Long Read - Understanding the PFI Challenge Faced by India


Image of the document recovered in Bihar (Photo Source: Bihar Police)
Popular Front of India's Pamphlet Spreading Radicalism (courtesy: ANI)


(Warning - Long Read)

News cycles this week are claiming to be horrified about the Popular Front of India (PFI) being caught training people in dealing with weapons and its pamphlet for making India an Islamic nation by 2047. However, those who have followed the organization know very well that there is nothing new about this. I had in the wake of the Delhi Riots of 2020 pointed out the troublesome body that is PFI. The very umbrella of a radical ideology, the disturbing signs about the origanization have been all too clear for the observers. In this long essay, written and published in different parts in 2020 and now compiled for the first time, I present my observations of that time, which have only been further reaffirmed. There is only one solution - ban the organization. Unlike the mistakes made at the time of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), the intelligence network is far more equipped and determined, and can crush any attempts at revival.

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(Image Courtesy: DNA)

 

As the investigations on the Delhi Violence has been progressing rapidly, arrests have been made on a large scale by the Delhi Police based on thorough scientific investigation. However, right from the anti-CAA protests in December 2019, as the Home Minister of India Mr. Amit Shah had pointed out, right up to the aftermath of the riots in February 2020, the name of one organization – Popular Front of India (PFI) – has repeatedly surfaced in various ways. In this article, we will put out the manner in which PFI and its affiliate organizations have engaged in falsehoods, spread myths about CAA, and have funded protests that eventually took violent turns, including the north-east Delhi riots.

In this piece, we take a brief look at the role of PFI in virulent anti-CAA protests between December 2019 and February 2020, and examine how an environment of intimidation was created by the organization using violence and murder tactics.

Initiating the anti-CAA Protests and PFI’s Presence in Shaheen Bagh

From the very inception of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, PFI had been aggressively opposed to the move to grant citizenship to the persecuted non-Muslim minorities of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who escaped persecution and entered India before December 2014. As per the handbill on the issue as seen on the website of PFI,

“Muslims are left out. The government claims that people of these six faiths have faced persecution in these three Islamic countries, Muslims haven’t. The CAA is not about people facing persecution, as migrants from other countries — such as Tamils from Sri Lanka or Rohingyan Muslims from Myanmar are not eligible to apply for citizenship under this act…” 

With a total disregard, the pamphlet claims that Muslims in India are now second-class citizens.

It was from 15 December 2019 that the sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh started, led by Muslim women. Interestingly, the PFI’s head office is located right next to the sit-in site, as per the address on the handbill. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the media reported on 6 February 2020, quoting officials of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) that PFI was funding the anti-CAA protest at Shaheen Bagh. Further, as we had reported back then, PFI leaders had been in regular touch with several Congress and AAP leaders.

Links of PFI With Anti-CAA Violence in North India

This was not the only link of PFI to anti-CAA protests. Earlier, the ED had found a link between violent protests in Uttar Pradesh and PFI. As reported by us, statements had been recorded by the ED of at least six members associated with the PFI and the Rehab India Foundation members in connection with cases involving the funding of anti-CAA protests. Further, none of the six persons, grilled for several hours, were able to explain the transactions that took place during the violent protests.

SDPI State President for Madhya Pradesh Irfan ul Haque Ansari was also arrested by the Madhya Pradesh Police for inciting violence in Jabalpur anti-CAA protests that happened in December 2019. Curfew had to be imposed in some areas of Jabalpur city between 20-22 December 2019 after violence during protests against the CAA, with protesters pelting stones, clashing with police and indulging in destruction of property.

Fanning Protests, Perpetrating Violence in South India via anti-CAA protests

The PFI and its political affiliate the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) have been coordinating protests extensively across South India, with many a controversial statement being made from the platforms. In one example, in a speech delivered during an anti-CAA protest in early February 2020, an SDPI leader had spread fake news among the audience about the UP police shooting dead a one-year old baby.

Karnataka saw the violent face of the anti-CAA protestors, when the case of Varun Bopala’s murder surfaced in December 2019. The Police arrested six SDPI activists for the attempted murder of Bopala, who was coming back from attending a pro-CAA rally. However, the real targets were Bengaluru South Member of Parliament (MP) Tejaswi Surya and prominent social activist Chakravarthy Sulibele, both of whom were attending the rally. The arrested had reportedly pelted stones to scatter the crowd during the event in order to carry out their murder plot but failed in that attempt. Later when they saw Varun leaving the crowd, they followed him and assaulted him. They later fled the spot on their motor bikes. Even in Mangaluru, violent protests had been witnessed in December 2019, with massive damage to property was reported. The police had allegedly identified the role of the PFI in these protests.

