The National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Thursday led a multi-agency operation against the Popular Front of India (PFI) in 11 states and Union territories.
In near-simultaneous raids, the NIA, Enforcement Directorate (ED), and anti-terrorism squads (ATS) of state police forces on Thursday arrested over 100 members of the PFI on charges ranging from radicalising people to funding terrorism and waging war against India.
The PFI has been on the scanner of security and investigative agencies for years and its name has come up in crimes for almost a decade. The organisation has grown in numbers and influence in recent years and has been at the helm of mass movements against the Narendra Modi's Union government, such as the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests.
Here we explain the Thursday's NIA-led raids on PFI across India, the origins and activities of PFI, and the case made against it.
Over 100 PFI members arrested in 11 states, UTs
The NIA, ED, and state police forces arrested or detained 106 PFI members on Thursday across the country in a nationwide crackdown.
The federal and state agencies carried out searches at a number of locations with the bulk of arrests in Southern and Western India.
The maximum number of arrests were made in Kerala — 22, followed by Maharashtra and Karnataka — 20 each, Tamil Nadu — 10, Assam — 10, Uttar Pradesh — 8, Andhra Pradesh — 5, Madhya Pradesh — 4, Puducherry and Delhi — 3 each, and Rajasthan — 2.
Besides these states and UTs, raids were also carried out at a PFI office in Manipur and documents were seized. No arrests were made there though.
The arrested members of PFI are accused of terror funding, radicalising people, inciting communal tensions, organising terror camps, and waging war against the state, among other charges.
What is Popular Front of India?
The Popular Front of India (PFI) was formed in 2006 after three organisations merged into one. These three organisations were National Development Front (NDF) in Kerala, Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP) in Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka Forum for Dignity.
Some leaders and cadres of PFI have problematic pasts as they were associated with the Students Islamic Movement in India (SIMI), a proscribed terrorist organisation and a predecessor of Indian Mujahideen (IM), which emerged as the main terrorist organisation in India in the 2000s, carrying out multiple bomb blasts that killed hundreds.
The PFI's stated objective is to "make plans for the social, economic and educational development of minorities and backward classes".
The PFI has expanded over the years, launching a political arm Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), a students wing Campus Front of India (CFI), women's wing National Women's Front (NWF), an NGO Rehab India Foundation, and the think tank Empower India Foundation, according to PTI.
In recent years, the PFI has been at the fore of mobilisation against the Modi government —particularly of the Muslim community— over issues such as CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The PFI is believed to be active in 22 states and UTs as of now and have a membership above 5 lakhs.
While street-mobilisation is the most visible aspect of PFI, it is also quitely engaged in slums, educational campuses, and other areas, providing financial and legal aid to the underprivileged. This is believed to be a driving feature of their rising popularity.
The problematic past of PFI
While SIMI was proscribed as a terrorist organisation, NDF too was linked to violent incidents in the 1990s. The past association of leaders and cadres is a cause of concern for security agencies, who claim that elements of SIMI simply lay low for a while and then re-emerged as PFI.
The Print reported, "Several founder-members of the PFI were SIMI leaders, including former PFI chairman and now vice-chairman EM Abdul Rahiman (general secretary of SIMI between 1982-93), SDPI president E Aboobacker (Kerala state president of SIMI from 1982-84), and Professor P Koya, national executive member and one of the tallest leaders of the PFI, who was also a founding member of both SIMI and the NDF."
"The SIMI, an organisation of young extremist students has declared Jihad against India, the aim of which is to establish Dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam) by either forcefully converting everyone to Islam or by violence," says South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP).
The case against Popular Front of India
While a nationwide crackdown has been carried out now against the PFI, it has been on the scanner of security and investigative agencies for over a decade.
Beside the obvious past associations that concerned the national security apparatus, acts of violence attributed to PFI also evoked concern.
