Three days after the July 26 murder of BJP youth leader Praveen Nettaru, 32, in the communally polarised Dakshina Kannada region, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai suggested that the killing was possibly linked to the PFI, following the arrest of the first two suspects in the case.
Bommai appeared unhappy that the PFI had not been banned as sought by the state government in February this year following the murder of Bajrang Dal worker Harsha Hindu, 27, allegedly committed by a Muslim gang, in the Shivamogga region. The state police suspected the PFI’s hand in the murder, but were not able to do much before the case was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
“We have sent the required reports and evidence necessary for banning such organisations to the Centre. The process has begun, and at the earliest you will hear a decision on this from the Centre. The ban has to be put in place across the country,” Bommai said on July 29, three days after Nettaru was killed.
Despite the broad sense in Karnataka of an impending ban on the PFI – especially after widespread arrests of its leaders on September 22 – the Union home ministry’s September 27 notification banning the outfit took many in law enforcement agencies by surprise.
“We knew a case was being built for the banning of the PFI but there was a sense that there were not enough convictions by the courts in crimes involving the PFI cadre in Karnataka to facilitate an immediate ban on the group,” said a police source who has been tracking the PFI in recent years.
Incidentally, 2022 is not the worst in terms of communal murders involving the PFI in its constant battle with rival Hindu outfits consisting of members of various disparate right-wing youth groups like the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagaran Vedike and the RSS, as well as the BJP itself.
There have been two murders of right-wing activists linked to the PFI in 2022 which is on par with murders linked to the group in 2009 and 2011.
Of the 17 killings allegedly traced to the PFI, two involve Muslim victims who were allegedly targeted on account of moral digressions or political rivalries.
There have been a total of 18 major murders in 17 cases in Karnataka to which the PFI has been linked since it came into being in 2007 and in the preceding years when it existed in the state as the Karnataka Forum for Dignity or KFD (before joining forces with pro-Muslim groups the National Democratic Front in Kerala and the Manitha Neethi Pasirai in Tamil Nadu to become the PFI).
While the latest Praveen Nettaru case is under investigation, there have been no convictions in 17 of the other murder cases. As many as 12 of the cases are still under trial, four have ended in acquittals – including the 2016 murder of Bajrang Dal activist Pravin Pujari which was listed by the Union home ministry in its September 27 notification to ban the PFI.
Among the 17 murder cases linked to the PFI by the Karnataka police, two killings involve Muslim victims who were targeted on account of moral digressions or political rivalries.
While the communally torn coastal Karnataka region (Dakshina Kannada, Mangaluru and Uttara Kannada) has seen the most number of murders linked to the PFI at seven, there have been five murders in Mysuru, three in Hunsur, one each in Bengaluru, Kodagu and Shivamogga.
The highest number of killings linked to the PFI cadre occurred in Karnataka in 2016 when four murders occurred in different parts of the state. The year 2016 – when the Congress was in power in the state – was also when the Karnataka Police first became aware that PFI-linked murders, till then believed to be restricted to the communally torn coastal Karnataka region, had started occurring in places like Mysuru and Bengaluru as well.
The arrest of a PFI-linked man Abid Pasha for the 2016 murder of RSS worker K Raju in Mysuru unravelled his alleged involvement in as many as seven murders in the Mysuru and Hunsur region and attempts on the lives of two persons in Mysuru and the Dakshina Kannada.
Out of the total six cases of murder (one case in Hunsur involved a double murder of college students) Abid Pasha was acquitted in the murder of a Muslim woman and is under trial in five cases along with several associates who are also linked to the PFI.
The Karnataka Police have also flagged cases of attempted murder and rioting linked to the PFI. Rioting that occurred in Mysuru in 2011, at the KG Hall and D J Halli police stations in 2020, an attempt to murder Congress MLA Tanveer Sait in 2019 in Mysuru, and the stabbing of a youth who attended a pro-CAA rally organised by BJP MP Tejasvi Surya in 2019 in Bengaluru have been flagged to central agencies in recent months as being linked to the outfit, according to police sources.
An alleged PFI member is also accused of supplying explosives to the Indian Mujahideen terrorist group that was involved in a series of blasts across India between 2006 and 2013 that killed over 300 people, officers said. The case against Afaque Lanka is still under trial.
In the coastal Karnataka region where there has been a constant battle between the PFI (earlier the KFD) and right-wing Hindu groups, including members of the Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagaran Vedike and other splinter groups like the Sri Rama Sena, killings by the PFI have been preceded or followed by attacks on Muslims and PFI activists by the right-wing gangs.
The murder of the BJP leader Sukhananda Shetty in Dakshina Kannada in 2006 – in which several activists linked to the KFD were accused – was followed by a police encounter of two of the accused in the case, Mulky Rafiq and Athiq, and the murder of two of the accused Kabir and Madur Yusuf (in prison) by right-wing gangs.
The Prashant Pujari murder in Moodbidri in 2015 was followed by the murder of Mustafa Kovoor (in prison) and attacks on two other persons accused in the case by right-wing Hindu gangs.
The Praveen Pujari murder in Kodagu in 2016 was preceded by the killing of a youth Shahul Hameed who was part of a pro-Tipu Sultan rally in the region; the 2016 murder of Sharath Madivala in Dakshina Kannada was preceded by the killing of SDPI worker Ashraf Kalayi by alleged Bajrang Dal workers; the Deepak Rao murder in 2018 in Dakshina Kannada was followed by the murder of a hotel owner Abdul Basheer; the murder of Praveen Nettaru this year in Dakshina Kannada was preceded by the killing of B Masood and followed by the random killing of Mohammed Fazil by right-wing gangs.
There have been a total of 320 cases against the PFI cadre (major and minor crimes like violation of prohibitory orders) in Karnataka since 2006, and there have been convictions in only five minor cases.
In the 2020-21 period, when Covid-19 caused large-scale deaths in Karnataka, the PFI cadre were among those at the forefront of community services ranging from providing oxygen support at home for elderly patients and assistance in carrying out the funeral rites for victims across communities
“While bigger cities like Bengaluru had many groups helping out during the Covid crisis, the PFI was involved in a big way in the districts with emergency services and the last rites of Covid victims,” said a social activist from Bengaluru who was involved in Covid relief work in 2020 and 2021.