Activists of the PFI staging a protest in Mangaluru in this file photo.(Sudipto Mondal/HT)
Activists of the PFI staging a protest in Mangaluru in this file photo.(Sudipto Mondal/HT)

The story of Popular Front of India and reason behind its growth

PFI’s growth is phenomenal, admit intelligence agencies, saying it successfully exploited a growing vacuum in the community donning the role of a saviour.
By Ramesh Babu | Thiruvananthapuram
UPDATED ON JAN 29, 2020 11:26 AM IST

In 2016, when the National Investigation Agency (NIA) sleuths swooped down on a clandestine meeting in north Kerala’s Kanakamala in Kannur, they were in for a shock. Inspired by the terror outfit Islamic State (IS), a group of youngsters had allegedly formed a collective called ‘Al Zarul Khallefa’ to wage war against the country and foment trouble between different communities.

And later, the NIA had named it as the first IS module in Kerala. The central agency later found that some of those arrested were members of the Popular Front of India (PFI). A couple of months after this, at least 22 people, including women and children, disappeared from a north Kerala village; intelligence officials believe they joined the IS in Afghanistan.

After every round of communal trouble or busting of a terror module in the country, usually a name crops up these days - the Popular Front of India. After the raging protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, and violence that followed, its name is back on intelligence radar. The demand for ban on PFI, which is often accused of radicalising Muslim youth and maintaining a steady relationship with some of the anti-national outfits, is getting louder now.

But how did this organisation come up and what is the reason behind its pan-India presence in a short time? The Popular Front of India (PFI) was launched in Kerala in 2006 after merging three Muslim organizations floated after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 - the National Development Front of Kerala, Karnataka Forum for Dignity and Manitha Neethi Pasari of Tamil Nadu. After the demolition of the Babri mosque, many fringe outfits had surfaced in south India and PFI was formed after merging some of them.

Now the PFI claims it has units in 22 states. Its growth is phenomenal, admit intelligence agencies, saying it successfully exploited a growing vacuum in the community donning the role of a saviour. The successful portrayal of the image helps PFI to mobilise funds, especially from the rich middle-eastern countries. The PFI’s earlier headquarters was in Kozhikode, but after broadening of its base, it was shifted to Delhi. PFI’s state president Nasaruddin Elamarom is one of the founding leaders of the outfit. And its all-India president E Abubaker also hails from Kerala.

In Kerala, most of its erstwhile leaders were members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The PFI describes itself as a neo-social movement committed to empower people belonging to the minority communities, Dalits and other weaker sections of the society. In Kerala, a retired professor P Koya is considered as the tallest leader of the organisation.

PFI has uniform and often conducts drills at public places. In 2013, the Kerala government had banned its freedom parade which it conducts on Independence Day every year after the police found its cadres were carrying stars and emblems on the uniform. On February 17 every year, it conducts unity marches in all district headquarters. It has cadre training centres in many districts and usually associates with many human rights organisations to get a sombre face, police officials say.

Since its inception, the outfit had been mired in many clashes and political murders. It was allegedly involved in at least 30 political murders in Kerala. In 2015, 13 of its workers were awarded life-term for chopping the palm of a college professor T J Joseph who prepared a question paper alleged to be blasphemous. Two years ago, six PFI activists were held in connection with the murder of an ABVP leader in Kannur and nine were arrested for allegedly killing SFI leader Abhimanyu in Maharajas College in Ernakulam last year.

In 2014, the Kerala government had submitted an affidavit in the High Court saying its activists were involved in at least 27 political murders, 86 attempt to murder cases and more than 125 cases for whipping up communal passions.

When Hadiya Jehan case came up two years ago, Hadiya alias Akhila’s father K Asokan had alleged that her husband Shefin Jehan was an active member of the PFI. Police later found that Akihla was converted in Sathya Sarani, a religious school being controlled by the PFI in Malappuram district. Its name had also cropped up in alleged cases of “love jihad” (an alleged activity through which girls belonging to one community are converted by feigning love).

“The PFI’s belligerent and militant position on many issues attracted a lot of youngsters to it. To weaken the Muslim League, considered to be a secular party, some of the mainline political parties including CPI(M) supported it on several occasions. Now it has grown into a formidable force,” said a political observer of north Kerala who did not want to be identified.

But the PFI dismisses these allegations, saying most of the recent campaigns were aimed at distracting attention from burning issues. “Now some TV channels and political parties are in a race to blame the PFI. They need a scapegoat and want to divert attention,” said state general secretary of C P Muhammad Basheer. He said the recent statement of Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad that PFI cadres were seen on frontlines of anti-CAA protest in Uttar Pradesh was a big joke.

“We don’t need any certificate from anyone. We strongly believe in Constitution of the country and its democracy. ‘Live with dignity and without fear’ is our motto. We are here to empower the Muslim community,” he said.

“You can’t blame PFI citing minor aberrations,” said Basheer adding that the latest campaign was orchestrated one and it won’t succeed. He also dismissed reports that the PFI regularly conducts arms training for its cadres.

In PFI organizational structure ‘unit’ is the lowest followed by ‘area’ and ‘division’ and at the state level, the state executive council is the highest body. The party said in every three years it conducts elections to select office-bearers.

In Kerala, the PFI also has a women wing, the National Women’s Front, student wing Campus Front of India and a political party Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). In 2016 assembly elections, SDPI had contested in many seats but managed less than one per cent of votes in the state. It has tried its best to seize the support base of the Muslim League, an ally of the Congress for many years, but failed to yield results.

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