Kerala had also witnessed violent Islamist protests coordinated by PFI and SDPI. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had on the floor of the state assembly had alleged that the anti-CAA protests in the state had taken an ugly violent turn because some vested interests have penetrated in the anti CAA demonstrations. He blamed SDPI, PFI’s political wing. It is ironic, since in 2018 Vijayan had upon being asked about recommending a ban on PFI, categorically denied the consideration, and had instead argued that it was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that needed to be banned.

Links with the Violence in Delhi?

Subsequent to the Delhi riots, the Delhi Police arrested PFI’s Delhi unit president Parvez Ahmed and its secretary Mohammad Illiyas on 12 March 2020 for allegedly funding the riots and fanning violence across Delhi during anti-CAA protests. The Police had also earlier arrested Danish Khan, a secretary of the PFI.

Further, The Special Cell claimed to have clinching evidence about PFI spreading fake propaganda and fanning violence during the anti-CAA protests. One PFI member arrested earlier, Danish, handled the outfit’s intelligence wing and was spotted at all major protests in the city, and his interrogation revealed the PFI’s information warfare tactics, a police official told the Times of India.

It must be remembered that it all began with an anti-CAA sit in attempt at Jaffrabad on 22 February 2020 without police permission. Occupation of the roads, forced closure of metro station entry-exit and the consequent attempt to set up a podium to create another permanent sit-in like Shaheen Bagh was attempted by the protestors, led by Muslim women.

Given the serious charges against the organization, it is important to note that the investigative agencies have always kept the organization under the scanner. The organization first shot to notoriety with the chopping of Professor P T Joseph’s hand in Kerala for blasphemy. Since then, members of the organization were also convicted for running terror training camps in Kerala. In recent times, the organization has also been under the radar of investigative agencies for its alleged links with the Islamic terror group ISIS, with several people linked to the organization directly or indirectly being arrested.

Global Underpinning of PFI Ideology

The PFI rhetoric today is shrouded by the label of Islamophobia. Sample this from a 2017 speech delivered by E Abubacker, the National Chairman of the PFI, a copy of which is uploaded on their website.

Islamophobia is being purposefully created in this world. Islam and Muslims are being projected as ‘the other’. Alliances are being formed accordingly. A post-truth axis comprised of American evangelists, Israeli Zionists and Hindutwa fascists has come into being. They were also joined by some followers of Buddhism which is widely held as an ideology of non-violence. They all together have created a colossal exodus of refugees throughout the world. To make their job easier, they created mysterious groups like ISIS. They lure Muslim youth to join such organizations using secret agents.

This Zionist-Hindutwa conspiracy angle is not unique to PFI and SDPI – the conspiracy of the Hindus and Jews against Muslims is textbook Pakistani establishment rhetoric, in itself borrowing from the Arab Jewish conspiracy goose chase. Sample this from a piece written for the Mint by Aakar Patel of Amnesty International back in 2012:

One of the most repeated words in Pakistani media is “saazish” (conspiracy). Conspiracies are usually the doing of “Yahood-o-Hanood (Jews and Hindus)”, besides of course “Amrika”.

This lunacy has no bounds. Nawaiwaqt’s Muhammad Ajmal Niazi once abused Geo News for being too soft on the West. Niazi did not refer to Geo by name, but said he meant the channel “jiska naam Yahoodi say milta hai” (whose name resembles “Jew”).

Pakistanis see the Hindu’s evil hand in many things, including in acts that harmed India. Ajmal Kasab is not really Pakistani, but the Indian agent Amar Singh. This is the analysis of Zaid Hamid, who appears in his red beret as strategic affairs expert on Dawn News, Aaj TV, Dunya News and Samaa TV. He champions Ghazwa-e-Hind, a prophecy predicting Muslim conquest of India.

Links to puritanical versions of Islam is not a new allegation. In 2013, Sultan Shahin, the editor of New Age Islam, had categorically named PFI as a body influenced by the fanatical Wahhabi Islamic ideology practiced in Saudi Arabia. Shahin had noted that the PFI was seen as an offshoot of the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which functioned as a student movement but bracketed Islam within the strict codes of Wahhabism.

