New Delhi: Eighteen years old, upset about the condition of Muslims, and eager to contribute to his community, the college student sat in a restaurant in his Rajasthan hometown listening in on a riveting discussion on the communal situation in India. What he heard persuaded him to volunteer in an organisation he had never heard of until then — the Popular Front of India (PFI), banned by the central government Wednesday morning because of its alleged connections with jihadist terrorism.
Seven years on, that student is a successful lawyer in New Delhi, but remains active in the PFI. “We knew this day would come,” he said, sipping a cup of tea. “I am wondering why they haven’t picked me up yet. There’s no one else I know left.”
The requirements to join the PFI weren’t such that might attract a typical teenager. Back in 2015, the PFI district president told the now-lawyer that members weren’t allowed to consume alcohol, use tobacco products, or have pre-marital sex. In addition, members were required to be pious, practising Muslims, and reject social evils such as dowry.
“I was already a good Muslim, so they inducted me immediately, and it’s been seven years now. There is no membership card given, only a booklet (constitution) with the norms is handed over,” the lawyer said.
The PFI has only male members in keeping with the “Muslim tradition” of separate rooms, organisations, and gatherings for men and women, the lawyer said. However, it does have a female wing called the National Women’s Front, as well as several other affiliate organisations like the Rehab India Foundation, Campus Front of India, All India Imams Council, National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation, Junior Front, and the Empower India Foundation. All these have also been declared “unlawful” for the next five years.
The PFI, security agencies claim, has grown exponentially in the last couple of years. The lawyer agrees but adds that people have joined the organisation because of its anti-RSS and anti-Hindutva stance. “We are the binding force. No one returns empty-handed from the PFI’s doors, the religion doesn’t matter”.
Recruitment through ‘addas’, funding via ‘zakat‘
The PFI does not recruit cadres through formal recruitment drives, according to the lawyer. Instead, there are addas, or discussion gatherings, where the topics of conversation include the organisation’s work and its role as the unifying “voice of Muslims” in India.
“When someone hears about the PFI, they approach members, supporters, and volunteers who then take them to the senior office-bearers,” he said.
The initial work of new members is to mobilise support — spread the word of the PFI, the message of Allah, and invite others to join discussions on perceived “anti-Muslim policies” of the government, the lawyer said. This is initially done by putting up posters and forwarding messages on chat groups.
The PFI, he said, works primarily on four broad frontiers — education, economic relief, legal aid, and protesting against anti-Muslim policies. Agendas are laid out every month and campaigns are formulated. It’s a rule for PFI members to meet up in the party office at least once a month.
The organisation claims to have done relief work in flood-affected areas of Assam and Bihar, and also distributed PPE kits and oxygen cylinders during the Covid waves.
Lakhs of Indians are part of the organisation, with the majority from South India, but there are also many other “sympathisers”, the lawyer claimed.
The PFI relies primarily on donations for funding, he added. “The greatest number of collections come through zakat (religious donations) given in the month of Ramzan.”
On terror allegations
In its notification to ban the PFI for five years under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said that the organisation was involved in several “terror cases” and endangered the “security and public order of the state”.
The PFI is also accused of being an offshoot of the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Prominent allegations against it include funding the 2020 Delhi riots, stoking violence in the wake of the 2020 Hathras rape and murder case, and providing financial and logistical support to the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
Further, it has been accused by investigative agencies of terror funding, recruitment, and organising camps to “commit terrorist acts”.
The lawyer, however, denied all such allegations. Some of the PFI’s co-founders were associated with SIMI, but he said this didn’t mean it was an offshoot of the other organisation.
“The seeds to form PFI were sowed two years after the Babri Masjid was demolished (in 1992). SIMI was banned in 2001. We have former members of political parties as well. Talking only of SIMI is nothing but an attempt to portray the PFI as a notorious organisation,” he said.
The PFI’s official line is that it came into being in 2006 with the merging of three outfits in South India: the Kerala-based National Development Front (NDF, founded in 1994), the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD), and the Manitha Neethi Parasai (MNP) in Tamil Nadu.
On armed training and terror funding, the lawyer said: “Ask the security agencies to show us images and videos. This is all a calculated move — first they defame the PFI, arrest our people, then say all these things to take away public sentiment, and the next step is to ban.”
According to him, there has been a concerted effort to “demonise” the PFI. “When they have to target someone, they add the name PFI to them,” he said. “Look at Siddique Kappan, look at Umar Khalid. The Shaheen Bagh protests were never organised by the PFI; the narrative was set to demonise the protesters,” he said.
Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested in October 2020 when en route to Hathras, where a Dalit woman had been raped, on the allegation that he intended to disturb the peace and had “deep links” with the PFI. Umar Khalid is one of the accused in the February 2020 Delhi riots, which the police have linked to the PFI.
A tense atmosphere
Since the police ‘crackdown’ over the past few days, which saw 106 people arrested and 250 detained, the official website of the PFI has now been taken down and its office in Shaheen Bagh has been sealed.
The relatives and acquaintances of PFI members are also worried. When ThePrint spoke to the families of some of the arrested members, they said they had deleted the phone numbers of anyone associated with the PFI.
“Whenever the local police come to know that students have been seen talking to PFI members, they are warned ‘krant karoge toh jail jaoge (if you revolt, you will land in jail)’,” the lawyer said.
As he finished his tea and got up to leave on his scooty, CRPF personnel walked through the lanes of Shaheen Bagh.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)