India’s top investigative agencies have launched a nationwide crackdown on a prominent Muslim organization and detained more than 100 of its members, accusing them of links to terrorism.
The simultaneous raids on the offices of the Popular Front of India (PFI) and the homes of its members were carried out by the federally-controlled National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in nearly a dozen states on Thursday morning.
Most of the arrests were made in the southern states. In Kerala, where the PFI enjoys significant influence in Muslim areas, 22 people were arrested.
Arrests were also made in Maharashtra and Karnataka (20 each), Andhra Pradesh (5), Assam (9), Delhi (3), Madhya Pradesh (4), Puducherry (3), Tamil Nadu (10), Uttar Pradesh (8) ). ) and Rajasthan (2), according to Indian media reports.
India’s NDTV network said at least four PFI members had been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a tough terrorism law that can see a person jailed for years without trial, as the legislation has strict warranty provisions.
The PFI was formed in 2007 after the merger of three Muslim groups – the National Democratic Front in Kerala, the Karnataka Forum for Dignity in Karnataka and Manita Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu.
In 2009, the organization formed its political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), to contest the elections.
PFI claims to work for the rights of Muslims and other marginalized communities in India. But right-wing Hindu groups, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), accuse the group of violent attacks on its members.
“Totalitarian regime uses agencies as puppets”
Federal Minister Giriraj Singh accused the PFI of “working against India” and his counterpart Ramdas Athawale said the group was “linked to terrorist organisations”.
“We have no problem running an organization or uniting the Muslim community. But if we take the name of this country and spread terrorism, we must take action. I welcome the NIA and ED raids,” Athawale told reporters.
“PFI has to change if they want to live in India … They have to stand with India.”
But PFI called the NIA and ED raids a “witch hunt” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
“The People’s Front will never surrender to any heinous act of a totalitarian regime using the central agencies as its puppets, and will stand firm in its will to restore the democratic system and the spirit of the constitution of our beloved country,” it said in the statement. shared with Al Jazeera.
The raids sparked protests in several parts of Kerala, where the PFI called for a strike on Friday.
Human rights activists have accused the government of using investigative agencies to harass and intimidate groups critical of its policies. Muslim organizations are particularly targeted for attacks and are often accused of links to terrorism, they said.
“There are Hindu racist organizations and their leaders who regularly call for violence against Muslims. How come their organizations are not subject to any scrutiny, let alone raids and such? These people are allowed to go free, they are not punished,” activist Kavita Krishnan told Al Jazeera.
Krishnan said the attacks – which she described as “Islamophobic profiling” – were reminiscent of those carried out against another Muslim group, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in 2000.
“We know what happened as a result of these raids (on SIMI). So many innocent people who were not involved in any crimes were profiled and implicated in so many cases. They were acquitted much later in these cases and found not guilty. They needlessly had to spend time in prison,” she said.
“The danger is that PFI will also lead to a similar situation.”
SIMI, established in 1976, was banned soon after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Many people allegedly associated with the group were arrested on terrorism charges. Most of them were released after spending years in prison and the courts found no evidence against them.
In one incident in 2001, 127 Muslim men were arrested during a seminar in the state of Gujarat and charged with links to terrorism. Last year, a local court acquitted all the men, declaring them innocent. Five of them died during the trial.
“I feel that if there is a specific charge against a specific crime against a specific person, pursue that. But branding entire organizations and ideologies as criminal is something the Supreme Court has repeatedly said should not be done. Even belonging to an organization cannot be a crime,” Krishnan said.