PFI came into existence in 2006 as a result of a merger of three Muslim interest groups — Kerala-based National Democratic Front (NDF), Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) and Tamil Nadu-based Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP). While its influence is most prominent in Kerala, the PFI has expanded its base across India and now has a presence in almost 23 states … A special report by Ahmed Usman
On September 28, the Union Home Ministry of India banned the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its associate organisations – Rehab India Foundation (RIF), Campus Front of India (CFI), All India Imams Council (AIIC), National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation (NCHRO), National Women’s Front, Junior Front, Empower India Foundation and Rehab Foundation, Kerala for a period of five years.1 These organisations are banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act- UAPA, 1967.
A few days back, in one of their biggest joint operations against terror funding and terror activities, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on September 22 arrested 45 activists of the Popular Front of India (PFI) from 93 locations across 15 states, including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Telangana, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, as mentioned in NIA’s official website.
During the coordinated nationwide operation, which began at around 3:30 am, PFI Chairman O M A Salam, national general secretary V P Nasarudeen Elamaram and the organisation’s Delhi unit head Parvez Ahmed, among others, were taken into custody. Salam was picked up from his home at Kerala’s Malappuram in the search operation. Ahmed’s residence in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar was also raided. Sources said documents, cash, sharp-edged weapons, and many digital devices were seized during the raids.
According to the remand report filed by the NIA before Kochi court on September 23, Office-bearers, members and affiliates of the Popular Front of India (PFI) in Kerala encouraged vulnerable youths to join terrorist organisations, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Islamic State/Daesh and Al-Qaeda and conspired to establish Islamic rule in India by committing terrorist acts as a part of violent jihad.
PFI came into existence in 2006 as a result of a merger of three Muslim interest groups — Kerala-based National Democratic Front (NDF), Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) and Tamil Nadu-based Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP). While its influence is most prominent in Kerala, the PFI has expanded its base across India and now has a presence in almost 23 states, according to the NIA.6 Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), is the political wing of the PFI. A group that many Hindus accuse of spreading Muslim radicalism. Secular activists and moderate Muslim groups, on the other hand, accuse the PFI of breeding a self-defeating victimhood complex among Muslims.
Back in 2018 the National Investigation had prepared a dossier on the PFI and explained why the organisation should be banned. The NIA says that the approach of the PFI is radical in nature. It speaks about recruiting only committed Muslims into its fold. It is trying to run a parallel administration in the NIA states. It speaks about the Darul Khada an outfit comprising Muslim scholars, social workers, and advocates. This was set up in 2009, by SDPI national chief E Aboobacker. The NIA says that they run a parallel judiciary which settles a host of issues. The NIA dossier also states that in July 2009, a Kerala-level declaration was passed by the Darul Khada in Malappuram in which it had called upon the Muslim community not to attend civil courts, but to get all issues sorted out by it.
Amidst countrywide arrests and investigations, many Muslim organisations in India have come out openly in vehement opposition of PFI. All India Muslim Jamaat President, Maulana Shahabuddin Razvi called upon the Muslim community to stay away from the PFI calling it a “radical group” and urged the central government to impose a ban on it. Maulana Razvi welcomed the arrest of the PFI leaders across the country. “PFI is a radical organisation. Its members follow a radicalised ideology. I would appeal to all Sufi and Sunni Muslims to stay away from this organisation. The PFI has been named in many incidents across the country. It is necessary that there should be a ban on these kinds of organisations,” said Razvi.
The All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (AIPMM) has come out openly in support of the action taken by central agencies against PFI members on September 23. “We welcome the move by the government. We deem that this action has been taken to safeguard the country. The views expressed by the PFI are dangerous. The rallies of PFI and its uniform remind us of Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation,” said Muhammad Yunus, Executive Director, AIPMM. Yunus said the PFI put every Muslim of this country under the lens of agencies due to its activities. He also said that PFI has insulted Islam and its teachings with its activities.
Muslim Students’ Organisation of India (MSO) said on September 23, that the PFI’s actions were not in the interest of Islam and the country. The MSO said Muslims in India should help the country in its pursuit of stability and peace. “PFI and such Salafi Wahhabi organisations want to trick them (youth) against the basic ideology of Sufi majority population of the country but this situation is not in the interest of Islam, country and humanity,” it said.
