NEW DELHI: In a multi-state operation that was in play for weeks, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the nodal body to carry out anti-terror operations in India, with the support of several similar agencies, arrested 45 people associated with the Popular Front of India (PFI) in raids across 15 states and 93 locations, on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. The enormity of this operation, which is being described as India’s largest raid, is an illustration of how deep the roots of the PFI have reached.
Nineteen accused were arrested from Kerala, 11 from Tamil Nadu, seven from Karnataka, four from Andhra Pradesh, two from Rajasthan, and one each from Uttar Pradesh and Telangana. As on date, the NIA is investigating a total of 19 PFI related cases. The first call to take notice of PFI arose exactly 11 years ago, when it was an organisation that was limited to Kerala and had started to spread its reach in other parts of India.
It was more than 11 years ago, when its name was first discussed among the police and intelligence officials at the three-day conference of Directors-General of Police and Inspectors-General of Police (DGP and IGP) at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi that started on 15 September 2011. Among the inputs that were discussed during those three days, was one that was generated by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and which talked about, among other things, PFI operating camps in the forests of Kerala where members were being given training to use sharp-edged weapons and assemble crude bombs. The IB report, considering that its report would be placed at the national level event with officials from multiple agencies and officials from across the state participating in it, had clear cut details and apprehensions about the danger posed by the PFI. It also mentioned how PFI was likely to become a national “movement”, which also explained its decision to shift its base to Delhi.
At the time, the IB had stated that the PFI was recruiting college going people and unemployed youth by telling them about the “atrocities” that were being carried out by the government against Muslims. The report had further stated that it was trying to develop links with human rights groups, left wing extremist elements and various Dalit bodies and trying to acquire a political platform by way of organising “freedom” parades.
At the time, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which is described as a party that practises a “secular” approach, was in power and yet the narrative that the PFI was selling to the gullible youth was the same as the one it is using now, when the BJP, which is defined as a “right wing” party, is in power. The message was, “the Indian state is against Muslims” and hence an “assertive Islamic society” was needed.
Eleven years later, almost all the concerns regarding the PFI that were raised by the IB then, have proven to be correct. And now the PFI, according to officials tracking the organisation, has become an organisation that has enormous manpower, clout and money. After the arrest of its members last week, the organisation was able to enforce successfully a shutdown in many parts of the country, especially in South India, which is an indication of how deep its influence is. This has led to questions on whether last week’s action came too late.
The first official meeting, involving all political and executive heads concerned, that gave the green signal to crack down on PFI was held on 29 August and then a similar meeting was held on 19 September, where the modalities were finalised. Among those who were present in these meetings included Home Minister Amit Shah, who asked the agencies to move only after securing credible evidence that would stand the scrutiny of the courts at every level. Sources said that a ban on PFI was the next logical step.
The PFI, officials say, has been present at every event of disturbance that the country has witnessed in the recent times including the anti-CAA protests, farm laws protests, NRC protests in Assam, protests against the promulgation of Article 370, the hijab ban protests, the Nupur Sharma statement controversy and most recently, in the protests against the Agniveer Army recruitment scheme. And none of these protests passed off peacefully—there was violence in each and every protest. “Whenever there is disturbance and violence, we find the presence of PFI or the SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India, PFI’s political arm), directly or indirectly, in it. It is like they are everywhere. They are like a professional company which is on hire to carry out disturbance and disturb law and order, all in the name of ‘raising voice’ against Muslim atrocities,” an official claimed.
SDPI, which was formed in 2009, has made impressive political gains in recent times. In July, three of its candidates won councillor elections from Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh, which witnessed communal tensions in May this year. In Karnataka, it won six seats in the local polls. In Kerala, it won 102 seats in the 2020 local polls. Similarly, it has a strong political wing in Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand, among other states.
PFI was formed in December 2006 after the merger of three prominent Kerala-based Islamic organisations, National Development Front, Manitha Neethi Pasarai and Karnataka Forum for Dignity. It first grabbed the headlines in 2010 when its members chopped off the hand of a professor in Kerala for “blasphemy”. The right hand of the 53-year-old T.J. Joseph, Professor and Head of Department of Malayalam at Newman College, Thodupuzha, was chopped off in July 2010 near his house at Muvattupuzha. Interestingly, one of the prominent members of the PFI is Professor P. Koya, who earlier taught English at Government Arts and Science College, Kozhikode. Koya was arrested by the NIA last week.
Joseph was at the time under suspension for making an allegedly blasphemous remark in a question paper he had prepared for undergraduate students. He was then arrested in April by the police and later released on bail. Thirteen people, all members of the PFI, were found to be involved in the assault and all of them had burst crackers before and after the assault. In March 2014, Joseph’s wife Salomi committed suicide to escape poverty that was induced by his husband’s unemployment.
Joseph, against whom a criminal case was filed for causing communal disharmony, was acquitted by the court in November 2013. Later, the college allowed him to rejoin his service, where he served till 2015. “The PFI cadre are asked to be ruthless, they have seldom allowed their targets to walk out alive once they decide to kill him,” said another official who has been tracking the PFI. The call for banning the PFI in order to stop its spread is also related to its aspirations to reach out to people in other countries who sympathise with its policies.
On 10 May 2011, an Indian national, Mohammed Niaz Abdul Rasheed, a mechanical engineer, was arrested by the French intelligence agency, General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), along with seven others, for his terror links. Later, it emerged that Niaz was recruiting people for the PFI. He was described by then French interior minister, Claude Gueant, as a man with a high level of technical training. Gueant had said that Niaz, a resident of Madurai, Kerala, was the main target of the entire DGSI operation. The other members of this group were French, French of Moroccan origin, Turkish and one Pakistani French national.
Niaz, who arrived in France in 2008, had created an extensive network of highly radicalized local Muslim youths and his name cropped up on the radar of the DGSI due to his frequent trips to Pakistan, which he did via Algeria. He was sent to eight years in prison by the French court in October 2013, while the rest were sentenced to between 18 months and five years.
Niaz was also accused of arranging the travel of two Frenchmen to Pakistan who were arrested in Lahore in February 2011 by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. The two French nationals of Pakistani origin, Sharaf Din and Zohaib Afzal, were arrested for suspected links to Al Qaeda. “PFI is very strongly entrenched in multiple countries and it is getting monetary assistance from its local cadre who are based in Gulf countries. Frankly speaking, it is a huge task (to tackle PFI) the agencies have in hand,” the official quoted above said. While reacting to the NIA’s action, the PFI, in a statement, said that it “condemns the nationwide raids by the NIA and ED, the unjust arrests and the harassment of its national and state leaders across India, and the witch-hunt against the members, and supporters of the organisation”.