‘Foreign’ links of Popular Front of India under scanner

Updated on Jan 10, 2020 07:48 AM IST

The group linked to UP violence gets funding from abroad, according to MHA dossier; PFI says it works for the marginalised and minorities

Vehicles set on fire next to a police post after demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, and a proposed all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) turned violent in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on December 19, 2019.(HT File Photo)
Vehicles set on fire next to a police post after demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, and a proposed all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) turned violent in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on December 19, 2019.(HT File Photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

In the eye of a storm for its alleged role in anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, protests that turned violent, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, the Popular Front of India (PFI) gets significant funding through its multiple front organisations in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, according to a dossier put together by the ministry of home affairs that was reviewed by HT.

The Uttar Pradesh police arrested around 25 PFI functionaries and activists for their alleged role in violent anti-CAA protests in Meerut, Shamli, Muzzafarnagar and Lucknow on December 19. Nineteen people have died in Uttar Pradesh in clashes between the police and protesters. Last week, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said PFI may have played a part in the violence surrounding some protests, and that the Union home ministry will decide on the action to be taken against the organisation “based on evidence”.

He also spoke of a linkage between PFI to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI.

Uttar Pradesh has written to the home ministry seeking a ban on PFI, and there are reports that Karnataka and Assam have followed suit.

PFI’s top leadership largely comes from Kerala and the organisation allegedly radicalises Muslims towards the ultra-conservative Salafi strain of Islam.

The organisation rejected the allegation. “In PFI, there is no Salafi or Sufi Islam, there’s only Islam . It is the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] that is trying to create divisions among Muslims,” said CA Raoof, the spokesperson of PFI’s Kerala unit.

Mujahid Pasha , a senior member of PFI’s political group — the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI)— said they do not promote an “extreme and orthodox” form of Salafi Islam. “SDPI, PFI are easy scapegoats that are blamed for all the ills in the society. We work with minorities, backward classes and others who are marginalised,” he said.

According to the home ministry dossier, PFI members actively operate in the UAE through front organisations such as the Rehab Foundation, the Indian Social Forum, and Indian Fraternity Forum. PFI leaders maintain an office at Muraba, behind Lulu hypermarket in Al Ain in Dubai, and are active in spreading Islamic fundamentalism and raising funds to be sent to India, the dossier adds.

The Indian Fraternity Forum in Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia is also involved in raising funds for it, the dossier says. “Senior PFI leaders visit these countries and urge members to facilitate in jobs to Indian Muslims so that the base of the organisation expands along with the funds flow,” said a senior government official involved in tracking radicalisation, who asked not to be named.

From a radical Islamist organisation formed on November 22, 2006 by the merger of three groups— Karnataka Forum for Dignity, National Development Fund (Kerala) and Manitha Neethi Pasarai (Tamil Nadu) -- PFI today has grown into a large network, with at least 80,000 cadres and a presence in 24 Indian states, according to the dossier.

The dossier describes PFI as a successor to the banned SIMI, and says it is defined largely by the radical Islamic ideology of its progenitor and is allegedly involved in large number of murders, particularly in Kerala, apart from many instances of criminal intimidation and rioting, the dossier states.

Significantly, the dossier says that PFI runs an outfit named PFI Youth Wing (Mao) in coalition with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) with members of this group tasked to coordinate with underground Maoist workers in southern India. This came out clearly during the investigation that led to the killing of CP Jaleel, who was involved in an extortion racket in Wayanad, Kerala, in a police encounter on March 6, 2019. The BJP’s Thrissur secretary, Shaju Wadakancherry, was attacked and threatened by PFI members on June 17, 2019 after they set his vehicle on fire. Three other BJP/RSS activists died unnatural deaths in 2019 in Kerala with the PFI suspected to be behind the hit-and-run incidents, the dossier claims.

According to home ministry officials who asked not to be named, Ulhuman Saidmohammed of Thrissur, Kerala, is a PFI activists who works as a teacher in the Maldives, serves as the group administrator for many anti-India WhatsApp groups, and is known to target Hindus and Christians in the Maldives by framing them in blasphemy cases in collusion with state authorities. However, PFI’s Raoof said they do not have any member by that name in Thrissur. An 18-member PFI group was allegedly behind the brutal murder of Pattali Makkal Katchi leader Ramalingam on February 5, 2019, in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. NIA has already issued lookout notices for six accused PFI men who are absconding the case.

