From an alleged role in violence in Uttar Pradesh during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in 2020 to alleged links to terrorism, the Popular Front of India (PFI) has come to the notice of governments and law-enforcement agencies several times over the past few years.
On Thursday, in a multi-agency operation led by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in 10 states on Thursday, more than 100 suspected PFI activists of the Popular Front of India were arrested for allegedly supporting terror activities in the country. The raids are being were conducted on the suspicion that these people are involved in organising terror camps and encouraging the youth to participate in terror activities.
The raids came weeks after the NIA conducted searches in at least 33 locations in Karnataka in connection with the murder of BJP worker Praveen Nettaru. The NIA then claimed that its investigation revealed that the accused are were active PFI members and had murdered Nettaru as part of a larger conspiracy to strike terror among the members of a section of society. Nettaru, a BJP Yuva Morcha worker, was hacked to death by two bike-borne attackers in Dakshina Kannada district’s Bellare village on July 26. The police arrested six persons before the government handed over the case to the NIA.
In Kerala, the PFI has been accused of having links with terrorist organisations. An NIA court in Kochi in July handed over a prison sentences to three men who were convicted in a case pertaining to recruitment to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. The case, known as the Valapattanam IS recruitment case, was registered by the Kerala police in 2017 after two of those convicted were arrested in Turkey and subsequently deported to India for trying to sneak into Syria to join IS. The convicted persons were part of the Kannur module of the IS, according to the police. Intelligence agencies estimate that some 40-50 individuals from Kannur district, mainly from the Valapattanam region, joined the terrorist outfit in Syria. According to the police, they were PFI activists.
The PFI had also made the news during the 2020 protests against the CAA that turned violent in Uttar Pradesh. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) subsequently alleged that the Kerala-based outfit had funded the protests against the amended citizenship law and the proposed National Register of Citizens. The Uttar Pradesh Police also arrested Kerala-based journalist Siddique Kappan and three others in October 2020 while they were on their way to Hathras to meet the family of a Dalit woman who died after allegedly being gang-raped. The UP Police claims that Kappan is a PFI think tank member and even “advised” one of two PFI “hit squad” members arrested with explosives in Lucknow in February 2021.
Presence across India
The PFI, which calls itself a socio-political movement that strives for the empowerment of Muslims and other marginalised sections of society, came into existence in the aftermath of the ban on the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Its formation was announced at a rally in Bengaluru in 2007 following the merger of the National Democratic Front in Kerala, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity, and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu. It was based on a decision taken at a meeting in Kozhikode in November 2006.
Though the PFI has never contested elections, its political front, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), has done so. The SDPI, formed in 2008, claims to work for the “advancement and uniform development of all the citizenry including Muslims, Dalits, Backward Classes and Adivasis” and sharing “power fairly among all the citizens”.
The organisation has a presence in minority-dominated regions of Karnataka such as coastal Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. Till 2013, when it contested only local polls, the SDPI won seats in 21 civic constituencies. This was up to 121 local body seats in 2018. The SDPI bagged three local councils in Udupi last year. On Thursday, protests by PFI workers were reported in Karnataka, with the demonstrators accusing the NIA of being a tool to defame the outfit.
The BJP has often accused it of being behind the murder of Hindutva activists and that it is a reincarnation of SIMI. In 2016, the PFI’s Bengaluru district president was arrested in connection with the murder of RSS leader R Rudresh. Earlier this week, a PFI leader from Palakkad in Kerala was arrested in connection with the killing of an RSS leader in the district in April, the police said.
In 2012, the Oommen Chandy-led Congress government in Kerala had told the High Court that PFI was “nothing but a resurrection” of SIMI. The government affidavit alleged PFI activists were involved in 27 cases of murder, mostly of CPI(M) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers, and added that the motives were communal.
Two years later, the government told the court in another affidavit that the PFI’s agenda was “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”.
In the north, the PFI is perhaps the most active in UP, where it came under the scanner over its alleged role in the anti-CAA protests of 2020. In a report subsequently sent to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Yogi Adityanath government recommended banning the PFI, accusing it and the SDPI of “masterminding and instigating violence” during the anti-CAA protests. Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya said at the time that PFI was the “incarnation” of SIMI.
Recently, in June, three people associated with the outfit were arrested in Kanpur in connection with the violence that erupted over the comments on the Prophet made by BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma during a TV debate.