When the Union government banned the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its associate organisations on September 27, it was not the first time that a government was doing so. On February 21, 2018, the then Bharatiya Janata Party government in Jharkhand banned it saying that some of its members were internally influenced by the ISIS. The State government imposed the ban under Section 16 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1908.
In August 2018, the Jharkhand High Court revoked the ban noting that the State had not followed due procedure before announcing the ban. The PFI worked on the grey areas of the law, technicalities and lacunae in the administrative and judicial system, and the lack of diligence on the part of police personnel in preparing the grounds for the ban and managed to stay ‘legal’.
The PFI, like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), maintains no formal membership, has not contested for political office, and claims to have been founded for social and religious work. Hence, law-enforcement agencies have found it difficult to track down its members although its activists are said to be responsible for heinous acts. Chopping off the arms of T.J. Joseph, a Kerala professor, in 2010, alleging blasphemy, was a particularly gruesome act of theirs.
This time, ahead of banning the organisation for five years, the National Investigation Agency conducted a series of raids, and Government of India officials worked through the night to publish the gazette notification just before 6 a.m. on September 27. “The Central government… is of the firm opinion that it is necessary to declare the PFI and its associates or affiliates or fronts as unlawful association with immediate effect…,” said the notification signed by Praveen Vashista, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Reasons for the ban
The ban was necessary, it stated, because the organisation would “(I) continue its subversive activities thereby disturbing public order and undermining the constitutional set-up of the country; (ii) encourage and enforce terror-based regressive regime; (iii) continue propagating anti-national sentiments and radicalise a particular section of society with the intention to create disaffection against the country; and (iv) aggravate activities which are detrimental to integrity, security and sovereignty of the country.”
Surprisingly, the political arm of the PFI, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which claimed that it had no ties with the PFI, was not banned. Affiliate organisations that were banned include the Rehab India Foundation, the Rehab Foundation, Kerala, the Campus Front of India, the All India Imams Council, the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations, the National Women’s Front, the Junior Front, and the Empower India Foundation.
The Union government listed seven reasons to ban the group: (1) The PFI was involved in several criminal and terror cases, disrespected constitutional authority, received funds from abroad, and posed a major threat to national security; (2) its cadre repeatedly engaged in violent and subversive acts; (3) they were responsible for several terrorist acts and the murder of 10 persons between 2016 and 2022 done in order to disturb peace; (4) it had linkages with the ISIS and the Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh; (5) its office-bearers sought to raise funds through banking channels and hawala, and route these funds in suspicious ways; (6) it did not function according to its objectives and its sources of funds were not supported by the financial profile of account holders; and (7) Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and Gujarat had recommended a ban on the PFI.
These reasons, according to PFI representatives and political parties that do not support the BJP, were too broad and vague and could apply to many organisations, especially Hindutva organisations, which still function with impunity in India. The murder of 10 persons, they say, cannot form the basis for banning an outfit and claim that in some cases in Kerala and Karnataka the murders have been retaliatory in nature.
On April 15 this year, A. Subair, 44, the PFI’s Elappully (Palakkad district) area president and a member of the SDPI, was killed outside a mosque. The BJP and the RSS claimed innocence. Local police said that a vehicle left behind by Subair’s killers was registered in the name of Sanjith, a Sangh Parivar activist, who was killed last November, allegedly by PFI and SDPI members.
Just a day after Subair’s murder, an RSS hand S.K. Sreenivasan, 45, was killed in broad daylight by five men in his shop in Melamuri in Palakkad, a Sangh Parivar stronghold.
The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) warned that the retaliatory killings would escalate to a point of no return. In a statement, the CPI(M) Polit Bureau said: “The PFI and the RSS have been engaged in killings and retaliatory killings in Kerala and coastal Karnataka, vitiating the atmosphere, with a view to create communal polarisation. There are also extremist organisations like the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, elements of whom have been implicated in the killings of noted secular writers and personalities.”
Presence in Kerala
The PFI is most visible in Kerala, where Muslim-oriented political parties have been part of the ruling dispensation from the time of the formation of the State. Just as in other parts of the country, Muslim youth began looking for options outside these political parties, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Indian National League (INL), which many perceived as status quoists and who did not stand for the uplift of the poor and the downtrodden Muslims.
The PFI came into being in 2006 with the merger of the Karnataka Forum for Dignity and the National Development Front. Its stated goal was to empower people to ensure justice, freedom and security. In 2009, the SDPI was formed; its aim was to become the political voice of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalised communities. It gained traction in south Tamil Nadu and in some parts of Kerala, apart from coastal Karnataka.
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In 2018, the SDPI won 121 local body seats in coastal Karnataka. By the next round of elections, in 2021, it managed to win three local councils in Udupi. At the Legislative Assembly level, while it has made some impact, the SDPI is yet to win a seat.
Significantly, the PFI and the SDPI took opposing stands on the issue of women visiting the Sabarimala temple. The PFI claimed that the Supreme Court ruling permitting women entry into Sabarimala in October 2018 was an interference in the religious matter of Hindus. The SDPI welcomed the court order.
Both the LDF and the United Democratic Front governments in Kerala have opposed the activities of the PFI, which they felt were only adding fuel to the communal fire in Kerala. In 2012, the UDF government told the High Court that the PFI was “nothing but a resurrection of the banned outfit Students Islamic Movement of India [SIMI]”.
Muslim parties’ responses
All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi claimed that he opposed the PFI’s approach, but “this ban cannot be supported”. In a tweet, he noted: “A draconian ban of this kind is dangerous as it is a ban on any Muslim who wishes to speak his mind. The way India’s electoral autarky is approaching fascism, every Muslim youth will now be arrested with a PFI pamphlet under India’s black law, UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act].”
The IUML, which has been steadily losing ground to the PFI in Kerala, reacted with caution. The party’s senior leader and MLA M.K. Muneer said that the ban may not “solve all problems” because, in the past, after such a ban, leaders simply changed the name of the outfit. He also raised the question of Hindu fundamentalist organisations.
In a statement, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi leader M.H. Jawahirullah said that it was possible that some members of an organisation took part in illegal activities but the solution for this was not to ban it. Such a ban was against the basic principles of democratic functioning, he said.
- On September 27, the Union government banned the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its associate organisations.
- Affiliate organisations that are banned include the Rehab India Foundation, the Rehab Foundation, Kerala, the Campus Front of India, the All India Imams Council, the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations, the National Women’s Front, the Junior Front, and the Empower India Foundation.
- Some see the reasons given for the ban as too broad and vague and which could apply to many organisations, especially Hindutva organisations.