Moreover, MSO appealed to the Muslim youth to stay patient on the action taken on PFI. “If this action (of the central agencies) has been taken for compliance of law and prevention of terrorism, then everyone should be patient on it,” it said, adding that the charges of murder, violence and possession of weapons against those arrested were serious. It however maintained that these allegations must be proved in court.
Two other organisations: Tanzeem Ulema-e-Islam, and Kul Hind Markazi Imam Council also supported the actions taken by NIA. Not only religious organisations, but Muslim politicians are also criticising PFI and its methods. KM Shaji politician belonging to the Indian Union Muslim League, have been very open about his views on PFI. He thus stated, “I oppose PFI and Jamaat-e-Islami because they brainwash Muslim youth in Kerala. They have managed to penetrate the minds of the youth by forming a lot of cultural organisations. The biggest challenge was to convince our community members that their agenda and motives were bad. They never openly confronted us and it created confusion in the community. But, we continued to fight against their agenda within the Muslim community. SDPI’s only path is violence and they don’t have any strong ideological or religious mooring. What SDPI and PFI are propagating in the name of true Islam is wrong. Their view of Quran is not correct. Even their religious vision is not correct.”
Many are of the opinion PFI is the resurrection version of the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) which was involved in several terror attacks in India, including the series of blasts in Mumbai between 2002 and 2003. Many of the PFI founder members were SIMI leaders.12 SIMI, was banned in 2006. SIMI was an Islamist extremist outfit its stated motto was ‘liberation of India through Islam’. Multiple bans and stringent vigil from security agencies compelled the leaders to bequeath SIMI and launched PFI with a similar ideology and intention. There are similar Islamic militant organisations active in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. They mostly function under the garb of human rights forums.
The PFI, as it tried to portray itself as a grassroots level organisation working for social development is a complete farce. The members of PFI have been involved in gruesome and violent activities in the past. For instance, on July 4, 2010, TJ Joseph head of the department of Malayalam at Newman College in Thodupuzha, Kerala was brutally assaulted and his right arm till elbow were chopped off. He was accused of setting up a question paper ‘hurting’ the religious sentiments of Muslims.
The PFI members did not have the patience or civility to wait for the proper judicial process that was going against Joseph following Indian law. They took the matter in their own hands.
Also, in Kerala, PFI has been accused of having links with terrorist organisations. An NIA court in Kochi in July, 2022 awarded prison sentences to three men who were convicted in a case pertaining to recruitment to the Islamic State (IS). 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 the Kannur district, mainly from the Valapattanam region, joined the terrorist outfit in Syria.
According to the police, they were PFI activists. PFI has systematically expanded its support base over the years by floating many front outfits. These include NDF student wing Campus Front of India, often known to act as “moral police”; National Women’s Front that gives thrust to adherence to Muslim dress code by Muslim women; PFI political wing Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI); Sathyasarani, a religious conversion centre; National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation that is reportedly associated with a CPI (Maoist) front; Rehab India Foundation that carried out large scale relief activities in Assam to woo the Muslim population towards PFI; Indian Fraternity Forum, an association of expatriate Indian Muslims, and Muslim Relief Network through which PFI mobilises funds from the Gulf countries; Media Research and Development Foundation that puts out news regarding alleged atrocities on minorities in India; and Darul Khada, a parallel judiciary to settle family, property and personal disputes under ‘shariah’.
It can be summarised that PFI is not only painting an ultra-rightist violent version of Islam, it is also brainwashing and luring Muslim youth for joining dreaded international terrorist organisations. It will not be wrong to say that the PFI is a multi-level body working at the lowest of grassroots and at the same time with a global militant vision of Islam. Despite the horrid outlook of PFI, the Government of India, following the democratic and secular heritage of the country took its time to ban the outfit and declare it a terror organisation under the UAPA. It is evident that the proscription was made after considering all the aspects of the organisation pragmatically and impartially. The series of arrests, investigations and proscription have exposed the tip of an Islamist Iceberg functioning inside India since many years.