The allegiance to an international Islamist agenda becomes clearer when one sees documents uploaded on the PFI site. A scan on the statements issued by PFI on international matters between January and December 2017 on the website is a good insight into the thinking of the organization’s leadership. Here are a few samples:

Condemning the US Ban on Immigrants from Muslim Countries in January 2017

PFI had strongly condemned the executive order of US president Donald Trump banning immigration of people from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Yemen. As per the Chairman’s statement, “this travel ban on people belonging to Muslim dominated countries is an insanely racist decision and stands diametrically in opposition to the principles of religious liberty, equality and pluralism that America has been boasting the country stands for.”

Against the atrocities on Rohingya Muslims in August 2017

The Central Secretariat of PFI “condemned the genocidal attacks on Rohingya Muslims and urged the international community to act against the atrocities being perpetrated by Myanmar Security forces and state supported Buddhist militias.”

Uncomfortable Linkages With ISIS and Sri Lanka Easter Bombings

In June 2019, the NIA had busted an ISIS terror module in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and arrested the TN-Kerala ISIS module mastermind, Mohammed Azarudeen. Azarudeen was a Facebook friend of the Sri Lankan Easter bombings’ suicide bomber Zahran Hashim. Through a Facebook page named “KhilafahGFX”, Azarudeen had been propagating the ideology of ISIS as per the agency.

What caught the special attention, besides pellet gun bullets, mobiles and sim cards was the large number of incriminating documents and few pamphlets of PFI and SDPI. The NIA had earlier uncovered links between Zahran Hashim and Riyaz Aboobacker who was arrested on 30 April 2019 in Kerala in connection to the Sri Lanka Easter blasts.

This was certainly not an isolated point of connection. Republic TV on 14 June 2019 had revealed that NIA documents it had accessed demonstrated a link between ISIS India modules and PFI in four cases – ISIS Kannur and ISIS Valapattanam case registered in 2017, ISIS Chennai module and ISIS Omar Al Hindi registered in 2016. Clearly, the organization has far more to explain for than just the bigotry and the violence it has been perpetrating in India.

ISIS seems to be more deeply connected with PFI than perceived by many. In 2017, the Kerala Police had released a press statement, where they claimed to have identified six PFI activists – Abdul Ghayoom, Abdul Manaf, Shabeer, Suhail and his wife Rizwana, and Safwan – from Kannur district who have joined the Islamic State. The statement said that all six men were active as PFI activists in the state, and that these men managed to move out of India, possibly to Syria, with fake passports. Even in the social media space, Kabir Taneja and Mohammed Sinan Siyech of the Observer Research Foundation had found youths working with PFI propagating pro-IS chats on Facebook in Malayalam.

Funding from Gulf Countries, Inflaming Passions in Diaspora – a Red Alert

From January 2020, the PFI has been under the scanner of the Home Ministry, especially for its funding. As per a dossier of the Ministry, PFI gets significant funding through its multiple front organisations in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman as reported by the Hindustan Times.

As per the dossier, PFI actively operates in UAE via 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. The Indian Fraternity Forum in Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia is also involved in raising funds for it. The story quoted anonymous ministry officials stating that 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. One evidence of the close links can be seen in the condolence meeting conducted to mourn the demise of A. Sayeed, former national president of Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI).

Another event by the India Fraternity Forum called for the ‘abolition of uniform civil code’, restoration of Muslim personal law, and saw open advocacy for the PFI. As per this report, the National Executive member of PFI, Advocate A Mohamed Yusuff said that

Any effort to destroy the diversities and impose uniformity by force will cause to drain the trust of minorities and raise mistrust between the communities. The dissatisfaction and mistrust so emerging will ultimately lead the nation to disintegration. There are reasons to believe that the real intention of those who seek elimination of Muslim Personal Law is not a civil code, but a civil war. It is not nationalism, but anti-national motives that are behind this demand.


With these linkages with the ISIS modules and the language of Islamism clearly evident, it would be prudent that concerned authorities, which are already scrutinizing the body seriously, take the next step towards ensuring that the organization is unable to harm India and Indian interests any further.


Troubling Origins of the PFI

As per the website of the PFI, the organization came into existence after the merger of the Karnataka Forum for Dignity (KFD) of Karnataka, National Development Front (NDF) of Kerala, and Manitha Neethi Pasarai (MNP) of Tamil Nadu) among other after the a National Convention on Reservation in Higher Education was organized jointly with All India Milli Council at New Delhi on 29th August 2006. Once the leadership of these organizations decided to merge for better coordination among themselves, a joint meeting of the Secretariat of South India Council and representatives of KFD, NDF and MNP was held on 22nd November 2006 at Calicut where the PFI came into existence.


