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Governor in the ring: Arif Mohammad Khan, the man who famously speaks his mind

Barely a day goes by when Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and the Kerala government aren’t taking on each other. Manoj C G, Liz Mathew & Shaju Philip on the man who famously spoke his mind many years ago — in the Shah Bano case — and hasn’t held back ever since

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan. Illustration: Suvajit Dey

It was a tweet that shouldn’t have surprised anyone who has followed the running feud between Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government.

“The CM and Council of Ministers have every right to advise the Governor. But statements of individual ministers that lower the dignity of the office of the Governor, can invite action including withdrawal of pleasure,” Khan said in a tweet earlier this week.

Yet, even by the recent standards of Governor-government spats and Khan’s own pugnacious record, his remarks — a thinly veiled threat to ministers who took him on that they would be sacked — were seen by many as having crossed the limits of propriety and gone beyond his constitutional jurisdiction.

Since Khan assumed office in Kerala in September 2019, the tussle between the Governor and the government has been a recurring theme — from disagreements over appointments of vice-chancellors to Khan alleging that he was physically targeted during the Indian History Congress in December 2019.

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But unlike the open rancour of a Jagdeep Dhankar vs CM Mamata Banerjee fight in West Bengal or the one between Delhi L-G V K Saxena and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Khan has on occasions taken even his detractors by surprise by reaching out — earlier this month, when CPI(M) politburo member Kodiyeri Balakrishnan died, Khan travelled to Kannur to pay his respects to the veteran leader.

Those close to him say it’s this adaptability that has been a recurring theme of Khan’s career as a politician and now a constitutional authority, a trait, they point out, that came in handy as he switched parties with during his decades-long political career — from the Congress to the Janata Dal, BSP and BJP.

Khan was 26 when he became an MLA on a Janata Party ticket from Siana in Uttar Pradesh, a few years after he began his political life as a student activist. As president and general secretary of the Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union in the early 1970s, it is said that Khan refused to invite Islamic clerics to the university.

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As a debutant MLA, Khan was made deputy minister in charge of Excise, Prohibition and Wakf in the Janata Party government but resigned months later over its handling of the Lucknow riots between Shias and Sunnis. He later joined the Indira faction of the Congress. In 1980, Khan — who was then an AICC Joint Secretary — entered Parliament for the first time and soon found a place in the Indira Gandhi Cabinet too — as Deputy Minister in charge of Information and Broadcasting.

What stuck was a position he took in his early days as a young Minister of State in the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government. Khan, who held the portfolios of Energy, Industry and Company Affairs and Home, resigned in 1986, after the government decided to overturn the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case by bringing a legislation in Parliament.

Khan’s stand was to endear him to those on the Right and a section among the progressives, but angered the Muslim clergy and his own party colleagues.

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After Rajiv expelled Khan from the Congress, he joined hands with V P Singh and became an MP on a Janata Dal ticket. After the fall of the short-lived V P Singh government, Khan joined the BSP and became its general secretary. But in the wake of the Gujarat riots of 2002, he resigned from the BSP when it became clear that the party would join hands with the BJP to form the government in UP.

“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 that I can devote myself totally to the cause of fighting against divisive forces,” Khan reportedly said in a letter to then BSP president Kanshi Ram.

“When the practitioners of hatred are indulging in the most barbaric, unprecedented and perverse violence in Gujarat, and defending the same in the name of reaction, the BSP choosing to make common cause with them has given many people including me a chilling shock,” Khan reportedly said in the letter.

Two years later, Khan joined the very party he had so bitterly criticised — in 2004, he unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election from Kaiserganj seat on a BJP ticket.

However, three years later, he quit the BJP, accusing the party of giving tickets to “tainted” leaders in UP.

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If Khan’s principled position on the Shah Bano case was the pinnacle of his career, turning him into a mascot for the ‘progressive Muslim’, many say he has been stuck in that mould since then.

Those who have interacted with Khan say he “lives in his past glories”. “He still runs on the political investment he made in the past — the way he took on Rajiv Gandhi and the clerics in the Muslim community,” said one of them.

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They say Khan believes his revolt against Rajiv Gandhi and criticism of his policies sowed the seeds of the anti-Congress sentiment that led to the party’s electoral failures in later years.

In the meetings he holds — the Kerala Governor is known to be a generous host who enjoys long conversations — Khan is known to often talk about how his advocacy for ‘reforms’ among Muslims prepared the ground for the Narendra Modi government to go in for measures such as the ban on triple talaq.

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Those close to him say that right from his days as a student politician, Khan had a penchant for being noticed — as the suave, English-speaking, ‘progressive’ Muslim face known to speak his mind. If his candour has defined the man and his moves, his critics wonder if it’s a misplaced virtue for someone holding a constitutional post.

Over the last three years, every time Khan has faced off with the Kerala government, leaders of the ruling CPI(M) have accused him of speaking for the Sangh. From the CAA to the farm laws, as the Governor took sides with the Centre, the CPI(M) managed to shape their tussle with him as the Left Front’s fight against the Sangh Parivar.

CPI(M) central committee member and former state minister A K Balan says, “Kerala has had several other Governors appointed by the BJP government. But so far none has taken such a confrontational approach as Khan. He called on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at the house of an RSS leader in Thrissur. No constitutional body in the country should have taken such a stand. He has not only shown his RSS leanings, but demonstrated the same publicly.’’

Despite the spats with the government, Khan has worked hard on his “people’s Governor” image, lending his name to social causes and practices. He is often spotted wearing the mundu (dhoti) and uses every given opportunity he gets to praise the Muslims of Kerala for “staying away from the clergy, unlike in the north”.

First published on: 23-10-2022 at 04:14 IST
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