The Indian government’s ban this week of the Popular Front of India (PFI), an Islamic organization that says it fights for the rights of minorities, has received mixed reaction in the country, with Hindu groups welcoming the move and Muslim groups, opposition leaders and rights activists criticizing it.
Hours after the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs issued the ban on the PFI on Wednesday, accusing it of “terrorism” and “anti-national activities,” the organization declared in a statement that it had disbanded itself.
While PFI leaders say that the accusations against it are baseless, the government insists that the organization poses a threat to the country’s internal security.
PFI leaders say the organization fights for the rights of the minorities and low-caste Hindus.
However, a government gazette that carried the notification about the ban said that the PFI had been found to be involved “in serious offenses, including terrorism and its financing, [and] targeted gruesome killings.”
“There is evidence that the group has a connection with the international terrorist group ISIS,” the notification said, in perhaps the most serious accusation against the PFI. ISIS is an abbreviation for the Islamic State group.
“Our top leaders have all along condemned ISIS — we can present media reports as evidence. The accusation that the PFI had a connection with ISIS is ridiculously false,” one Kerala-based PFI leader told VOA on the condition of anonymity because of fear of government reprisal.
“All charges against the PFI will be found to be false if the court tries the cases properly.”
Welcoming the PFI ban, the chief minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state of Assam tweeted: “The Government is firm in its resolve to ensure that anyone with a diabolical, divisive or disruptive design against India shall be dealt with iron fist. India of Modi Era is Decisive & Bold.”
In a statement, the Social Democratic Party of India, the political wing of the PFI, called the ban “a direct blow to democracy.”
“Freedom of speech, protests and organizations has been ruthlessly suppressed by the regime. … The regime is misusing the investigation agencies and laws to silence … the voice of dissent,” the statement said.
Muslim community leader and former chairperson of the Delhi Minority Commission Zafarul-Islam Khan denounced the ban on the PFI.
“There is no evidence in the public domain of the PFI or its allied organizations being involved in illegal activities. If an individual belonging to any of these organizations commits any crime, he must face action individually. His organization should not face punishment for his crime,” Khan told VOA.
The PFI ended up irking the current rulers because it built up a strong all-India cadre-based organization to work and fight for minority causes and its upliftment, he said.
“Such an organization is viewed as a hurdle to the Hindutva dream to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra [Hindu Nation, in Hindi]. Hence, for some years, the PFI and its allied organizations have been the target of the current rulers of the country.”
India’s Home Ministry did not respond to VOA requests for comment.
In August in Varanasi, some Hindu right-wing groups released a draft constitution of a Hindu Rashtra that proposed Muslims and Christians living in India would not have voting rights or be counted as citizens.
S.R. Darapuri, a former senior Indian Police Service officer who now works as a social and political activist, said the decision to ban the PFI appears to have been taken “prematurely.”
“When the organization has been accused of a charge as serious as terrorism, the case should have been investigated thoroughly and taken to court. Now, the organization has been banned before the charge of terrorism has been proven in a court of law,” Darapuri told VOA.
“In this situation, the ban appears to be a politically motivated and biased decision.”
Supreme Court lawyer Mehmood Pracha noted that several Hindu supremacist groups are exhorting “an open revolt against Indian state by seeking to replace the constitution of the country with a constitution based on Hindu scripture.”
“The government does not find the actions of those groups unlawful. So one cannot but view this action with doubt that the reason for banning the PFI is not based on their alleged terrorism and anti-national activities,” Pracha told VOA.
The opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist), or CPI-ML, said that the crackdown on the PFI is aimed to whip up anti-Muslim passion.
“In the criminal cases against the PFI, except for some sketchy allegations, there is no reference to any actual incident of crime. The crackdown is a conscious attempt by the Modi government to spread Islamophobia among the public and demonize Muslims, as a community,” CPI-ML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya told VOA.
“The actions against the PFI are blatantly discriminatory, given the impunity being granted to sundry (Hindu right-wing) organizations and individuals openly calling for anti-Muslim genocides and rapes, and turning India into a Hindu Rashtra.”
The crackdown on the PFI is a pretext for a massive witch hunt of Muslims, said feminist activist Kavita Krishnan.
“The charge by the NIA [National Investigation Agency] that the PFI is conspiring ‘to communalize the nation’s polity and encourage and enforce [the] Taliban brand of Islam’ is a mere pretext to harass Muslims by accusing them of being PFI members.
“The NIA has let off the real Hindu-supremacist terrorists who engineered several terror blasts. Saffron clad (right-wing Hindu) men and women are openly calling for violence against Muslims,” Krishnan said.
“But they are not being investigated or charged by the NIA for trying ‘to communalize the nation’s polity.’ The actions against the PFI appear to have their root in an anti-Muslim (communal) bias.”