The Vision Statement from the PFI’s Constitution reads like a typical liberal manifesto. Sample this extract:


Since independence, the ruling establishment has empowered the big business houses and the urban and rural elite, as it ignored the basic needs of the people below. The traditionally dominant social groups have hijacked the democratic process. They work hand in glove with neo-colonial, fascist and racist forces. The dalits, the tribals, the religious, the linguistic and cultural minorities, the backward classes and the women are denied their cultural and social space, making India one of the most backward countries in the world. The development models being used by the establishment is pro-rich and promotes ecological destruction. Resistance against exploitation and deprivation now is mostly local and isolated with no coordination and pooling of resources at national level. This organisation is a move towards coordination and management of such efforts for the achievement of socio-economic, cultural and political empowerment of the deprived and the downtrodden and the nation at large. It will try to establish an egalitarian society in which freedom, justice and security are enjoyed by all.


However, this has been a very clever veneer. In 2010, Times Now had reported the seizure of documents by police in Kerala from the PFI office that showed the aspiration of PFI to convert India into an Islamic state.


This was again revealed by another front organization of the Popular Front of India, Sathya Sarani, which has been accused of promoting love jihad and Islamic fundamentalism. As a sting operation of India Today had revealed the intentions of the PFI very amply clear when Zainaba A.S., head of PFI's woman wing accepted the fact that PFI's sister organisation Sathya Sarani has carried out massive conversions.  


A matter of concern remains that a large chunk of its membership originally came from the NDF of Kerala. As documented by V Govind Krishnan, NDF was essentially a spill-over of the members of the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) after it was banned. Gaining popularity on the pretext of promoting religion, the NDF seminars were found to be promoting a rhetoric of jihad. Krishnan quoted Nasser Faizi Koodathai, then joint secretary of the state committee of the Samastha Kerala Sunni Students Federation (SKSF) (EK Sunni Group), who had accused the PFI of leading Muslim youth down the path to religious extremism.


“Since its formation, PFI has presented a democratic façade, but the ideology remains the same as in the days of NDF. In the years following Babri, a number of extremist groups became active in north Kerala, exploiting Muslim anxiety. After ISS, Jama Iyyathul Ihsania, Sunni Tigers, SIMI, etc. were banned or became inactive, NDF was the most active group. It went by no name in the beginning. It secretly held classes in playgrounds, school buildings, and in the guise of martial arts training. It was mainly young people who attended. No outsider had any idea who the members were in any area,” according to Faizi.


Charged with Running a Terror Camp in Kannur


In 2013, the Kerala Police had conducted a raid on the property of a certain Thanal Foundation Trust in Kannur in North Kerala. Arms and ammunition were discovered, even as people ran away at the sight of the police. The NIA was called in for investigation, and eventually more than 21 people were arrested, all of whom had conspired to participate in a training camp for terrorist acts, on 23rd April, 2013 in Kannur district. Convicted by the NIA Special Court in its order dated 20th Jan, 2016. Quoting from the judgment:


On 23.4.2013 at about 12.15 hours, A1 to A21 were found engaged in arms training inside a buirding owned by Thanal Foundatlon a religious and charitable trust run by PFI at Narath. A1 to A21 attended the training inside the building in weapons and explosives. A22 and A23 were guarding the building and on seeing the police party they ran away. On getting information the then Sub lnspector of police, Mayyil Police Station, Kannur District, reached the spot, detected the offence, arrested A1 to A21 at 16.30 hours, seized the articles such as sword, lathies, country made bombs, raw materials for making country bombs, pamphlets etc and registered the case as crime No.276/2013.


The Gory Activities of the PFI


Behind the veneer of the vision statement however there are several disturbing incidents and events that the PFI and its members have been associated with for long.


Activists of the PFI had chopped off the right hand of Prof T J Joseph on July 4, 2010, when he was returning along with his family members from the Sunday mass near his home in Muvattupuzha in Ernakulam district. PFI was reportedly was upset after Joseph - a Malayalam teacher at Newmans College Thodupuzha, Idukki - in the Malayalam question paper that he had prepared for an internal examination at his college, had inflammatory remarks on Prophet Mohammed.


In 2015, the National Investigative Agency (NIA) court in Kochi had found 13 guilty and acquitted 18. Of the 13 people convicted, 11 were implicated on charges of attempt to murder and conspiracy. Ten of them were also found guilty under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. 


However, the attitude of the PFI has been ambivalent to it at best. In 2017, while dissociating itself from the attackers, Anis Ahmed, the National Secretary of PFI downplayed it by calling it a local incident involving local criminal elements, and clearly underlined that ‘there was no love for that teacher’ among the PFI members.


