New Delhi: Bogged down by controversy, a sedition charge and a police raid at his home, the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) chief Zafarul-Islam Khan has developed a habit of pulling out his three different CVs whenever he is asked about what he has done for the country.
The 72-year-old keeps all of them handy — a very very short CV, a very short CV, and a short CV. “I could give you the full CV too, but it would be too much for you to read,” Khan told ThePrint.
In a career spanning over five decades, Khan said he has seen it all. “Bohot kaam kiya, par kabhi propaganda nahi kiya (I’ve done a lot of work, just not propaganda).”
Born in 1948 in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh, Khan attended two of the country’s most reputed madrasas for his schooling — Azamgarh’s Madrasa-tul-Islah and Lucknow’s Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama.
A little-known fact about Khan, that he doesn’t dwell on either, is that his father is the revered Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan — a Padma Bhushan awardee, who has been listed as one among the 500 most influential Muslims of the world.
“My grandfather had a greater influence on me as I spent a lot of my childhood with him. He was a sufi peer and so had a different, and softer approach than my father,” he said.
Khan went on to study Islamic history at Cairo University in Egypt when he was just 18 years old. Fluent in Urdu, Arabic and English, Khan then took a job as a translator and editor in the Libyan foreign ministry for six years. An “inherent, obsessive researcher” is how Khan describes himself.
Khan said it was to satiate this desire to continue his research that he got an admission in Manchester University to do a PhD on “the concept of Hijra (migration) in Islam”. Around the same time, he worked as a researcher at the The Muslim Institute, a London-based group of intellectuals and journalists.
“I enjoyed all my research, all my work. In fact, it’s my research that helped me write and edit close to 50 books in multiple languages, later in life,” Khan said. “But at some point in the late ‘80s, I decided I need to return to India, work for my country.”
On 1 May, Khan was slapped with sedition for a social media posts thanking Kuwait for “standing with Indian Muslims”, warning that Indian Muslims should not be pushed to reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world, while also praising the controversial preacher Zakir Naik. While Khan hasn’t deleted the controversial social media posts and continues to stand by them, he has, however, said they were ill-timed.
Khan was protesting the “growing tide of Islamophobia in India”. A week after that, his house was raided by the Delhi Police, which also seized the mobile phone from which he put out his social media posts. However, hardly a few minutes after news of the police showing up at his home in South Delhi began doing the rounds on WhatsApp and social media, a crowd gathered outside to show solidarity.
“I didn’t call any of them. I didn’t even tell anyone. This was all spontaneous and I am grateful for the support,” he said.
Khan protested against going to the police station for questioning, owing to his old age and other health issues making him susceptible to Covid-19, and later also wrote to the cyber cell about this. The Delhi High Court has granted him interim protection from arrest until 22 June but Khan had earlier told ThePrint that BJP’s “IT army” was threatening and humiliating him.
As heated as the face-off may have been, it was hardly the first time Khan has had to deal with the Delhi Police.
Rise and fall of The Milli Gazette
In 2000, Khan founded The Milli Gazette — a fortnightly newspaper and website which went by the tag-line, “the leading voice of Indian Muslims”. In 2016, a story published by the newspaper, which Khan was the editor-in-chief of, eventually caused it to shut shop.
The story, titled ‘We don’t recruit Muslims: Modi govt’s Ayush Ministry’, said the AYUSH ministry showed a bias in its hiring process, and that no Muslim was hired for its World Yoga Day programme the previous year. The story, allegedly based on an RTI reply, eventually led to an FIR against the reporter and a show cause notice against The Milli Gazette.
“We were finally cleared in the case, but it was a back-breaking process,” Khan said.
This, combined with the financial crunch the organisation suffered, caused it to stop production in December 2016 after a fairly smooth run of 16 years. It continues as a website, though publishes infrequently.
Abhay Kumar, a reporter who has worked with The Milli Gazette from 2013 onwards, described Khan as “one of the most open-minded and progressive” people he knows.
“It’s easy to give in to the lazy perception that he might be orthodox. But I worked with him very closely, and he always encouraged progressive ideas unlike traditional scholars,” Kumar told ThePrint.
Recalling a recent incident, Kumar said after the Tablighi Jamaat controversy in April he wanted to write for the website a counter to a piece by an author who happens to be close to Khan. He was not sure if Khan would publish it. “He (Khan) said it doesn’t matter if I agree with you or not. Ideas must not be suppressed. He promptly published that piece,” Kumar said.
In 2017, Khan was approached by the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party government to head the DMC — an offer he was pleasantly surprised to receive, and quickly accepted it.
Work as DMC chief
Though constituted by the Delhi government, the DMC is expected to function as an autonomous body, and to voice the issues faced by all minority communities.
“They probably expected me to lie low and be a dormant chief, but I looked at this job as an opportunity to actually do something for the minorities of this country,” he said.
In the aftermath of the February Northeast Delhi riots that left 53 people dead, a team of DMC members led by Khan conducted a fact-finding mission in the violence struck areas and called the riots “one-sided and well-planned” in a strongly-worded assessment report.
He later issued a notice to the Delhi Commission of Police for “random” arrests of Muslims every day during the lockdown.
Last month, Khan also wrote a letter to the Kejriwal government saying it was “fuelling Islamophobia” by mentioning the Tablighi Jamaat markaz-related Covid cases separately in its bulletin, following which the government changed the terminology, and subsequently dropped the categorisation.
“I also spoke extensively against the illegal detention of Tablighis in quarantine centres for 40 days. It was my responsibility to speak up. It’s literally my job,” he said.
His colleague at the DMC, Kartar Singh Kochar said Khan doesn’t like to waste time, or make “small talk”.
“He sits with his back facing the door of the office — only peering into his computer,” Kochar said. “People drop by wanting to make small talk. But he doesn’t like to waste his time on anything that doesn’t directly concern him and his work.”
Those in the ruling party in Delhi describe Khan as an “educated but emotional man”.
“He is an educated person so he should have known better than to turn towards Arab countries, who aren’t champions of minority rights themselves,” said an AAP leader, who did not wish be named.
“Khan should raise these issues more smartly, without getting emotional and combative about it. His outburst only played into BJP’s hands,” the leader added.
Khan, however, alleged that the controversy is part of another conspiracy to not let him continue as the DMC chief. “They don’t want me to get another tenure, that’s what this is really about,” he said. Khan’s three-year tenure ends in July this year.
‘Kejriwal not a messiah for Muslims’
Khan said Delhi CM and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal should never have been seen as a ‘messiah’ for the community.
“AAP is a political party. Like any other political party, they have their own interests to protect. In pursuit of this, sometimes they may just end up doing good,” he said.
“All political parties tend to force a Muslim face of their liking on the community, a Muslim face handpicked by them,” he added. “This isn’t how leaders are born. The country needs Muslim leaders who grow organically from within the community, and have widespread following and acceptance.”
After the FIR was registered against Khan, many prominent Muslim scholars and leaders had issued a statement calling for its withdrawal.
“People have known me and my work for decades, they know what I stand for,” Khan said.
‘Not made of stone, had sleepless nights’
Despite maintaining an apparently calm and collected demeanor, Khan said the past few weeks have shaken him up.
“It is tough, there are times when I have sleepless nights. The kids also worry about me, so it’s not easy. I am not made of stone,” Khan said. “Jail jaana hoga toh chale jayenge, Gandhi bhi gaye they, Nehru bhi gaye they (Will go to jail if I have to, Gandhi had also gone, Nehru had also gone).”
“I have defended India during the Kargil War extensively on international news debates. This is because I stand by the truth and stand by my country at all times, but people forget that,” Khan said.
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