After declaring PFI an ‘unlawful association’, Union Government directs social media platforms to purge PFI-related content

The Union Ministry of Information Technology’s notice directing social media has shades of censorship, besides causing derision.

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A day after the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (‘MHA’) notified the declaration of the Muslim political organisation, the Popular Front of India (‘PFI’) and several of its associate and front organisations as ‘unlawful associations’ under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (‘UAPA’), the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (‘MeitY’), on September 29, directed social media platforms “to remove any and all content” related to the PFI “in the interest of security of the state and to prevent any incitement and disruption of public order”.

MeitY’s notice, simply addressed to “All Social media platforms”, referred to their “obligation of due diligence, safety and trust”, and directed them to “comply immediately” with any order or notice issued by law enforcement agencies, or the appropriate government or its authorised agency regarding the removal of text messages, audio, video, photo or any other form of content pertaining to the PFI.

MeitY’s notice has led to dismay and derision with The Wire reporting that MeitY ordered removal of ‘any and all content’ related to a certain organisation, to suggest that the notice intended to ban even its own reporting faithfully by the social media.

The ban and its official rationale

On September 28, the MHA, through its power under Section 3(1) of the UAPA, notified that the PFI and its affiliates, including the Rehab India Foundation, the Campus Front of India, the All India Imams Council, the National Confederation of Human Rights Organization, the National Women’s Front, the Junior Front, the Empower India Foundation and the Rehab Foundation, Kerala, were declared as ‘unlawful associations’. Notably, the political wing of the PFI, the Social Democratic Party of India, was not mentioned in the notification.

As per the proviso to Section 3(3), the MHA made the notification effective immediately for a period of five years.

This followed raids by multiple Union and state law enforcement agencies across 15 states on September 22 and 27 on leaders and members of the PFI and its affiliate organisation, leading to the arrest of about 370 people.

Following the MHA notification, PFI announced later that day that it was dissolving. On the other hand, the Campus Front of India, PFI’s student wing, termed the notification “undemocratic and anti-constitutional”, and stated that it would judicially challenge the notification.

As per the MHA notification, PFI has “been pursuing a secret agenda to radicalize a particular section of the society working towards undermining the concept of democracy and show sheer disrespect towards the constitutional authority and constitutional set up of the country”, and “indulging in unlawful activities, which are prejudicial to the integrity, sovereignty and security of the country and have the potential of disturbing public peace and communal harmony of the country and supporting militancy in the country”.

It also claims that PFI has linkages with two other organisations – the Students Islamic Movement of India and the Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh – that are already proscribed as ‘unlawful associations’ under the UAPA, as well as with global terrorist groups. It further claims that PFI has “been working covertly to increase radicalisation of one community by promoting a sense of insecurity in the country, which is substantiated by the fact that the some PFI cadres have joined international terrorist organizations”.

The notification lists out various instances of PFI’s involvement in criminal and terror cases, as well as the cancellation of the registration accorded to it and Rehab India Foundation under the Income-tax Act. It notes that the state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat have recommended banning the PFI.

As per the provisions of the UAPA, any entity declared as an ‘unlawful association’ is prohibited from using any funds, and can have all its properties notified and seized. The membership of such an organisation is also penalised.

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