The National Investigation Agency and the Enforcement Directorate on Thursday launched raids across 16 states and arrested top leaders and over 100 activists of the Popular Front of India on the charges of mobilising terror funds, organising terror-training camps and radicalising Muslim youths.
The PFI, formed in Kerala in 2006 and headquartered in Delhi, claims to work for disadvantaged sections of society. It is accused by critics of being a “radical” Islamic organisation but has not been banned.
Sources in the NIA said the raids were conducted jointly with the ED and state police forces on the homes and offices of the suspects at 93 locations across 16 states, including Kerala, Bengal and Assam. Bengal was not among the 11 states where arrests had been made, they added.
“It’s the largest ever crackdown against the PFI. Its chairman, O.M.A. Salam, and state president C.P. Muhammad Basheer were taken into custody from Malappuram (Kerala),” an NIA official said.
The crackdown has revived calls for banning the PFI. Sources in the security establishment said a formal proposal for a ban would be sent to the Union home ministry on the ground that the PFI had become a threat to “national security”.
On Thursday afternoon, Union home minister Amit Shah chaired a high-level meeting with officials of intelligence agencies to take stock of the crackdown.
In 2018, the then Rajnath Singh-led home ministry had said it was considering banning the PFI but nothing happened.
Proposals to ban the outfit came also from the governments of Uttar Pradesh (2019) and Assam (2022).
Rahul Gandhi, asked about the crackdown, told a news conference in Kochi there should be “zero tolerance for communalism regardless of where it is coming from”.
“My view is that all forms of communalism, all forms of violence, are the same and should be combated,” he said.
Kerala PFI general secretary Abdul Sattar told a news conference the raids were part of a larger RSS plan to destroy an organisation that “is standing in the way of eliminating Muslims in India”.
The PFI has called for a daylong “hartal” in Kerala on Friday.
The NIA claims the PFI has links with several Maoist and Dalit organisations that campaign against alleged police atrocities, fake encounters, the imprisonment of innocent people on false terror charges, and misuse of the anti-terror law UAPA.
The ED has been investigating the “financial links” of the PFI, which it accuses of fuelling the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests and the 2020 Delhi riots, and plotting to foment unrest over the rape and murder of a Dalit teen in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.
Sources said the crackdown was planned on Monday by senior officials of the Union home ministry, NIA, ED and the Intelligence Bureau.
“Central agencies had recently tipped off the home ministry about the PFI covertly mobilising funds through a well-organised network in Gulf countries as part of a conspiracy to carry out unlawful activities,” a home ministry official said.
The highest arrests came in Kerala (22), followed by Maharashtra and Karnataka (20 each), Tamil Nadu and Assam (10 each), Uttar Pradesh (8), Andhra Pradesh (5), Madhya Pradesh (4), Puducherry and Delhi (3 each) and Rajasthan (2).
Raids were conducted also in Bengal, Telangana, Goa, Bihar and Manipur.
“These searches were conducted… in connection with 5 cases registered by the NIA following continued inputs and evidence that the PFI leaders and cadres were involved in funding of terrorism and terrorist activities, organising training camps for providing armed training and radicalising people to join banned organisations,” an NIA statement said.
It said the Telangana police had recently registered an FIR against 25 PFI cadres on similar charges.
“During the searches conducted today morning, incriminating documents, cash, sharp-edged weapons and a large number of digital devices have been seized,” the NIA said, adding that it had made 45 of the arrests. The ED and state police forces made the remaining arrests.
The 10 arrested in Assam have been accused of “all-out efforts to foment communal strife throughout the state”, and booked for criminal conspiracy and sedition, among other alleged offences.
An Assam police statement said the accused were “indulging in whipping (up) communal passion and sentiments” among a religious minority by “criticising every policy” of the government with a “view to term these actions of the government as an attack on the Muslim community”.
Among the government actions criticised were the CAA, update of the National Register of Citizens, cattle protection law, extension of the AFSPA and the policies on doubtful voters and education, the statement said.
The suspects were allegedly organising protests in “very communally sensitive areas” like Badarpur, Karimganj, Barpeta, Baksa, Kamrup (Rural), Goalpara and Kamrup (Metropolitan) districts, among others.
They were also “spreading” communal feelings in Muslim-dominated pockets of Barpeta, Goalpara and Badarpur by citing the clashes over Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions that took place in Rajasthan, the police said.
The arrests were made in six districts.
M.A. Maulavi, president of the Kerala wing of the PFI’s political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India, said the crackdown was part of the government’s misuse of its agencies to target political opponents, “from Sonia Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi… to (CPM leader) Thomas Isaac in Kerala”.
PFI workers protested across Kerala and several places in neighbouring Karnataka by blocking roads and shouting slogans against the RSS and the BJP.
Additional reporting by Umanand Jaiswal from Assam and K.M. Rakesh from Bangalore