This explainer was originally published on 25 November 2017 and is being republished in light of UP Police having sent a fresh request to MHA seeking a ban on PFI.
On Wednesday, 1 January, Uttar Pradesh police sent a fresh request to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) seeking a ban on PFI, as Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the role of PFI has been suspected in the anti-CAA protests in Uttar Pradesh and the Home Ministry would decide on the action to be taken against the organisation.
Kerala based Popular Front of India (PFI) has been a controversial organisation. The government wants to ban PFI alleging it is involved in political killings, religious conversions and terror activities.
PFI’s credibility as an organisation for social work and the lack of evidence to prove its alleged terror links, made the ban a difficult task for the government. The PFI has also been crying foul, alleging that actions of rogue elements have been linked to the organisation without proper evidence to ban it.
So, why does the government want a ban on PFI? Here is a detailed breakdown.
What Are the Origins of PFI?
Even though PFI as an organisation came to existence in 2006, its origin dates back to 1993. Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a political organisation by the name National Development Front (NDF) was created in Kerala, to protect the interests of the Muslim community in the state.
Over the years, NDF claimed to be an organisation working for the socio-economic welfare of the state’s Muslim community. Their work was noticed across the state and their popularity increased as well.
However, over the years the extremist nature of the organisation came to light. in 2003, some of its members were arrested for rioting and murdering eight Hindus in Marad Beach in Kerala’s Kozhikode.
Following these killings, it was alleged that the NDF has links with foreign intelligence agencies – however, the claim could not be proven.
How Was PFI Formed?
In its initial days, NDF’s activities were limited to Kerala. But after gaining popularity a decision was made that expands its influence across the state and to create a unified organisation, merging like-minded organisations from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Thus in 2006, The Popular Front of India (PFI) was formed, merging NDF, Karnataka Forum for Dignity, and Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu.
Over the next three years, a few more organisations – Goa's Citizen's Forum, Rajasthan's Community Social and Educational Society, West Bengal's Nagarik Adhikar Suraksha Samiti, Manipur's Lilong Social Forum, and Andhra Pradesh’s Association of Social Justice – merged with the PFI.
Despite the representations from different states, the activities of the PFI remain strongest in Kerala.
What's the Link Between PFI and SIMI?
The PFI has its roots in NDF, but there has been strong criticism of the organisation for its involvement with banned terror outfit Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).
Most of the office-bearers of the PFI, including members of the current leadership, have had an association with SIMI before it was banned. Even though members of the organisation have denied the connection, the organisation’s hierarchy give critics ammunition.
SIMI was formed in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, in April 1977, with a mission of "liberation of India" from Western materialistic cultural influence and to convert its Muslim society to live according to the Muslim code of conduct. The Indian government banned SIMI in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
Is it an Extremist Religious Organisation or a Terror Outfit?
According to sources in the Intelligence Bureau, PFI has been actively promoting jihad and classes on jihad are being conducted by some of its members.
However, its nature has been described as that of an ‘extremist organisation’ and not a ‘terror outfit’.
“They preach to their cadre to attack the right-wing organisations in the country. The attacks are either communal or political. However, unlike the Indian Mujahedeen and LeT, they have not taken up any large-scale terror attacks against a general civilian target. Regardless, they have been under constant surveillance for several years now,” said an intelligence bureau officer deployed in Kerala, on condition of anonymity.
Officers added that PFI even preaches to its cadres that killing of right-wing activists who oppose Islam would provide them ‘religious rewards in the afterlife’.
What of the Attacks Carried out by PFI in Kerala?
One of the most infamous attacks carried out by PFI was the severing of a professor’s hand, who allegedly ‘hurt the religious sentiments’ of some Muslim students by his remarks on Prophet Mohammed.
TJ Joseph, a professor in Newman College, associated with Mahatma Gandhi University, included a question in a Malayalam exam, which was perceived as derogatory by some students. The professor was booked on charges of causing communal hatred, however he was released on bail.
A few days after he came out on bail, on 4 July 2010, Joseph’s vehicle was waylaid by a group of eight men, who chopped his right hand off. Police arrested and filed a chargesheet against 37 PFI members. Charges of attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy, and assault, among others, were filed against these men. The case is currently under trial.
