As part of a nationwide ‘crackdown,’ several hundreds of people have been arrested or detained in various states by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for their alleged link to the Popular Front of India (PFI), which was banned on 27 September by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Quint spoke to the families of two such people detailed as part of this ‘crackdown.’ Both their family and friends say they weren’t part of the PFI, but of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation (NCHRO) and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) respectively. However, the SDPI, which is the political arm of the PFI, hasn’t been banned.
The PFI was founded in 2006, and primarily enjoys popularity and sees the most membership in parts of South India – Kerala and Karnataka being the hubs of PFI’s base. But the PFI also has some presence in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, among other states.
The Home Ministry has said it was “necessary to curb the nefarious activities” of the organisation, declaring the PFI an “unlawful association” along with “its associates or affiliates or fronts including 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”.
The Quint spoke to two such people detailed as part of this ‘crackdown’ – both their family and friends say they weren’t part of the PFI, but of the NCHRO and the SDPI respectively. However, the SDPI, which is the political arm of the PFI, hasn’t been banned.
DU Student, First Person in Family To Reach College
Twenty-two-year-old Shoaib Ahmad was picked up by the police from his house in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh at around 3 am on 27 September. The family, comprising of Shoaib’s parents and his two younger siblings, were fast asleep when 25-30 police personnel came ringing their doorbells. “They took away Shoaib and along with him also took away some of his books, his laptop and phone,” a relative who did not want to be named said.
Shoaib wasn’t part of the PFI, but used to volunteer with the NCHRO, which has been banned by the Union Home Ministry as one of the organisations “affiliated” with the PFI. Shoaib’s friends say he only recently began volunteering with the NCHRO, limiting himself to logistical work.
“He was a college student. So internships and volunteer work are always helpful for college students to get certificates. He would help the NCHRO with organising talks, making posters, communication work, etc.” Abuzar Chaudhary, a friend of Shoaib told The Quint.
Shoaib was a final-year student at Delhi University’s Zakir Hussain college, studying in the BA programme. He was the first from his extended family to make it to college, his friends said.
From a very humble family, Shoaib’s mother is a tailor and stiches clothes using her sewing machine at her home itself, while his father is a property dealer. “Their financial condition hasn’t been good for a while now. In fact, just a few weeks before his detention, Shoaib’s parents had managed to buy him a laptop. He really needed a laptop for his studies and was managing without one for so long. The laptop now lies in police custody,” Abuzar said.
Manishikha, another friend of Shoaib, said he was present in the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests in Shaheen Bagh, which is when she met him for the first time. “Since then, I grew to know him as an ambitious and curious person, who wanted to study a lot and was constantly looking for avenues. He would ask me about master's programmes in various colleges, and was interested in studying international relations, philosophy and more subjects about the world. He began referring to me as ‘aapa’ and I too would think of him as a younger brother,” Manishikha told The Quint.
Manishikha added that he would volunteer with the NCHRO infrequently, since as “a person from a marginalised and economically strained background, he was more focused on excelling in studies.”
Shoaib was produced before the executive magistrate of the Delhi district court on the day of his arrest, and has since been in judicial custody, Manishikha said.
The Delhi Police's Special Cell unit along with district police had conducted raids across six districts in the city last week and nabbed 30 people allegedly linked with the PFI. Delhi Police Commissioner Sanjay Arora has in a notification declared and notified some addresses in Shaheen Bagh, Abdul Fazal Enclave and Jamia Nagar as being used for the purposes of carrying out “unlawful activities” of the PFI and its associates or affiliates.
Businessman in Dakshina Kannada, SDPI Member for 14 years
The Karnataka police placed over 80 people belonging to the PFI in preventive custody after they received inputs and leads from the central agencies on 28 September.
Feroz Khan, a 40-year-old businessman who runs a courier and cargo agency in Dakshina Kannada’s Bantwal, was picked up by the Karnataka police in the early hours of 27 September, along with his friends Mohammed Razik and Ajaz Ahamed. The three say they aren’t part of the PFI, but of the SDPI.
They were held in preventive custody under Section 107 of CrPC for four days and let out on 30 September. During their time in custody, the SDPI workers with links to the PFI were grilled about various cases of communal violence in the district and were questioned on charges of disrupting peace.
Speaking with The Quint, Zeenat Bibi, wife of Feroz Khan revealed how the police was at their door in the middle of the night to make arrests.
"The police knocked at our door at 4 in the morning. My husband Feroz attended it. Since we were sleeping, my husband was wearing a lungi. But the police officer insisted that he wear his pants and also show them the house belonging to Mohammed Razik. Despite growing suspicious, my husband accompanied them. But both were taken into custody without any prior notice," recalled Zeenat Bibi.
Like his many other peers in Dakshina Kannada, Feroz Khan was drawn to the SDPI and its activities which played a major role for the rights of minorities in Karnataka. As a young activist, in 2007, Feroz joined their protests and also helped organise small social events in his hometown in Bantwal.
"I actively participated in protests and marches against the government which was anti-Muslim. However, I was never part of the PFI. By the time I decided to join the movement, the SDPI was founded in 2009, and I immediately became a member. Every day, after working in my cargo business, I would visit the SDPI office in our town and decided what the plan was for the coming week. We organised blood donation drives, distributed health kits and foods to the needy and also held awareness campaigns in our district. I couldn't have done this without the support of my wife," said Feroz Khan to The Quint.
While the state and the police asserted that only leaders with criminal history or those with an ongoing case against them were picked by the police, The Quint has come to learn that even grassroots members, like Feroz Khan of the SDPI, and other cadre of PFI affiliate organisations were held by police without any legal help.
In the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada alone, more than 15 people were taken into preventive custody as per the directions of the Union Home Ministry. The police produced them before the court on 30 September and have remanded them in judicial custody for a week.
As of now, Feroz Khan is out on bail, but his aggrieved wife told The Quint, "My husband has been a member of the SDPI from the past 14 years. He regularly attended all the protests and agitations led by the PFI. He has never been part of the decision-making body and has worked only as a grassroots worker who believed in the cause. He was put behind bars for no reason."
The cops claim that the arrests come as a part of NIA crackdown on PFI and that they are just following the inputs of the central agencies. However, advocate Mohammed Tahir, who is the defence counsel for many of the accused claims that the detentions are against the constitution and that it was driven by politics of hate.
Family members who did not want to be named, revealed to The Quint that the police asked the SDPI members who were arrested in Bantwal to give a written undertaking saying they wouldn't participate in protests. This letter had to also be signed by a gazetted officer.
However, Feroz's family said that the tehsildar refused to sign the letter as he was being pressurised by the police department.
"We have been asked to visit the tahsildar office every day to confirm that we are in town. We have been asked not to leave Bantwal limits as the police are investigating the case. I take pride in being a member of the SDPI and for having worked for our society. The arrests and detentions are a clear case of vendetta politics. I have done nothing wrong, and I am confident that we will come out clean," Feroz added.