On May 21st, a large mob of hundreds of people attacked the Batadrava police station in Assam. After vandalising the building and injuring three policemen, the mob set the police station ablaze. A few days later, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that the Popular Front of India’s hand in the incident was apparent. He also claimed that the PFI, along with its student wing the Campus Front of India (CFI), was attempting to destabilise the state in various ways. He demanded that the organisation be banned, and said that he had already raised the issue with Union Home Minister Amit Shah. It should be noted that the Assam Police had found PFI to be involved in the anti-CAA violence that rocked the state in early 2020, and members of the organisation had been arrested for it. Sarma also had, in no uncertain terms, blamed the PFI for incidents of violence during eviction drives that he initiated after becoming Chief Minister.
Meanwhile in Karnataka, the banning of PFI is a non-partisan issue. It is the Congress Party which has recently lobbied with Chief Minister Basavraj Bommai to ban the PFI and its political wing the SDPI, claiming that these organisations are responsible for many of the incidents of communal unrest in the state. In fact, contrary to the narrative doing the rounds in the national media, it is the Muslim legislators of the Congress Party who have claimed that these organisations were behind both the hijab and the halal issues. Chief Minister Bommai has confirmed that the police are closely monitoring these organisations, and that suitable steps would be soon taken. In Kerala meanwhile, the state’s High Court had earlier observed that both the PFI and the SDPI “are extremist organisations indulging in serious acts of violence”. In 2018, the then home minister of state Kiren Rijiju had confirmed that the Kerala government had pressed for a ban on the organisation. According to The Hindu, the state’s DGP had given an elaborate presentation about PFI members being involved in criminal activities, with both the Prime Minister and then Home Minister Rajnath Singh in attendance. Considering the state has been ruled by the Communists since 2016, the natural Commie-Islamist axis that forms on most fronts in India seems to have fallen apart in this context.
Yogi Adityanath’s government in Uttar Pradesh has also sought a ban on the PFI. The ban was initially sought after the anti-CAA violence of 2020 claimed nineteen lives in the state. Twenty-five people including the head of the organisation’s Uttar Pradesh unit were among those arrested for inciting the violence. Ironically, earlier this year, it was a Sufi body based out of Uttar Pradesh which wrote to the Home Ministry seeking the organisation’s ban, alleging that there was a PFI hand behind the Ram Navmi violence. The demand for a ban was backed by the Uttar Pradesh government. Just last week, when riots broke out in Kanpur on the day that both the Prime Minister and the President were visiting, the police found documents related to PFI from the main accused who was arrested. Considering the riots took place due to the Nupur Sharma issue which witnessed intense provocation from both domestic and international quarters, the possibility of certain organisations serving as pawns for a street veto in India has severe national security implications.
Last month, the Tamil Nadu governor RN Ravi spoke elaborately about the PFI. Ravi is a stalwart who has held many crucial positions in the country’s security apparatus, and thus, his insights can neither be taken lightly nor can they be considered politically expedient. “PFI has more than 16 different fronts or masks- mask of human rights, mask of rehabilitation, mask of students group, and taking the form of a political party. Its whole aim is to destabilise the country from within,” the governor said. “PFI is at the forefront of sending fighters to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria,” he added. “This is a threat that we need to be very very careful about.” The governor’s statement is corroborated by the National Investigative Agency (NIA), which has claimed that the links between the organisation and the Islamic State (IS) began within months of the caliphate’s declaration.
Essentially, we are witnessing a growing political consensus to deal with the PFI. When issues about organisations that distinctly represent a particular religion have cropped up in the past, labels of vendetta and communalism have been hurled with equal ferocity, ultimately turning these issues into a political football. However, this has not been the case for PFI. Across the spectrum, both political and social leaders seem to have realised that the many tentacles of this organisation have spread far and wide, and have repercussions which go well beyond everyday politicking. So far, however, this consensus has been largely at the regional or state levels, with some states unilaterally imposing a ban on the organisation. Despite the respite however, these bans are considered to be partial and temporary since the members operate on various fronts and under various headings. They have been known to regroup using different names and carry on with their activities. The ball now seems to be in the Union Government’s court, with even the ruling party’s strongest regional leaders stating on record that they have asked the home ministry to act. According to some media reports, the process has already begun.
Other than the Kanpur riots which demonstrate the distinct possibility of such an organisation being used as a pawn by international interests, another report points to this trend in an even more sinister and concrete manner. The Enforcement Directorate now claims it has been able to establish that the organisation is raising funds from China. The agency claims in a recent chargesheet that the organisation is involved in terror funding, other than inciting riots, and that the funds have a Chinese connection. One of the organisation’s general secretaries has allegedly received funds from a Chinese company based in Oman, under the guise of conducting trade. According to The Print, the concerned individual is linked to the infamous Hathras case. Another functionary of the SDPI, allegedly involved in the Bengaluru riots, is also under the scanner for receiving Chinese funding. It must be noted that the Pakistani military, in order to avoid direct and hopeless confrontations with India, had adopted a doctrine known as ‘Bleed India With A Thousand Cuts’. It must also be noted that the Chinese have bankrolled Pakistan in recent years, and what makes them “all-weather allies” is that both countries seek to weaken India systematically. With the Pakistani military doctrine hitting a dead-end on several fronts, the possibility that China is exploring other options to further its objectives cannot be overlooked.
While many of the charges against the PFI continue to be stuck in investigative or legal loops currently, the fact that various security agencies have managed to establish some link with almost every prominent riot or incident of communal unrest over the last few years is undoubtedly a matter of concern. If incitement, the facilitation of terrorism, and rioting is taking place through one organisation funded by international forces in a systematic and concerted manner, political and social consensus or even action at the regional level will only be a temporary setback. In 2001, the Union Government imposed a ban on an organisation called the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) due to the involvement of its members in several terror cases. In 2012, the Kerala Government told the state’s High Court that the PFI was nothing but a resurrection of SIMI. Today, it is an accepted fact that many nodal members of the organisation had held leadership positions in SIMI. Therefore, if even an iota of the allegations against the PFI has any merit, the Indian state has failed to achieve its objectives while banning SIMI. If the Union Government is planning to impose a ban on the organisation, it must ensure that such pitfalls are avoided. A ban on paper is unlikely to deter the individuals who serve as the machinery’s important cogs. Unless the state hits these individuals in a manner that destroys their network, their resources, their political will and their ability to regroup, we are likely to find ourselves back to square one for the third time.
Ajit Datta is an author and political commentator. He has authored the book, ‘Himanta Biswa Sarma: From Boy Wonder to CM’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.