Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan waded into controversy last month at the History Congress when he quoted Maulana Azad to call anti-citizenship law protesters “dirty water in stinking potholes". In an interview to News18.com, Khan says the comment was aimed at people of separatist mindset and not Indian Muslims. During the interview, Khan also commented on Kerala’s resolution against the Citizenship Amendment Act and shot down speculation that he was the BJP’s ‘Muslim Man’ for Kerala.
The Kerala assembly passed a resolution demanding scrapping of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the first state to do so. You termed the move ‘unconstitutional’. How do you see your tenure in the state in view of this?
We are a robust democracy where the right to opinion and expression is considered sacred. I don’t have a problem with anybody opposing a law because she has a different opinion. Regarding the resolution of the Kerala Assembly, I have merely pointed out that as a constitutional institution, it should not waste its time and energy on issues, which, from purely constitutional viewpoint, are not its concern. Every minute taken to transact business in the legislature involves financial expenditure and this money belongs to the people of Kerala. The money should be spent on their welfare and not to discuss extraneous issues.
It can be argued that the assembly undertook this exercise for the purpose of public instruction. If it is so then they were duty-bound to present the whole picture. They should have mentioned in the resolution that the promise to accept non-Muslims of Pakistan was made by Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Dr Rajendra Prasad and all important leaders, including Shri Manmohan Singh and Shri Pranab Mukherjee. Right to public instruction does not include right to misinform people.
The other important point is that the History Congress, led by Mr Irfan Habib in its session at Kannur University, passed resolutions not on history or history writing, but resolved to ask Kerala government not to cooperate with the Centre, nor provide any data nor implement the law passed by Parliament. So the resolution can be seen as implementation of the directive given by Mr Habib & Co. The decision maker was Mr Irfan Habib and others were merely operatives.
I feel that that Parliament through CAA has merely given legal shape and form to the promise made by the Father of the Nation to the non-Muslims of Pakistan who had become unwitting victims of Partition. These people had fought for India’s independence, but after freedom, as citizen of Pakistan, their status became worse than that in British India. The then national leadership accepted moral responsibility, hence the promise.
You have said a lot about how CAA is fulfilment of Gandhi, Prasad and Nehru’s dream. But how does this act go with the traditional and constitutional values of the country?
The Constitution, particularly Article 14, allows classification based on intelligible differentia, provided it has a reasonable nexus with the objective of the law. Now, those citizens of British India who were reduced to the status of Zimmi clearly can be categorised as a class, more so when we know that after Partition, these people who mostly belonged to SC/ST category were made to stay in Pakistan through coercive methods.
Do we not know that the then prime minister of Pakistan is on record having said that “if we allow them to migrate then who will clean our toilets”. You think Mahatma Gandhi was not aware of this situation? In fact, apart from making promises to the new Zimmis of Pakistan, Mahatma Gandhi had warned: “If Pakistan persists in wrong doing, there is bound to be a war between India and Pakistan”. (Harijan, 28-9-1947, p. 349)
In the Indian History Congress session, you called Indian Muslims ‘dirty water’ that was left behind after Partition. What is the meaning here and what led you to say this?
You have not seen the video, otherwise you would not have asked the question in the manner you did. Please look at the recorded videos carefully. First, Mr Irfan Habib, whose name was not among the list of speakers as approved by Raj Bhawan, breached protocol, took the mic and harangued about abrogation of Article 370, and CAA.
He directly addressed me and referred to what was happening in my alma mater. Although the protocol allows only one hour for the session, I patiently listened to their speeches for more than one-and-a-half hours. When I rose to speak, I inaugurated the conference formally and welcomed the delegates. I said that inaugural sessions are normally a formal affair and controversial issues are kept aside.
But since you have raised some issues, I have a duty to respond. I started with a quote of Imam Abu Hanifa that I firmly believe that my opinion is correct but I am cognizant of the fact that it may be wrong. Likewise, I feel that your criticism is misplaced but you may be right.
