By KARTIK LOKHANDE :
A lot of hue and cry is being raised over the imposition of a ban on the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its associates. The PFI, a controversial Muslim Group operates openly as a socio-economic, educational and political organisation, but clandestinely pursues an agenda to radicalise a particular section of the society has come under the purview of the NIA for the nefarious activities that it has been pursuing for a long time. For more details, read on...
Following the nation-wide raids and arrests, since the Government of India imposed a ban on Popular Front of India (PFI) and its associates, some elements have been raising a lot of hue and cry over the move. However, as the National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe and PFI’s activities in the past years reveal, the ban appears to be justified. In fact, there is more to this than what meets the eye. Whatever has come to fore, agencies feel, is just the tip of the iceberg and there is more to the PFI tale. The PFI was founded in the year 2006 in Kerala, with coming together of three organisations namely National Development Front (Kerala), Karnataka Forum for Dignity (Karnataka), and Manitha Neethi Pasarai (Tamil Nadu).
As has been mentioned in the notification through which PFI and its associates were banned recently, some of PFI’s founding members included leaders of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), a proscribed organisation. PFI came into being as SIMI 2.0 or a rebranded SIMI. Initially, PFI had its presence in Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. However, before it was banned recently, it had expanded its presence to 16 States of India with over 1.5 lakh members. PFI and its associates have figured in one or the other case that stirred the atmosphere in India. Further, PFI is found to have linkages with Jamaat-ulMujahideen Bangladesh, another proscribed organisation. Within India, there are reasons for the agencies to believe that PFI has links with banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Its spread raised an alarm due to its involvement in nefarious activities, stoking of communal sentiments, efforts to build bridges with proscribed organisations, reaching out to a Turkish organisation, and its literature influencing youngsters to join the terrorist organisation ISIS. With PFI and its associates banned, some of its supporters and sympathisers have tried to create disturbances and throw the normal life out of gear in Kerala and some other States. However, the peace-loving Indian Muslim intelligentsia rightly separated teachings of Islam from violent radical organisations like PFI. Hence, when PFI was banned, the Muslims who are homogenous with Indian society adopted a matured approach and dissociated themselves from radicals.
This reflected the Indian ethos of not supporting violence and extremism, and having a firm belief in the principles enshrined in the Constitution of India regarding national unity and integrity. The Government action is still continuing, and in days to come, the society will have to be alert to the efforts likely to be mounted by the supporters of extremism of PFI and the likes. Against this backdrop, it is essential to become aware of some curious dimensions of the PFI tale. The Turkish Link Apart from being SIMI 2.0 and having links with ISIS and Maoist front organisations, PFI faced allegations of having links with a ‘Turkish intelligence-linked jihadist charity group’. A ‘Nordic Monitor’ investigation report in November 2020 claimed that two key leaders of PFI namely E M Abdul Rahiman and Prof P Koya “were privately hosted (in 2018) in Istanbul by the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (Insan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve Insani Yardim Vakfi, or IHH), an Al-Qaedalinked Turkish charity”.
The same investigation report had stated, “The IHH was accused of smuggling arms to Al-Qaedaaffiliated jihadists in Syria in January 2014 in a counterterrorism investigation conducted by a prosecutor in Turkey’s eastern province of Van. The investigation into a Turkish al-Qaeda cell found that Ibrahim Sen, a top al-Qaeda operative who was detained in Pakistan and jailed in Guantanamo until 2005 before he was turned over to Turkey, his brother Abdurrahman Sen and others were sending arms, supplies and funds to Al-Qaeda groups in Syria with the help of Turkey’s intelligence service.” Earlier, in 2016, PFI had issued a statement endorsing Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish President having a firm hold on Turkish Intelligence, after a failed ‘coup attempt’ against him. Erdogan has been reaching out to Muslim communities in South-East Asia in a bid to revive the ‘Khilafat’ (Caliphate) system. Against this backdrop, the meeting between IHH and PFI raised many eyebrows. The Financial Model As the investigations have revealed, PFI is following the same methodology as that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which faced accusations from Saudi Arabia and other associated countries as well as from European countries. These countries have intensified efforts and mechanisms to curb the outflow of finances from their citizens, mainly through online transactions, to the Muslim Brotherhood. Payment of ‘Zakat’ (alms, as mandated by Islamic law) through cash is believed to be the largest source of financing to extremist organisations.
