New Delhi: From allegedly funding the anti-CAA protests and Northeast Delhi riots to stoking violence in Hathras, the Popular Front of India (PFI) has been accused of “sedition”, “disrupting state machinery”, “promoting religious hatred” and “conspiring to instigate communal violence” on more than one occasion.
On Thursday, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) — which was probing over 100 PFI members in connection with various cases — arrested 45 members in raids across the country. The remaining 61 were arrested by local police forces and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which is probing allegations against the PFI of “funding” the 2019 anti-CAA protests and the 2020 Northeast Delhi riots.
The Delhi Police Special Cell is probing the outfit’s role in “providing logistics” for the 2020 riots, while the Uttar Pradesh Police is investigating over 19 cases against PFI members filed in connection with the unrest reported in the aftermath of the Hathras case in September 2020.
Siddique Kappan’s links with the PFI were among the reasons cited for the arrest of the Kerala-based journalist, who was apprehended while on his way to Hathras. The UP Police has accused the PFI of “sedition, conspiracy, disturbing peace and promoting religious hatred”.
Investigative agencies claim that the PFI has “expanded substantially in the last few years”, but a spokesperson for the outfit maintained that the agencies are conducting a “witch-hunt against the organisation”.
Origin of PFI, links to SIMI
The PFI calls itself a “neo-social movement” with a vision to empower all marginalised sections in India.
Its creation in 2006 was the result of a merger of three Muslim interest groups — Kerala-based National Democratic Front (NDF), Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) and Tamil Nadu-based Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP).
While its influence is most prominent in Kerala, the PFI has expanded its base across the country and now has a presence in almost 23 states, according to the NIA.
Ever since its inception, the PFI has been accused of being an offshoot of the banned terrorist outfit Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) as several PFI co-founders were SIMI leaders, including PFI vice-chairman E.M. Abdul Rahiman who was a SIMI general secretary between 1982 and 1993.
Similarly, E. Aboobacker, president of PFI’s political wing Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), headed the SIMI’s Kerala unit from 1982 to 1984, while Professor P. Koya, a member of the PFI’s national executive, was a founding member of both SIMI and the NDF.
Refuting the claim that their outfit is an offshoot of the SIMI, PFI leaders say their parent organisation NDF came into being in 1993, much before the ban on SIMI which first came into effect in 2001.
In an interview with ThePrint in February, Koya said he quit the SIMI in 1982 and founded the NDF about a decade later, in 1993, following the “surge of Hindutva fascism” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“The culmination of this surge of fascism was in 1992 when the Babri Masjid was destroyed by a gang led by L.K. Advani and others. It became very clear that traditional Muslim outfits weren’t able to articulate the concerns of the Muslim community,” he said.
Koya had also pointed out that the NDF and SIMI were parallel outfits for 10 years before the latter was banned and that their ideologies were different. “SIMI said Islam was the only solution to India’s problem, but we hold that India is a pluralistic country with many religions. We never conformed to SIMI’s idea,” he claimed.
Koya is among the PFI members arrested by the NIA Thursday.
What are charges against PFI
In a report to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in January 2021, the ED alleged that the PFI had mobilised funds to “finance the cost of demonstrations and gherao against the CAA Bill till 6 January 2020”. According to ED sources, the agency had “stumbled upon” the information while investigating the PFI’s role in a Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) case registered in 2018.
The ED claimed to have come across bank transactions suggesting that a sum of Rs 120.5 crore was credited to PFI-related accounts, and that there was a “direct correlation between the dates of deposits and withdrawals from these accounts and the dates of anti-CAA demonstrations in parts of the country”.
In the report, it also alleged that “multiple cash deposits of large amounts were made” through the PFI’s account at the Nehru Place branch of Syndicate Bank in New Delhi to accounts in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich, Bijnor, Hapur, Shamli districts and Dasna area.
The ED even made a graph charting the dates of withdrawals from accounts of PFI and Rehab India Foundation — an outfit connected to PFI — with the magnitude of anti-CAA protests between 4 December 2019 and 6 January 2020.
However, PFI general secretary Mohammed Ali Jinnah had rejected the ED’s claims as “totally baseless”.
