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The importance of Arif Mohammad Khan

Khan's hard stance allows the BJP to push its anti-minority discourse, which rationalises violence against the community
Last Updated : 10 November 2022, 07:20 IST

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Arif Mohammad Khan, Kerala Governor, misses no occasion to reference his progressive stand on the Shah Bano case to claim the high moral ground against critics. He did this in his recent run-in with the Jamat-e-Islami run MediaOne TV Channel. While it stands him well with the BJP to attack Muslim practices from a secular position, the twists and turns of his political career tell a more complex story.

Khan is the last of the anti-Congress acolytes led by former prime minister V P Singh, who still holds public office. Like Arun Nehru and Satyapal Malik, the other original members of V P Singh's Jan Morcha –– Khan too has found his ultimate political home in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It demonstrates the failure of the Indian polity to throw up a viable secular party right or left of the Congress. "Anti-Congressism" of the Socialists and VP Singh on the left and the Swatantra Party on the right, has never been able to hold its own outside the Congress as national parties, and ultimately all variants became closely aligned with the BJP at some point in their political journey.

Arif Mohammad Khan's political trajectory is interesting because many saw in him a Muslim reformer. He undoubtedly took progressive positions on the customs and practices of Muslims in India – reflected in his famous stand against his friend and prime minister Rajeev Gandhi and his opposition to triple-talaq. However, he has always been ideologically right-wing and anti-Left.

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He began as an anti-Left student leader in the Aligarh Muslim University, becoming the students' union president in 1972-73. He was talent spotted by Piloo Mody, a founder of the avowedly Centre-Right, Swatantra Party. Mody took his protégé with him when he merged the Swatantra Party into the Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD) of Chaudhary Charan Singh. Khan rose to become the general secretary of the BKD's youth wing, and contested his first election under the symbol of the BKD for the Uttar Pradesh legislative Assembly and lost. He won the same seat in 1977 after BKD merged with the Janata Party, a conglomeration of anti-Congress opposed to the Emergency of Indira Gandhi.

While his movement from the Swatantra Party to BKD and then to Janata Party was ideologically consistent, the subsequent transition to the Congress seems opportunistic in retrospect. Though he was jailed during the Emergency, Khan campaigned for Mohsina Kidwai of the Congress in Azamgarh in 1978, and two years later, he joined the Congress and won the Lok Sabha seats from Kanpur in 1980 and from Bahraich in 1984.

1986 was a turning point in Khan's career when the Supreme Court's Shah Bano judgement gave Muslim women the right to alimony. The Congress initially fielded Khan, a minister, to defend the judgement in Parliament. However, faced with opposition from the Muslim clergy and the Muslim Personal Law Board, it backtracked. A different minister, Z A Ansari, was then fielded to oppose the Supreme Court judgement in Parliament, and a law was brought in to reverse the judgement.

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Circumstances and media hype gave Khan, the halo of a Muslim reformist, publicly humiliated by Rajeev Gandhi's political somersault. Since then, Khan's hard definition of secularism and his position on the ills of Muslim society in India, have remained unchanged, although the context of that debate has been considerably altered by larger political changes. Instead of addressing the community as a reformer, he has preferred to work through the BJP and consequently, his political pronouncements have taken on an anti-minority edge consistent with the BJP's ideology.

After his expulsion from the Congress in 1987, Arif Mohammad Khan, along with party rebels Arun Nehru, V C Shukla and V P Singh, formed the Jan Morcha with Satyapal Malik. V P Singh went on to become prime minister. His National Front government was supported by both the Left parties and the BJP. No one expressed misgivings about BJP's support though the government fell later after the BJP withdrew support over the issue of the Ram Rath Yatra.

After failing to create his anti-corruption platform into a party that was both anti-Congress and secular, most of VP Singh's acolytes eventually went into the BJP. Satyapal Malik was appointed as governor by the BJP and was its cat's paw in Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Goa and Arunachal Pradesh. Arif Mohammed Khan also moved to the BJP after another opportunistic stint with the Bahujan Samaj Party and was appointed Governor of Kerala in 2019. His political restlessness, despite achieving high constitutional office, shows that he nurses still greater political ambitions.

An assiduously cultivated image as a reformist Muslim serves him well. He quotes with facility both from the Indian Constitution and the Holy Quran, stands against 'minority appeasement', criticises madrasa education and the wearing of hijab by young girls to school and college. Holding the Muslim community responsible for its problems, his secularism believes that the minority community needs no special protection. It is consistent with the BJP's position that special protection for the minorities is "pseudo-secularism."

Arif Mohammad Khan's Constitutional secularism abhors the designation of citizens as part of the majority or minority communities and suits the BJP. The party can uphold a "model Muslim" like Khan as the leader the community never had. It permits them to attack other wannabe Muslim leaders, as "fundamentalist" or backward-looking– from Imam Bukhari at one time to Asaduddin Owaisi today. Khan is an important foil for aspiring Muslim leaders who will not disown the communally charged context in which identity politics is playing out today.

While confrontations of Governors and governments of non-BJP states now take place on a daily basis, Khan is especially important to the BJP. His hard stance allows the BJP to push its anti-minority discourse, which rationalises violence against the community for its insensitive choice of food (beef), dress (hijab in educational institutions), religious practices (loudspeakers in mosques for calling the faithful to prayer, offering of Namaz in public places) and social mores (triple talaq, refusal to accept a Uniform Civil Code). His interpretation of secularism puts the onus on the community to give up the markers of its social and religious identity or risk being represented as opposing the secular values of the Constitution.

(The author is a journalist based in Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 10 November 2022, 07:09 IST

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