Former Vice-President Hamid Ansari has been criticised by Right-wing groups for inaugurating an international conference organised by a New Delhi-based academic research organisation with the support of the women’s wing of the Popular Front of India in Kozhikode, Kerala, on Saturday.

The Popular Front of India is a controversial organisation with considerable presence in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. According to media reports, this month, the National Investigation Agency, in a report to the Home Ministry, said it was involved in terrorist acts, including running terror camps and making bombs, and should be banned. The agency cited, among others, a case in which the group’s members are accused of chopping off the hand of a professor in Kerala’s Idukki district in 2010 allegedly for insulting the Prophet in a question paper.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Rakesh Sinha brought this up in a tweet criticising Ansari on Sunday:

A day later, Vishwa Hindu Parishad joint general secretary Surendra Jain said Ansari stood exposed after attending the programme and accused him of “spreading dissatisfaction in the Muslim community even when he was holding the post of vice-president”.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, for its part, demanded an apology from Ansari for taking part in a “PFI-organised event”.

This is the second time in two months that Ansari has drawn flak from Right-wing outfits. In August, the BJP had criticised him for his statement that there was a sense of insecurity among Muslims, Christians and Dalits – apparently alluding to rising caste and communal violence during the party’s rule.

According to a report in Outlook, Ansari said he had been invited to the conference in Kozhikode by the Delhi-based Institute of Objective Studies and the invitation had mentioned no other organiser. He also said he had visited Kerala as a state guest “but nobody told me not to go for it or there was a second sponsor”.

Academic event, say organisers

The Institute of Objective Studies defended the former vice-president, calling him a well-wisher. “Ansari knows IOS since its inception in 1990,” said Dr Manzoor Alam, the institute’s chairman. “I am sad Ansari is facing flak for participating in our academic function.”

Alam said the institute is a non-political, non-profit organisation that promotes academic research and addresses matters affecting minorities. “Everyone knows IOS is an academic body that promotes research,” he said. “We have published more than 400 books by scholars of social science, law, economics and history. We have been organising events with the collaboration of universities.”

The organisers said the two-day conference dealt with the “role of women in making a humane society” and was attended by scholars from Bangladesh, South Africa and 15 Indian universities. Some 30 research papers were presented at the event.

Alam pointed out that President Ram Nath Kovind, too, had attended one of the institute’s seminars in September 2016, when he was governor of Bihar. “He delivered the valedictory speech of the two-day national conference on religious dialogues organised by Magadh University,” he said. “If Kovind can address our function, why can’t Ansari ?”

The chairman also said there was nothing wrong in joining hands with the National Women’s Front, the women’s wing of the Popular Front of India, for the conference. “The government has neither banned National Women’s Front nor Popular Front of India,” he said. “Then what is wrong in seeking its support?”

Ram Nath Kovind speaks at an event organised by the Institute of Objective Studies at Magadh University in September 2016. He was then governor of Bihar. (Credit: Special Arrangement)

Political rivalry

However, even before Ansari’s attendance caused a stir among Hindutva groups, the conference had been controversial.

The Institute of Objective Studies initially planned to host the event with the support of the Chair for Islamic Studies and Research at the University of Calicut, but was denied permission by the university’s vice-chancellor K Mohammed Basheer. “The university decided to cancel permission for the conference after the Federation of Muslim Colleges informed us it was being organised without their consent,” said Basher.

The Federation of Muslim Colleges funds the Chair for Islamic Studies and Research, which has since its inception in 1988 been researching social, political, cultural and intellectual trends and movements in contemporary Muslim societies.

However, professor P Koya, coordinator of the Kozhikode chapter of the Institute of Objective Studies, alleged the university had denied permission for the conference under political pressure. “Some members of the Federation of Muslim Colleges, who are members of the Indian Union Muslim League, didn’t like the involvement of the National Women’s Front as a co-organiser in the event,” Koya said. “So they put pressure on the vice-chancellor to cancel permission.”

The rivalry between the Indian Union Muslim League and the Popular Front of India – both trying to champion the cause of Muslims – goes back several years. In the wake of the palm-chopping incident in Idukki in 2010, the League had held a meeting of Muslim organisations to denounce the act and the Popular Front of India. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party of India, the political arm of the Front, has made inroads in several areas that were strongholds of the League, leading to clashes between the two.

Koya – who is also editor of the Popular Front of India’s publication Thejas – said the decision of the University of Calicut a day before the conference had forced the organisers to shift the conference to a venue 20 km away in Kozhikode. “The last-minute decision gave us a lot trouble,” he said. “But we managed to organise it.”

He added, “We were surprised by the attitude of the officials of the University of Calicut. It is time to ask whether universities should support academic research rather than playing politics.”