Even though this incident caught the public’s attention, there were several other attacks PFI members were part of. According to a Kerala government report submitted to the Kerala High Court, in 2012, PFI members were actively involved in 27 murder cases, mostly of cadres of CPI-M and RSS. In 2014, in another report, Kerala government said 86 attempts to murder cases were registered against PFI as well.
What Are the Allegations of Forced Conversion Against PFI?
A sting operation by a National Television claimed that AS Zainaba, president of the National Women's Front – the PFI's women's wing – admitted having coordinated forced religious conversions to Islam at a Sathya Sarani, an educational and charitable trust associated with PFI.
Although the PFI alleged that the sting operation was a vilification campaign against them, based on the news report, the Kerala police ordered an investigation in to the allegation.
The report also came while the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was conducting an investigation into the alleged forceful conversions to Islam. In September, Kerala police had provided a list of 94 suspected cases of forced conversions to the NIA. During the investigation, the NIA had alleged that the PFI was involved in the conversions; however, the case is still under investigation.
The sensational Hadiya conversion case is among the cases being investigated by NIA. The case involves 24-year-old Akhila, who embraced Islam and took the name Hadiya without the knowledge of her family. Since January 2016, here parents, Ashokan and Ponnamma, have been waging a legal battle to get their daughter back.
After the High Court admitted a second habeas corpus filed by Ashokan in August 2016, the court suddenly nullified Akhila's marriage to Shafin Jahan. Now, the case has reached the Supreme Court, with the apex court asking Hadiya to appear before HC to give her version.
Is PFI Connected to the Islamic State?
According to the information provided by Kerala police, at least 10 men who were part of PFI have gone to Syria to fight for Islamic State. It was during the interrogation of Shahjahan, an Islamic State (IS) sympathiser from Kanjirangode in Kannur who was deported from Turkey following a failed attempt to cross the border, police learnt that members of the PFI had gone to fight in Syria.
PFI agreed that these men were part of their organisation, however, claimed that they had left the party. “Shameer and Manaf were PFI activists, but they cut all ties with us after they left for the Gulf,” a Times of India report quoted VK Noufal, Kannur district president of the PFI, as saying. TOI report also quoted Noufal saying those who joined the IS had difference of opinion while they were in PFI.
What Are the Attacks by PFI Outside Kerala?
PFI members in Karnataka have been involved in the political murders of the four RSS workers in the state. While two of the murders were reported in the coastal city of Mangaluru, one case each were reported in Bengaluru and Mysuru.
Five people, including Bengaluru district president of Popular Front of India (PFI) Azim Sheriff, were arrested for the murder of RSS man Rudresh in October 2016, in Bengaluru’s Shivajinagar.
All these cases are currently under trail.
Is There a Proposal to Ban PFI?
In the first week of October 2017, a series of meetings were held by the Ministry of Home Affairs to decide whether PFI should be banned. The Ministry also reviewed all the cases where members of the PFI were have been involved.
One of the reasons cited by the ministry for proposing the ban was the number of the cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act filed against the members of the organisation. However, no decision has been taken on the matter so far.
PFI, however, has categorically declined the allegations of terror links.
Why a New Proposal for Ban?
On Wednesday, 1 January, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the role of PFI has been suspected in the anti-CAA protests in Uttar Pradesh and the Home Ministry would decide on the action to be taken against the organisation.
"PFI's role in violence is coming forward. The Home Ministry will decide on further action based on evidence. There are many allegations against them including connection with Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI)," Ravi Shankar Prasad was quoted as saying by ANI.
A day earlier, Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya too said the PFI had fanned protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in the state. He said the members of PFI were disguised as SIMI members.
Following these statements, UP police wrote to the Ministry of Home Affairs with a fresh proposal to ban the PFI.
What Do Intelligence Veterans Say About PFI?
Hormis Tharakan, former of chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and former Kerala police chief said that the PFI is under heavy scrutiny from the security agencies.
However, the former officer said that unlike SIMI, pinning down PFI has become a tough task for investigating agencies as the PFI has projected itself for an organisation for social change. “So far, there is no strong evidence to connect the alleged suspicious activities directly with the organisation. It becomes difficult to prove, with sufficient evidence, that PFI is a terror organisation. This will be challenge for the investigators,” he said.