Popular Front of India — The anatomy of a crackdown

The timing of the government’s action against the Popular Front of India was a secret till the end, but it carried a sense of the inevitable. Vijaita Singh, Abdul Latheef Naha, K.S Sudhi and Devesh K. Pandey report on the chronology and the reaction  

October 01, 2022 02:35 am | Updated 09:29 am IST

Eleven activists of the Popular Front of India come out of the  National Investigation Agency court in Kochi on Friday.

Eleven activists of the Popular Front of India come out of the National Investigation Agency court in Kochi on Friday. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

In the early hours of September 22, when a joint team of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Delhi Police raided a flat in Shaheen Bagh in southeast Delhi, it first removed a huge iron board erected outside. The green-and-white board, on which ‘Popular Front of India’ (PFI) was painted in bold letters, would have made it easy for people to gather at the building, said Shahnawaz Khan, a real estate agent who was present when the raids took place.

A countrywide operation

The raid was not restricted to the Delhi headquarters of the PFI, located in rented accommodation on the ground floor of the building in the congested area of Shaheen Bagh; the Union Home Ministry and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had chalked out a plan to detain and arrest key PFI functionaries across India that day. This gave the PFI no time to react or mobilise people in protest. Barring Kerala, which saw large-scale violence the next day on account of a flash hartal called by the outfit, no incident was reported from any other region even though the PFI has a presence in 23 States and Union Territories. In a coordinated operation, 109 members of the PFI were picked up from different States by the NIA and the police and detained under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), under which it is near impossible to secure bail.

A second round of raids followed on September 27, when second-rung leaders and supporters of the PFI were taken into preventive custody. Hours later, the Home Ministry declared the PFI and its eight front organisations, including its student wing, the Campus Front of India (CFI), as “unlawful associations” for five years. The operation, code-named ‘Octopus’, was kept under wraps, with IB Director Tapan Kumar Deka and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval monitoring the situation from September 21 from a control room. No one in the top leadership of the PFI was absconding or had gone underground.

“They first broke into the homes of the national leadership [of the PFI]. The arrests were not based on any findings; the real intention was to detain the leadership. The NIA has levelled several allegations [against the PFI]. Many leaders had no cases against them in the past. Our founding chairman, E. Abubacker (72), is a cancer patient. He has also been taken to Delhi,” said Ahmad Kutti, who handled media relations for the PFI in Kerala, a day before the ban was imposed.

Aneesh, an accused detained during a raid by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police for his alleged association with the PFI, at Amar Colony police station, in New Delhi.

Aneesh, an accused detained during a raid by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police for his alleged association with the PFI, at Amar Colony police station, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: PTI

The ban on the PFI had been in the works for a few years, but the perception that the Central government led by the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) was dithering on account of a possible backlash from friendly ‘Muslim’ countries in West Asia, especially after the Nupur Sharma episode, expedited the move. (Sharma made controversial remarks on Prophet Mohammad and was suspended from the BJP following a diplomatic storm.) The upcoming Assembly elections in Karnataka, where the PFI, the CFI and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), regarded as the political wing of the PFI, have gained considerable electoral ground, were also a factor, an official from the Home Ministry said.

A controversial organisation

The PFI was founded in 2006, a year after the merger of three Muslim groups — the National Democratic Front in Kerala, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu. It described itself as a non-governmental organisation and a neo-social movement striving for the empowerment of marginalised, deprived and oppressed sections of India. While its origins were in south India, the PFI soon expanded across the country by merging with other organisations. There were no women among the 13 members of the national leadership of the PFI, who were all Muslim. The PFI had a strong cadre-based presence in Kerala. In its ban order, the Home Ministry said that some of the leaders of the PFI were members of the outlawed Students’ Islamic Movement of India.

The ban order cited the first major instance of violence which propelled the PFI to the limelight: the attack on Professor T.J. Joseph of Newman College in Kerala’s Idukki district in 2010. A question paper Joseph had set for an internal exam was perceived by some as offending Muslim religious sentiments (denigrating the Prophet). In July that year, when Joseph was returning from church one evening, his hand was chopped off by activists allegedly belonging to the PFI. He was then suspended from college. Joseph was reinstated in service only in 2014 on a Friday and accorded a retirement farewell the following Monday. But he had already suffered another tragedy by then: his wife had died by suicide.

Soon after this incident, cases against the PFI started mounting. The activities of the PFI cost some of its members their jobs. On January 26 this year, the PFI launched a seven-month ‘Save the Republic’ campaign from Tamil Nadu. Speaking at the inaugural programme in Kanniyakumari, Anis Ahmed, the national general secretary of the PFI, who is now imprisoned, thanked those present “because in today’s India it takes extraordinary courage to attend a PFI programme.” A post-graduate in computer application, Ahmed regularly participated on TV debates. He was sacked in July by the mobile phone company in Bengaluru, where he held the position of global technical officer. In 2020, O.M.A. Salam, chairman of the PFI, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Calicut, was suspended from the Kerala State Electricity Board where he was employed.

Since 2010, more than 1,400 criminal cases have been registered against leaders and members of the PFI and its affiliates across the country. The NIA registered 19 PFI-related cases and filed charge sheets against 355 persons; five cases were registered this year. The agency secured convictions of 46 arraigned persons, including 21 members of the PFI and the SDPI found guilty of participating in an arms training camp in 2013 at Narath in Kannur, under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the UAPA. The NIA alleged in court that the PFI conspired to indulge in unlawful activities to create enmity among members of different religions and groups, thereby intending to disrupt public tranquility and cause disaffection against India.

