On Sunday, immigration officials at the international airport in Hyderabad detained MM Akbar, an Islamic preacher and managing director of the Peace Educational Foundation, and handed him over to the Kerala Police.

The foundation runs 11 schools in Kerala, Karnataka and Lakshadweep. According to Akbar, it caters to over 6,000 students, mostly Muslims, while non-Muslims constitute 60% of its teachers.

On October 8, 2016, the Kerala Police had raided the foundation’s school in Chakkarapparambu in Kochi, Ernakulam district, and confiscated the Class 2 Islamic Studies textbook, alleging it had “objectionable content”. Fearing arrest, Akbar had shifted his base to Doha, the capital of Qatar.

He was travelling to Doha from Melbourne on Sunday when his flight made an immigration transit in Hyderabad, the police said. “Kerala Police had issued a lookout notice against Akbar in February 2017,” Inspector General of Police (Kochi Range) Vijay Sakhare said. “The immigration officials [at Hyderabad] detained him because of that.”

Akbar was brought to Kochi on Sunday night and produced before the Ernakulam First Class Judicial Magistrate Court on Monday. The court remanded him to police custody till March 3.

“A first information report was registered against him under 153 (a) of Indian Penal Code for promoting enmity between religions in October 2016,” Sakhare said.

Kindergarten students at play at a Peace School.

The charge against Akbar

Fifty-year-old Akbar is the founder of Niche of Truth, an Islamic missionary organisation based in Kerala. A powerful orator who has written many books, he is a regular figure in inter-religious conferences. He set up the Peace Educational Foundation in 2006 with the support of wealthy Muslim businessmen in Kerala. The foundation started its first school in Mangaluru in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka in 2007, following it up with a school in Kozhikode in Kerala in 2008. Of the 11 schools it currently runs, nine are in Kerala.

The media often describes Akbar as “Kerala’s Zakir Naik”, referring to the Islamic preacher from Mumbai who moved to Malaysia after a series of police investigations were launched against him on terrorism and money laundering charges. However, Mohammed Ameer, operations manager of the Peace Educational Foundation, said Akbar does not have any connection with Naik or his institutions. “People become confused as Naik’s television channel is known as Peace TV,” he said.

Before the textbook controversy, the Peace Educational Foundation had come in the spotlight in July 2016 when media reports suggested that four of the 21 people from Kerala who had allegedly joined the Islamic State terrorist group – Abdul Rashid, his wife Ayisha, Shiraz Rahman and Mohammed Marwan – had worked with the Peace School in Trikkarippur in Kasargod district. The foundation confirmed the reports but said all four had resigned before their disappearance.

The raid at the foundation’s school in Kochi came three months later. Acting on a complaint filed by the Ernakulam district education officer, the police seized a Class 2 textbook containing material that purportedly promoted enmity between religions.

The officer did not provide Scroll.in with a copy of the complaint. But a state government order issued on January 4 this year to close down the school revealed the education officer had filed the complaint against the institution “for teaching objectionable contents and for following text books and syllabus which contained material violating the existing laws of the country”. It went on to say the district collector had reported that the allegation against the management was true, and that the “decision to stop the operation of such institutions was taken to prevent Muslims from joining the activities of the Islamic State”.

The first information report filed after the raid in October 2016 charged the publishers of the book – Mumbai-based Burooj Realization – and school officials, including Akbar, with promoting enmity between religions. The police also arrested three owners of Burooj Realization. All of them were later released on bail. Akbar, meanwhile, moved to Doha and managed to evade arrest.

Inspector General Vijay Sakhare told Scroll.in on Monday that Akbar had been absconding since the first information report was filed.

Media reports cited a question in the Class 2 textbook containing a reference to Shahada – a declaration for Muslims affirming belief in the oneness of god and acceptance of Muhammad as god’s prophet.

The question was: “Suppose your friend Adam / Suzanne has decided to become a Muslim, among the choices what advice will you give?”

The answer choices were:

a. He/she has to change her name to Ahmed / Sara immediately

b. He/she is wearing a chain and will need to remove it

c. Learn the Shahada

d. Runaway from home as parents are not Muslims

e. Eat halal chicken

MM Akbar is an Islamic preacher, writer and managing director of the Peace Educational Foundation. (Credit: YouTube)

Akbar’s defence

After the government ordered the closure of the school in Kochi, Scroll.in spoke to Akbar on phone. He denied all charges against him. About the textbook, he said: “Burooj Realization’s books were used in many schools and madrassas across the state. I don’t know why we are being targeted.”

He claimed the only reason the book had been introduced in the classroom was to cut costs. “We replaced the highly priced Islamic Studies books from Saudi Arabia-based Darussalam Publishers with the low-cost books from Burooj Realization in 2013,” he explained.

He also said he had instructed teachers to skip the controversial portions in the textbook. “We even recalled the book immediately after the police raid,” he added.

Akbar claimed his school did not discriminate against non-Muslims, or advocate hatred against them. “As many as 6,000 students study in nine schools in Kerala and 98% of them are Muslims,” he said. But the composition of the teachers is different. “We appoint people with a passion for teaching,” he said. Religion is not a major selection criterion. We have 460 teachers on our rolls and 276 of them, or 60%, are non-Muslims.”

A classroom at the Peace School in Kozhikode.

The school’s curriculum

In 2016, soon after the police had raided the foundation’s school and confiscated textbooks, a report appeared in The New Indian Express. Quoting anonymous police officials, the report said: “There was nothing in the syllabus to teach about India or nationalism. Islamic study was the main subject from Class 1 to 8. Other subjects like mathematics, social science and science are elementary. The students were not having any biology lessons as they have been considered unnecessary.”

The newspaper followed up with another report that claimed the school had converted students to Islam and radicalised non-Muslim staff.

Scroll.in contacted the families of students enrolled in the Peace Educational Foundation’s schools and reviewed their textbooks. Between Classes 1 and 8, the schools teach English, Hindi, Malayalam, science, mathematics, social science, computer science and emotional intelligence.

For Classes 1 to 8, books from the Cambridge University Press are used to teach science, mathematics and English. Social science is taught on the basis of textbooks of the National Council of Education Research and Training, the country’s top advisory body on curriculum. Malayalam students study textbooks of the Kerala State Council for Education Research and Training. Hindi is taught with the help of books from Sargam Publication.

Scroll.in was unable to review the Islamic Studies textbooks used by the Kochi school before it was raided. The foundation’s employees said that after Burooj Realization’s textbooks were discontinued, no new textbooks had been introduced in their place.

Producing Akbar in court, the Kerala Police sought a seven-day remand to investigate his financial dealings and alleged links with terror outfits, but were granted five days.

Weeks before he was arrested, Akbar had denied these allegations. “You check my background,” he said. “I always denounced religious terrorism through speeches and writings.” He added that he had full faith in the judiciary: “I am confident that we will get justice from the courts.”

The Peace Educational Foundation runs 11 Peace Schools, including this one in Kozhikode.

Photographs by TA Ameerudheen