Five days after Central agencies raided premises of the Popular Front of India (PFI) and arrested over a hundred of its leaders, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has banned the outfit for a period of five years under the UAPA. The MHA notification says that “the PFI and its associates or affiliates or fronts operate openly as socio-economic, educational and political organisation but they have been pursuing a secret agenda to radicalise 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”. In response, the PFI has announced that “as law-abiding citizens”, members of the outfit accept the ban, and henceforth, the outfit will cease to exist. But both the ban and the disbanding of the organisation are unlikely to mark the end of the political challenge that the now-erstwhile PFI continues to pose.
Investigating agencies claim to have unearthed unaccounted funds and linkages of PFI with global terrorist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The role of PFI cadres in unleashing violence, including killings, to further their agenda is well-documented. Shutting down PFI’s funding network and arresting their leaders may help to counter the security challenge posed by the outfit. But the PFI is much more than a security threat: It also represents a militant strand of political Islam that draws money, material, cadre by exploiting the resentment and fear among a section of the Muslim minority amid the rise of majoritarian agendas and their perceived support by the state. That is a political challenge, which must be addressed politically. It will require mainstream parties to confront the increasing relegation of Muslims in public life, and call out rights abuses by state agencies — for instance, the often opaque and extended incarceration of Muslim youth under laws like the UAPA. The impression has also gained ground among sections of the community that many mainstream secular parties are more interested in patronising the minority as a vote bank than standing up for their Constitutional guarantees. The PFI and SDPI, the electoral arm of the PFI, have exploited distrust and/or disillusionment to push their ideological footprint.
The MHA ban doesn’t extend to SDPI though it covers various outfits deemed to be PFI affiliates. Even though the PFI and SDPI have separate leaderships, their cadres overlap and they share a political vision. The SDPI is a registered political party and active in electoral politics — it has a few hundred representatives in local bodies, mostly in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Significant sections of the minority community find little resonance in the PFI’s methods, including its use of terror and violence. But a ban may only force cadres underground. It cannot be — it should not be — the whole response to the gauntlet thrown down, in a diverse democracy, by an outfit like the PFI. What follows the ban, how the state goes about due process while implementing it, will frame the challenges that lie ahead.