What finally convinced Mohammad Sahil to join the Popular Front of India was that it confronted “real issues”, he said: “social security, identity politics, persecution, equal representation, and empowerment of Muslims”.
Sahil had been initially wary of the PFI. After all, in the popular imagination, it has been labelled a “radical outfit”. Though the PFI claimed it was working for the “empowerment of the deprived and the downtrodden”, it was often accused of supporting efforts to bring Sharia or Islamic law into India
But discussions with friends, members, and the leadership of the organisation cleared his doubts. “Like others, I had also fallen for the media propaganda against PFI,” said Sahil, who asked Scroll not to mention his real name.
Sahil quickly rose through the ranks after joining PFI in early 2021 and moving to one of its affiliate groups. He was involved in sending out press handouts, organising events and participating in demonstrations in Delhi. “I could see the impact of my work,” he says. “My boss was happy with my efforts.”
Then, one late September morning last year, the police knocked on his door, bringing his activism to a halt. Now he spends most of his time at home or with his friends, at street-corners and tea shops.
On September 27, the Ministry of Home Affairs ordered a ban on the group and its affiliates for five years through a gazette notification under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The notification declared the PFI an “unlawful association” with terrorist links and said it was involved in activities that threatened the “sovereignty, integrity, and security” of the country. Its socio-economic and educational activities were only a front for a “secret agenda” of radicalisation, the notification claimed.
A number of violent incidents, including murders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers, were listed to support these claims. It did not, however, accuse the PFI of being involved in any specific terror attacks, even though it charged members of joining terror groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“At most, you can say PFI members are involved in some murders but that cannot be a reason for designating it as a terrorist organisation, unless the organisation as a whole is promoting terrorist activities,” said Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan.
In the days leading up to the ban, hundreds of members of the association were arrested from across India. Hours after the ban, a senior member of the organisation declared that the PFI had been disbanded. The group’s top leadership is in prison. Most of them are in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, according to a member who was granted bail after two months.
After the ban
Four months later, former members of the once-sprawling organisation have retreated from public life, fearful of police action and harassment. They say they have stopped all political activities and are focused on their personal lives while they wait for a decision from a tribunal that is reviewing the ban.
Under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, once the government declares an organisation “unlawful”, a tribunal must review the order to endorse or reject the ban. A few days after the ban on the PFI, the government set up a tribunal headed by Delhi High Court judge Dinesh Kumar Sharma to do so.
“The legal fight is going on,” said advocate Mohammad Tahir. “The matter is sub judice, and we are not in a position to comment since that can harm our case.”
As they wait for a long, legal battle to run its course, former members like Sahil have gone into a shell. WhatsApp groups have been deleted, and phone lines have gone cold. Several members in Delhi have returned to their home states. Many former activists declined to speak to Scroll, fearing police action.
“I called up one of my former colleagues and asked if he would meet for a cup of tea, but he said he was busy and cut the call,” said Sahil, who was detained by the police in September and spent two months in custody. He has lost touch with his colleagues, who he says are lying low. “I can understand their situation,” he said.
Said a former member from Kerala, who was part of the national team, “Under the law, we cannot function, so we have stopped all our work.” He described the ban as being “vendetta politics” since the PFI was vocal against Hindutva politics and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
A former PFI functionary from coastal Karnataka district said some of his colleagues were summoned by police and warned against any activism. “We disbanded our WhatsApp groups and stopped texting or calling each other,” he said. He claimed that former members were afraid that the police were watching them.
“Any message or call with a friend or colleague could be seen as an attempt at re-grouping and used against them,” he said.
MS Sajid, who was national president of the Campus Front of India, the PFI’s student wing that was also banned, said he has stopped getting calls from his former colleagues. “The government can file a case against us on the pretext that we are trying to reorganise,” he said. So far, however, he has not had to face any problems from the police, he added.
Sajid’s Twitter account was suspended, and he has stopped posting on other social media platforms. “I am focused on my PhD,” he said.
The social media accounts of the organisation and its affiliates were pulled down on the orders of the Central government. Since the ban, the National Investigation Agency has carried out several raids in Kerala in connection with the case.
Sajid said the government crackdown has put an end to even routine activism around students’ problems in colleges. “There are issues that need to be talked about such as the Centre’s decision to end scholarships for minority students,” he said. “But we cannot react even in our personal capacity.”
The ban extends to other PFI affiliated groups, too, including the Rehab India Foundation, All India Imams Council, National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations, National Women’s Front, Junior Front, Empower India Foundation and Rehab Foundation, Kerala.
The only arm of the PFI left untouched by the ban was the Social Democratic Party of India, a political party that has a presence in southern states.
Last week, former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah alleged that the Centre had not put a ban on the Social Democratic Party of India because the BJP aimed to divide opposition votes.
But Syed Aleem Ilahi, leader of the Social Democratic Party of India, in Gulbarga district in north Karnataka, said that there was technically no connection between his party and the PFI. “We are a political party. PFI was a social organisation that worked for minorities and backward groups,” he said. “But SDPI and PFI fought jointly in this democratic struggle.”
Ilahi said some members of the party had been targeted during the crackdown on the PFI. “The police came to my home but I was not there that day,” he said. “When I returned, I met the police officials but they let me go.”