To understand the structured financing model followed by PFI, it is necessary to take a look at Muslim Brotherhood’s model. Since the inception of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, its founders and leaders worked to establish a global financial infrastructure. Its economic structure was founded on the collection of membership taxes and collection of ‘Zakat’. With its spread, the infrastructure became a significant source of money for the organisation. Facing crackdown from police and security forces in 1950, Muslim Brotherhood spread to various Arab nations, especially in the Gulf region; Europe etc. It established ‘regulatory agencies’ that initially co-ordinated worship for Muslim communities. In 1990s, several groups emerged with goals beyond stated cultural and social responsibilities. Some began pursuing business interests in what is known as ‘Halal trading’, through which revenues of local group affiliates skyrocketed.
The radical organisations target ordinary religious Muslims who believe in peaceful practice of faith, to pay ‘Zakat’ in cash to these organisations for the stated purposes. However, the radical organisations use that huge cash flow for other shady activities. Before The Ban According to the Intelligence sources, PFI is responsible for motivating two dozen persons from Kerala to join ISIS. As per one estimate, PFI is involved in over 1,300 criminal cases all over the country. In 2012, Kerala Government had told a court through a submission by C S Manilal, Senior Government Pleader, that PFI had ‘active involvement’ in 27 political murders in Kerala. PFI’s financial model also raised suspicion of the agencies regarding money laundering. Before the ban, PFI was under the Enforcement Directorate (ED) scanner in a money laundering case involving Rs 120 crore. Media reports reveal that PFI has been involved in various incidents reflecting radicalisation of its members. In 2010, PFI cadres chopped off a hand of Prof T J Joseph in Kerala. In 2015, NIA Special Court at Ernakulam pronounced judgment in this case, convicting 13 accused persons. A group of persons belonging to PFI, its political wing Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) were accused of organising a ‘terrorist camp’ at Narath in Kannur district of Kerala, where training was imparted to some youth in explosives and weapons use. The court convicted all 22 chargesheeted accused in that case. In 2016, NIA filed another case in which eight persons from Tamil Nadu and Kerala were chargesheeted for entering into a ‘criminal conspiracy to wage war against the Government of India’. NIA filed another case against three PFI members namely Sheikh Azhar Al Islam Abdul Sattar Sheikh, Mohammed Farhan Mohammed Rafiq Shaikh, Adnan Hussain Mohd Hussain, and their associates accusing them of involvement in ‘a conspiracy to identify, motivate, radicalise, recruit and train Indian citizens located in India and other countries for planning and executing terrorist attacks in India and in other friendly countries. In 2017, NIA registered one more case against PFI for supporting terrorist organisation Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/Daesh. PFI leaders were booked by NIA in 2019 for murder of a man named Ramalingam in Thanjavur district. In connection with the Bengaluru riots case, NIA arrested 17 members of SDPI and PFI. NIA took over probe related to violence at D J Halli Police Station in Bengaluru in August 2020, and arrested 187 people with links to PFI/SDPI. The name of PFI’s associate Campus Front of India (CFI) appeared in the Karnataka Hijab row too.
