Rampur, Uttar Pradesh: In a lane behind the looming walls of Rampur district jail Wednesday, six days before his constituency goes to polls, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan is locked away inside his house — a prisoner of his own device.
Large groups of men wait outside the iron gates of Khan’s residence. As the door opens, a tall, big-built man draped in the SP colours lets them in. Through the crack in the entry-way, one can see the men approach a netted window — hands folded, voices whispering in reverence as they speak to Khan or his spectre, standing just behind it.
Even the windows of Khan’s house are barred with black-iron grates, and of the scores of supporters hovering in wait, only one happens to be a woman. She is told that Abdullah Khan, Khan’s son and Suar MLA, will visit the SP office in an hour — he doesn’t.
No reporters are allowed inside. The Samajwadi Party has found a new enemy in the media after they “made Azam Khanji into Ravaan”, the Rampur candidate’s press secretary Shanu tells ThePrint.
“The minister has instructed Abdullah not to speak to any press,” he says.
On Monday, the Election Commission of India (EC) compelled Khan to hide inside his impenetrable fortress after the poll watchdog banned the nine-time Rampur MLA from campaigning for 72 hours for the Lok Sabha elections over his sexist and derogatory remarks against opponent and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Jaya Prada.
Speaking at a rally Sunday, Azam Khan had said: “People of Rampur, people of Uttar Pradesh and people of India, it took you 17 years to understand her reality. But I could recognise it in 17 days that she wears ‘khaki’ underwear.”
His son Abdullah, who responded Tuesday by saying that his father is being unfairly punished by the EC because he is a Muslim, only got back home from campaign rallies at 3 am Wednesday.
As of 11 am, Shanu says Abdullah is still asleep.
“Ma’am, yeh Rampur hai, yahaan barah baje se pehle kuch nahi hota (This is Rampur, nothing starts here before noon),” the SP worker guarding the door tells ThePrint.
Both Khan and his son refused to speak to ThePrint despite repeated attempts.
The battle for the Rampur Lok Sabha constituency has all the makings of an epic war — a bitter, personal rivalry between the two top candidates, a split Hindu-Muslim vote, a unique alliance between SP and Bahujan Samaj Party, and the pitting of two minority identities against each other. The BJP has fielded a ‘woman’ candidate, and Khan is Samajwadi Party’s Muslim mobiliser.
Congress candidate Sanjay Kapoor, a former MLA from Bilaspur, is barely even finding a mention in the contest.
Khan, 70, has built himself a bastion in Muslim-dominated Rampur. Having won nine times from the Vidhan Sabha seat, he has managed to establish a 40-year-old “haq (right)”, as constituent Rizwan calls it, over the political consciousness of his people. And “his” people they are.
Khan was born in Rampur and graduated from the Aligarh Muslim University with a bachelor’s degree in law in 1974. Before his entry into the SP in 1993, he had been a member of Janata Party (Secular), Lok Dal, Janata Dal and Janata Party — all houses of socialist politics.
In the many decades of his governance, Khan has left an indelible mark on the cityscape, literally — his name can be found written on road-signs, and nameplates, on archways of parks, and on the imposing 350-acre university he built allegedly using land illegally procured from Dalit farmers.
“The university has a ‘North Block’, a ‘South Block’, and even ‘Raisina Hills’, on the lines of the Delhi’s power centre, a wing dedicated to Mulayam Singh Yadav and one building has a host of paintings of just Azam Khan,” The Economic Times said in a report earlier this week.
When asked about his iron-grip over Rampur, Khan’s go-to response has been “Rampur mein upar Allah faisle karta hai, niche hum”, said the report.
The Rampur Vidhan Sabha city seat from where Khan has won houses a staggering 70.02 per cent Muslim population. But zoom out to a Lok Sabha constituency and the picture changes — Muslims constitute 50.57 per cent while Hindus make up 45.97 per cent, according to Census 2011.
This election is the first time that Khan has stepped onto the national stage, “because he has the people’s mandate. He didn’t want to stand, and he even sent a notice to Akhilesh Yadav in that regard, but how can he say no to the people of Rampur”, Shanu tells ThePrint.
Up against Khan this time is Jaya Prada who won the Lok Sabha elections from Rampur on a SP ticket consecutively in 2004 and 2009. At the time, the Rampur MLA was her trusted mentor and guide, introducing the famous Telugu and Bollywood actress to Uttar Pradesh politics in a bid to defeat the reign of Congress’s UP royalty Noor Banu.
Now, with support for the BJP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular, remaining strong on the ground, Jaya Prada is Khan’s worst nightmare come to life. She has resurrected herself from Samajwadi Party exile to battle it out against the very man who trained and then abandoned her over a decade ago.
“Azam Khan thought I would win under his guidance and sit at home or go back to Mumbai. But I worked and the people of Rampur supported me, and he couldn’t stand that,” Jaya Prada tells ThePrint.
Inner workings of SP
In 2009, after Khan was accused by Jaya Prada of circulating nude photographs of her, the SP had to let him go under mounting pressure from the media and opposition parties. But Khan, indispensable for his ability to streamline the Muslim vote, was back a short year later.
“The Samajwadi Party has a strong presence among the Muslim voter-base, significantly because of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s position and active involvement in the Babri Masjid issue. Azam Khan was one of the proponents of the Babri Masjid issue and through that he established closeness with the SP and its leader,” Badri Narayan Tiwari, a social sciences professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, tells ThePrint.
Today, Khan shares a closer relationship with the new SP chief Akhilesh. On Sunday, Akhilesh even jumped at Khan’s defence after the ‘underwear’ remark.
