On October 31, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told journalists in Delhi that his government would consider banning the Popular Front of India – a Muslim organisation that describes itself on its Facebook page as working for equal rights, freedom, justice and security for all Indians – if the National Investigative Agency came up with more evidence of anti-national activities against it.

He was reacting to India Today channel’s sting operation purportedly showing the group’s alleged involvement in forced religious conversions, which Prasad termed as a “serious national issue”.

On Thursday, the Kerala Police chief ordered an investigation into the allegation that the Popular Front was getting foreign funds to carry out religious conversions.

The prospect of being proscribed has been hanging over the organisation for some months now.

A report in September claimed the National Investigative Agency had asked for the group to be banned for its alleged involvement in four matters – chopping off a college professor’s hand in Kerala, organising arms training camps in the same state, murdering an RSS leader in Bengaluru, and planning to carry out terror attacks in South India.

The organisation was catapulted on the national stage in 2010 when it was accused of the assault on TJ Joseph, a professor of Malayalam at Newman College in Thodupuzha in Kerala, in which his hand was hacked off, allegedly for insulting Prophet Mohammed in a question paper he had set for his students.

The Popular Front had refuted the charges. “We condemned the hand chopping incident and made it clear several times that the organisation was not involved in it,” said Nasarudheen Elamaram, the group’s Kerala state secretary. “The court verdict too said there was no evidence to prove that the attack was planned and carried out with the knowledge of the leadership.”

In October, the Popular Front submitted memorandums to the central home ministry, the National Security Adviser and the National Investigative Agency, expressing concern over reports that the organisation’s activities would be restricted. In an interview, its chairman, E Aboobacker, said “Popular Front of India is a law obeying and peaceful organisation working for empowerment of the marginalised communities, which is a national and democratic cause.”

The home ministry has not taken any action against the organisation so far.

Strong network

The Popular Front of India came into being in Kozhikode, Kerala in 2006 with the merger of three groups – Kerala’s National Development Front, Karnataka’s Forum for Dignity and Tamil Nadu’s Manitha Neethi Pasarai. In 2009, the Popular Front absorbed five more organisations – Citizen’s Forum in Goa, Community Social and Educational Society in Rajasthan, Nagarik Adhikar Suraksha Samiti in West Bengal, Lilong Social Forum in Manipur, Association of Social Justice in Andhra Pradesh.

Today, the organisation claims to have more than five lakh members, and a strong presence in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan.

The Popular Front has a political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India, and a trade union, the Social Democratic Trade Union. The National Women’s Front is the organisation’s women’s wing, Campus Front of India is the students’ wing while All India Imam’s Council is the religious scholars’ unit. In Kerala, it runs the Markazul Hidaya Satya Sarani Educational and Charitable Trust, popularly known as Satya Sarani, in Manjeri, Malappuram.

The Social Democratic Party of India finished third in the bye-election to Vengara Assembly constituency in Malappuram in October, pushing the Bharatiya Janata Party to the fourth place.

In 2010, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had asked the public to be cautious of the anti-national activities of the Popular Front of India, which used places of worship for furthering its agenda.

Running war

In the last few years, Kerala and Karnataka have regularly witnessed violent clashes between workers of the Popular Front of India and those of the Sangh Parivar.

Most recently, on August 24, 2017, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker named Vipin was killed in Malappuram district. Vipin was an accused in the murder of a man named Faisal, who had been killed on November 19, 2016, apparently for converting to Islam. All accused in what is believed to be the retaliatory killing of Vipin are workers of the Popular Front.

In Karnataka, a Social Democratic Party of India worker named Ashraf Kalai was murdered on June 21, 2017 in Dakshina Kannada district. In the “retaliatory attack” on July 4, RSS worker Sarath Madivala was killed.

In Kerala, though, the Sangh Parivar hasn’t made its clashes with the Popular Front a big issue. Instead, it accuses the Muslim organisation of running religious conversion centres.

Hadiya link

India Today chose to air its sting operation on October 30, a day after the Supreme Court ordered for Hadiya, a 24-year-old Kerala woman who has converted to Islam and married a Muslim man, to be produced before it to ascertain whether she married of her free will. Hadiya was known as Akhila Ashokan before she formally embraced Islam on July 25, 2016.

There were allegations she was forcibly converted by the members of the Popular Front. But Hadiya herself stated in an affidavit that she had been following Islam since 2015. A year later, she joined Satya Sarani for a 50-day course to learn Islamic rituals.

Hadiya married Shafin Jahan on December 19, 2016. But in May this year, the Kerala High Court nullified the marriage and directed the police to take her to her parents’ home in Vaikom in Kottayam district. Jahan then appealed in the Supreme Court. Hadiya is now expected to make her wish clear when she appears before the apex court on November 27.

In the tape broadcast by India Today, National Women’s Front’s president Sainaba is purportedly heard saying those who go to Satya Sarani move out “only after embracing Islam”, implying forced conversions.

Sainaba has since accused the channel of “editing a long conversation for fabricating evidences against Popular Front of India”. “It happened about one month back,” she said in a statement on Wednesday, referring to her conversation with the undercover reporters. “It lasted for one-and-a-half hours. But the questions and answers were edited intentionally to hunt me.”

Elamaram said the allegations against the Popular Front of conducting forced conversions were part of a conspiracy to ban it. “We are the only organisation that fights the Sangh Parivar ideologically and that is the reason for these concerted efforts to tarnish us,” he claimed. “We have not been involved in any anti-national activities. We are an organisation that works for uplifting oppressed communities in India. I hope the government won’t ban the Popular Front of India.”