At History Congress, Irfan Habib Leads Dissent Against Kerala Governor's Defence of CAA

While Arif Mohammed Khan accused the historian of 'heckling' him, those present at the event say the latter was merely registering his protest.

Trivandrum: When Arif Mohammed Khan, the governor of Kerala, arrived at Kannur University to inaugurate the 80th edition of the Indian History Congress, he had the text of his speech with him, which he put aside for an extempore response to some of the earlier speakers, including CPI(M)’s K.K. Ragesh. The Rajya Sabha MP and another speaker, Biju Kandakkai, who is a member of the university syndicate, had referred to contemporary political developments, including the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) across the country.

Ragesh’s speech caught the attention of the governor as he was speaking in English, unlike the other dignitaries on the stage.

“When he heard Ragesh referring to contemporary issues, the governor asked for a pen and pad to take notes of his speech,” says Kandakkai, a former central committee member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI).

After Dr Amiya Kumar Bagchi, the newly elected chair of the Indian History Congress concluded his address, Khan started his speech. (Bagchi was allowed to speak for 30 minutes and Khan for 31 minutes, as the governor should be given more time than any other guests as per the protocol.)

The governor did not read the written text but opted to go extempore to respond to the earlier speakers. At one moment, he personally addressed Ragesh, telling him that it was a rebuttal of his comments.

When the governor touched upon the subject of the CAA and defended the Centre, some participants started raising their voices in protest. When he said the house is open for discussion, two women delegates who were research fellows in the JNU, raised placards saying ‘this house (India) is not open for any discussions’. Even though the governor was heard saying that they have the right to protest democratically, the security officers tried to eject them.

A press release issued by the Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology, whose office bearers were present at the venue, says the protestors were “surrounded by the police who tried to enter into a physical scuffle and tried to take the two girls into custody”. It praises Ragesh for his “timely intervention”. “Soon a host of researchers from JNU, AMU, DU and Jamia were detained. Fortunately, they were all released within an hour. An attempt was also made to detain a senior professor from Aligarh,” the press release says.

Arif Mohammad Khan. Photo: PTI

Charged atompshere

By then, the atmosphere was charged. Participants, students and professors began chanting slogans against the governor’s “political remarks”. According to some delegates, Khan quoted Maulana Azad, saying “the Partition took the dirt away but some potholes were left behind, where water has collected and now it is stinking.” He told the protestors, “You are causing a foul smell. Maulana Azad had said this for you.”

This is when noted historian, professor Irfan Habib stood up and asked him to “quote Nathuram Godse” rather than Maulana Azad or Gandhi.

The Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology’s press release also details what happened on the stage immediately after the governor quoted Maulana Azad. It says:

“As the protests commenced, Professor Irfan Habib who was on the dais in the capacity of being the outgoing President of the IHC, got up from his seat and proceeded to the VC Kannur University, Professor Gopinath Ravindran to request him to stop what was happening and request the governor to refrain from turning IHC into his political arena and making remarks of the nature he was indulging in. As soon as Professor Habib went there, the ADC and the security officer of the Governor pushed him and tried to stop him. The Governor too started accusing Habib of trying to stop him from speaking.”

Kandakkai, who was present on the stage at the time, seconded this account. “Professor Habib did not heckle or physically prevent the governor from delivering the speech, but he was registering his protest,” he said.

On the other hand, the governor’s office took to Twitter to condemn Habib. In a series of tweets, he said that his speech was “interrupted on stage and from the audience”. He also accused professor Habib of trying to “physically stop him” from speaking. He claimed to have responded to points made by previous speakers as “a person duty bound to defend and protect the Constitution”.

Even though the governor did not say that he was manhandled or heckled, initial reports on electronic media ran amok with stories of professor Habib “challenging” the governor.

Speaking to the media, the historian said he does not “care what Arif Mohammed Khan says” about him. “I have known him from my days in Aligarh. But what concerns me is the action of the police, that too under a communist government,” he added, referring the detention of the protestors.

“The Governor was delivering a political speech at the history congress. I was also on the stage along with other dignitaries, Irfan Habib just asked the governor to quote Godse instead of misquoting Maulana Azad,” CPI(M) MP Ragesh, told a television channel.

Khan is not the first high profile public office holder to face protests in Kerala. Earlier this month, black flags were waved at Manipur governor Najma Heptulla by protesting youth organisations. BJP and NDA leaders including Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddiyurappa and Union minister V. Muraleedharan were also shown black flags as part of the ongoing protests.

BJP takes opportunity to criticise government

The BJP’s Kerala unit took the opportunity to condemn the state government, alleging that it was a “conspiracy hatched by the ruling party”. BJP leaders took up the matter at the all-party meeting convened by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to discuss the CAA, before boycotting it.

The saffron party claimed that the disruption represented a “complete compromise” of the governor’s security and accused the organisers of contravening protocol. According to them, professor Habib was not supposed to be on stage with Khan. But the organisers of the Congress refuted this charge, stating that as the outgoing president, Habib had every right to be on the dais. “The handing over of the charge to the new president was on the agenda, but the detailed procedure of it was not printed on the schedule card,” said Biju Kandakkai.

The Raj Bhavan, however, has asked the state police chief for a detailed report on the incident. It is learnt that Khan has specifically asked whether there were any intelligence inputs of a possible protest, which was ignored by the district police. He has also summoned the chief secretary to express his displeasure over the turn of events.

After protests against the CAA erupted across the country, Khan has been at loggerheads with all parties in the state except the BJP. He had expressed his displeasure at political parties marching to the Raj Bhavan, even in wee hours. There were post-midnight protests on several days after the Bill was passed in parliament.

The ruling CPI(M) has come down heavily on the governor. “The governor is undermining all good precedences with his political overtures,” said the party’s state secretary Kodiyeri Blakrishnan in a Facebook post. “If he wants to be in the thick of things of politics, let him relinquish the post and do it,” he added.

The Congress-led UDF opposition alliance boycotted the governor’s programmes, including the inaugural function of the India History Congress.