New Delhi: “A man of his own mind”, “politically astute”, “never forgets to respect opponents” is how friends and critics describe Arif Mohammed Khan, the governor of Kerala who has been making the news for his frequent spats with state Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Just two days ago, Khan alleged that the Kerala Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) was “patronising smuggling activities” and that the situation had given him “grounds to interfere”.
Vijayan, on the other hand, accused the governor — referring to his moves against university vice-chancellors — of “trying to implement the saffronisation agenda” of the Right wing and “trying to make universities in the state centres of the Sangh Parivar”.
In response, Khan has dared Vijayan, who heads Kerala’s Left Democratic Front alliance, to prove that he has “nominated even one person” from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The tussle between the offices of Khan and Vijayan has now become a regular affair in Kerala, where the governor took charge in September 2019 after he was “recommended for the post by (deceased BJP leader) Arun Jaitley”, according to K.C Tyagi, a Janata Dal (United) leader who was once Khan’s colleague in the erstwhile Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD).
Khan, in his almost 50-year political career that spans Chaudhary Charan Singh’s BKD, the Congress, the Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has kept controversy alive with his public run-ins with figures in authority, his stand against hard-line Muslim practices and links with the RSS.
In 1986, he shot to prominence as a result of his differences with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi over the passage of the Muslim Personal Law Bill during the Shah Bano case. More recently, he has backed the Modi government’s controversial triple talaq law, welcomed the Karnataka High Court order on the hijab row, and kept the Kerala government on tenterhooks since he took charge as governor.
Late last month, he called for the Kerala CM to sack state finance minister K.N. Balagopal. Before that, in August, he stayed the appointment of Vijayan’s private secretary K.K. Rajesh’s wife as an associate professor at Kannur University, and alleged a conspiracy to attack him physically when he was invited to the Indian History Congress in 2019.
He is also known as a Muslim intellectual who is well-versed in both the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran, and who has translated the national song, ‘Vande Mataram’, into Urdu.
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Student politics to national stage
Khan, who studied at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), started his political life as a student activist and was president of the university students’ union in the early 1970s.
“From his early days, he chose to oppose regressive Muslim practices and Left ideology, once going so far as to refuse to invite clerics into the university,” said a person close to him.
According to AMU professor Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Khan “opposed the Left when he was a student leader in AMU and labelled them ‘anti-Muslim’”.
“Now that he has joined Hindutva, his Left hatred is again at its peak,” Rezavi said, adding that “Arif is a pure politician who knows the direction of the wind”.
Later in the 1970s, Khan became associated with former Uttar Pradesh CM and PM Chaudhary Charan Singh, a farmer leader from western UP. He went on to become the general secretary of the youth wing of the BKD — which was later merged into the Janata Party — while Tyagi was the secretary of BKD’s youth morcha. Piloo Mody, one of the founding members of the Swatantra Party, was the general secretary of BKD.
Tyagi recalled: “Arif was close to Mody and we started in the youth morcha with Charan Singh. Soon, the Emergency was announced and we were all put in jail. In the 1977 election, after the lifting of the Emergency, Arif became an MLA (Siyana) for the first time on a Janata Party ticket at the age of 26. He was also made a deputy minister in UP, in charge of excise and waqf, but was sacked because of his differences with then CM Ram Naresh Yadav.”
Khan went on to campaign for Congress candidate Mohsina Kidwai in the Azamgarh bypoll of 1978. “She won the poll and he got all the entire credit,” said Tyagi.
In 1980, he joined the Congress. Then party chief Indira Gandhi gave Khan the chance to contest the 1980 Lok Sabha polls on a party ticket from Kanpur — a seat he won — and he was inducted into her cabinet as deputy minister in charge of information and broadcasting (1982-83). He later won the 1984 election from Bahraich and became a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet.
Shah Bano case
The defining point of Khan’s political carrier was the Shah Bano case when he was a minister of state holding the charges of home, energy and company affairs from 1984 to 1986.
Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister when the Supreme Court delivered a historic verdict in 1985 granting alimony to a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano. The Congress fielded Khan to speak in Parliament in favour of the judgment, which was criticised by the Muslim clergy and All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
Under pressure, the Rajiv Gandhi government brought in the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, which set aside the Shah Bano judgment.
Professor Ali Athar, of AMU’s history department, said: “Arif was fielded by the Congress to speak in Parliament, it was not his personal choice. Later, the party realised it would boomerang so it fielded another minister, Ziaur Rahman Ansari, to contradict Arif’s view and challenge the SC judgment. It was not Arif’s personal views but the Congress viewpoint that flip-flopped.”
In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi expelled his cousin Arun Nehru, former defence minister V.P. Singh and Khan from the Congress.
Khan and the two others subsequently started a nationwide agitation against the PM and went on to form the Jan Morcha, which later merged into the Janata Dal.
V.P. Singh went on to become prime minister in 1989, having formed the Janata Dal in 1988. Riding on the VP Singh wave, Khan became an MP from Bahraich again in 1989 on a Janata Dal ticket.
Tyagi recalls that “V.P. Singh was aware of Arif’s progressive stand on the Shah Bano episode, so in the 1991 Lok Sabha election, he did not call Arif to Allahabad to campaign as he was fearful that Muslims would not vote”.
After Singh’s government fell, Khan joined the BSP and became its general secretary. He fought the 1996 and 1998 elections on a BSP ticket.
Padamsen Chaudhary, former BJP MP from Bahraich who defeated Khan in the 1996 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, recalled: “First, Arif fought against my father Rudrasen in Bahraich; later, he was pitted against me. I defeated him in two elections, while he defeated me in 1998 on a BSP ticket.”
On Khan, Chaudhary added: “He kept changing parties but easily mobilised big leaders to campaign. However, he never forgot to respect his opponents. Even during elections, he used to cross my home and always exchanged greetings with my family members despite us being rivals.”
A stint with BJP and LJP
After the Gujarat riots of 2002, Khan resigned from the BSP to protest the party’s decision to join hands with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. In a letter to BSP chief Kanshi Ram, he wrote, “Since I stand committed to fight against communalism and the BSP has decided to align itself with the BJP, I see no moral way out but to part company, so I can devote myself totally to the cause of fighting against divisive forces”.
Khan next had a brief dalliance with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). Zafar Sareshwala, former chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University, said, “I got to meet Arif soon after the Gujarat riots. Khan and Paswan had come to Gujarat to work in Muslim bastis and heal wounds. He stayed here for more than 80 days. He was very candid and vocal about the rights of Muslims and what was wrong with the community.”
Two years later, Khan joined the very party he had so bitterly opposed and criticised. He contested the 2004 Lok Sabha elections from Kaiserganj seat on a BJP ticket, but lost.
Tyagi said, “He (Khan) was supposed to meet (then Congress president) Sonia Gandhi to make a comeback in the party, but he met the BJP and got a ticket in 2004.”
Three years later, however, Khan quit the BJP, accusing it of giving tickets to tainted leaders in UP.
In the decade since 2007, Khan maintained a public profile as a scholar and Muslim intellectual, writing and speaking on minority issues. He has also said he has maintained good relations with the RSS since the Shah Bano controversy.
How did Khan become governor of Kerala in 2019? Sareshwala recalled, “One day, when I was chatting with (then Union finance minister Arun) Jaitley, he asked me where Khan was these days. I sent a message to Arif saheb that Jaitley was enquiring about him. Later, I found out that he had been announced as the governor of Kerala,” he said.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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