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Explained: Who are the PFI, and why is the BJP accusing Congress of going soft on them in Karnataka?

The withdrawal of cases against PFI activists during the tenure of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has often been cited by the BJP, including before the 2018 Assembly elections, to suggest that the Congress is hand in glove with the radical Islamic group.

Written by Johnson T A , Shaju Philip , Edited by Explained Desk | Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram |
Updated: April 19, 2022 2:33:58 pm
The PFI was created in 2007 through the merger of three Muslim organisations in southern India, the National Democratic Front in Kerala, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu.

BJP national president J P Nadda and Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai indicated on Sunday (April 17) that the BJP will use the withdrawal of police cases against activists of the Popular Front of India (PFI) during the period 2013-18 to target the Congress in the run-up to the 2023 Assembly elections.

The withdrawal of cases against PFI activists during the tenure of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has often been cited by the BJP, including before the 2018 Assembly elections, to suggest that the Congress is hand in glove with the radical Islamic group.

The Congress has in turn questioned the BJP for not taking strong action to ban the PFI, if it believes that the group is indeed involved in subversive activities.

What is the Popular Front of India?

The PFI was created in 2007 through the merger of three Muslim organisations in southern India, the National Democratic Front in Kerala, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu.

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A decision to bring the three outfits together was taken in November 2006 at a meeting in Kozhikode in Kerala. The formation of the PFI was formally announced at a rally in Bengaluru during what was called the “Empower India Conference” on February 16, 2007.

The PFI, which emerged in the aftermath of the ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), has projected itself as an organisation that fights for the rights of minorities, Dalits, and marginalised communities. It has frequently targeted the alleged anti-people policies of the Congress, the BJP, and the JD-S in Karnataka, even as these mainstream parties have accused one another of being in cahoots with the PFI to gather the support of Muslims at the time of elections.

The PFI has itself never contested elections. It has been involved in carrying out social and Islamic religious work among Muslims on the lines of the work done by right-wing groups such as the RSS, VHP, and Hindu Jagaran Vedike among the Hindu community. The PFI, like the right-wing groups, does not maintain records of its members, and it has been difficult for law enforcement agencies to pin crimes on the organisation after making arrests.

In 2009, a political outfit named Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) evolved out of the PFI, with the aim of taking up the political issues of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalised communities.

The SDPI’s stated goal is “advancement and uniform development of all the citizenry including Muslims, Dalits, Backward Classes and Adivasis”, and to “share power fairly among all the citizens”. The PFI is a key provider of ground workers for the SDPI’s political activities.

The PFI has had the most visible presence in Kerala, where it has been repeatedly accused of murder, rioting, intimidation, and having links with terrorist organisations. Back in 2012, the Kerala government headed by Oommen Chandy of the Congress, had informed the High Court that PFI was “nothing but a resurrection of the banned outfit Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in another form”. The government affidavit said PFI activists were involved in 27 cases of murder, mostly of CPM and RSS cadres, and that the motives were communal.

Two years later, the Kerala government told the High Court in another affidavit that the PFI had a clandestine agenda of “Islamisation of society by promoting conversion, communalisation of issues with a view to the benefit of Islam, recruitment, and maintenance of a branded committed indoctrinated Muslim youth for undertaking actions including selective elimination of persons, who in their perception are enemies of Islam”.

The 2014 affidavit was in response to a petition filed by Thejas, the PFI’s mouthpiece in Kerala, which had challenged the denial of government advertisements since March 2013. The affidavit reiterated that workers of the PFI and its predecessor National Development Front (NDF) were involved in 27 cases of communally motivated murders, 86 cases of attempt to murder, and 106 cases of a communal nature in the state.

This week, the Kerala BJP announced the launch of a campaign against “growing instances” of “religious terrorism” in the state, with the PFI as its main target. “In the last six years, 24 BJP-RSS workers have been killed in Kerala, seven of them by the Popular Front of India,” BJP state president K Surendran said on April 18.

On April 15, A Subair (44), the PFI’s Elappully (Palakkad district) area president and a member of the SDPI, was hacked to death outside a mosque. The district leadership of the BJP denied the PFI’s allegation that the murder was carried out by cadres of the RSS-BJP; however, police confirmed that a vehicle abandoned by Subair’s killers was registered in the name of RSS worker S Sanjith, who was killed last November, allegedly by members of the PFI and SDPI.

The day after Subair’s murder, an RSS worker named S K Sreenivasan (45) was hacked to death by five men who stormed into his two-wheeler shop in the BJP stronghold of Melamuri in Palakkad.