I further said that those who are protesting are constantly declining my invite to discuss and debate the issue. At this stage, Mr Irfan Habib rose from his seat and charged towards me. My ADC stopped him, but Mr Habib pulled down his shirt. In the scuffle, his shirt was unbuttoned and his ceremonial badge fell on the ground, but the ADC prevented him from reaching me. Then Mr Habib went behind the chairs and tried to charge towards me from my left and again he was stopped by the security officer and the V-C of Kannur University.
This unseemly behaviour provoked some delegates from Aligarh who started using profane and abusive language. I first appealed to them not to create din, but when they persisted, I said that it is this behaviour of yours which had prompted Maulana Azad to remark in 1949 in Aligarh that the Partition was like a major flood and I believed that it has taken away all the filth and dirt with it, but after seeing your behaviour, I realize that some of this water has stayed back in small potholes and now it has started stinking. It can be verified that Maulana Azad had said these words to Muslim Leaguers who had embraced communism after Partition. I reminded these people not to behave in the same manner. The quote is not about Indian Muslims, it is about people of separatist mindset masquerading as communists.
Today Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ is suspected to be anti-Hindu. Your views?
I do not accept this general practice of elevating individual opinions to the status of representative opinions. This, unfortunately, is the result of a particular mindset which believes in being ‘sole spokesman’ and declares anybody holding a different view point as kafir and uses religious fatwas against those who think differently.
You stormed into the Indian political landscape with your bold stand on triple talaq and Muslim personal law. Now you are in a state, the only such state in India, where both the ruling party (Left) and the main opposition (Congress) opposed Narendra Modi government’s triple talaq bill in Parliament. How do you look at this curious fact?
I respect their right to formulate their opinions. In 1986, on the question of Shah Bano case and triple talaq, one group that is Left was supporting me, but now they have changed their stance. So the question should be addressed to them, not to me.
You earlier said that Kerala’s Muslim community is really unique. Can you please elaborate?
You can see it yourself. In Kerala, nobody attaches a religious label to the culture, dress, food and language. Their dress, food and language are common and these factors are not used to create divisions in the society. They are deeply religious but very proud of their Indian-ness and secular behaviour. Kerala has NGOs run by every denomination and caste, but they serve the whole society and the beneficiaries are not selected on the basis of factors associated with birth.
There is much being said about you being the BJP’s ‘Muslim Man for Kerala’. What do you have to say about that?
There is no ceiling on the flight of imagination. Among the governors of the states with a political background, I am the only one who was not required to resign from a political party because I had withdrawn from electoral politics more than a decade ago. As Governor, I have taken the oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and law, and to devote myself to the service and well-being of people of Kerala. I am a human being, I have my limitations, but I assure you that I am striving to discharge my duties as honestly and sincerely as I can.
Some intellectuals commented at the time of your appointment that it confirms the definition of a good Muslim – cultural capital, political correctness and following the party line. How do you take this classification?
There is a saying that even Hakim Luqman had no medicine for the cynics. If you want to find fault, do so on the basis of my action and words. Nobody has the right to sit in judgment about the intentions and conscience of any other person. If they feel that the attributes they have listed are good, then they can follow them. But they should remember that I am not known for following party line. Rather I had resigned from the government in 1986, much against the wishes of the party leadership and had earned deep anger of the Muslim clergy.
You have been active in North Indian politics, and taken up the cause of reformation in Muslim societies. Are you not going to miss the chaos in Delhi? How will the experience help you navigate the diversity in Kerala?
You are giving me credit for things I never did. I have repeatedly said that I was neither a reformer nor a feminist. I would again like to repeat it that if the then PM Rajiv Gandhi had not asked me to defend the judgment of the Supreme Court in Shah Bano case, then possibly, I would not have spoken in Parliament. But once I took a stand and subsequently the PM succumbed to the violent language of the Personal Law Board, it became incumbent on me to part company. For me, the protection of intellectual and moral integrity is more important than preservation of power. To me, whole India is the same and I consider it a great opportunity and privilege to serve the people of India in any part of the country.
Even years after Independence, Indian Muslims are classified as ‘Nationalist Muslims’. Why does the burden of proving love for the country rest only on Muslims? How did we get here?
