India has banned an Islamic organization, accusing it of involvement in terrorism and calling it a threat to the country’s security.
The ban on the Popular Front of India was announced Wednesday following a countrywide crackdown that saw over 250 of its members arrested in recent days. The ban includes the group’s affiliates and will remain in place for five years.
A day before the group was outlawed, it had denied accusations of anti-national activities and called the action against its members a “witch hunt.”
Its political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India, has denounced the action, calling it “a direct blow on democracy and the rights of the people.”
The government has listed a series of charges against the Popular Front of India, which was formed about 15 years ago.
It said that the group and its associates have been involved in “serious offenses including terrorism and its financing, gruesome targeted killings, disregarding the constitutional set up of the country.”
The Home Ministry said that the Popular Front of India had links with global terrorist groups and some of its members had joined Islamic State and participated in terror activities in Syria and Iraq.
The government said the group has “been pursuing a secret agenda to radicalize a particular section of the society” while ostensibly operating as a socio-economic, educational and political organization.
The group first came drew attention after a court convicted several of its members for cutting off the hand of a college professor accused by some Muslim groups of asking derogatory questions about the Prophet Muhammad in an examination.
Although largely confined to a handful of southern Indian states for years, its influence had spread to other regions since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government came to power eight years ago.
Calls for a ban on the group grew after its role in fueling anti-government protests came to light in recent years.
Earlier this year, authorities in southern Karnataka state accused the Popular Front of India of supporting protests that erupted after a school banned female students from wearing hijabs. The group also supported demonstrations against a citizenship law that India enacted in 2019 that critics said discriminates against Muslims.
Senior ministers in the government welcomed the ban. Junior Foreign Minister V. Muraleedharan said that it showed that the Modi government "acts tough" with forces aiming to disrupt peace and stability.
The move comes at a time when critics have accused the government of discrimination against Muslims, who make up about 13 percent of the country’s population.
“Freedom of speech, protests and organizations have been ruthlessly suppressed by the regime against the basic principles of the Indian constitution,” the Social Democratic Party of India said in a statement. It accused the government of misusing investigation agencies to “silence the opposition.”
Pointing out that the ban comes at a time “when there is a tendency of radicalization,” political analyst Rasheed Kidwai said “in that context if the assessment of the government is that this organization was becoming a threat to society and civil order, it is within its rights to impose a ban.”
But he added that there needs to be “an objective assessment” of the situation by intelligence agencies. “We know the tendency to move right is not confined to one social group, caste or region in the country. So, there is a need to keep a strict vigil on all,” according to Kidwai.