To prevent further violence and “sensing that religious hatred may emerge in the wake of the two killings”, the administration has issued prohibitory orders in the area until April 20, and deployed some 300 police personnel in Palakkad.

How successful have the PFI/ SDPI been in Karnataka politically?

The PFI/SDPI has influence mainly in regions with large Muslim populations. The SDPI has built a presence in coastal Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, where it has managed to win local polls for village, town, and city councils.

Until 2013, the SDPI contested only local elections, and had won seats in 21 civic constituencies around the state. By 2018, it had won 121 local body seats. In 2021, it captured as many as three local councils in Udupi district.

From 2013 onward, the SDPI has fielded candidates in elections to the Karnataka Assembly and Parliament. Its most creditable performance came in the 2013 state elections, when it finished second at the Narasimharaja seat, which is part of the Mysore Lok Sabha constituency. In 2018, the SDPI came third in Narasimharaja behind the Congress and BJP, winning over 20 per cent of votes.

The SDPI also contested the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections for the Dakshina Kannada seat, but could win only 1 per cent and 3 per cent votes respectively.

Why did Siddaramaiah’s government (2013-18) drop cases against PFI activists?

Minor cases filed against supporters of the three main parties — Congress, BJP, and JD-S — have often been dropped when a rival party comes to power, which deems these cases as motivated. Cases related to alleged violations of prohibitory orders during communal disturbances, and against farmers and pro-Kannada activists during agitations, have been withdrawn routinely.

When the BJP was in power between 2008 and 2013, the government ordered cases against Sangh Parivar members involved in attacks on churches in Dakshina Kannada, as also cases filed against Christians for reactionary violence during the attacks, dropped.

After coming to power in 2013, the Congress government dropped cases against SDPI and PFI members who were accused of involvement in communal disturbances during the previous BJP government’s tenure. Siddaramaiah’s government approved the dropping of a total 176 cases filed against 1,600 PFI activists during 2008-13 by the BJP government. These cases were related to protests and communal flare-ups in Shivamogga (114 cases from 2015), Mysuru (40 cases from 2009), Hassan (21 cases from 2010), and Karwar (1 case in 2017).

On August 31, 2020, B S Yediyurappa’s BJP government ordered the withdrawal of 62 cases against 312 individuals. Most of these cases involved violations of prohibitory orders by both Hindus and Muslims during times of communal tensions, and religious events. Among those against whom cases were dropped in 2020 was the BJP MP from Mysuru Prathap Simha.

So, why is the dropping of the 176 cases against PFI activists during 2013-18 being used by the BJP to target the Congress?

Although the PFI has not been proscribed by the Government of India, the BJP has often tried to paint the group as being extremist on account of its pro-Muslim stance. In Karnataka, the BJP has often cited murders of workers of right-wing groups affiliated to the BJP by alleged PFI cadre to seek a ban on the PFI. However, in more than 310 cases registered against the PFI in Karnataka since 2007, there have been convictions in only five. Some major incidents of political violence to which alleged PFI members have been linked:

* The murder of RSS worker R Rudresh in Bengaluru in 2016, in which the National Investigation Agency (NIA) named Asim Shariff, president of the PFI’s Bengaluru unit, as an accused.

* Also in 2016, Mysuru Police arrested Abid Pasha, a youth with PFI links, for the murder of Bajrang Dal worker K Raju. Pasha has been accused by police of being involved in six communally motivated murders in the region.

* In 2017, police in Dakshina Kannada arrested two PFI activists in connection with the stabbing of RSS worker Sharath Madivala, 28, in Bantwal town of the district. The murder was allegedly retaliation for the killing of SDPI worker Ashraf Kalayi.

* Persons linked to the SDPI are accused in a 2019 attempt to murder Tanveer Sait, the multiple-term Congress MLA from Narasimharaja.

Politically, where is the SDPI placed in relation to the Congress?

Since the SDPI aims for the same pool of votes as the Congress, it is seen as helping the BJP in communally polarised constituencies and in regions where Muslim votes can tilt election results, such as Dakshina Kannada. Ahead of the 2018 elections, the Congress is believed to have struck a deal with the SDPI to withdraw candidates from constituencies like Bantwal and Mangalore City North in Dakshina Kannada, and Sarvagnanagar and Hebbal in Bengaluru.

Former Congress leader Roshan Baig who has shifted allegiance to the BJP, has in the past accused the Congress of having ties with the SDPI and PFI. However, when Baig was in the Congress, he was accused of being involved with the SDPI by BJP leaders like Shobha Karandlaje.

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