IF HIS PREDECESSOR, Justice P. Sathasivam, had been tranquil, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan is a tempest. Making it clear that the governorship is no longer a decorative post, he is on a collision course with both the ruling Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front. The strongest votary of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in the state, Khan has garnered critics and admirers alike, since taking oath as Kerala governor in September 2019.
Born in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh on November 18, 1951, Khan started his political career as a student leader at the Aligarh Muslim University. A former Union minister and four-time MP, he was part of four parties. Khan, who resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi ministry over differences about the triple talaq issue, says that he never does anything without conviction.
He says that the Muslim community in India should be alert not to fall into the trap of those who preach extremism and adds that the teachings at “Deoband and madarssas” will only result in alienation and segregation of the community. “And that is done deliberately to keep the students from poor backgrounds in the dark ages,” he says. Since Khan’s arrival, the Kerala Raj Bhavan has become a power centre like never before, as religious leaders from minority and majority communities throng to meet him. In an interview with THE WEEK, he spoke about his differences with the state government and his conviction that the CAA is right. Excerpts:
Q/ Your stint in Kerala so far would seem quite tumultuous to an onlooker. How has been it for you?
A/ I do not think they were tumultuous. You may say that they were full of activity, including visits to various districts to attend programmes which gave me the opportunity to meet and interact with remarkable Malayalis who have a strong sense of public service and have devoted their lives to lofty objectives.
Q/ You have gained many admirers in Kerala. At the same time, you are being vehemently opposed by others. How do you look at this polarising effect you have had in Kerala?
A/ I thank all those who have shown love and kindness. I am also thankful to the critics. But criticism has come mostly from politicians. I think their criticism is part of their professional requirements. I would like to request the critics to look carefully at the oath that I have taken. I am duty bound to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and law. I have not enacted the law but my sacred duty is to defend a measure that Parliament has enacted and the president has assented to. If I fail to defend the law, then I have no business sitting in the Raj Bhavan. Common people should not be swayed by the rhetorics of political parties because both the CPI(M) and the Congress are opposing CAA just to capture Muslim votes in Kerala.
Q/ Leaders of both the fronts have alleged that you are politically motivated. Some even go to the extent of saying that you are acting as the president of the state BJP unit. How do you respond to this criticism?
A/ If discharging my duty to defend the Constitution and law is politics then I would like to make it clear that no amount of criticism or even threats that my movement would become difficult are going to deter me. I shall continue to be faithful to my oath. The allegation that I am acting as the BJP state president is ridiculous. Let them realise that I have spoken not just in Kerala, but have been invited by people in various states, including Delhi, to speak on the CAA. I firmly hold the view that through this measure Parliament has given a legal shape to the promise which Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and other national leaders had made to the non-Muslim population of Pakistan. CAA has only redeemed the pledge of the father of the nation. I would also like to request you not to take the statements of the politicians at face value. They do many things for extraneous reasons. If they all find the CAA totally unacceptable, I would suggest that they prepare for the next general elections. Try to get a majority in that election and change the CAA.
Q/ So, you mean to say that the BJP has no ulterior motives with regard to the CAA and that the insecurities among minorities, especially Muslims, are not warranted?
A/ Yes. CAA is about giving citizenship to those who came to India illegally in order to save their lives and honour. Look at the reports of the human rights groups in Pakistan. Even the 2019 report says that more than 1,000 non-Muslims girls are abducted and forced to change their religion in Pakistan every year. You go to Google and just type ‘forced conversions in Pakistan’ and see how many write-ups appear. Some of the most moving articles on this subject are written by Pakistani Muslim women. Being women, they understand the pain of these unfortunate people. But some of us in India refuse to have any empathy for them and demand that those who have fled to save their lives should be clubbed with those who have come illegally for economic reasons. Have a heart; the two cannot be equated. The worst form of inequality is when you treat the unequals as equals.
Q/ But if religious persecution is the only criterion for giving citizenship as per the CAA, then do you not think the Ahmadiyyas and Shias in Pakistan, too, are eligible for citizenship? There have been umpteen reports of them being persecuted by the Sunni majority there.
A/ It is a fact that Ahmadiyyas and Shias are being persecuted in Pakistan. But none of them, even if given a chance, will prefer to come to India as the EU has already offered them asylum. But that is not the case with the Hindus, Jains or Christians in Pakistan. They have nowhere else to go and they are being persecuted only because they are not Muslims. So as Mahatma Gandhi had promised them, we Indians are duty bound to give them refuge. Partition has caused deep scars in Indian society. As an Indian Muslim, I feel responsible for the painful memories it has created.
