Why do Indian authorities raid Popular Front offices and arrest its leaders?

September 23, 2022

NEW DELHI — Controversial Muslim group Popular Front of India (PFI) is holding a strike in the southern state of Kerala on Friday, a day after authorities raided its offices in several states and arrested many of its leaders.

India's top anti-terror agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which fights financial crime, carried out raids on Thursday morning in 11 states and arrested 106 PFI members, reported the Press Trust of India (PTI).

TV channel News18 quoted NIA sources as saying it was their "largest-ever investigation process [to] date".

Later in the day, PFI members protested against the arrests in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

"The raids are taking place at the homes of national, state and local leaders of PFI," the group said in a statement, accusing the government of trying "to use federal agencies to silence dissenting voices".

A press release from the NIA said it had arrested 45 people in connection with five cases.

The agency says that during the searches, "incriminating documents, cash, sharp-edged weapons and a large number of digital devices have been seized".

What is PFI?

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

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

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 the banned Islamist group — Students' Islamic Movement of India (Simi), which was outlawed by the government in 2001. The PFI has also been linked to the Indian Mujahideen, another banned militant group.

Prof P Koya, a founding member of the PFI and its earlier incarnation NDF, has 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.

The PFI first stepped into the limelight in 2010 after an attack on Prof. T.J. Joseph in Kerala. The assault came after several Muslim groups accused him of asking derogatory questions about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in an examination. A court convicted some of its members for the attack, although the PFI distanced itself from the accused.

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 professor 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) have long demanded a total ban on the PFI and the Kerala High Court once described it as an "extremist organization".

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. — BBC

September 23, 2022
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