Easter terror attack in Sri Lanka that claimed 253 lives has put Tamil-speaking
Islamist groups on either side of the Palk Strait under the scanner. The
National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) is one of the prime suspects that the Sri
Lankan government banned in the immediate aftermath of the eight serial blasts,
for which the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.
Sirisena used his emergency powers to ban the NTJ and another group known as
the Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI). Security and counter terrorism experts in
Sri Lanka believe the hitherto little-known NTJ to be an organisation that
split from the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamaath (SLTJ) in 2014.
prominent Muslim outfit that seeks to spread a fundamentalist, Wahhabi version
of Islam has a track record of inciting racial hatred, vandalising Buddhist
places of worship, and openly endorsing the IS brand of violent jihad. In 2016,
SLTJ’s general secretary Abdul Razik was arrested for hate speech.
Nadu Thowheed Jamaath (TNTJ), which in the aftermath of the bombings, found
itself in the eye of the storm — initial reports by media houses laid the blame
of the terror attack on them — is a bonafide affiliate of SLTJ.
organisations actively collaborate towards translating and distributing
versions of the Quran, spreading the message of what they claim is true Islam;
the SLTJ has also hosted TNTJ leaders in Sri Lanka.
religious ideology, the two organisations are conjoined by the bonds of Tamil
linguistic identity. Muslims comprise nearly 10% of Sri Lanka’s population.
Concentrated in the north and east of the country, a majority are Tamil
measures, the TNTJ is a hardliner religious organisation, but it insists that
it had nothing to do with the serial blasts on April 21, Easter Sunday, that
occurred in St Sebastian’s church in Negombo, among other churches, and in many
luxury hotels in Colombo.
aftermath of the bombings, multiple media reports linked the
Chennai-headquartered TNTJ to the attacks, forcing its leaders to address a
press conference to deny the allegations, as well as condemn terror attacks as
NTJ with TNTJ is like saying All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)
and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are sister groups because DMK is common to
both their names. Thowheed is an Arabic word that means oneness of God, and
several organisations use it. No government has linked us with NTJ; it’s only
the handiwork of some media houses that seek to spread mischief and defame real
Islam. We work closely with SLTJ, a peaceful organisation that functions within
the laws of Sri Lanka. Whoever has carried out the attacks cannot be a real
Muslim,” says B Abdul Rehman, a tall, slender man in his mid-thirties who is
the vice president of TNTJ.
visited them earlier this month, the cramped three-storey headquarters, surrounded
by power tools and textile sellers in the wholesale trade hub of the old
British settlement of George Town, Chennai, was abuzz with activity.
bundles of TNTJ’s mouthpiece, a 16-page Tamil weekly tabloid called Unarvu
[which loosely translates to ‘consciousness’], are piled up ready for dispatch.
Every inch of the tabloid dated May 3-9, 2019, is devoted to the Sri Lanka
terror attacks. In Unarvu’s crosshairs is a Times of India report that alleged
TNTJ’s links to the prime suspect NTJ; one article praises BBC’s “even-handed
coverage” de-linking them from the banned Sri Lankan group; several articles
denounce IS as an Jewish-American enterprise. The receptionist’s phone hasn’t
stopped buzzing. The attendant, a bearded man in his twenties, patiently
directs all media queries to TNTJ’s leadership. Though Hindi is not the lingua
franca here, he addresses everyone with the north Indian suffix “ji”.
600 mosques in all districts of the state, conducts summer camps for children,
and also provides ambulance services, medical and educational help to the poor
within the community, and organises blood donation camps. It runs old age
homes, homes for children without families and Islamic schools. It claims to
have a membership of nearly one million.
to be the largest Muslim group in Tamil Nadu with membership exceeding a
million. It was established in 2004 by P Jainulabdeen (popularly known as “PJ”)
as a non-political organisation to spread a hardcore Saudi-Wahhabi inspired
version of Islam. The TNTJ’s precursor, the quasi-political Tamil Nadu Muslim
Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), also led by PJ, was a somewhat bigger tent that
attempted to electorally rally the state’s 6-7% Muslim population. In the 2011
assembly polls, its political wing, Manidhaneya Makkal Katchi won two seats, as
an ally of the AIADMK. In the following elections, it tied up with the DMK, and
contested on four seats. It won none.
eventually, morphed into a hardliner, proselytising organisation called TNTJ
that sought to replace other branches of Islam including Sufism and Shiaism
with its Saudi-inspired version. It began to publish a monthly religious
magazine, Ekathuvam (which translates to ‘oneness’), and booklets titled Kolgai
Vilakkam (‘ideological explanation’), and Manithanukketra Margam (‘the best
path for man’).
and its later avatar TNTJ, has often been critical of the DMK and Tamil
nationalist groups for their support of the militant Sri Lankan separatist
movement led by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The predominantly
Hindu and Catholic LTTE’s expulsion of Tamil-speaking Muslims from the
territories under its control in the 1980s sowed the seeds of distrust.
