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Arif Mohammed Khan was no stranger to Kerala when he took charge as the governor of the state on September 6, 2019.
As a Janata Dal leader, he was an old friend to the Left parties, and for the Congress he was the son who walked from the family.
His appointment, nonetheless, came as a surprise. Everyone was expecting a hardcore Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party ‘karyakarta’ or worker in the Thiruvananthapuram Raj Bhavan, given the political climate then. The state BJP leadership was fed up with Justice P. Sadasivam’s more-than-cordial relationship with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and had conveyed this to the national leadership. But the latter had other plans.
Confusion was evident among the ruling front and opposition on how to tackle BJP’s game plan. CM Vijayan extended a very friendly approach towards the governor initially. But Khan, who was only the second Muslim to be appointed as governor under Narendra Modi’s rule, appeared to have had a well-chalked-out plan. Everything that has happened since his appointment suggests that this plan is still being followed.
BJP has a reputation of nominating well accepted personalities as governors of Kerala. Sikander Bakht and P. Sadasivam are Khan’s predecessors.
Despite having earned a reputation as a perpetual turncoat, Arif Mohammed Khan too seemed to fit the bill. His public image reflected him as the champion of Muslim women’s rights. He certainly had the cultural capital of an elite, north Indian Muslim.
However, with the BJP non-existent in the Kerala assembly, a BJP-appointed governor has little role to play to further Delhi’s political interests.
In this, Khan showed the shrewdness of a consummate politician from the moment he took office. His stand was often contrary to that of the state and the chief minister.
Master of face-offs
M.A. Baby, a CPI(M) Politburo member recently wrote on Facebook that he had a very warm relationship with Khan in the 1980s, when he was a Union minister. Despite enjoying a reformist image inside the Muslim community, he ended up joining the BJP, Baby wrote.
“He served as a Muslim face projected to justify the fascist politics of annihilating the minority. He not only protects the interests of the BJP, but also pollutes our atmosphere by insulting erudite historians like Irfan Habib,” Baby then said.
The first faceoff between the Kerala government and the governor centred on a resolution against the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by the Kerala assembly which the latter thought “was a wastage of time and public money for extraneous purposes like passing resolutions on subjects on which the state has no jurisdiction.”
The governor’s open criticism came after he faced stiff resistance from veteran historian professor Irfan Habib when he misquoted Maulana Azad at the Indian History Congress at Kannur University.
He went on to allege that it is the Indian History Congress that advised the state government against cooperating with the Union government.
“I don’t think the Kerala government has any problem with the Citizenship Amendment Act. People like Irfan Habib are the decision-makers here. From a legal viewpoint, these historians’ advice is criminal,” Khan said in an unofficial media briefing in the side-lines of an event in Kochi in January 2020.
Shri #IrfanHabib tried on stage to disrupt inaugural address questioning Hon'ble Governor's right to quote #MaulanaAbdulKalamAzad, shouting that he should quote Godse.He pushed Hon'ble Governor's ADC&SecurityOfficer, who prevented his unseemly gesture #IndianHistoryCongress pic.twitter.com/P7hA2HZQg8
— Kerala Governor (@KeralaGovernor) December 28, 2019
Hon'ble Governor said that he had responded to points raised by previous speakers,as a person duty bound to defend &protect the Constitution.But trying to disrupt speech from stage&audience due to intolerance towards different opinion is undemocratic #IndianHistoryCongress pic.twitter.com/UDCElnui7I
— Kerala Governor (@KeralaGovernor) December 28, 2019
In his first policy address on January 29, 2020, amid shrill sloganeering by the opposition, he did manage to put on record his disagreement about the resolution adopted by the assembly demanding the roll back of the CAA and the plea filed in the Supreme Court by the Kerala government. It was the first time in the history of the state assembly that a governor strayed away from a policy address approved by the council of ministers.
Several more episodes of ‘government versus governor’ played out during the last three years.
Often, the government patched up with him as well.
In 2022 as well, Khan had refused to sign the policy address which he was supposed to deliver, this time alleging wastage of public money over the appointment of ‘excess’ number of personal staff to the ministers. This was after the government expressed its displeasure over the appointment of a BJP leader in the Raj Bhavan.
A compromise was made after the government transferred the IAS officer who issued the press statement in this regard, hours before the assembly session was to commence.
The Congress-led opposition, it became clear, was the real beneficiary of this face-off between Arif Mohammed Khan and the LDF government. The opposition has seldom missed a chance to protest against the governor and at the same time blame the government for playing a ‘settlement game’. There was more than one incident when the opposition raised slogans against the governor and boycotted him in the assembly.
The latest episode of the tussle was triggered with the appointment of Priya Varghese, the wife of the chief minister’s private secretary. The Raj Bhavan feels it is a clear case of nepotism.