Two other murders where the PFI has been indicted or alleged to be involved have also seen investigation from the NIA. On 02.11.2016 the Karnataka State Police in 2016 along with the NIA arrested five people - Irfan Pasha, Waseem Ahmed, Mohammad Sadiq, Mohammed Mujeeb Ulla, and Asim Sheriff - all of whom were members of the PFI and its affiliated political organization, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). As the 2017 NIA press release making the announcement on the chargesheet mentioned –


None of the accused had personal enmity with the deceased Rudresh. He was killed solely because of his leadership/membership to a particular organization. Investigation has established that the killing was a clear act of terror with the intention to strike terror among a section of the people. This was achieved by the broad daylight murder of a RSS member in uniform using a lethal weapon on 16 October 2016.


The other murder, currently under investigation, is the murder of Ramalingam of Tamil Nadu. As per the details shared publicly by the NIA on the case, Ramalingam was allegedly murdered by Rahman Sadiq, son of Mohammed Ismail, Administrator to DAWA activities in Thirubuvanam area and Muhammad Ali Jinna, son of Saji Muhammad, who is the District Secretary of PFI in Thirubuvanam district of Tamil Nadu along with other accused persons.

PFI members have been accused of moral policing in Kozhikode, Malappuram and Kasargod districts as well as in parts of Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka. They have attacked Hindu and Muslim couples seen together in public as well as subjected Hindu men fraternising with Muslim girls to physical violence, much to the ignorant bliss of mainstream media despite coverage in local press. Krishnan interviewed Naveen Soorinje of local Mangalorean channel BTV, who clearly accused of large-scale moral policing by PFI in Mangaluru. He told Krishnan that the PFI was very clever about the way it especially attacked Hindu boys seen with Muslim girls, due to which very few FIRs get registered against them. He recalled a horrifying episode of moral policing in 2011, where PFI activists beat up and kidnapped a Muslim girl and boy eating together at Swagath hotel.


“They handed over the girl to her relative but kept the boy captive at a PFI office for several hours. When I called the PFI president in Mangalore over the phone, he admitted it brazenly,” Soorinje said.


In another case that had surfaced in 2018, the media had highlighted the case of one Harison who had married a Muslim woman being targeted and threated by SDPI, the PFI’s political wing. Death threats were issued against him and his family.



Religious Bigotry at the Heart of the PFI


Anti-Hindu rhetoric and religious bigotry is a continuing theme of the PFI’s rhetoric. In a speech from the 2017 National Convention of the PFI, a female delegate amid cheers and claps could be heard talking derogatorily about Hindus. “We are not like Hindus. We are born here, and we are buried here. In contrast, Hindus are ungrateful, for their ashes flow in to the ocean,” said Siraj.



One important face of the organization is Umar Shariff, head of an organization called Discover Islamic Education Trust (DIET). In a public lecture 4 years ago, Shariff had said that beef eating was very much the norm in ancient India, and that there was no substance to Hindu claims, and said that a majority of the people eat beef in India. In the speech, he also poked fun at the ‘hypocrisy’ of Hindus on eating meat.


“Cow is your mother, so is the bull your father?” Shariff mocked Hindus during the speech.


The group has been very careful to not let its anti-Hindu rhetoric come to the fore. However, the Athira case involving brainwashing by Sathya Sarani clearly highlighted the anti-Hindu mindset. In 2017, Athira gave a statement to the media post the high tension drama, where she reconverted back to Hinduism, where she clearly stated the anti-Hindu rhetoric of the PFI front. Athira told the media after converting back to Hinduism in 2017 about the anti-Hindu rhetoric of the group and its affiliates in detail.


“They told me it was stupid to worship a stone as an idol and that Hinduism has many Gods while Islam has only one Supreme God. They instilled this doubt in me. When they said that, I felt very curious about it and when I thought about it, I felt what they said was right. I was attracted to Islam through my college-time friends. They first told me about the evils of polytheism practiced by Hinduism. (They) prompted me to listen to religious sermons by Muslim scholars and gave me books about Islam. Siraj, brother of my friend Aneesa, was the key force behind my conversion. It was Siraj who prompted me to leave my home and embrace Islam.”


With piles of circumstantial evidence against the PFI on various fronts, nothing less than a thorough investigation on the organization must be undertaken by relevant authorities. The organization has a lot of questions to answer, and the sooner it is done, the more safe people would feel in general.



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