Israr Ali Khan, Delhi president of Social Democratic Party of India, was also detained along with some other members of the political party in September last year. He was granted bail in the first week of December. “We argued before the court that he was part of SDPI, which is not a banned party,” Khan’s lawyer Abu Bakar Sabbaq told Scroll.
Nearly two months ago, Ahmad Rahim, who requested that Scroll not reveal his real name, returned to his family in a district in western Assam after spending over 70 days in police custody. He was among at least 37 Popular Front of India activists detained from across the state by the Assam Police as part of a nationwide crackdown last year.
In September, a group of eight to 10 policemen entered his home at daybreak and took him unto custody. He said he was not even a member of the PFI at the time. “I had been a PFI member for a couple of years as the organisation actively worked in promoting health and education,” he said. “But I left it in 2015-’16 for personal reasons.”
In December, the Gauhati High Court granted him bail along with several other activists.
His arrest led to a social boycott of the family in the small town in which they live, said his wife. “Our neighbours, some relatives and acquaintances snapped all the connections with us fearing they would be arrested too,” she said. “We were left devastated and helpless.”
Even now, Rahim and his family are anxious about attracting police attention. “We have been told that we will be kept under surveillance for six months by the police,” said Rahim, who is in his 40s.
The PFI Assam chapter was inaugurated in 2014 to create awareness about education and health, especially in the districts inhabited by Bengali-origin Muslims in western Assam and Barak Valley.
“My husband had not done anything anti-national,” said Rahim’s wife. “He was vocal about social issues and helped many poor and illiterate Muslim people.”
Rahim refuted the charge that the PFI was a terror group. “PFI has not done anything which calls for a ban,” he said. “As a social organisation, it worked for the deprived people and their rights. And that is not anti-national. The government does not wish that a Muslim organisation gets stronger.”
Singled out for attention
The PFI, a predominantly Muslim group, was formed in Kozhikode, Kerala, in November 2006, through the merger of socio-religious organisations from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. By 2022, it had spread to 23 states and had tens of thousands of members.
It described itself as an organisation that works towards “the achievement of socio-economic, cultural and political empowerment of the deprived and the downtrodden and the nation at large”.
Critics of the ban argue that while several political parties were implicated in violence in Kerala’s politics, the PFI has been singled out as a “terror organisation”.
Guwahati-based advocate HK Ahmed said the PFI has been targeted for “frivolous” reasons. “The PFI’s presence in Assam is negligible,” he said. “SIMI [Students’ Islamic Movement of India] has been banned. The government needed an India-based organisation to target Muslims in the name of jihadi elements and the PFI was the perfect target.”
Advocate Prashant Bhushan argued that it is hard to justify a ban based on the actions of a few members unless “the organisation as a whole is promoting terrorist activities”. “By this logic, then all these organisations like RSS and VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] and Hindu Sena are terrorist organisations because their members have been involved in terror activities,” he said.
The home ministry notification, however, said that the PFI had a “hub and spoke” relationship with its affiliate groups, “utilising their mass outreach and fundraising capacity for strengthening its capability for unlawful activities”.
Mujib Ur Rahman, an advocate who is representing the National Women’s Front at the tribunal, said that the government was using “petty cases” registered against PFI members during protests and demonstrations to justify the ban against the affiliate groups.
In its notification, the home ministry charged the group with showing “sheer disrespect towards the constitutional authority of the country”.
Sahil says, however, that in his experience he found that PFI leaders and members emphasised constitutional values and democracy.
New PFI members, he says, attended classes on law and the Constitution and were taught how to use legal and democratic means in activism. He learned the techniques of fact-finding, organising events, filing applications with the National Human Rights Comission, filing police complaints, and engaging with the media, he said.
“We had been instructed that in the event of a communal flare-up, we should approach the police, local committees, civil society and media,” he said.
The PFI has also been involved in relief efforts across community lines. During the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, its volunteers helped in burying and cremating the dead, said Sahil.
In western Assam, Rahim said, the PFI has done work on school enrolment, been part of flood rescue efforts and organising “relief camps”. “They also helped illiterate people while applying for the NRC [National Register of Citizens],” he said. “They raised awareness about the NRC.”
In a statement issued on the arrests last year, the Assam Police accused PFI members of “whipping up communal passion and sentiments of the religious minority by criticising every policy of the government with communal overtones”, including the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. Some legal experts said that these initiatives could be used to discriminate against Indian Muslims.
The police statement said PFI leaders misled and incited the people against the government during the case against Karnataka colleges banning hijabs, the Supreme Court verdict on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue, as well as the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, pertaining to the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
“They are organising protests on such issues in communally sensitive areas,” the Assam Police statement said.
A lawyer who represented members of the organisation in Assam said: “Most of the acts that PFI members were alleged to have been involved in, such as anti-CAA protests or slogans, were also committed by a large section of civil society. These are not unlawful or terror acts.”
“The arrests appear to be politically motivated,” he said.
As the case against him carries on, Rahim says he is reluctant to return to social work. “I don’t think that I can work for people anymore,” he said. “If raising a voice for the deprived harms me, I better stay silent and away from public life. I have to take care of my family.”