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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 52 December 23 & 30, 2023

As Modi’s man, Arif opportunity to settle old scores with SFI | Faraz Ahmad

Saturday 23 December 2023, by Faraz Ahmad


It was the year 1972 and the Aligarh Muslim University was on a boil over the ‘AMU Bill’, the proposed legislation in Parliament (since AMU has all along been a Central university) seeking to pronounce AMU as a ‘Minority Institution’ led by none other than the then AMU Students’ Union president Arif Mohammad Khan.

Now there is a subtle difference between the Government recognising a minority character’ of an institution and pronouncing an institution as a minority institution. While the Constitution grants the minorities the right to establish and run their institutions, and in sofar as that these institutions are largely autonomous, independent of Government support and interference. But an institution which is fully supported by the Government financially and otherwise cannot seek the status of a minority institution if it also depends and prefer dependence on Government funding.

Therefore while a large number of students, specially those encouraged and supported by Muslim communal elements within and outside the AMU campus, were agitating for a Government legislation to pronounce AMU as a minority institution, others like me led by the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and backed by the Left leaning and progressive Professors and other staff members including the non-teaching staff were arguing that we better stick to minority character rather than making AMU a minority institution. But we were numerically very small and did not count for much.

Professor Irfan Habib, pretty young in the early 1970s and with a Nehru fellowship under his belt, was already eminent heading the Centre of Advanced Studies in Medieval History in AMU.

This background is relevant to recall two things. One, despite his so-called liberal, secular image projected by the then media, he was basically averse to the SFI even then. By the way despite this aversion when it came to seeking vote, which SFI had considerable influence over, he came to our then president Kirti Kumar (K.K) Trivedi, former Medieval History Professor at JNU, now dead, to seek SFI support. That’s the chameleon Arif, currently in conflict with the SFI in Calicut University in Kerala, because he is serving his master Modi a Sangh pracharak and the Sangh despises the Left even more than the minorities, Muslims above all.

But forget Modi for the time being, we’re on Arif, the new Muslim poster boy of the Sanghis and why not, after years of remaining in oblivion Modi and Sangh have given him a new lease of life as the Governor of Kerala, a .state where the BJP has failed to make a mark for all its efforts.

Actually that 1972 Students’ Union election was very interesting. Before that he contested and won as the general secretary of the Union in 1971. SFI had fielded me and Iskara Singh, the niece of Shaheed Bhagat Singh for a membership of the committee. I lost. I can’t recall if Iskara won or she lost too. That’s when I recognised him as a good-looking young man canvassing in our Bhopal House, because here resided quite a few western UP Pathans and caste loyalty stood him in good stead.

But 1972 turned out to be eventful for him and the AMU. He contested the 1972 elections for AMUSU presidentship, against his senior cousin Imtiaz Mohammad Khan, later a UP MLA from the Congress party. For all his claims of coming from a rich landlord family, most of us knew Arif as Imti’s poor cousin.

Those days, perhaps even now, most of the leading candidates had their camp offices in the Sir Syed (SS) Hall. So was Imtiaz and Arif’s too. Early morning on the polling day when it was evident that Imti being widely popular with students cutting across all sections was a sure winner, and Arif a certain loser he landed up at Imti’s camp office where almost all Imti supporters were fast asleep, exhausted for almost night long pre-poll preparations. Arif embraced Imti, threw his cap at Imti’s feet and tore off his sherwani, a sign of withdrawing from the election, saying ‘If the two of us brothers clash a Hindu would win. I withdraw. Imti overcome by fraternal emotions and Arif’s tears wrote his withdrawal letter there and then. By the time we learnt and cursed Imti for succumbing to this emotional blackmail, Arif won hands down, because in any case even if both had contested, Vinod Chand Sharma being a non-hosteller, had no chance because in AMU then and perhaps even now the hostellers looked down with disdain on the city crowd called non-resident students abbreviated as NRSC.

I think it was as AMUSU president he befriended his later day wife Reshma. She was the president of the Abdullah Women’s college and in that capacity was nominated to the AMU Students’ Union. Reshma spoke fluent English and came from a well-off family of UP. Her father published a widely circulated Urdu paper. This was the first media and financial support Arif secured for furthering his political career. Then in 1974 there were UP Assembly elections in which the Opposition was confident of defeating the Congress party and Arif and some other student leaders there like Mohammad Azam Khan anyway had become an eyesore and a headache for the Congress government at the Centre.

