New Delhi: Terror funding, recruitment, and organising camps for “imparting training to commit terrorist acts, promote enmity between different groups on the basis of religion” — these are the charges the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Enforcement Directorate (ED), and local police of several states are probing against over 100 members of the Islamic outfit Popular Front of India (PFI) who were arrested Thursday.
In a joint overnight operation carried out across 11 states with over 1,500 personnel of state police and the Central Armed Police Forces, 106 PFI members were arrested by the NIA, ED and state police forces, sources in the NIA said.
While 22 people were arrested from Kerala, 20 were arrested from Maharashtra, 9 from Assam, 8 from Uttar Pradesh, 5 from Andhra Pradesh, 3 from Delhi, 20 from Karnataka, 4 from Madhya Pradesh, 3 from Puducherry, 2 from Rajasthan, and 10 from Tamil Nadu, said sources.
They added that several incriminating documents and over 100 mobile phones, laptops, and other materials were seized by the raiding teams.
“The arrests are a part of the crackdown on the organisation [PFI] that has been involved in anti-national, seditious activities. They had been growing their base, recruiting more people, imparting training, even in arms. The money was also being sourced from the Middle East to fund the activities,” an NIA source said.
The source added that the agency had found “incriminating documents from the offices of PFI in different states”.
“Their Hyderabad office was also sealed. We will be able to share more details after their questioning, we will be seeking their custody,” the source said.
Reacting to the arrests, the PFI’s National Executive Council (NEC) condemned the action, calling it “harassment”.
A statement issued by them said they will “never ever surrender on any (sic) scary action by a totalitarian regime using the central agencies as its puppets and will stand firm on its will for recovering the democratic system and spirit of the constitution of our beloved country.”
“We condemn the nationwide raids by the NIA & ED and the unjust arrests and the harassment of its national and state leaders across India and the witch-hunting against the members and supporters of the organisation,” the statement said.
It added that “NIA’s baseless claims and sensationalism are solely aimed at creating an atmosphere of terror”.
The PFI emerged from the National Democratic Front (NDF), which was formed in 1993 in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.
While its stronghold is in Kerala, the organisation has expanded its base across the country and, according to the NIA, has a presence in almost 23 states. The PFI calls itself a “neo-social movement” with a vision to empower all marginalised sections in India.
One of the earliest accusations against the PFI was that the organisation is an offshoot of the Students Islamic Movement of India — an outfit allegedly involved in several terror attacks, including the series of blasts in Mumbai between 2002 and 2003.
It has also been alleged that many organisations that fall under the PFI umbrella — such as the National Women’s Front, Social Democratic Party of India, Karnataka Forum for Dignity, Manitha Neethi Pasarai, the Citizen’s Forum in Goa, and the Association of Social Justice in Andhra Pradesh — hold classes in weapons training and highlight the sacrifices expected of recruits.
The PFI in Kerala is said to have about 3 lakh supporters and 25,000 members. Despite being accused of carrying out at least 30 high-profile murders, including that of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) leader R. Rudresh in Bengaluru in 2016, the PFI hasn’t been banned in the country.
From the NIA and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to the ED and state police units, several agencies have been hot on its heels for years in cases across the country.
The allegations against them also include their alleged involvement in a gold smuggling racket in Kerala, conversion marriages in Karnataka and Kerala, sponsoring anti-CAA riots in Delhi, and for committing “sedition” and instigating communal violence in Uttar Pradesh.
The PFI has denied all allegations.
The Delhi Police Special Cell, too, is investigating the PFI’s role in allegedly “providing logistics” for the 2020 Delhi riots.
The cases against PFI that have made it to NIA’s dossier are a 2010 attack on Professor T.J. Joseph in Kerala’s Idukki district using an axe, RSS leader Rudresh’s murder, helping the Islamic State Al-Hindi set up operations in south India, and the recovery of bombs, IEDs, and swords from PFI bases in Kannur in 2010.
In a report to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to ban the organisation, the NIA also cited the 2016 conviction of 21 PFI members by a special NIA court in Kerala for organising a terror camp in Kannur in 2013.
Following the arrests, more than 50 members of the PFI protested against the raids outside the party office in Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district. Meanwhile, PFI workers in Chennai also sat in protest outside the city’s party office, which was also raided.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)