How PFI grew its footprints in Assam

PFI Footprints In Assam: How The Outfit Grew From Scratch To Cover A Vast Swathe In The Border State

As the law enforcement agencies carry out a nationwide crackdown against the Popular Front of India, The Probe’s Rajeev Bhattacharyya explains how PFI spread its tentacles in Assam.

A demonstration by PFI functionaries at Hailakandi | Photo courtesy: PFI sources

Nearly a dozen leaders of the Popular Front of India (PFI) have been arrested in Assam as part of a crackdown on the outfit spanning several states across the country. 

PFI had begun to spread wings in Assam after the chapter was launched in the state seven years ago. In 2019, this correspondent was invited to attend the annual foundation day on 17 February in Baksa, located about 120 kilometres west of Guwahati, which was also attended by delegates from the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts Minority Students Union, All India Imam Council, Sanmilito Jonogosthiya Oikya Mancha and Campus Front of India (CFI).

The foundation day of PFI at Baksa in 2019 | Photo courtesy: Rajeev Bhattacharyya

After the meeting, the PFI leaders had disclosed their plans to extend the organisation’s reach to more areas in Assam. Their confidence stemmed from the ‘overwhelming response’ received from the people in a brief span across several districts of the state. Till 2019, as many as 19000 of its functionaries were active across 21 districts of the state. Besides western Assam, PFI has been growing speedily in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley.

In 2019, PFI also decided to get involved in the general elections in Assam by supporting “winnable” non-BJP candidates in five constituencies where Muslims have a deciding role out of a total of fourteen Lok Sabha constituencies in the state. At the PFI office in Hatigaon, some functionaries had told this correspondent that this was part of an all-India campaign in about a hundred constituencies in the entire country with the same goal of defeating the BJP.

A school established by PFI at Ravanar Char (Riverine Island) in Barpeta, Assam | Photo courtesy: PFI sources

Senior police and intelligence officials believe that the PFI is a radical Islamist outfit whose organisational structure is similar to the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan-al-Banna in 1928 and later streamlined by Sayyed Qutub to overthrow governments in Egypt. Its goal was to establish a puritanical Islamic rule in the Middle East and gradually spread to other countries in the world. It has been banned in Jharkhand and the Centre had actively considered adopting a similar policy towards the organisation some years ago.

PFI’s constitution, however, declares that its objective is to promote national integration, communal amity, and peace among different communities and to frame plans for the social, economic and educational development of minorities and backward classes.

A procession by PFI activists in protest against various issues somewhere in western Assam | Photo courtesy: PFI sources

In Assam, PFI has struck roots in the zones inhabited by Bengal-origin Muslims. The community consists of genuine citizens and illegal immigrants who are constantly apprehensive of being harassed or declared stateless. So far, the government has not been able to erect an efficient system for the identification of foreign nationals in the state. There have been many instances of citizens being declared as foreigners and foreigners enrolling as citizens through fraudulent means. When the National Register of Citizens was being updated, PFI had announced that it was opposed to the exercise to draw up a list of citizens in the state which was mandated by the Supreme Court.

Some government officials have also pointed to the ‘different strategy’ pursued by the organisation to spread its base in Assam. “Some interesting aspects are discernible with PFI’s policy in Assam. Till 2019, it never indulged in any activity that could be a reason for a crackdown. Its movement was peaceful, unlike other Islamist groups’ tactics in the state. But there seems to have been a change from the anti-CAA agitation in 2019 when anti-government propaganda became overt and aggressive,” an official claimed on condition of anonymity.

A squad of the PFI heading for a destination in Goalpara for assistance to flood affected victims | Photo courtesy: PFI sources

As it appears, before 2019, PFI had dedicated itself to spreading education among the illiterate sections of the Bengal-origin community in Assam. A scheme called “School Chalo” was started with the goal of opening schools in remote areas and riverine islands where no access to educational facilities exist.

An amount of Rs 1.4 crore was distributed to 2085 students for higher education as part of an all-India programme. Functionaries claimed that funds for the programmes were generated through ‘multiple sources’ with an emphasis on voluntary contributions from the locals and cadres. Besides education, health and raising awareness among the people on vital issues were also focused upon by the organisation.  

In the latest case, the Assam police have said that the outfit leaders were arrested for their alleged “efforts to foment communal strife throughout the state. They were indulging in whipping the communal passion and sentiments of the religious minority by criticising every policy of the government….”

A ‘People’s Conference’ held by PFI at Barpeta Road in 2018 | Photo courtesy: PFI sources

According to the police, the PFI had been overtly critical of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC), D-Voter (Doubtful Voter), the new state Education Policy, Cattle Protection Act, extension of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), eviction of settlers from encroached government land among other issues which were also termed by the organisation as an “attack on the Muslim community.” 

The other charges against the organisation were causing obstruction to government servants in the execution of policies, spreading mistrust and inciting people against the government and organising protests on several issues in “communally sensitive areas like Badarpur, Karimganj, Barpeta, Baksa, Kamrup(R), Goalpara and Kamrup(M) districts…” 

PFI’s activities in Assam have been under the scanner of the police and security agencies for the past several years. The police had prevented the outfit on at least three occasions from conducting its programmes at different venues in the state over the past five years.

Among the arrested in the recent crackdown was the Northeast regional secretary of PFI, Aminul Haque. In 2019, Haque and another functionary of the organisation were arrested for their involvement in the anti-CAA agitation that had rocked many states of the region.  

Subsequently, the Assam government had asked the Centre to ban the organisation ‘immediately’ due to its alleged involvement with subversive activities. Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma also pointed fingers at PFI’s involvement in some recent incidents of violence in the state, such as the burning of the police station at Batadrava in June and the protests at Gorukhuti when encroachers were evicted from government land. 

Rajeev Bhattacharya is a senior journalist in Assam in India’s northeast. He has worked with The Telegraph, The Indian Express, The Times of India and Times Now, and was the managing editor of Seven Sisters Post. He is a Chevening Fellow and author of “Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men” and “Lens & The Guerrilla: Insurgency in India’s Northeast.” He reports on India’s northeast and its border regions with Myanmar, Bhutan, China and Bangladesh.

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