The advertised goals of PFI are to promote national integration, and communal and social harmony while upholding the democratic setup, secular order, and rule of law in the country. The organisation says it works towards social, economic and educational development of the minorities and backward classes, in addition to the welfare and progress of the weaker sections in various parts of India.

According to the home ministry officials, however, PFI has a secret apparatus that is trained in the use of explosives, arms and ammunition. In July 2010, the Kerala police unearthed countrymade bombs, weapons, compact disks and documents containing pro-Taliban and al Qaeda literature. In April 2013, the Kerala police raided PFI centres across the state including a training camp in Narath, Kannur and seized weapons, foreign currency, shooting targets, bombs, bomb making materials and swords. A special NIA court in Kochi on January 20, 2016 convicted 21 PFI cadre arrested during the raid on the Narath camp.

The Kerala police submitted an affidavit before the state high court in 2014, where it claimed that PFI activists were involved in 27 communally motivated murders, 85 attempts to murder, and 106 communal cases registered in the state.

PFI also takes pan-Islamic positions time and again with its cadre protesting outside the Egyptian Embassy in New Delhi in 2015 against the death sentence given to Mohammed Morsi (affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood) and his followers. According to the dossier, the group also has a pronounced anti-Zionist stance as seen in pro-Palestine protests in various parts of country in November 2012 and later in July 2014 with nationwide solidarity campaigns christened: “ I am Gaza.”

PFI has established external affiliates in West Asia for financial and political support so that political shelter is available for its leadership should the need arises, the home ministry officials said.

PFI and SDPI have benefitted from Saudi financial support with the group also involved in radicalising Muslim Keralites towards the so-called Islamic State according to the dossier.

The India Fraternity Forum, a front formed in 2008, is the most important conduit for PFI’s fund-raising efforts targeted at Indian Muslim expatriates in West Asia, including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. In these countries, the group not only collects funds but also recruits cadres and mobilises political support. In the pretext of providing assistance to Indian Haj pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, the PFI recruits cadres for political work and expansion in India, the dossier said.

The group is also involved in proselytising activities both in India and among Indian expats in West Asia.

Another front, the Indian Cultural Society in UAE, regularly holds meetings under the pretext of blood donation camps, free medical check -ups, sports events, jobs and legal assistance, claims the dossier. In these gatherings, according to Indian intelligence officials, anti-India and anti-state sentiments are propagated.

Indian Cultural Society and India Fraternity Forum did not reply to HT’s queries. SDPI member Pasha denied having any links with the two organisations. “I am not aware of the Indian Fraternity Forum or the Indian Cultural Society being mentioned...Internationally we might have worked with social forums wherever Indians are present... I don’t know why PFI and SDPI are being blamed for various things,” he said.

The Qatar Indian Social Forum was formed in December 2014 to raise funding and organise the cadre. The Rehab India Foundation, another alleged front, has selected a number of Muslim-dominated villages in the country and channels Qatari funding to them, according to the dossier. Similarly, the Kerala wing of PFI is active in Oman especially in the country’s commercial capital Ruwi; it is known to operate in different locations under different names such as Pravasi Vicharana Vedi, and Indian Pravasi Council with an aim to propagate radical ideology among Malayali Muslim expats, the dossier says. The Indian Cultural Society, Abu Dhabi is the overseas wing of SDPI while there is a Kuwaiti chapter of Indian Social Forum with the same aim of spreading Salafi ideology, the dossier adds.

Qatar Indian Social Forum and Rehab India Foundation did not reply to written queries from HT.

The Muslim Relief Network (MRN), a Kerala based NGO floated by the PFI, is yet another entity through which the radical group mobilises funds especially from West Asia. MRN receives donations from Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah under the mandate of the Organisation of Islamic Countries and has links with the Jeddah based World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), a radical Islamic organisation linked to al Qaeda in the past.

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    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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