What is India’s Muslim group PFI?

The Indian government this week declared the Popular Front of India (PFI) an unlawful association, banning the Muslim group and its associates for five years.

The decision under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on Wednesday came after security agencies last week conducted countrywide raids and arrested dozens of people linked to PFI in multiple states.

The home ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that the PFI and its affiliates “have been found to be involved in serious offenses, including terrorism and its financing, targeted gruesome killings, disregarding the constitutional set up”.

PFI has repeatedly denied the charges, saying it is the victim of a “witch-hunt” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

What is the PFI?

The PFI was established in 2007 after the merger of three influential Muslim groups – the National Democratic Front (NDF) in Kerala, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity in Karnataka, and the Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu. Two years later, it announced that its political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), would run in elections.

The PFI has said it aims to empower Muslims and other minorities in India, and the SDPI has been contesting municipal polls in the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka.

“They have been active for Muslim issues,” NP Chekkutty, a journalist and columnist based in Kerala, told Al Jazeera. “Their basic idea of empowerment is relevant to Kerala society. They were electorally successful in a large number of municipal polls in Karnataka.”

Its main base remains Kerala, where it enjoys overwhelming support in Muslim-dominated areas and where most of the arrests were made.

Though SDPI has not been formally banned, some of its leaders were among those arrested.

Accusations

The main accusations meted out against the group involve the “funding of terrorism and terrorist activities, organising training camps for providing armed training and radicalising people to join banned organisations”.

India’s National Investigation Agency said in a September 22 statement that “a large number of criminal cases have been registered by different states over the last few years against the PFI and its leaders and members for their involvement in many violent acts.”

Right-wing Hindu groups, including Modi’s governing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), have accused the group of violent attacks on its members in Kerala and Karnataka.

In 2010, the PFI came under fire in Kerala after its members were allegedly involved in the chopping of the hand of a college professor for alleged blasphemy. In 2015, 13 people linked to the group were convicted of the crime.

The PFI has also been accused of funding protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and causing violence. In 2020, Muslims across India took to the streets to protest against CAA, legislation that fast-tracked Indian citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries but excluded Muslims. Some of the PFI members who were at the forefront of the protests have also been arrested.

In recent months, Karnataka’s state government has also accused the group of instigating protests against a decision by authorities in February to bar students from wearing hijab. Rights groups have criticised the hijab ban as “discriminatory”.

Muslims comprise 14 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population. Members of the community said they have been facing rising hostilities amid a climate of fear due to what they described as the “impunity enjoyed by Hindu supremacist forces”.

Under the act, individuals could be jailed for years without being proven guilty. The law has stringent bail provisions.

In March 2019, UAPA was invoked to ban Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a pro-independence group, and Jama Jamaat-e-Islami, a socioreligious political organisation in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Observers said the ban on PFI was similar to the one imposed on another Muslim group, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was outlawed by the Indian government banned in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Dozens of alleged members of the group were arrested under UAPA, but were freed years later after the court said the prosecution was unable to produce evidence against them.

Mehmood Pracha, a New-Delhi based lawyer, said the move against the PFI “is only a concerted effort to convert India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu Nation ‘… that is their [government’s] idea and everything is working in that direction”.

He added that the PFI “has declared policies on their website and in their literature that they follow the Constitution of India and they want to struggle under the Constitution of India to fight for the rights of the oppressed including Muslims.”

He noted that “the PFI may or may not have a hidden agenda that is the subject matter of investigation by the government.”

But Pracha pointed out that there are many Hindu right-wing organisations in India that call for violence against Muslims and seek to turn secular India into an exclusive Hindu state – without any action being taken against them.

“The government doesn’t think that these kinds of activities warrant sufficient banning of these bodies. So, unless the PFI has done more than this, then only the government will be justified in banning them. The threshold of the government admittedly is that the activities of [Hindu right-wing groups] do not warrant UAPA.”

Chekkutty, who is also a former editor of the PFI-owned Thejas newspaper, which stopped publication in 2018, termed the ban “a politically motivated calculation on the part of central government”.

“They [PFI] did make some mistakes; some PFI people were involved in the hand chopping of a college professor in Kerala. They were a number of other issues like involvement in violent cases. But they were isolated incidents,” Chekkutty said, denouncing what he described as an atmosphere of “Islamophobia” in India.

“This [PFI ban] is basically a political action for the coming election,” he added, referring to India’s next general vote in 2024.