Even before this, Khan had sat on the file for the reappointment of Dr Gopinath Ravindran, as the Vice-Chancellor of Kannur University. It was Dr. Ravindran who had presided over the ICHR function where Irfan Habib raised his dissent against the governor in 2019.
Interestingly it was K.K. Ragesh – the private secretary to the CM and the husband of the candidate in question in the appointment controversy – who was then a Rajya Sabha member and who raised the issue of the CAA in the function. Ragesh’s speech in English caught the attention of the governor. When he tried to reply there was protest from the audience.
It is obvious that the political stance of Arif Mohammed Khan serves as the fulcrum of all these episodes.
‘Arif Mohammed Khan is known to hold a grudge and he does not let go of any one who has confronted him. It is evident throughout his political career. When Muslim organisations came at him in the mid-80s during the Shah Bano case, his then party, the Indian National Congress, did not support him. This led to his exit from the party. He is yet to forgive neither the Congress nor the Islamic organisations,” observes political commentator and historian, Ashraf Kadakkal.
Indeed even after three years of the incident at the ICHR function, Khan still carries the bitterness of it. He has called Irfan Habib a ‘goonda’ (thug) and Raveendran, a ‘criminal’.
In his latest interview to The New Indian Express, Khan also points his finger towards K.K. Ragesh without naming him, by saying that the chief minister is “under tremendous pressure,” and is forced to do things even against his will.
Contrary to previous incidents, this time, the CPI(M) has decided to take the governor on, with its state secretary issuing a strongly-worded statement against Khan.
The party secretary squarely blamed the RSS for using the governor as a tool for the political game plan of the Union government and termed it as a threat to democracy and federalism. Balakrishnan accused the Kerala governor of acting as a “commander-in-chief” in implementing the Modi government’s policy against minorities and secularism.
Apart from seeking explanation from the V-C of the Kannur University for the appointment of Priya Varghese as associate professor in the department of Malayalam, the governor had constituted a search committee to find the next V-C of Kerala University without consulting the state government. The university senate has already passed a resolution against the governor’s move but he seems to be in no mood to yield.
Against this backdrop, the Kerala government introduced the University Laws Amendment Bill on August 24 in the assembly. It is under the consideration of the assembly select committee. Among other amendments proposed in the Bill, the number of members in the search committee to find candidates for V-Cship has been increased from three to five, with nominees of the state government and State Higher Education Council finding place.
Even though the Kerala government is going ahead with the Bill, the governor is hardly in a compromising mood. He has already made it clear that no Bill that he thinks is against the spirit of the constitution and capable of curtailing the autonomy of universities will be signed by him at any cost.
If he refuses to sign the bill, a constitutional crisis is imminent, say legal and constitutional experts. According to N.K. Jayakumar, legal expert and former assembly secretary, this is a crisis that the constitution had not foreseen and there is no remedy within the constitution for such a conflict between the governor and the state government.
The Kerala government has to get Khan’s assent for 11 more bills. The same number of ordinances lapsed as Khan refused to sign them.
Similarly in Tamil Nadu, as many as 21 bills, including two parallel to Kerala’s university amendment bill are yet to be signed by the governor despite Chief Minister M.K. Stalin meeting R.N. Ravi in person.
Khan, though, is firm. He has gone ahead with the selection process of the V-C of Kerala University without including the member nominated by the university in the committee.
Khan has also found an unexpected ally in the Congress-led opposition. It has been openly supporting the governor against the LDF government on this issue. The opposition leader has urged the governor not to assent to the University Amendment Bill and the Lokpal Amendment Bill, which according to him will render the Lokayukta ‘toothless’.
“It is not good for universities that an individual is taking control of the appointment of the V-C. It should be an inclusive and collective process. But here the government has got itself in a fix, and the governor has an advantage now. The state government could have avoided the appointment controversy in Kannur University – which would have given them a better position to fight the governor on other issues,” says Ashraf Kadakkal.
Meanwhile, the controversy over the Kannur University appointment and the governor’s derogatory remarks on the V-C and Habib have created a furore in the academic community. More than fifty eminent historians and other academics have issued a statement against the Kerala governor.
“We are shocked to learn from the media that the Governor of Kerala, Arif Mohammad Khan, has described the V-C of Kannur University, the eminent historian, Professor Gopinath Ravindran as a “criminal.” Professor Gopinath Ravindran is one of India’s leading historians, with a particular specialisation in the agrarian history of Kerala and historical demography,” the statement read.
Professor Ali Nadeem Rezavi, former chairman and co-ordinator of the Centre for Advanced Study at the Department of History at Aligarh Muslim University recently posted a note on Khan, on social media.
“If previously he (Arif Mohammed Khan) stood with Muslim communalists, trying to vitiate communal passions, now he stands with Hindutva forces. But on one point he remained constant: his hatred towards the left!”
“He opposed the Left when he was a student leader at AMU and labelled them “anti-Muslim”. Now that he has joined the Hindutva, his “Left” hatred is again at the peak,” Rezavi said.