In 2020, ED arrested K A Rauf Sherif, CFI National General Secretary. Later, in February 2021, ED filed a money laundering case chargesheet against five office-bearers of PFI and CFI including K A Rauf Sherif. The ED is conducting probe in multiple cases involving PFI. These include antiCitizenship Amendment Act (CAA) stir, riots in north-east Delhi, and a foreign funding case in 2018. In November 2020, the ED had tweeted that it was ‘investigating financial links between PFI and Bhim Army on the basis of credible evidence recovered from senior PFI officials’. National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO), an associate of PFI, also had come under scanner over its links with the alleged front organisation of the banned CPI (Maoist), in Maharashtra. Apart from Central agencies, PFI and its associates were under scanner of State agencies in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala etc. PFI has various associates including Rehab India Foundation, CFI, All India Imams Council, NCHRO, National Women’s Front, Junior Front, Empower India Foundation, and Rehab Foundation Kerala. All of these have been declared ‘unlawful associations’ now. More recently came the reports that PFI had infiltrated in Kerala Police and there were a few hundred of personnel passing on information of various nature to the PFI. Such infiltration in security forces calls for a deeper scrutiny, as such type of modus operandi of radical organisations spells danger to nation’s unity and integrity. Not All Muslims Support PFI Despite its sustained efforts at radicalisation of Muslims, not all Muslims fall prey to PFI’s agenda. What separates Indian Muslims from others the world over is syncretism. Apart from peace-loving Muslims, some organisations also cautioned their members against falling prey to PFI’s designs. An organisation, Sufi Islamic Board (SIB), has been campaigning against PFI and its wings for years now. In the month of May earlier this year (2022), the SIB wrote to Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, complaining that it had received threats from the Party of Islamic Renewal. In the letter, SIB stated that ‘International Terrorist Al Massari of AlQaeda, who is Secretary General of the Party of Islamic Renewal’ had extended support to Islamic National Co-ordination Movement of India whose meeting in Mumbai was attended by several prominent Muslim leaders, and also by Anis Ahmed, General Secretary of PFI. Referring to it, the SIB had demanded in May 2022 that PFI should be banned across India. More recently, the Party of Islamic Renewal issued a letter addressed to the PFI appealing the latter to ‘disregard bans and reorganise into a revolutionary army’.
In this letter, the Party of Islamic Renewal appealed to PFI that groups like Sufi Islamic Board should be ‘dismissed as munafiq kaffirs’. “If war should erupt, and if they aid the enemies of Islam and Muslims, either militarily or through propaganda, then they can be treated as harbi/warrior munafiq kaffir forces and can be engaged militarily, along with other forces engaged in the oppression of Muslims,” stated the letter issued by the Party of Islamic Renewal. Despite this, the organisations like SIB have continued their fight against radicalism. Also, though many of the peace-loving Muslims are yet to muster courage to openly condemn radicals, they have maintained silent support to the action against such forces. The Maoist Link There are inputs compelling the Intelligence and security agencies to suspect that PFI had direct/ indirect links with the banned Left Wing Extremist organisation - Communist Party of India (Maoist). In July 2018, South Asia Terrorism Portal cited a report on a website Swarajya regarding PFI joining hands with organisations linked to CPI (Maoist) to target the Government in Jharkhand. The report quoted that Ministry of Home Affairs had inputs that Rona Wilson, Secretary of Committee for Release of Political Prisoners, (who was arrested on charges of Maoist links) had met officials and ministers in Jharkhand along with a woman asking them to lift the ban imposed on PFI and Maoist affiliate Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti. PFI and the Maoist front organisations had espoused causes of each other. Even in Maharashtra, PFI had facilitated organising a meeting of ‘like-minded’ organisations some years ago. That meeting was attended by some individuals who were accused of Maoist links. Further, PFI affiliate NCHRO had constituted its Maharashtra executive, which had names of individuals who were named as accused in ‘Elgaar Parishad’ case by Pune Police for alleged links with CPI (Maoist). Earlier this month, on October 3, CPI (Maoist) Central Committee spokesperson by the name ‘Abhay’ issued a statement seeking to revoke ban on PFI and its affiliates. Apart from accusing the Government of India of trying to create ‘Islamophobia’, the Maoist spokesperson referred to a ban on certain social media accounts and YouTube channels in the past some time. Interestingly, the Government of India mostly banned the Pakistani and Chinese propagandist accounts and channels that were spewing venom against India. The Maoist spokesperson’s statement, thus, indicates who this banned organisation supports.
Also, he urged the ‘people’s organisations’ and ‘democratic organisations’ (here, these terms indicate Maoist fronts and organisations that get carried away by Maoist propaganda), to raise voice against ‘ban culture’. The Maoist support to radical Islamist PFI and its associates cements the suspicion of the security and Intelligence agencies that PFI and Maoist had, and may still have, links. For, both are now banned organisations with anti-India violent extremist agenda