New Delhi: Arif Mohammad Khan has had an eventful political journey. After kicking off his political career in 1997 as an MLA candidate from Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal, then making pit stops as a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government and later as a Janata Party lieutenant under V.P. Singh’s leadership, and later joining and then leaving the Bharatiya Janata Party, he has now been designated as the governor of Kerala under the Narendra Modi government.
On September 1, the erudite Khan, throughout an aggressive critic of Islamic fundamentalism, was appointed as the governor of Kerala – a state which the Bharatiya Janata Party desperately wants to get hold of. Remember, Union home minister Amit Shah had alerted his party cadres not to get complacent before they wrest Kerala and West Bengal – two of the most politically-conscious states which have mounted the strongest resistance to the nationwide saffron surge in recent times – from the opposition.
According to him, BJP’s “golden era” will dawn only when the saffron party clinches these two states.
Now, the BJP-led Union government has entrusted Khan with leading its political and governmental struggle in Kerala. Khan stood out in the list of people who were made governors in the latest round of appointments on Sunday. All the other leaders who were chosen belong to the saffron camp. Kalraj Mishra, governor of Himachal Pradesh, was shifted to politically-influential Rajasthan, while senior party leaders Tamilisai Soundararajan, Bhagat Singh Koshyari and Bandaru Dattatreya were given the responsibilities of Telangana, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh, respectively.
Khan joined the BJP in 2004, only to resign from it in 2007 when he claimed he was ignored by the saffron party. He contested as a BJP Lok Sabha candidate in 2004, but lost.
Given that history, Khan is technically the only outsider to secure a gubernatorial position in this round of appointments.
For many analysts, this is a win-win situation for both Khan and the BJP.
Khan has been staunch nationalist and a devoted secular, who is well-versed in religious and historical texts. He has consistently attacked conservative trends within Islam, called for greater social reform in the Muslim community and has taken principled stances against Islamic fundamentalism, sometimes even at the cost of his political career.
Who can forget the way he defied the Congress party’s official line to defend the 1986 Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case, which ruled that a victim of triple talaq should be given alimony by the family of her former spouse? Considered by many as one of the favourites of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Khan, then a Union minister, broke away from Congress ranks when his party brought in the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill to nullify the apex court’s judgement.
The Rajiv Gandhi government, with its absolute majority, caved in to pressures from the Muslim orthodoxy but Khan did not. He supported the nationwide agitation led by progressive women’s groups against the government, and stood in support of Shah Bano who had sought alimony from her former husband.
He joined the Janata Dal, but remained an outsider there too. It is alleged that the other rebel Congress leader who had become the face of Janata Dal, V.P. Singh, too tactically kept him out of the action in the campaign, fearing an orthodox backlash from Muslim leaders. Singh went on to win the election from Allahabad and become India’s seventh prime minister in the National Front government.
Since then, Khan has mostly been out of active political life. His interventions surfaced again in recent years, when he supported the Modi government’s move to criminalise instant triple talaq. Khan has always been an advocate of punishing men who divorce their wives through the regressive practice with imprisonment of up to three years.
But then on, most of his interventions have been supportive of the Union government’s decision. He has favoured an aggressive approach towards Pakistan, and has criticised those who want bilateral conversations to continue. He firmly believes the Army is the real establishment in Pakistan and that it would never allow friendly relations with a secular India. He has also been a loud critic of global advances of Islamism.
In recent times, he has wholeheartedly agreed with the government on the issue of Article 370, and has in fact commended the BJP-led government’s move to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
At the same time, he has maintained a conspicuous silence on growing Hindutva fundamentalism in the country.
For the BJP, there can be no one better than Khan at present to fit the bill. Despite its trajectory of Hindutva politics and anti-Muslim positions, BJP under Modi has attempted to project itself as a party which believes in ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas‘.
While the ground reality may be far from this slogan, Khan’s appointment will create positive optics for the saffron party.
Arif Mohammad Khan, progressive Muslim face in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, who stood up and eventually resigned in protest against his regressive appeasement politics, made Governor of Kerala. This should be a moment of introspection for the country. Do we EVER want Congress back?
— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) September 1, 2019
Khan’s political positions, if seen ideologically, have often been in stark variance with the BJP. But political circumstances in India have brought them together, and Khan has eventually chosen to tighten those knots.
He may be principally against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s idea of a Hindu rashtra, but by accepting the appointment, he has definitely lent an able helping hand to its political avatar, the BJP.
The saffron party has been actively campaigning against the alleged growth of Islamist fundamentalism in Kerala, and has accused the Left and Congress parties of covering it up. Khan’s interventions against such extremism, the party would hope, will continue. A possible tussle between the governor and the ruling Left Front, as a result, may also give a window to the BJP to make inroads in state politics.
V. Krishna Ananth, professor of history at Sikkim University and the author of India Since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics, believes that what separates Khan from other secular critics of religious fundamentalism is that the former is a career politician.
“Khan is an intellectual, well-versed in Islamic texts. He went against the party line when other Muslim intellectuals in the Congress party like Salman Khurshid never had the courage to oppose the Muslim orthodoxy. Khurshid supported the government when it banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. He also stood with the government on Shah Bano. Khan did not.”
“That is one part of him. But that he accepted an offer by a government which is perceived as standing on the other side of religious fundamentalism, also separates him from secular Muslim intellectuals like historian Irfan Habib or Mushirul Hasan or activists like Asghar Ali Engineer.”
“All these people have always found themselves at the receiving end of attacks from fundamentalists of all religions,” Ananth said, adding that Khan may have surrendered to his political ambitions.
Recently, in an interview defending the Union government’s decision to read down Article 370, Khan said he was against any “special power” to the state but firmly supported “greater federal powers” to states.
Kerala, with the highest literacy rate in India and best human development indices, is rebuilding itself after two years of intense floods. The government has been demanding greater autonomy and finances to handle the crisis. In his new position, Khan’s task is therefore cut out for him.
Whether he will assist the government in bringing the state out of a crisis or will confine himself to being the Centre’s representative remains to be seen. For now, Khan has turned around his political career, from a perpetual outsider to an insider, ironically in the saffron camp.