Why neutralizing the PFI threat would mean an international victory for India

On May 21, a large crowd of hundreds attacked the Batadrava police station in Assam. After vandalizing the building and injuring three police officers, the mob set fire to the police station. A few days later, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that the Indian Popular Front’s involvement in the incident was evident. He also claimed that the PFI, along with its student wing the Campus Front of India (CFI), was trying to destabilize the state in various ways. He demanded that the organization be banned and said he had already raised the issue with Union Home Minister Amit Shah. It should be noted that Assam Police had discovered that PFI was involved in the anti-CAA violence that rocked the state in early 2020, and members of the organization had been arrested for it. Sarma had also, in no uncertain terms, blamed the PFI for the incidents of violence during the expulsion campaigns he launched after becoming chief minister.

Meanwhile, in Karnataka, the PFI ban is a non-partisan issue. It was the Congress Party that recently pressured Chief Minister Basavraj Bommai to ban the PFI and its political wing the SDPI, claiming that these organizations are responsible for many incidents of communal unrest in the state. In fact, contrary to the narrative circulating in the national media, it was Muslim Congress Party lawmakers who claimed that these organizations were behind both hijab and halal issues. Chief Minister Bommai confirmed that the police are closely monitoring these organizations and that appropriate action will be taken soon. Meanwhile, in Kerala, the state High Court had previously observed that the PFI and SDPI “are extremist organizations engaging in serious acts of violence”. In 2018, then Home Minister Kiren Rijiju confirmed that the Kerala government had pushed to ban the organization. According to The Hindu, the state DGP had made an elaborate presentation on PFI members involved in criminal activities, in the presence of Prime Minister and then Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Considering that the state has been ruled by Communists since 2016, the natural Communist-Islamist axis forming on most fronts in India seems to have collapsed in this context.

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The government of Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh has also called for a ban on PFI. The ban was originally requested after anti-CAA violence in 2020 left nineteen people dead in the state. Twenty-five people, including the head of the organisation’s Uttar Pradesh unit, were among those arrested for incitement to violence. Ironically, earlier this year it was a Sufi organization based in Uttar Pradesh that wrote to the Home Ministry asking for the organization to be banned, alleging there was a PFI hand behind the violence by Ram Navmi. The ban request was backed by the government of Uttar Pradesh. Just last week, when riots broke out in Kanpur on the day of the Prime Minister and President’s visit, police found documents related to the PFI of the main accused who was arrested. Considering that the riots took place due to the issue of Nupur Sharma who witnessed intense provocation from national and international circles, the possibility of certain organizations serving as pawns for a street veto in India has serious national security implications.

Last month, Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi spoke in detail about the PFI. Ravi is a stalwart who has held many crucial positions in the country’s security apparatus, and therefore his ideas cannot be taken lightly or considered politically expedient. “PFI has over 16 different fronts or masks – human rights mask, rehabilitation mask, student group mask and taking the form of a political party. His whole goal is to destabilize the country from within,” the governor said. “PFI is at the forefront of sending fighters to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria,” he added. “It’s a threat that we have to be very, very careful about.” The governor’s statement is corroborated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which claimed that the links between the organization and the Islamic State (IS) began a few months after the declaration of the caliphate.

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Essentially, we are seeing a growing political consensus to deal with PFI. When issues regarding organizations that distinctly represent a particular religion have arisen in the past, the labels of vendetta and communalism have been tossed around with equal ferocity, ultimately turning these issues into political football. However, this was not the case for PFI. Across the spectrum, political and social leaders seem to have realized that the many tentacles of this organization have spread far and wide and have repercussions that go far beyond day-to-day politics. So far, however, that consensus has largely been at the regional or state level, with some states unilaterally imposing a ban on the organization. Despite the respite however, these bans are seen as partial and temporary as members operate on various fronts and under various headings. They are known to group together under different names and continue their activities. The ball now appears to be in the Union government’s court, with even the most powerful regional ruling party leaders publicly declaring that they have asked the Home Office to act. According to some media, the process has already begun.

Besides the Kanpur riots which demonstrate the real possibility of such an organization being used as a pawn by international interests, another report points to this trend in an even more sinister and concrete way. The Law Enforcement Directorate now claims to have been able to establish that the organization is raising funds from China. The agency claims in a recent indictment that the organization is involved in financing terrorism, other than inciting riots, and that the funds have a connection to China. One of the organization’s general secretaries reportedly received funds from a Chinese company based in Oman, under the guise of trading. According to The Print, the individual concerned is linked to the infamous Hathras case. Another SDPI official allegedly involved in the Bengaluru riots is also under scrutiny for receiving Chinese funding. It should be noted that the Pakistani army, in order to avoid direct and hopeless confrontations with India, had adopted a doctrine known as “Bleed India With A Thousand Cuts”. It should also be noted that the Chinese have funded Pakistan in recent years, and what makes them “always allies” is that both countries seek to systematically weaken India. With Pakistani military doctrine at an impasse on several fronts, the possibility that China will explore other options to achieve its goals cannot be overlooked.

While many of the charges against the PFI continue to be stuck in the investigative or legal loops currently, the fact that various security agencies have managed to link nearly every riot or significant incident of communal unrest over the past years is undoubtedly a matter of concern. If incitement, facilitation of terrorism and riots take place through a single organization 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 banned an organization called the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) due to its members’ involvement in several terrorism cases. In 2012, the Kerala government told the state High Court that the PFI was nothing but a resurrection of SIMI. Today, it is recognized that many core members of the organization have held leadership positions at SIMI. Therefore, if even one iota of the allegations against the PFI are founded, the Indian state has failed to achieve its objectives in banning the SIMI. If the Union government is considering imposing a ban on the organization, it must ensure that such pitfalls are avoided. A paper ban is unlikely to deter individuals who are important cogs in the machinery. Unless the state hits these individuals in a way that destroys their network, their resources, their political will, and their ability to regroup, we risk finding ourselves back at square one for the third time.

Ajit Datta is an author and political commentator. He is the author of the book “Himanta Biswa Sarma: From Boy Wonder to CM”. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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