The work done by its volunteers during the coronavirus pandemic such as performing last rites of COVID-19 victims helped the Popular Front of India (PFI) widen its presence in Maharashtra, a senior police official said.
The controversial organisation had presence only in Nanded in Marathwada region until eight years ago, but it had members in at least 22 of 35 districts of the state when it was banned last week, he said.
The organisation, which originated in Kerala, was banned by the Union government under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for five years.
Several of its members and functionaries have been arrested.
In Maharashtra, the PFI became visible after 2014, particularly in the Nanded area, the official told PTI.
PFI members would volunteer their services during natural calamities like floods, the official said. For instance, they handed out kitchen utensils in areas affected by Cyclone Tauktae in 2021.
During the pandemic, PFI members volunteered to perform last rites of those who had died due to COVID-19 as the relatives would often be unwilling to handle the bodies of such patients for fear of infection.
PFI members in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits were seen helping with last rites in many places. They even helped with the cremation of the bodies of Hindu patients, the official said.
In Pune, the organisation had received permission from the municipal authority to perform last rites of pandemic victims.
But in Mumbai, they were refused permission as Mumbai Police flagged the organisation’s links to radical outfits, the official said.
In Kolhapur district, up to 80 persons used to attend the PFI’s meeting, chaired by Maula Mulla, in 2019, as per local police. Mulla was arrested last month.
Before that, a PFI member from Kolhapur had been detained by police two years ago for alleged links with radical organisations, but he was allowed to go after enquiry, the official said.
The organisation’s flag-hoisting functions and `unity’ marches on February 17 last year got good response in 22 districts, he noted.
It was clear that its work during the pandemic had helped it expand its influence, said the official.
As part of the nation-wide action by multiple law enforcement agencies against the PFI last month, at least 53 of its members were arrested in Maharashtra.