Q/ There is a fear among the minorities, especially Muslims, that CAA is preparing the ground for a uniform civil code.
A/ Why should common Muslims fear uniform civil code? Why it is being treated as red rag to the bull? UCC is all about the idea of equality. UCC or any law for that matter, is concerned only about rights and duties. It is least interested in rituals and practices. Only those people who claim to be leaders of the community by misinterpreting the Quran need to fear UCC. Those people survive by creating insecurities in the minds of common Muslim. They are the ones who are engaged in smear campaigns as they did during the Shah Bano case. Since 1986, I have maintained that triple talaq violates the commands of the Quran and that it was unjust. The Muslim Personal Law Board which had defended triple talaq in 1986, realised its baneful impact, and in their affidavit, submitted in 2017 before the Supreme Court, admitted everything that they had opposed in 1986. The law which abolished triple talaq and made it a punishable offence is a remarkable feat in empowering women which will ultimately empower society. I am sure that Muslim women will welcome UCC just as they welcomed the law banning triple talaq.
Q/ Other democracies like the US and France have allowed young people to voice their dissent. What is the harm if young Indians also voice their opinion, even if they have a view different from the government’s? Do you not think these young people have a right to make their voice heard?
A/ Expression of dissent is the essence of democracy. It is the duty of the government and policy makers to listen to dissent. The problem is not about expression of dissent. The problem arises when one resorts to violence and desires to impose one’s views on others by muscle power. You must have seen the recorded videos of Indian History Congress held in Kannur University. It was [historian]Irfan Habib, who raised the issue of Kashmir and the CAA and posed the questions to me. But when I tried to respond to his criticism, he charged towards me and had a scuffle with my ADC (aide-de-camp) and security officers and then his supporters created such a din that I had to end my speech within a few minutes.
Q/ You have sought explanation from the state government for moving Supreme Court against CAA without informing you. Are you not overstepping your powers as governor in this matter?
A/ The State government was duty bound to inform me before taking such a huge step. I came to know about the Kerala government approaching the Supreme Court through newspapers. Do you think that can be justified? What the state government did was clear cut violation of the Constitution. I repeat what they did was an unlawful act.
Q/ Those are very strong words.
A/ Yes. I meant what I said. The Constitution has provided all provisions to deal with laws being violated. I do not want to speak further on that at this point.
Q/ Your predecessor maintained a very cordial relationship with the government. But you are on a collision course. Governors in other states, like Maharashtra and West Bengal, too, have been criticised in recent times for having political motives. Do you not feel a governor should strive to be seen as nonpartisan?
A/ Frankly, I am not someone who is concerned about retaining a neutral image. I never was. I resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi government at a time when the Congress was the supreme political party in the country. I always go by my conviction and now I am absolutely convinced that the CAA is right. And I will do everything possible to defend it.
Q/ Even the lone BJP MLA in Kerala, O. Rajagopal, has said that you should show more restraint and should not fight with the government.
A/ Everybody has a right to opinion. I cannot remain neutral when the Constitution is being violated like this. Governor must be nonpartisan as far as the political parties and players are concerned. But a governor will violate his oath if he tries to be nonpartisan when the confrontation is between the law of the land and those who challenge the sanctity of the law. The constitutional sanctity of a law can be challenged only before the higher courts of law. State governments or legislatures have no power to decide the sanctity of a law which comes under the exclusive jurisdiction of Parliament.
Q/ You come from a state where people get lynched for keeping beef in their houses and here in Kerala, beef is a popular food. How do you look at this “politics of food”?
A/ Frankly, I believe that nobody should be bothered about what others eat. I strongly believe that food habits are all about geography and least about religion. For example, Kashmiri Muslims do not eat beef. Similarly, Bengali Brahmins love fish. So all these choices are determined by their respective geographic peculiarities. Food choices become a problem only when someone deliberately tries to hurt the religious sentiments of the other. Otherwise, no Indian will try to dictate to others what to eat or not to eat.
Q/ Before taking oath as governor, you had said that hearing of Kerala brings to mind fascinating images. Do you still have that point of view?
A/ Yes, I have found Kerala to be more fascinating than I had thought earlier. What has fascinated me the most is that Kerala is a deeply democratic state and the values of democracy are etched in the minds of every Keralite. No other state is as democratic as this. Kerala has made even the communists democratic!
Q/ Kerala is a state where the Muslim community is influential. Do you think your religion has played a role in your appointment as the governor of Kerala?
A/ That is a question only those who have appointed me can answer. But as far as I know, the BJP has no vested interest behind my appointment. Also, as someone who has won from a Hindu majority constituency, I am against all forms of identity politics. I am an Indian first. Everything else is secondary.