It is unfortunate, but it is on account of insistence by organisations like Muslim Personal Law Board on the separate community identity of Muslims which they call Milli Tashakhkhus. It was the same mindset which produced the two-nation theory that insisted that Muslims are a separate nation and will not be safe in free and democratic India.
Now there is huge number of Muslims who do not agree with this separatist mindset. In reaction, they start calling themselves ‘nationalist Muslims’ and in order to make a distinction between the separatist and their detractors, other Indians also call them ‘nationalist Muslims’. I think if people like Personal Law Board stop pursuing the separatist agenda, then these not-so-desirable terms would become outdated and their usage will stop.
Kerala is a politically volatile state. ‘Red terror’ and ‘saffron terror’ have been in the headlines. What are your thoughts regarding the politics and as a governor how much can you look into it?
I think Kerala is a wonderful state, and except one district, no cases of political violence are reported from anywhere. Kerala is an educated society with a strong sense of empathy. If they see their neighbour agitated, they join her even without knowing the reason or merit of agitation.
The state has a significant Muslim population with educated youth, yet there have been reports claiming ‘Kerala youth joined ISIS’. How do you see this phenomenon?
Yes, I have seen these reports. Please do not forget that a large number of Keralites have been working in foreign countries for a long time and their foreign remittance contribution is the highest. People from Kerala go abroad in almost all categories. So some of them become victim of propaganda by jihadi organisations like the ISIS. But this number is very tiny. By and large, Keralites have a culture of peace and harmony. They do not allow their sharp political differences to impact their social fabric.
The state is known for his cultural vibrancy. There is affinity among people of different faith. In this backdrop, the term ‘love jihad’ emanated from there. Your comments.
Sometimes, media coins some terms which become popular. Kerala has such strong sense of unity, harmony and empathy that I feel that when Swami Vivekananda was speaking in the Parliament of Religions and he proudly referred to the fact that India has always given shelter to the persecuted of the world, he was possibly making a reference to Kerala. Apart from being a pioneer in many other fields, the Kerala society has a special attribute and that is taking care of the uncared for, a maternal attribute.
Historically, Kerala was a matrilineal society. Its gender ratio is in favour of women and that explains why any person anywhere in the world happily gives charge of his health to a Keralite who serves with passion in the capacity of nurse, doctor and para-medical personnel.
There have been allegations against governors that they are acting like ‘puppets’ of the central government. Why do think there is this atmosphere of suspicion?
I do not wish to respond to kite-flying remarks. But I am always ready to subject my own actions and words to scrutiny. To build an atmosphere of suspicion, factual grounds are not essential. The very people who suspected Indian democracy in 1947 and demanded Partition realised in 1971 that they were misled. People who raised the slogan of religion in danger in 1986, realised in 2017 that they were misled by the Personal Law Board. Even the Khilafat movement of 1920s during which passions ran so high that many people migrated in response to the fatwas of the clerics, finally realised that they were misled to commit hara-kiri.
Muslim League flags have perturbed many saffron leaders. Yogi Adityanath identified it as ‘green virus’. But the Muslim League has been credited with acting as a bulwark against radical outfits like the Popular Front. How do you see the role of Muslim League?
Tell me honestly, will you feel comfortable seeing a flag which was used to divide your country. This flag was used in East Pakistan by those who butchered the Bengalis and raped Bengali women. And they were their co-religionist. This flag is a symbol of division, rape and rampage, and every Indian is bound to feel uneasy on seeing this.
But states like Kerala have not been affected by the tragedy of Partition nor has there been any migration from Kerala to Pakistan or refugees from Pakistan coming to Kerala. So people here do not have first-hand experience of the enormity and are not aware of the bloodbath and human misery that this flag brought on India.
Please elaborate on your experience with the maulanas on issues of reform rights and communal harmony. How was the experience?
My experience in Kerala is totally different from what I have lived through and seen in the North. Here, whether it is a Maulana or a Muslim political activist, the first thing he wants to highlight is his secular credentials and they do not boast about it.
It is a reality that in Kerala every religious organisation and every caste organisation is into social service and they run huge establishments which serve the old, weak, abandoned children especially girls, people who suffer from some kind of disability without any discrimination and they are proud of the fact that their institutions serve the society as a whole.