The ban on the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its affiliates under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, by the Narendra Modi government is the culmination of meticulous groundwork by Indian intelligence and enforcement agencies after the Sunni Wahhabi Islamist organisation bared its teeth in acts of violence during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests in December 2019. There were incidents during these protests in Assam, and the violence reached a peak during the 2020 Delhi riots. According to investigators, the violence showed the ability of the organisation, until then largely restricted to the Indian peninsula, to radicalise, mobilise, and organise Muslim youth in acts of violence against the State. The strategy was to weaponise Muslim youth to spread political Islam — perhaps most fancifully manifested in a document linked to the organisation that was seized from Maharashtra recently, that laid out a Utopian plan to make India a Shariah Republic by 2047, the country’s 100th year of its Independence.
It was a few years after the banning of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in 2001, that the National Development Front (NDF), one of the progenitors of PFI, came on the radar of national security agencies when eight Hindu fishermen were hacked to death on Marad beach in Kerala on May 2, 2003. Subsequent raids unearthed a huge cache of weapons and explosives. On November 22, 2006, the Popular Front of India was formed with the merger of three groups — the Karnataka Forum of Dignity, National Development Front and Manitha Neethi Pasarai. The nomenclature indicated a desire to keep away from Islamic names and symbols , unlike SIMI or the Indian Mujahideen. The stated aim of the organisation was socioeconomic empowerment and social justice, but investigators who have tracked the organisation for years say it is driven by a fundamentalist philosophy that can be traced back to Jamaat-e-Islami emir Abul Ala Maududi. The objective, they add, was to capture power through political Islam (not very different from what JeI, SIMI, and Indian Mujahideen set out to do). Indeed, investigators believe a core group behind SIMI became PFI.
Today, the organisation has a new leadership with an estimated cadre strength of over 85,000 and spread over at least 24 Indian states. While the advertised goals of PFI are to promote national integration, communal amity and social harmony, the now-banned organisation is believed to have a covert apparatus trained and equipped in the use of arms and explosives, according to investigators. As far back as July 2010, the Kerala Police unearthed country-made bombs, weapons, CDs, and documents containing al-Qaeda and the Taliban propaganda literature from PFI activists. That was shortly after the organization formed its political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India.
Investigators rattle off a long list of violent crimes perpetrated by PFI — some are listed in charges filed in courts.
PFI showed its Muslim Brotherhood affiliation when it organised a protest outside the Egyptian Embassy in New Delhi in 2015, against the death sentence given to former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, affiliated to the Brotherhood. PFI has strong anti-Zionist stance and also organised pro-Hamas protests in India in 2012 and 2014 through the “I am Gaza” campaign. It also runs an organisation called PFU Youth Wing (Mao) in association with the CPI (Maoist). Investigators believe that this unit has been involved in extortion (one of its leaders CP Jaleel was killed in an operation by the Kerala Police in 2019).
Security agencies have been recommending a ban on PFI since Kerala College lecturer TJ Joseph’s hand was hacked off by PFI activists in July 2010, but the then United Progressive Alliance government did not act on their warnings. PFI projected itself as a messiah of the downtrodden, but admission into the Islamist body was after a “bayath” or sworn allegiance to Allah, with potential recruits undergoing an elaborate vetting process. Investigators say no agenda or minutes of meetings of PFI was ever made public, and claim that this was because its purpose was radicalisation, indoctrination and weaponisation of Muslim youth . In that sense, moderate Muslims were seen as much of an enemy as the Hindu majority community, they point out.
The raids on September 22 and 26, across 14 states, were the result of detailed planning and preparation by the national security apparatus led by home minister Amit Shah. In all, 392 people have so far been arrested across hundreds of locations. Just as Shah was very familiar with PFI’s predecessors — NDF, SIMI and Indian Mujahideen (the last was behind the July 2008 Ahmedabad bomb blasts that killed 56), National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Intelligence Bureau chief Tapan Deka have handled Islamist terror outfits pursuing political objectives since 1990s. Agencies involved in the raids, the National Investigation Agency, the Enforcement Directorate, and state law enforcement, also received inputs on foreign funding of PFI from Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey, and details of its linkages with the Muslim Brotherhood, investigators say.
PFI and its affiliates may have now been banned but this just the beginning of the process as states will now have to implement UAPA notification by freezing funds, assets and accounts of the organisation and arresting PFI cadres, even as, in keeping with UAPA, a tribunal looks at the ban itself. While the raids went off without incident, it is likely that the execution of the ban will result violence in states where PFI has dominance and cadres on ground. The ban itself may force some of PFI’s cadre to simply morph into another organisation with the objective of capturing political power in the name of Islam remaining the same. In this way, PFI is no different from Islamic State, al-Qaeda or Jamait-ul-Mujahideen.
The views expressed are personal