In July 2010, PFI workers chopped off the right hand of Kerala professor TJ Joseph. In 2015, 13 PFI workers were convicted in the case, of whom 10 were directly involved. The case was among the first well-known incidents of violence associated with PFI. The motivation behind the crime was the alleged insult to Prophet Muhammed by Joseph.
Joseph was then suspended from the college after ruckus from the the same PFI cadre, a criminal case filed against him and he went into hiding to save his life. The last page in this ordeal perhaps was his 49-year-old Salomi committing suicide in March 2014 to escape poverty.— Abhinandan Mishra (@mishra_abhi) September 22, 2022
Since then, PFI activists have been allegedly invoved in several acts of violence, ranging from communal violence to anti-state activities. There have been convictions as well.
In 2016, 21 PFI members were convicted for organising a terror camp in Kerala's Kannur.
There have also been links of PFI with international acts of terror, mainly with the terrorist group ISIS.
In 2016, federal agencies arrested ISIS suspects, some of whom turned out to be PFI members. Laters, NIA also investigated PFI for Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka in which over 200 people were killed. The ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings.
In 2020, one of the bombers who attacked a gurdwara in Kabul in Afghanistan was reported to be a PFI member from Kerala. Twenty-five minority Sikhs were killed in the attack.
India Today reported intelligence sources as identifying the bomber, whose photo was published by ISIS, as Muhammad Muhsin of Kerala.
"Kabul gurdwara attacker Mohammed Muhsin, 29, was an active member of the radical Islamic outfit Popular Front of India (PFI) and left for Dubai after being accused in a case of pelting stones at a local temple...The exact details of what transpired are not known, but it was after this incident that Muhsin left for Dubai from where he possibly migrated to the IS camps in eastern Afghanistan," reported India Today.
By 2014, the Kerala government believed PFI was involved in over hundred crimes ranging from murders to communal provocation.
"In 2014, the Kerala government had submitted an affidavit in the High Court saying its activists were involved in at least 27 political murders, 86 attempt to murder cases and more than 125 cases for whipping up communal passions," reported Hindustan Times.
Most recently, the PFI has been under the scanner for Delhi Riots in February 2020.
The Print reported, "The ED is probing the organisation [PFI] for allegedly funding the 2020 riots in Delhi as well as the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The Delhi Police Special Cell, too, is investigating the PFI's role in allegedly 'providing logistics' for the 2020 Delhi riots."
PFI cadre also appears to resemble a militia as photographs have surfaced of cadres wearing blue-coloured uniform with stars on shoulders, similar to militry and police services. This irked Kerala government.
"PFI has uniform and often conducts drills at public places. In 2013, the Kerala government had banned its freedom parade which it conducts on Independence Day every year after the police found its cadres were carrying stars and emblems on the uniform," reported Hindustan Times.
The crackdown on PFI: Is ban in the offing?
The investigative agencies and at least one state government —Uttar Pradesh— have demanded a ban on the PFI for years. However, the Union Home Ministry has not so far acted on such requests.
However, the Thursday's raids —described as the largest-ever operation— on PFI are bound to lead to speculations whether the action is a prelude to the ban.
However, banning PFI would not be simple as it would likely face a tough judicial scruitiny and its political arm SDPI is subject to Election Commission norms.
"SDPI is a political party. There are a set of rules and a process that goes into banning any organisation. A lot of proof has to be given to the Home Ministry at the Centre. It is a tedious process, but it is on," the then-Karnataka Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai was quoted as saying in August 2020 after alleged PFI-SDPI role surfaced in violence in Bengaluru.
The Jharkhand government had banned PFI but the ban was overturned by the Jharkhand High Court in 2018.
The Jharkhand government had banned PFI under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1908. However, the HC set it aside for not going through proper norms.
Months later in February 2019, the Jharkhand government again banned PFI, saying it's "completely engaged" in "unconstitutional, anti-national, illegal, communal activities" besides acts dangerous to state or national security, reported The New Indian Express.