an euphemism for prejudice) and the stand was not borne out by facts.

A section of India’s foreign policy experts do believe that Iran is more concerned about the Shia-Sunni divide and hence will not be antagonistic to India, which has a vast population of Shia Muslims. India's veteran foreign analyst K Subrahmanyan reflects this thought process when he considers Iranian nuclear ambitions as being directed "more to counter a two-front encirclement of Shias by Sunni Pakistan and Sunni Saudi Arabia”.

However, such a thinking underestimates the power of the lure of an Islamic revolution getting established in an infidel secular state even if the eventual dominance is that of the Sunnis. That alone can explain why during Pokhran-II, Iran criticised India while it welcomed Pakistan’s nuclear tests. Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi became the first foreign dignitary to visit Islamabad after the 1998 nuclear explosions and made the statement that Muslims now felt “confident because a fellow Islamic nation possesses the knowhow to build nuclear weapons”. At the same time, Iran's UN Envoy Ali Khorram condemned India’s tests in Geneva saying that they "disrupted the strategic balance in the subcontinent”.

It is in this connection that one should see PFI also coordinates and supports anti-nuclear activists in India. Dr S Udhayakumar, a radical Luddite and anti-nuclear activist, was a star speaker at the recent conference organised by Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of PFI.

3. Iran aims to evolve as a counter to Saudi Arabia – into a more ecumenical fundamentalist pan-Islamic state with a Shia-Sunni cooperation with a common minimum Islamist programme. Towards this end, it wants to build a strong cadre-based mass movement across India which has a sizable non-radicalised Shia population and pockets of radicalised Sunni population. Already a base for such a vision has been provided by the Sunni fundamentalist transnational JeI. As early as 1985, Iran showed eagerness to embrace the JeI ideology, ignoring the Shia-Sunni differences.

Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini, vice chairman of the Council of Experts of Iran, expressed the happiness of his government "with the efforts being made in Pakistan to establish an Islamic system”. He was referring to the Islamic radicalisation drive in Pakistan by JeI (Pakistan), under the patronage of general Zia-ul-Huq. Both Iran and ISI want to make use of this network: former for the establishment of a caliphate alternative to Saudi, and the latter for the destabilisation of India. While JeI itself has the aim of the creation of an Islamic caliphate of its own version.

It is with respect to the third factor that PFI (Popular Front of India) becomes important. It combines both the vision, support, institutional strategies that Iran has obtained through the decades with the vast network that JeI-Hind in India has created.

The choice of the name is important. From PAIC and PIO, which were part of the grand jihad movement of pre-9/11, to even older Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), PFI remarkably combines the versatile elements in all these movements. PFLP is a Marxist organisation, outwardly secular. It was formed in 1967 by Dr George Habash. What Harold M Cuibert said in his authoritative work on PFLP is very relevant to the present context:

The PFLP does not confine its  organizational activity to the Middle East. ... It seeks to accomplish this task by concluding international alliances with left-wing and other movements and organizations and by directing the efforts of its constituents residing abroad. The PFLP sees itself as a living organism whose goal is to reverse the establishment of the state of Israel and to acquire for the Palestinians the rights which it feels they have always deserved. Each of the PFLP’s components is essential to its existence and each is given equal importance.
Harold M Cubert, The PFLP’s Changing Role inthe Middle East, Routledge, 2014

A year later, Ahmed Jibril split the organisation and created a more radical PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC). Soon the Marxist leftist elements and Islamist radicals would blend together. In 1969, there was another split. The Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine was formed by Naif Hawatmeh. All these organisations indulged in terrorism, upheld radical Islamism and also fundamentalist Islam. They at the same time used secular leftist-Marxist narrative to position them.

"There is an abundance of connections between Marxist groups and Islamist sphere,” points out Indian Muslim scholar Dr M H Syed in his two-volume sympathetic treatment of Islamism. He gives the example of PFLP-GC, which is outwardly Marxist having close collaborative ties with explicitly Islamist Hizbollah. “Without doubt the Shiites have provided the best bridge between the two Third World movements.” he says and credits the impact of 'Islamic revolution in Iran' for bringing together 'third world' Marxism and Arab Islamism.

The Islamist-Marxist correspondence is however inbuilt in the Islamist theology itself. It can be seen clearly in the writings of JeI founder – Syed Abul A'la Maududi (1903-1979). He was the one who dreamt of a world Islamic revolution. Jason Burke, the South Asian correspondent for The Guardian, brings out the similarity between Marxism and Maududian Islamism.

Maududi found useful material in Islamic history to dress what are basically Leninist tactics in more locally acceptable clothes. ... Maududi also used, for the first time the term jahillyya in a modern context. Previously it had been used to describe the state of anarchy, barbarism and lawlessness that the pre-Islamic tribes of Arabia had lived in. Now Maududi used it to describe ‘modern society’. This proximity in conception of radical left-wing thought is key, showing roots of both ideologies in attempts to address genuine social, economic, cultural and political problems.
Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, I B  Tauris, 2004
Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) is the student wing of JeI-Hind. Campus Front is the student wing of PFI. In many universities like Hyderabad, the left-wing student unions form alliances with SIO. The poster shows how Islamic theology and radicalisation happen in the campus.
Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) is the student wing of JeI-Hind. Campus Front is the student wing of PFI. In many universities like Hyderabad, the left-wing student unions form alliances with SIO. The poster shows how Islamic theology and radicalisation happen in the campus.