In this context, the ban on the PFI and its affiliates has not come as a surprise. Although most organisations were circumspect in their reactions to the Central government’s action, sources within the PFI camp said they had been expecting the ban to take place. “What more can you anticipate in a country ruled by the biggest communal organisation,” asked K.P.O. Rahmathulla, Kerala general secretary of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO), one of the organisations banned by the Home Ministry. He said the NCHRO has now stopped all its activities. “We will not be responsible if anyone acts or makes statements in the name of the organisation,” he said. Some PFI leaders arrested by the NIA, including P. Koya, a retired college lecturer and a national council member of the group, had apparently geared themselves up for incarceration.

The SDPI said the ban was the latest instance of the ruling dispensation muzzling opposition. SDPI national president M.K. Faizy said all those who spoke against the BJP regime were being ruthlessly suppressed. The general secretary of SDPI Kerala, Ajmal Ismail, described the ban as part of “an undeclared emergency”. A ban could not exterminate a group, he said. “The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) was banned thrice; today, it rules the nation. The Communist Party of India was banned in the country, but today it rules Kerala,” Ismail said. He claimed that it was the failure of secular parties that Hindutva groups had tightened their grip over the country. “The problem with the secular parties is that they view the hunter and victim with the same eye. This stand will never strengthen democracy. We don’t expect justice when forces like the RSS are in power.”

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) said it had opposed the PFI’s ideology since its inception and would continue fighting all forms of communalism. “The PFI has done great harm to minorities. Its activities fuelled majority communalism in the country,” said IUML national general secretary P.K. Kunhalikutty, a legislator in the Kerala Assembly. “But banning the PFI while allowing a communally extremist organisation like the RSS to act according to its whims is unfair.”

Allegations of murder, money laundering

In its report filed before the Special Court in Kochi in connection with the arrest of 11 PFI leaders from Kerala, the NIA alleged that the activists of the PFI and its feeder organisations had encouraged vulnerable youth to join terrorist organisations, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda. The accused had conspired to establish Islamic rule in India by committing terrorist acts as part of violent jihad, the report said. The PFI was also involved in spreading disaffection against India by wrongfully interpreting government policies for a particular section of people with a view of creating hatred against the state and its machinery, the NIA alleged.

Among those rounded up by the NIA as part of its countrywide crackdown on the PFI were Abdul Sathar, general secretary of the PFI in Kerala, and Karamana Ashraf Moulavi, who was in-charge of the education wing of the organisation. The leaders of the PFI were accused of propagating an alternative justice delivery system justifying the use of criminal force and creating enmity between people of different religions and groups.

Editorial | Sledgehammer approach: On PFI ban

The NIA said it had seized documents during the searches on September 22 that show that prominent leaders of a particular community were in the PFI’s target. The ban order mentions nine murder cases between 2016 and 2022 in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in which PFI members are alleged to be involved; six victims belonged to the RSS or the BJP. Most killings were retaliatory. In 2018, for instance, the Kerala Police had arraigned some activists of the SDPI in connection with the killing of Abhimanyu, a student of a tribal community and leader of the left-wing Students Federation of India, in the Maharajas College premises in Ernakulam. The first accused, J.I. Muhammad, was the unit president of the CFI.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has also been conducting a probe against the PFI and its related individuals and entities under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act since May 2018, on the basis of cases registered by the NIA and other agencies under various provisions of the Explosive Substances Act, the Arms Act, the UAPA and the IPC. Its probe has revealed that over ₹120 crore has been deposited in the accounts of PFI and related entities over the years, mostly in cash. “Investigations have further established the criminal conspiracy of PFI in raising/collecting funds through unknown and suspicious sources from within the country as well as abroad and subsequent transfer, layering and integration of such funds for eventual use in their continuous unlawful activities over time,” the ED alleged. “The acts include inciting violence and fomenting trouble leading to the Delhi riots of 2020 and the visit of PFI/CFI members to Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras in 2020 with an intent of disturbing communal harmony,” said an ED official. In the Hathras case, the agency said K.A. Rauf Sherif, a PFI member and national general secretary of the CFI, had allegedly connived with others abroad to get ₹1.36 crore transferred from overseas on the pretext of payments related to the international trade of goods. His four associates were travelling to Hathras to “conduct protests” when they were arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Police. A case was registered under the UAPA. Sherif was later arrested by the ED and a charge sheet filed against him and the others in February 2021.

The ED alleged that PFI leaders and members associated with overseas entities were developing a residential Munnar Villa Vista Project in Kerala with the objective of laundering the money collected. Subsequent investigations led to the arrest of Abdul Razak B.P. and Ashraf M.K. The ED came across details of transactions to the tune of ₹22 crore. The then treasurer of the PFI, P. Koya, told the ED that the outfit did not receive funds from abroad under its policy. But the ED found that the PFI had thousands of active members in the Gulf countries and had been raising substantial collections from abroad. These funds were not reflected in the PFI’s bank accounts, indicating that they were transferred through hawala channels or remitted into the accounts of the PFI’s members, activists or office-bearers.

A day after the ban, Joseph said that the PFI, which wanted to establish a theocratic state and had resorted to violence for the purpose, should have been banned after the 2010 attack on him. “That would have saved many lives,” he said.

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