Arif Mohammad Khan has been appointed as the governor of Kerala because he now symbolises the BJP’s version of a ‘good Muslim’.
His aggressive support for the criminalisation of triple talaq, no doubt, has also contributed to his recent upward political mobility. Yet, his appointment as the governor cannot entirely be reduced to his assertive public image as the champion of Muslim women’s right.
As a ‘good Muslim’, Khan symbolises an acceptable political metaphor, used by all political parties to describe the ideal image of an average Muslim citizen in the country.
The BJP’s version of ‘good Muslim’, however, is remarkably different from the Congress’ Muslims, which makes it relevant today.
Qualifications for a good Muslim
There are three fundamental requirements for being classified as a good Muslim in Indian politics.
Owning cultural capital
One should have the cultural capital to demonstrate that he/she may be considered a legitimate Muslim leader/representative.
Family lineage, education, political background and access to political power are inseparable constituents of this cultural capital.
The popular distinction between conservative Ulema versus modern-liberal Muslims is not at all relevant here. Almost all known Muslim leaders of the first generation after Independence came from rich and powerful families. They invested their cultural capital in politics to carve out a space for themselves.
One of the most unapologetic explanations of the cultural capital came up in the 1990s when Indian politics was deeply divided into secular and communal camps.
Emphasising on the secular contribution of a few ‘progressive’ Muslim families, Mushirul Hasan in his book, Legacy of Divided Nation: India’s Muslims Since Independence (published in 1997), argued that progressive intellectuals inherited secular values from their families and upheld the cause of secularism in India.
Hasan talks about the family of Mohammad Habib (the Aligarh historian), and his brother, Mohammad Mujeeb, and Habib’s son Irfan Habib, who, according to him, contributed a lot to the secularisation of India. He also discusses the family of journalist Seema Mustafa, “who is a part of the Kidwai clan, the home of Rafi Ahmad Kidwai. Her grandmother was a freedom fighter and social activist; the family of Hasan Suroor, a London based journalist, whose father, despite being a British civil servant, was a sympathiser of Congress and whose mother gave up her burqa (veil) to participate in social activities” (Hasan, p. 320).
No one can question the contribution of these individuals. At the same time, however, the cultural capital inherited by them cannot be ignored.
Being politically correct
The cultural capital does not transform an elite Muslim into a good Muslim. He/she should subscribe to the dominant political correctness to demonstrate his/her political value.
The Muslim leaders of the Congress in the 1960s always called upon the Muslims to become the part of the national mainstream. In their writing and speeches, they invoked symbols such as the Taj Mahal and/or individuals such as Mughal ruler Akbar to highlight the expected role of an ideal Muslim in India. No one, however, emphasised the active participation of common Muslims in electoral politics as a Muslim contribution. The electoral compulsion of the Congress actually forced them to describe Muslim presence strictly in terms of a memory of a royal Muslim past.
Toeing party line
Adherence to the party line is also very important to qualify as a good Muslim. The role played by the Congress Muslims in the Shah Bano case is a revealing example. There were many ‘progressive’ Muslims associated with the Congress at that time. However, they abided by the party line and did not question the manner in which the All India Personal Law Board, especially its leader, Ali Mian Nadwi, was appeased and used by the Congress for political purposes. In fact, Arif Mohammad Khan was the only leader who went against this Congress-driven political correctness in 1986. He walked out of the Rajiv Gandhi government because he differed with its stand on the Shah Bano case.
Distinctiveness of BJP’s Good Muslims
The BJP’s version of good Muslims does not ignore these three qualifications. Zafar Sareshwala, Zafar Islam, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Shah Nawaz Husain, Najma Heptullah, and Arif Mohammad Khan, do have cultural capital of their own; they abide by the dominant political correctness and they are honest followers of BJP’s line on Muslims.
However, they are different from the Congress’ good Muslims in two ways.
First, the Congress’ good Muslims assert Muslimness in a positive way to underline a highly simplistic interpretation of Nehru’s ‘unity in diversity’ thesis. To defend nationalism of Muslims, they often argue that although Islam came from outside, it amalgamated with Indian tradition; and, precisely for this reason, Muslims are patriotic and nationalists.
The BJP’s good Muslims have to demonstrate Muslimness as an intrinsic problem of India’s national identity. They subscribe to the formulation that Islam is alien to argue that Muslims have not yet fully adopted the Indian culture and tradition. Hence, Islam needs to be reformed and Muslims have to be adequately Indianised.
Zafar Islam’s suggestion that Muslim must give up self-imposed isolation; Najma Heptullah’s argument that Muslims should look at their own problems first; and Arif Mohammad Khan’s stand on the Uniform Civil Code (as if it is only about Muslims!) stems from the old Indianisation thesis of the RSS.
Second, the BJP’s Muslims have to prove that Muslims do not and cannot embrace the BJP. This Muslims versus BJP posturing helps them not only to secure their status as nationalists, but also contribute to the dominant anti-Muslim discourse, which revolves around the possibilities of isolation and/or radicalisation of Muslims in India.
So, it is inevitable for leaders like Arif Mohammad Khan to represent Muslims as an unsolved issue. After all, he is the perfect good Muslim of our time.
The author is associate professor at CSDS, and author of the new book titled Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India. Views are personal.