One can note that already in India the Nehruvian and Marxist historians have created a similar narrative. Anti-Hindu campaigns of Aurangazeb to Moplah carnage to Mumbai bombing to ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Kashmir by jihadists were all given economic and secular reasons by the Marxist-Nehruvian historians. In most of these incidents of inhuman anti-Hindu violence, Muslims were shown as representing progressive and liberating forces and Hindus were shown as feudal, socially stagnant, bourgeois and oppressors.

With such a fertile ground for pro-Islamist narrative already in place in India, Islamists perfected both the left-Islamist affinity and the experiences of post-1970 global pan-Islamic movement in their current operations in India. They simultaneously have built a strong radical left-Islamist narrative for the democratic set-up. They are also building a cadre movement that can only be defined as Islamo-fascist, which has contacts across borders. While technically they are an Indian movement they are a continued legacy of Turabi, Zia and Khomeini. Their organisational outreach is the product of other ‘popular’ movements of pan-Islamic organism. They synergistically bring together their work in democratic realm to destroy the very same democracy and usher in a theo-totalitarian regime.

From left, flags of PFI, JKLF (Kashmir) and the Palestine movement.
From left, flags of PFI, JKLF (Kashmir) and the Palestine movement.

An instance of how this is done is shown in the aftermath of 2008 Mumbai carnage.

Soon after 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Iranian daily Kayhan, the mouthpiece of Iranian government alleged that it was an Indo-Zionist conspiracy against Pakistan while Iranian President Ahmadinejad also implied that the attacks had nothing to do with Pakistan. In India, a similar stand was taken and a propaganda blitzkrieg was done by radical leftists and PFI.

In March 2010, The Milli Gazette, which prides itself as 'Indian Muslims’ leading English newspaper published a long conspiracy theory by Amaresh Misra which alleged that ‘Mumbai attack was a joint IB-CIA-Mossad-RSS project'. In the article, Misra warned that as IB is obstructing the work of ‘secular Indians’ like Digvijay Singh and that "all its communal officers will be hunted down and tried in a court of just law”. Interestingly, the man got his book on 1857 released by none other than Ansari, then vice-president of India.

Incidentally, PFI on similar lines questioned the hanging of Ajmal Kasab. Criticising "the unusual hastiness shown by the ruling machinery in hanging Kasab”, the editorial of PFI daily Thejas claimed that "Kasab had no role in the Mumbai terror attack and after being handed over to the Indian intelligence agencies in Nepal, he was put into the case”.

There are also seemingly secular human right organisations, which actually lobby for the PFI who are caught in terror-related cases. NCHRO – National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO) – provides a case study on how Islamists use human rights organisations. While the president and vice-president are radical left non-Muslims, the executive council has as its members well known PFI high officials like Ahmed Shareef, the PFI's founder member, K H Nasar the executive editor of PFI Malayalam daily Thejas and was the vice-president of PFI state committee and so on. This ‘human rights organisation’ has a nationwide presence. In 2007, NCHRO in association with Amnesty International India, convened a national seminar on fake ‘encounter killings’ and now one decade later the participants in its seminar include Prof Nivedita Menon and Umar Khalid of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

A typical media ploy: NCHRO is presented as a secular human rights body giving clean chit to PFI while hiding NCHRO’s connection with PFI.
A typical media ploy: NCHRO is presented as a secular human rights body giving clean chit to PFI while hiding NCHRO’s connection with PFI.

In 2013, Kerala police raided a training centre run by the PFI at Narath, Kerala. The police discovered bombs, human effigy for target practice and material for bomb making. They also seized 21 mobile phones kept in a two-wheeler and also more importantly an Iranian entry card in the name of Sadik to Kish Island free zone and foreign currency. Soon NCHRO launched a campaign to free the arrested in Narath case. While the press reports simply stated that NCHRO was a human rights organisation, the real nature of the secular-sounding group was never brought out by the mainstream media.

However, 2013 was not the first time the Iranian connection has surfaced in Kerala.

On 2 May 2003, eight Hindu fishermen, unarmed and enjoying an evening breeze at the Marad beach of Kozhikode district in Kerala were massacred. Thomas P Joseph Commission appointed by the Kerala government tabled its report in 2006. The report while pointing out foreign links of jihadist organisations in Kerala said that "Iran and the ISI of Pakistan were the money sponsoring agencies of the NDF”. NDF or the National Development Front was the precursor to PFI.

 M K Stalin the heir of DMK supremo Karunanidhi on the SDPI platform. SDPI is the political arm of PFI.
M K Stalin the heir of DMK supremo Karunanidhi on the SDPI platform. SDPI is the political arm of PFI.

Thus the Iranian connection in the PFI, which surfaces from time to time and the invitation of Ansari, who too is an ‘old Iran hand’ with pro-Iranian leanings and who occupied one of the top-most constitutional positions in India, to PFI conference may not be a coincidence at all. Far from that it may be an indicator as to the coming of age of Islamist politics in India which uses terror and democratic means strategically in a tactful mix to wage jihad in India.

When Ansari participated in the PFI conference, that sends a signal that PFI and its affiliates are soon going to expand into the Shia population as well, which has so far largely remained non-radicalised. This will have greater ramifications for India in terms of its relations with Iran. Further, with professional inputs from such veterans like Ansari, who know the system so well, PFI will be now better equipped to use Indian state and democracy to subvert the same.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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