What is PFI and why has the Centre ordered a nationwide crackdown?
PFI claims to be a 'neo-social movement that strives for the empowerment of marginalised sections of India', the organisation is, however, often accused by law enforcement agencies of promoting radical Islam
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Thursday (September 22) conducted simultaneous raids across 11 states, leading to the arrest of 106 activists of the Popular Front of India (PFI) for allegedly supporting terror activities in the country.
The maximum number of arrests were made in Kerala (22) followed by Maharashtra and Karnataka (20 each), Tamil Nadu (10), Assam (9), Uttar Pradesh (8), Andhra Pradesh (5), Madhya Pradesh (4), Puducherry and Delhi (3 each) and Rajasthan (2).
The raids have been termed as the “largest-ever investigation process till date”. The NIA conducted the raids in collaboration with the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the police forces of 11 states.
What is PFI? How was it formed?
According to Delhi-headquartered PFI, it is “a neo-social movement that strives for the empowerment of marginalised sections of India”. The organisation is, however, often accused by law enforcement agencies of promoting radical Islam.
PFI was formally launched in Bengaluru in February 2007 at its “Empower India Conference”. However, the decision to launch PFI was taken in November 2006 in Kerala.
The merger of Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) from Karnataka, Kerala’s National Development Front (NDF) and Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP) from Tamil Nadu resulted in the formation of PFI.
Also read: BJP-RSS have deep links with PFI: Congress
After its formation, the PFI soon expanded its operations in the north, west and east and northeastern parts of the country. It further spread its wings after the merger of various social organisations with it.
Spread of the outfit
The PFI doesn’t contest elections. However, in June 2009, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) evolved out of PFI.
The SDPI says it is a party founded for the “advancement and uniform development of all the citizenry including Muslims, Dalits, Backward Classes and Adivasis. Its objective is to share the power fairly among all the citizens. The party is here to fight the neo-colonial and neo-liberal incursions in our country.”
During the ongoing raids on Thursday, the SDPI said a few of its leaders too were arrested by the investigating agencies and called for the release of both PFI and SDPI leaders “unconditionally”.
The PFI now has various allied organisations including its SDPI, the student wing Campus Front of India, National Women’s Front, an NGO called Rehab India Foundation and a think tank called Empower India Foundation.
Several analysts have traced the roots of the PFI to the NDF, a radical Islamic outfit that was formed in 1993, in response to the demolition of the Babri Masjid a year ago.
Founded by former leaders of the banned outfit Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), the activities of the NDF were widely discussed in Kerala following communal riots in Kozhikode district in 2002 and 2003 which saw killings of people belonging to two communities.
In May, the Kerala High Court observed that PFI and SDPI were “extremist organisations” but not banned.
“No doubt, SDPI and PFI are extremist organisations indulging in serious acts of violence. All the same, those are not banned organisations,” Justice K Haripal observed in an order while rejecting a plea seeking CBI probe into the killing of an RSS worker who was hacked to death in November last year in Palakkad district of Kerala.
Activities under scanner
The PFI has come under the radar of various state and central agencies for all the wrong reasons, particularly after the 2010 incident of chopping off the hand of a college professor in Kerala for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through a question paper he had set.
Several activists linked with the PFI were arrested in connection with the incident that was condemned by all democratic forces in the country.
Rooted in anti-Sangh Parivar ideology, the outfit was blamed for violence during various protests organised by minority communities in the country against the BJP government at the centre particularly during the agitations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
The outfit also came under the scrutiny of various agencies in connection with the alleged “Love Jihad” incidents in Kerala, forced conversion of people belonging to other faiths and disappearance of some people from the state to join the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Syria.
The activists of PFI and its allied organisations were also arrested for killings of RSS-BJP leaders in Kerala in recent months.
The fundraising activities of the PFI are also being investigated by central agencies like the ED and Income Tax Department.
The leaders of PFI allegedly travel to the Middle East nations to raise funds for the activities of the organisation as many of their supporters from South India are working in that region. The donations received by the outfit were investigated by the central agencies.
The Kerala government had banned the freedom parades organised by the PFI on Independence Day every year through the selected areas of the southern state.
According to officials, the searches are taking place at the premises of persons involved in terror funding, organising training camps, and radicalising people to join proscribed organisations. The raids come two days after NIA booked four PFI functionaries under UAPA after conducting raids in 38 locations of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
The ED has been investigating the PFI’s alleged “financial links” on charges of fuelling the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests in the country, the 2020 Delhi riots, alleged conspiracy in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras over the alleged gang-rape and death of a Dalit woman, and a few other instances.
Also read: NIA raids PFI activists across TN
The probe agency has filed two charge sheets against PFI and its office-bearers before a special PMLA court in Lucknow.
NIA conducts searches at multiple locations in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in case registered against PFI cadres in Nizamabad by Telangana Police on 4th July, which was later taken over by the NIA. PFI Case (RC-03/2022/NIA/HYD) pic.twitter.com/H7p0wsI9kv
— NIA India (@NIA_India) September 18, 2022
Progress of cases
In February last year, the ED filed its first charge sheet against PFI and its student-wing Campus Front of India (CFI) on money laundering charges, claiming its members wanted to “incite communal riots and spread terror” in the aftermath of the Hathras gang rape case of 2020.
Those named in the charge sheet include K A Rauf Sherif, national general secretary of CFI and a member of PFI; Atikur Rahman, national treasurer of CFI; Masud Ahmed, Delhi-based general secretary of CFI; journalist “associated with PFI” Siddique Kappan; and Mohammed Alam, another CFI/PFI member. In the second charge sheet filed this year, the ED had claimed that a hotel based in the UAE “served” as a money laundering front for the PFI.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah held a meeting on Thursday wherein the raids and the arrests were discussed, officials told PTI.
National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, Director General of National Investigation Agency (NIA) Dinkar Gupta were among the top officials who attended the high-level meeting. Shah is said to have taken stock of the action taken against the terror suspects and PFI activists across the country, an official said.
In a statement, the PFI’s National Executive Council (NEC) said it will “never ever surrender”.
“NEC has condemned the national wide raids by the NIA and ED and the unjust arrests and the harassments of its National and state leaders across India and the witch-hunting against the members, and supporters of the organization,” the statement said.
“NIA’s baseless claims and sensationalism are solely aimed at creating an atmosphere of terror… Popular Front will never ever surrender on any scary action by a totalitarian regime using the central agencies as its puppets and will stand firm on its will for recovering the democratic system and spirit of the constitution of our beloved country,” it added.
Earlier, the PFI said, “The raids are taking place at the homes of national, state and local leaders of PFI. The state committee office is also being raided. We strongly protest the fascist regime’s moves to use agencies to silence dissenting voices.”