The central government has announced a ban on the Popular Front of India (PFI), the organisation whose leaders and offices were raided by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in states across the country on September 22.
A second nationwide crackdown followed on September 27, during which police in seven states detained or arrested over 270 people with alleged links to the PFI.
Following these actions, which were based on allegations that members of the PFI are involved in organising terrorism camps and encouraging Muslim youth to join terror activities, it was widely expected that a ban on the organisation under anti-terrorism laws could follow.
The ban was notified on September 27, and published in the gazette on Wednesday (September 28) morning.
What does the ban notification say?
The notification issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) imposed a ban on the PFI and its associate organisations, including the Rehab India Foundation (RIF) and Campus Front of India, for five years under The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967.
The notification gave a number of reasons, including that “the PFI and its associates or affiliates or fronts operate openly as socio-economic, educational and political organization but, they have been pursuing a secret agenda to radicalize a particular section of the society working towards undermining the concept of democracy and show sheer disrespect towards the constitutional authority and constitutional set up of the country”.
It also said that “the PFI and its associates or affiliates or fronts have been indulging in unlawful activities, which are prejudicial to the integrity, sovereignty and security of the country and have the potential of disturbing public peace and communal harmony of the country and supporting militancy in the country”.
Therefore, the notification said, the central government had decided to declare the PFI and its various fronts as an “unlawful association” with “immediate effect”.
So what does the “ban” on the PFI mean?
The UAPA, India’s main law against terrorism and terrorist activities, allows the government to declare an organisation an “unlawful association” or a “terrorist organisation”, which is often colloquially described as a “ban” on the organisations.
Under Section 3 of the UAPA Act, the government has powers to declare an association “unlawful”. Apart from a gazette notification, the government is required to notify such association by affixing a copy on its offices or by “proclaiming by beat of drum or by means of loudspeakers, the contents of the notification in the area in which the activities of the association are ordinarily carried”.
What happens when an association is declared unlawful?
Declaring an organisation an unlawful organisation, as has happened in the case of the PFI now, has serious consequences in law, which include the criminalisation of its membership and the forfeiture of the properties of the organisation.
Under Section 7 of the UAPA, the government has power to prohibit the use of funds of an unlawful association and, under Section 8, all places that are used by the unlawful association can be notified and seized. The law allows any person aggrieved by a prohibitory order to make, within 15 days of the date of the service of such order, an application to the Court of the District Judge within the local limits.
Also, a person who “is and continues to be a member of such (unlawful) association; or takes part in meetings of such association; or contributes to, or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of, such association; or in any way assists the operations of such association” is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, and shall also be liable to fine.
And how is an “unlawful association” defined?
Section 2(1)(p) of the UAPA defines an “unlawful association” as an association which has for its object any unlawful activity or offence defined under Sections 153A or 153B of the Indian Penal Code — that is, promoting enmity between different groups and making imputations, assertions that are prejudicial to national integration. An unlawful association is also one that “encourages or aids persons to undertake any unlawful activity, or of which the members undertake such activity”.
What is the process to declare an association unlawful?
Under Section 4 of the UAPA, the government is mandated to send the notification to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Tribunal within 30 days of issuing the gazette notification to have the ban ratified. The Ministry will have to make a reference to the Tribunal along with details of cases the National Investigation Agency, Enforcement Directorate, and state police forces have registered against PFI and its cadres across the country.
The Tribunal, which is required to be headed by a retired or sitting judge of a High Court, will then issue a show-cause notice to the PFI asking it to reply in writing about why it should not be banned. After arguments from both sides, the Tribunal can hold an inquiry to decide within six months on whether there is sufficient evidence to declare PFI an “unlawful association”.
Such inquiries by the Tribunal are also held in areas where the association ordinarily conducts its activities for the general public to give their views.
The ban becomes applicable for a period of five years once the Tribunal approves it.
In 2019, Justice Mukta Gupta, then sitting judge of the Delhi High Court, held public hearings in Aurangabad, Pune, and other places to ascertain whether there was sufficient evidence to ban the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). SIMI was first banned in 2001, and the ban was periodically extended except in 2008 when it was lifted following orders by a special tribunal presided over by Justice Gita Mittal. The ban was imposed again in 2008, then in 2014 and 2019.
Hours after the government’s ban, PFI state general secretary A Abdul Sattar, in a statement, said the organisation has been disbanded after the notification was issued. This does not, however, materially change the conditions or implications of the gazette notification.