2020 Delhi riots:
In its charge sheet in a case related to the 2020 Delhi riots, the Delhi Police Special Cell accused the PFI of providing “logistical and financial support to rioters”. The charge sheet also alleged that Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) scholar Umar Khalid was in “constant touch with members of PFI, who were pumping in the money”.
Calling the probe a “witch-hunt” against student activists who were part of the anti-CAA protests, PFI chairman O.M.A Salam had claimed that the probe against the outfit was “politically-motivated”.
In a separate riot case, the ED had booked the PFI in March 2020 on the charges of money laundering and ‘funding’ unrest. It also alleged that suspended Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) councillor Tahir Hussain — under arrest for his alleged role in the riots — had received funds from the PFI to ‘arrange logistics’.
Links with Tablighi Jamaat:
In April 2020, the Delhi Police Crime Branch claimed to have found a link between the PFI and the Tablighi Jamaat — the Islamic organisation which faced criticism for holding a religious congregation at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz during the peak of the first wave of Covid infections.
Sources told ThePrint that the ED had, as part of its probe into a separate case of money laundering against Tablighi leaders, “traced funds raised for the event to PFI”.
Violence in Mangaluru:
In December 2019, two people were killed in police firing when anti-CAA protests in Karnataka’s Mangaluru turned violent. Weeks later, the Mangaluru Police claimed to have uncovered crucial evidence suggesting that groups affiliated with the PFI and SDPI had shared ‘provocative messages’ prior to the violence.
Two suspects, Abubakar Siddique and Moideen Hamiz, were arrested and notices were issued to 30 others, including PFI and SDPI members in connection with the violence. Siddique and Hamiz were charged under multiple sections, including Section 124A (sedition), of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The NIA had said in July 2020 that it was looking at a possible link between the PFI and the gold smuggling racket busted in Kerala earlier that month.
On 5 July 2020, Customs officers deployed at Thiruvananthapuram Airport seized 30 kg gold worth Rs 15 crore from diplomatic baggage addressed to the UAE consulate-general in Thiruvananthapuram.
After the case was handed over to the NIA, sources in the central agency alleged that the smuggled gold may have been used by the PFI to fund “anti-national” activities.
While probing the controversial Hadiya ‘love jihad’ case in 2017, the NIA claimed to have found a strong link between two cases of conversion of women to Islam and the PFI. However, the agency concluded its probe in October 2018 after it found no “evidence of coercion” that could result in prosecution.
In May 2019, eight PFI offices were raided on the suspicion that the outfit — along with Islamic organisation Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ) — may have played a role in radicalising the masterminds of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka the previous month.
Agencies’ case for ban on PFI
Several calls have been issued for a ban on the PFI owing to its alleged involvement in a multitude of sensitive cases as a “conspirator” and “financier”.
In 2019, the Uttar Pradesh government sought a ban on the PFI over its alleged role in anti-CAA protests in parts of the state.
The NIA, too, in a detailed report to the MHA in 2017 had sought a ban, claiming that the PFI was a “threat to national security” and was using outfits like Sathya Sarani — a religious education centre in Kerala’s Malappuram — to carry out “forced conversions” including those of Athira Nambiar and Akhila Asokan.
In its report, the agency had also said it suspected the PFI of “running institutes where young people are indoctrinated”, adding that the volunteers were “trained in making crude bombs”. It also cited how a special NIA court in Kerala convicted 21 PFI members in 2016 on terror charges for organising a terror camp in Kannur in 2013.
The four cases that made it to NIA’s dossier were: PFI members chopping off a professor’s palm in Kerala’s Idduki, the role of a PFI member in the murder of an RSS leader in Bengaluru, a plot by the Islamic State Al-Hind module to target cities in southern India, and the recovery of bombs, IEDs and swords from a SIMI training camp in Kannur.
“We had sought a ban based on the dossier that we have of the PFI. The request is pending with the MHA,” a source in the NIA told ThePrint.
However, a PFI spokesperson termed the allegations levelled against the outfit by multiple agencies as “baseless and ridiculous”, and claimed that the cases are a means to “target the organisation”.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)