2018, PJ, 66, was the face of TNTJ. Last year, however, he was expelled when
multiple audio recordings (purportedly in his voice) of explicit sexual
conversations with women, began to circulate. Born in Thondi, a small seaside
town in the Muslim-dominated region of Ramanathapuram on the south-eastern coast
of Tamil Nadu, just across a stretch of sea from Sri Lanka, he built TNTJ Bayan
by Bayan — the Arabic term used by TNTJ followers for speeches based on the
teachings of Quran and Hadith. A small, dark-skinned man, with a closely
trimmed beard, PJ’s speeches are available on YouTube. Almost always attired in
a full-sleeved shirt, a white lungi, a prayer cap and brown tinted Ray-Ban
aviator glasses, he speaks Tamil with a thick Madurai accent. The only foreign
words used in PJ’s bayans are direct, extempore quotations from the Quran in
Arabic. TNTJ’s version of Islam does not even attempt any indigenisation. There
is no mention of Deoband, the pre-eminent seminary of sub-continental Islam in
its literature. An overwhelming majority of the young people who now form
TNTJ’s leadership at the state and district levels were inspired by PJ.
PJ’s bayans, titled Islam Oru Iniya Margam (‘Islam, the sweet path’),
syndicated on several Tamil satellite TV networks, have fuelled TNTJ’s
popularity among Tamil Muslims in India and abroad. “We believe only in PJ’s
tarjuma (translation) of Quran because he is a real Aalim (scholar),” says Arif
Khan, a 42-year-old district secretary of TNTJ in Ramanathapuram.
trained us so well in the margam [Islam’s true path] that we have the courage
to throw him out when he himself commits haram,” adds Khan.
In the wake
of the scandal, PJ refused to grant HT an interview — this was conveyed through
the employees of the departmental store that he runs in Broadway, barely a few
hundred metres from the TNTJ headquarters. He now heads another religious
condemns terrorism as anti-Islamic. It also labels Muslims who don’t adhere to
its version of Islam as apostates.
traditional sense, TNTJ is a purist Islamic outfit. It was one of the
organisations that forced the cancellation of American Islamic feminist scholar
Dr Amina Wadud’s lecture in Chennai. However, it engages in religiously
inspired community work as well but it is primarily driven by Islamic identity
assertion politics in the face of rising communalisation of society and
politics,” explains Neshat Quaiser, a former professor of sociology at Jamia
Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Wadud, an Islamic scholar, was supposed to give a
lecture on Islam, gender and reform, in 2013, which was cancelled after the
state police received information of possible violence.
the Ideal Path
Muslim-dominated Keelkarai, about 15 km from Ramanathapuram, TNTJ has put together
an “Exhibition of Islam” in a playground. It has stalls on the ideal way to
lead their lives — issues of converting idol worshippers, Quranic duty, and
“handling” of women form the bulk of the exhibition.
One of the
biggest victories that TNTJ claims is the weaning away of Tamil Muslims from
dargahs. “In Keelakarai, there are two Dargahs by the seaside. In a town of
40,000, we have worked so effectively that not more than 40-50 people visit
them,” boasts Ayub Khan, the TNTJ Ramanathapuram district general secretary.
takes pride in the increasing number of Muslim women opting for the burqa in
Tamil Nadu. “Women are like jackfruit. They are bound to attract flies. Just as
we should cover the fruit, we must cover our women,” explains Habibullah, a
36-year old tailor and the head of TNTJ in Madurai.
to Quaiser, Tamil Nadu Muslims have traditionally been deeply rooted in
syncretic socio-cultural ethos and the state has largely been free from radical
Muslim politics. However, incidents like the demolition of the Babri Masjid in
1992, and the Gujarat riots in 2002, “Tamil Nadu too has witnessed certain
limited amount of radicalisation of Muslim politics, which in no way be
characterised as mainstream Tamil Muslim politics.”
Nadu for instance, there has been a dramatic increase in Muslim women wearing
the Burqa. It is partly an effect of the work TNTJ and similar outfits have
done but in large measure a reaction to the rise of Hindutva in post-Babri Masjid
demolition India. Although they have nothing culturally common with North
Indian Muslims, the Tamil Muslims are trying to forge a certain unity in this
context. The rise of Hindutva also gives organisations like TNTJ a concrete
shape and the ability to articulate their regressive worldview. Both come
together to create an extremely dangerous situation,” says Quaiser.
Alhidaya, a women’s madrasa run by TNTJ in Madurai’s Avaniyapuram, warden Ziaur
Rehman, a young man in his 30s, calls it a “reformatory” for Muslim girls. On
the day HT visits, about 80 young girls have finished a 10-day introductory
course on the Islamic way of life. There is also a 10-month diploma course post
which around 100 girls between the ages of 15 and 25 would become
“aalimaas”—fully trained in the Quranic way of life.
see that girl at the gate? Her father got her here because she was chatting
with boys in her street. She was arguing with her parents on matters of deen
[faith]. She would sit in the drawing room alongside male guests. Did you see
how perfectly she wore the hijab? All parts of the body completely covered,
just the face visible. That is what we do. You call it fundamentalism; we think
it is the only way to live.”