Arif’s wikipedia profile sates that he contested the 1974 UP Assembly elections as a candidate of Chaudhry Charan Singh’s BKD. That may be true for record purposes. But I remember clearly that when my friend late Major Atul Mehrotra asked Arif’s confidant in my presence why Arif chose of all the parties Swatantra Party to contest with, Mohsin bhai remarked, “If an Opposition government is formed after the elections Arif will be the only MLA from Swatantra Party and therefore will naturally become a minister.” Perhaps Swatantra Party may not have been a recognised party in UP then where it hardly had a presence and therefore Swatantra leaders might have recommended Arif to Charan Singh and secured him a BKD ticket to contest from his home district Bulandshahr. He lost along with the entire Opposition to the Congress party led by Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna.

But when in 1977 all the right-wing Opposition parties merged into Janata Party he contested, won and as he dreamt, became a minister too. But being politically savvy he saw that the Janata Party was not cohesive and before the 1980 general elections, joined the Congress under the patronage of late Arun Nehru, became a Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting in Delhi. In 1984 he won the Lok Sabha elections from Bahraich and now was elevated to a cabinet rank by Rajiv Gandhi. He assumed instant national and international recognition by his famous speech on the Shah Bano case of 1986 when he forcefully and progressively defended the right of divorced Muslim women to maintenance by the divorcing husband. Naturally we all vocally supported Arif and his speech. But Rajiv came under pressure from Muslim clergy and then fielded another Muslim, Environment minister, Z.R. Ansari. Like Arif he too was a lawyer and much senior in age who equally forcefully attacked the Supreme Court judgement granting maintenance from divorcing husband. Ansari became a villain soon in our eyes and an environment activist Mukti Datta accused him of attempt to rape. Thanks to this campaign Ansari lost the 1989 elections and receded into oblivion. Soon enough everyone including Mukti Datta forgot about it. Ansari after all was no Birj Bhushan Sharan Singh who could be cavalier about charges of molestation by not one but innumerable women wrestling champions and carry on unmindful of the allegations. Nor was there a BJP government to unremorsefully stand by the molestation accused.

Returning to Arif, he was, as stated above a protege of Arun Nehru and when Arun Nehru fell foul of Rajiv over the security lapse at Rajghat leading to an attempt on Rajiv’s life, and Nehru’s failure to act against the Central District Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police Umesh Katna, Nehru and Arif and later V.P. Singh together with Satpal Malik floated the Jan Morcha before others got together to form the Janata Dal.

But Nehru, Arif and even Malik were annoyed with Singh for accepting the Mandal Commission report a step towards empowerment of the OBCs. That’s why the three of them left Janata Dal.

He contested the 1991 parliamentary elections again from Bahraich as an independent and lost. Then he kept losing successive elections till he joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under Behen Mayawati’s leadership. Suddenly we journalists covering him for more than a decade saw a new side of Arif Mohammad Khan, a vocal supporter of Dalit and backward issues. We wondered whether this was a genuine change of heart or temporary necessity as a BSP MP. It turned out that was as temporary as the 13-month long NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Arif’s romance with the Dalits and BSP did not last long. But then he was back in political wilderness and since 1998 could never re-enter the Lok Sabha.

I am not sure but after abandoning BSP, if I remember correctly he flirted with the BJP too in the 13th Lok Sabha.

Citing the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002 and holding the then chief minister Narendra Modi responsible for it, Ram Vilas Paswan, then a disgruntled minister in the NDA-II government, quit the government and NDA. He held a press conference in his 12 Janpath bungalow and lo and behold we saw Arif Mohammad Khan sitting next to him attacking Modi, BJP, and its communal agenda. This grievance or grouse too did not last long for either of them.

But before that both attempted to build bridges with the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Paswan living next door to 10 Janpath succeeded. As for Arif, he told me and some other reporters in 2004 when he joined the BJP yet again that while Sonia was anxious to admit him back in the Congress, it was the Muslim leaders in her party like Salman Khursheed who sabotaged the move leaving him with no option but to join the BJP.

But for years he did not get much till finally, of all the people, Modi saw in him a Muslim poster boy to take on the CPM-led Left Front government in Kerala. As always he is performing well for his political masters and at the ripe age of 72 he has still to go far under Modi’s leadership.

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