Popular Front of India: What is PFI and why has the Indian government banned it?

  • In Business
  • 2022-09-28 04:55:22Z
  • By BBC
The Popular Front of India says it has hundreds of thousands of supporters across the country
The Popular Front of India says it has hundreds of thousands of supporters across the country  

The Indian government has banned the Popular Front of India (PFI) - a controversial Muslim group - for five years for allegedly having links with terror groups.

The ban, announced on Wednesday morning, comes amid a crackdown on the organisation - over the past week, authorities have twice raided its offices across several states and arrested many of its leaders.

The PFI, which denies the allegations against it, has held nationwide protests against the raids in recent days.

About the ban

The government says it has banned the PFI and its associate groups for allegedly undertaking "unlawful activities" which are "prejudicial to the integrity, sovereignty and security of the country".

It has cited the group's alleged links with banned Islamist groups - the Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi) and the Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) - as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"The PFI and its associates or affiliates or fronts operate openly as a socio-economic, educational and political organisation but, they have been pursuing a secret agenda to radicalise a particular section of the society working towards undermining the concept of democracy," the federal home ministry said in a statement.

Reports say that more than 250 people linked to the group have been arrested during raids held on 22 September and 27 September.

The searches were carried out by India's top anti-terror agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which fights financial crimes.

The NIA said that during the searches, it seized "incriminating documents, cash, sharp-edged weapons and a large number of digital devices".

In a statement issued after the first raid, the Popular Front of India had described the action against it as "witch hunting" and accused the NIA of making baseless claims to create "an atmosphere of terror" .

What is PFI?

Formed in 2006, the PFI describes itself "as a non-governmental social organisation whose stated objective is to work for the poor and disadvantaged people in the country and to oppose oppression and exploitation".

Many Hindu groups had demanded a ban on the PFI
Many Hindu groups had demanded a ban on the PFI  

The PFI came into existence after the National Development Front (NDF) - a controversial organisation established in Kerala a few years after the Babri mosque was demolished in 1992 - merged with two other organisations from the south. Over the next few years, it developed a broader base as more organisations across India merged with it.

At present, the PFI, which has a strong presence in Kerala and Karnataka, is active in more than 20 Indian states and says its cadre strength is in the "hundreds of thousands".

Why is PFI controversial?

In its mission statement on its website, the PFI claims to want to establish an "egalitarian society where everyone enjoys freedom, justice and a sense of security". It says that changes in economic policies are required so that Dalits (formerly untouchables), tribal people and minorities get their rights.

However, the government has registered a host of charges against the group and its members, including "sedition, creating enmity between different sections of society and taking steps to destabilise India".

The PFI first stepped into the limelight in 2010 after an attack on a college professor in Kerala. The assault came after several Muslim groups accused him of asking derogatory questions about the Prophet Muhammad in an examination. A court convicted some of its members for the attack, although the PFI distanced itself from the accused.

More recently, members from the group were also linked to the beheading of a Hindu man in the western state of Rajasthan in June.

A few months ago, police in the eastern state of Bihar claimed that the group had allegedly circulated a document that spoke of making India an Islamic nation. The PFI had denied the allegations saying that the document - India 2047: Towards Rule of Islamic India - was forged.

One of the main allegations against the PFI has been its connection to Simi, which was outlawed by the government in 2001. The PFI has also been linked to the Indian Mujahideen, another banned militant group.

Female students wearing hijabs sitting on steps in protest against a school ban on wearing hijabs
Female students wearing hijabs sitting on steps in protest against a school ban on wearing hijabs  

Prof P Koya, a founding member of the PFI and its earlier incarnation NDF, had denied these allegations in an earlier conservation with the BBC and said that he established NDF in 1993, years after his relations with Simi ended in 1981.

Authorities have also linked the PFI to several incidents of political violence.

In 2018, in the coastal city of Ernakulam in Kerala, PFI activists were accused of stabbing to death a leader of the left-wing Students Federation of India (SFI).

How popular is PFI?

PFI leaders get a lot of media attention for speeches which some consider to be provocative.

The group claims to have a large supporter-base, but it has not enjoyed much political success so far. Its registered political party - the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) - has participated in local elections in Kerala and has enjoyed modest success, but hasn't won any parliamentary seats.

"The PFI is not a significant political or social force in India. Whatever influence it has is mainly limited to Kerala and some other southern states. Muslims in the rest of India do not even know of its existence as a political entity," says Adil Mehdi, retired prof from Jamia Millia Islamia university in the capital, Delhi.

Earlier this year, the Karnataka government accused the PFI of inciting protests after a school in the state banned female students from wearing hijabs. Observers said the student and women wing of PFI - Campus Front of India, and National Women's Front - actively participated in these pro-hijab demonstrations.

Hindu groups, aligned with India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had long demanded a total ban on the PFI and the Kerala High Court once described it as an "extremist organisation".

However, the PFI continues to deny any involvement in terror activities and analysts point out that terrorism charges, used to conduct raids and arrests, often fail scrutiny in court.

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