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The Popular Front of India, its origins, presence, and controversies

The story so far: On Friday, September 23, the dawn-to-dusk hartal organised by the Popular Front of India (PFI) in Kerala in response to large-scale arrests of its leaders by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was marked by sporadic incidents of violence, with some police officials being attacked in Kollam and interstate-buses being targeted in Kannur.

In a sweeping crackdown on Thursday, the NIA, in joint operations with the Enforcement Directorate and State police departments, arrested more than 100 top leaders and functionaries of the PFI across 11 states including Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Assam, based on allegations that the accused were funding terror acts, organising weapon training camps and radicalising people to join banned outfits.

What is the PFI?

The Popular Front of India describes itself as a non-governmental organisation and a “neo-social movement” striving for the “empowerment of marginalized”, deprived and oppressed sections of India. With offices in over two dozen States and Union Territories, the Delhi-headquartered organisation was formed in 2006 following the merger of three Muslim groups — the National Democratic Front (NDF) in Kerala, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP) in Tamil Nadu.

The three groups merged their operations in south India, but PFI soon expanded to States in the north, west, east and northeastern parts of the country by merging with various other social organisations such as the Citizen’s Forum in Goa, Nagarik Adhikar Suraksha Samiti in West Bengal, Community Social and Educational Society in Rajasthan, and the Lilong Social Forum of Manipur.

The organisation, comprising mostly of Muslim members, has been described by Central agencies and multiple State governments as being an “incarnation” or “resurrection” of the banned outfit Students Islamic Movement in India (SIMI). According to the police, most of today’s PFI leaders had once been members of SIMI, which was first banned in 2001 after it was found to have had close links with the ​​Lashkar-e-Taiba. It had also been accused of carrying out terror strikes along with Indian Mujahideen (IM). This ban has since been extended multiple times.

Both SIMI and NDF came into being in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The PFI has various wings such as its women’s wing, the National Women’s Front (NWF); student wing, the Campus Front of India (CFI); and its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). It also has an NGO called the Rehab India Foundation, besides a think tank, the Empower India Foundation. According to law enforcement agencies, the PFI has over 50,000 members and a large number of sympathisers in Kerala.

The Jharkhand government has banned the PFI twice, and the Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Karnataka governments have made calls to ban it the past. The NIA also prepared a detailed dossier on the PFI but officials could not declare an “unlawful association” under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

Amid the current raids, officials were quoted by PTI as saying that PFI has been on the radar of security agencies for its role in violent protests in different parts of the country against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, alleged forced conversions, radicalisation of Muslim youths, money laundering, and links with banned groups.

Its political arm: SDPI

In 2009, the PFI floated its political arm, called the Social Democratic Party of India. The SDPI is a cadre-based party registered with the Election Commission of India with the stated aim of striving for social democracy, equal representation and socio-economic empowerment of Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis. Notably, the party has a very small number of non-Muslims.

The SDPI, while claiming to be leading a “democratic fight against fascism”, has been accused of engaging in revenge killings in Kerala and Karnataka, along with rioting. Post its formation, the party has gained significant ground at the grassroots level in multiple States. The party has around 125 seats in Kerala local bodies and managed to raise its tally in Karnataka local bodies from 70 seats in 2015 to 225 in 2020. It also has committees in 14 States and representation in local bodies in West Bengal, Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Andhra Pradesh.

What are the major cases involving PFI in the last decade?

Legal cases began mounting against PFI after 2010, when PFI members were booked for assaulting Malayalam professor T.J. Joseph in Kerala, allegedly ​​chopping off his right palm. Mr. Joseph was targeted over a question paper he set for a college examination that had some references to the Prophet Mohammad, which the attackers said were insulting.

In 2012, PFI approached the Kerala High Court against the State government’s ban on its planned “Freedom Parades” in various districts on Independence Day. In a counter-affidavit that former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s government submitted to the Court, it said that though the objective of the organisation was ostensibly to safeguard human rights and protection of minorities, PFI/NDF were clandestinely engaged in whole-time criminal activities, apparently with the objective to “defend Islam”.

Another affidavit of the Kerala government in a 2014 case said that PFI had a clandestine agenda of ‘Islamisation’ through promoting conversion and communalising issues. The State government noted that the activists of NDF/PFI had been involved in 27 communally motivated murder cases, 86 attempt-to-murder cases, and 106 communal cases registered in the State.

In 2016, an NIA Court sentenced 21 activists of the PFI and SDPI to varying years of imprisonment under multiple IPC sections as well as the UAPA. They were accused of organising an arms training camp in 2013 at Narath in Kannur. A police raid of the camp had found weapons and country-bombs.

As of date, the NIA is investigating 19 PFI-related cases and has so far arraigned 355 persons in the chargesheets. In all, 46 accused have been held guilty by courts.

In 2018, as part of a money laundering probe against PFI and its NGO Rehab India Foundation (RIF), the ED had submitted a report to the Ministry of Home Affairs stating that the organisations funded anti-CAA protest across multiple States.

In 2020, Kerala-based journalist Siddique Kappan and some PFI and CFI members were arrested in Mathura by the UP police, alleging they were on their way “to Hathras to disturb communal harmony” in the aftermath of the gangrape and death of a 19-year-old woman. Based on this case, the ED started another money laundering probe, filing a chargesheet against five office bearers and members of the PFI and CFI.

The Central agency said in its 2021 charge sheet that K. A. Rauf Sherif, a CFI leader, had conspired with PFI members in the Gulf countries to transfer money collected abroad “in the guise of payments related to business transactions”. These funds, the ED said, were used not only for anti-CAA protests but for “inciting violence and fomenting trouble” which led to Delhi riots in the month of February 2020, besides the Hathras visit.

In April this year, ​​in apparent retaliation for the killing of SDPI worker A. Mohammed Subair by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in Kerala’s Palakkad, a PFI member was accused of hacking to death RSS trainer A. Sreenivasan. PFI district secretary Thottinkara Siddeek was arrested in connection with the murder this week.

In July, three members of PFI and SDPU were arrested in Patna, with the police seizing a seven-page document with an alleged plan to “establish rule of Islam in India by 2047”.

This week, the Karnataka government told the Supreme Court in the Hijab Ban controversy case that students were goaded into wearing hijab to school by the Popular Front of India (PFI) through social media messages.

The PFI has always denied the allegations against it, and the group called the current raids a witch-hunt against the outfit’s members “solely aimed at creating an atmosphere of terror”.

“We strongly protest the fascist regime's moves to use agencies to silence dissenting voices," the outfit said in a statement.

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