Their inner alliance was borne out of a common goal of sidelining Amar Singh, a political fixer who rose through the party ranks to gain proximity with SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav.
While Khan ruled over the regional politics of Rampur, becoming the Muslim face for the SP on ground, Jaya Prada’s entry in 2004 gave him an opportunity to defeat the Congress.
But as Singh’s influence over the former actress grew, the Rampur MLA begrudged the redirection of the spotlight.
Akhilesh, already vocally critical of Singh’s undue influence in the SP ‘family’, found a strategic ally in Khan who had a personal bone to pick with Singh.
Jaya Prada’s loyalty to Singh, and his role in the electoral defeat of Akhilesh’s wife Dimple in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, sealed the fate of both in 2010 with their expulsion. The official explanation was that the “party’s image was suffering because of them”.
The notorious Khan
Jaya Prada has remained a target for Khan for a decade now. During his brief exile from the party a decade ago, Khan worked overtime to sabotage Jaya Prada’s Lok Sabha candidature, openly supporting her opposition.
Last year, Jaya Prada compared Khan to Alauddin Khilji, in reference to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bollywood film Padmaavat, saying “kis tarah unhone mujhe pareshan kiya (He tormented me in so many ways”. A day later, Khan retorted in a meeting by saying, “Agar naachnewalon ke muh lagenge to siyasat kaise karenge (If we fight with dancing girls how will we do politics)”.
Shocking Remark: Senior Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan describes Jaya Prada as "Naachne Wali", says "Naachne Wali ke main muh ni lagta"! So much for women empowerment, you see! @Uppolice can we expect some action from you? pic.twitter.com/gzbc6Y7HW9
— Prashant Kumar (@scribe_prashant) March 11, 2018
But Khan’s notoriety extends beyond his electoral rivalries.
In 2014, in his capacity as an MLA, he mobilised the entire district police machinery to investigate the theft of his buffaloes. The cops eventually found seven of them, and three local police officers were fired from their posts for the lack of diligence during their night patrol duties.
“Azam Khan has always been a very complex and insecure person, right from his younger days when he passed out of Aligarh Muslim University and joined politics,” Congress leader Muhammad Kazim Ali Khan, Noor Banu’s son and former minister in the UP government, tells ThePrint.
“His family originally is not from Rampur, they’re from Nehtaur in the Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh. When he came to Rampur, he used to have a rented room and used to ride a Lambretta scooter.”
“Over a period of time, he used hate politics to get popular in the area, and soon became one of the first Rampur leaders who did politics by dividing the society,” Kazim adds.
While speaking at a 2014 election rally in Ghaziabad, Khan discredited all Hindu soldiers for the success of the Kargil War.
“Those who fought for victory in Kargil were not Hindu soldiers. In fact the ones who fought for our victory were Muslim soldiers,” he said.
A couple of years ago, an FIR was lodged against him for sedition in Bijnor over his remark that excesses by security forces in places like Kashmir, Tripura, Jharkhand and West Bengal had pushed “women to chop off the private parts of Army men”.
The Bajrang Dal even announced a cash reward of Rs 51 lakh in exchange for the head of the politician over his comments.
‘Every stone has Azam Khan’s name’
In Rampur city, a 21-year old Sikh constituent who runs an electronic store near Khan’s residence says it “takes guts to speak out against the man”.
“At a recent rally, Azam Khan told Sikhs, ‘Aap apni pagdi sambhalo (Keep your turban in check),’” the young Sikh man said.
“He made a terrible statement against somebody else’s religion, and he has no right to say that. Agar woh rajneeti kar rahe hain, toh kissi aur mudde ko uthakar karein, kisi ke bhi religion par na kare (If he’s doing politics, then it should be over issues and not religion),” the Sikh voter says on condition of anonymity.
The fear of Khan’s clout is so pervasive within the city that the Sikh constituent says “he would still offer him tea if he were to stop by”.
Kazim Ali Khan says the Rampur MLA is the kind of man “who would overturn vendor stalls if they were in his way”.
“He gets very insecure and intimidated when there’s a strong personality who is present on the provincial political scenario. He does not respect any woman, he never did, and this kind of abusive, derogatory language isn’t new for him,” Kazim adds.
A few lanes from Khan’s residence, Saleem, who has been a barber in Rampur for the past 12 years, says, “Of course I’ll vote for Azam Khan, he’s my neighbour, this neighbourhood is his.”
However, 40-year-old stamp vendor Sadat, while getting his beard shaved, says “the fight is very close this year”.
“If the Muslims stray from Azam Khan, then Jaya Prada has a real chance,” he adds.
‘Have made sure women are comfortable’
At the Samajwadi Party office in Rampur, hardly a woman can be found at 3 pm. When SP workers are asked about the sexist comments made by Khan, they say “nobody’s name was ever taken”.
Umender Singh Chauhan, chief district officer for the Samajwadi Party, says, “We have done everything possible to make sure that women are comfortable here.
“We have a separate room for them at the office, and when Azam Khan supported Jaya Prada’s Lok Sabha candidature from the SP, the kind of respect she received from Azam Khan’s party, she didn’t get anywhere else in the entire country,” says Chauhan.
“Whenever she would come to the office, workers would maintain at least a 3-foot distance from her so that no hand would touch any part of her body.”
Adar Khan, chairman of the SP office in Rampur, says credits Khan for “every stone, sewer, park, and building” in Rampur.
“Azam Khan has been responsible for all the ‘vikas’ in the entire Rampur district. If you find a stone with someone else’s name, he’ll step down from elections,” adds Adar.
But on the outskirts of Rampur city, where the constituency expands into a network of villages, Hindu voices have only one chant — “BJP”.