Explained: How the PFI originated and why there are calls to ban them

Although there have been crackdowns against the Islamist outfit in the past with regard to specific cases, it is for the first time that a huge pan-India operation is taking place.
A representative image of a security official in front of a PFI office.
A representative image of a security official in front of a PFI office.
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In what is termed as the “largest investigation till date” into the Popular Front of India (PFI), the National Investigation Agency (NIA) started raids during the early hours of Thursday, September 22 in over 40 locations across India and arrested over 100 PFI activists, accusing them of funding and organising training camps and radicalising youth. Although there have been crackdowns against the Islamist outfit in the past with regard to specific cases, it is for the first time that such a huge pan-India operation is taking place.

But what is PFI and how did it grow?

It was in a meeting held in Bengaluru on December 19, 2006 that PFI was formed through a merger of three Islamic organisations: the National Development Front (NDF) in Kerala, Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu and the Karnataka Forum for Dignity in Karnataka. The outfit was formed in the aftermath of the ban on the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the political backlash on NDF. While SIMI was banned after a series of bomb blasts in many states, both the CPI(M) and BJP wanted a crackdown on NDF accusing it of inciting communal tension.

From its inception, PFI has been termed a reincarnation of SIMI, primarily because SIMI leaders were instrumental in starting PFI. Many of the founding members of PFI were former SIMI leaders, including EM Abdul Rahiman (former general secretary of SIMI), E Aboobacker (Kerala state president of SIMI), and Professor P Koya. Koya, in fact, continues to be one of the tallest leaders of PFI and is the editor of Thejus, the outfit’s mouthpiece. Koya was also one of the 19 members who founded SIMI and later NDF.

PFI refers to itself as an organisation that works towards “the achievement of socio-economic, cultural and political empowerment of the deprived and the downtrodden and the nation at large”. In 2009, it joined hands with Goa’s Citizen’s Forum, Community Social and Educational Society from Rajasthan, Nagarik Adhikar Suraksha Samiti from West Bengal, Manipur’s Lilong Social Forum and Association of Social Justice from Andhra Pradesh.

It was also in 2009 that the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which is PFI’s political arm, was formed, with the aim of taking up issues of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalised communities. Aboobacker, who used to be the Kerala zone president of the now-banned SIMI, was its head. PFI also began to make its presence felt in student politics with the formation of the Campus Front of India (CFI) the same year.

However, along with its rising popularity, allegations against the outfit and its cadres for their involvement in various communal and criminal activities also began to see a rise, especially in the two southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, where it had a visible presence.

Criminal activities and controversies

Ever since its inception, various state police units and central agencies have accused PFI of being involved in arms possession, inciting violence, hate campaigns, rioting and so on. For example, in 2013, the Kerala police had conducted a series of raids on PFI activists in north Kerala, during which they seized various lethal weapons, country bombs, human silhouette shooting targets, raw materials for explosives, gun powder and others. In 2020, top PFI leaders were arrested and accused of funding the riots in Delhi during the anti-CAA protests in which 53 people lost their lives.

The first major incident which gave PFI the ‘extremist’ tag took place in July 2010 when its activists chopped off the right hand of TJ Joseph, a Malayalam professor in Kerala, accusing him of insulting Prophet Mohammed in a question paper that he had set.

In 2012, the Kerala government headed by the then Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy informed the Kerala High Court that PFI was “nothing but a resurrection of the banned outfit SIMI in another form” and that it had an active involvement in 27 murder cases, in which the victims were mostly workers of the CPI(M) and RSS.

It was also in 2012 that then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that Kerala along with a few other states like Jammu and Kashmir were witnessing a rise in religious extremism. Ever since then, PFI continues to be on the Union government’s radar.

However, that did not stop the organisation from spreading its influence across the country, especially to states like Jharkhand, where it gained prominence for resisting attacks unleashed by Hindutva right-wing groups. But reports of arms training and recruitment to terrorist organisations like the ISIS started to surface from Kerala, which showed the organisation in poor light.

According to a 2017 article published by the Open Magazine, a senior intelligence officer from the Kerala police told journalist Ullekh NP that at least 100 people from the state had left to join ISIS and that many of them were members of PFI. However, PFI state leadership had mantained that most of these members had severed ties with the organisation before joining terrorist organisations.

In fact, in 2017 the NIA had submitted a detailed report to the Union Home Ministry seeking a ban on PFI and SDPI because of various cases against the outfits related to extremist activities. The NIA claimed that PFI was a “threat to national security” and had gone on to mention cases in Kerala and Karnataka where its cadres have been involved in acts of terror.

Demand for banning PFI

Calls for a ban on PFI have been growing louder in the recent past, especially from BJP-ruled states. The latest demand for a ban came from Karnataka in February this year, following the murder of 28-year-old Bajrang Dal activist Harsha in Shivamogga district. However, it has not been confirmed if PFI or its feeder organisations were involved in the crime. 

In 2020, when the country was hit by anti-CAA agitations, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath had also demanded a ban on PFI claiming that the protests were orchestrated by the outfit. A report sent by the Enforcement Directorate to the Union Home Ministry also reiterated this claim.

However, the only state in India where the organisation is currently banned is Jharkhand, where the state government said that the action was taken to curb “its anti-national activities and for keeping links with terror outfits like ISIS”. The ban came into effect in 2019.

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