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The Rediff Election Interview/Arif Mohammad Khan

February 24, 2004

Seasoned politician Arif Mohammad Khan can quote from the Koran, the Mahabharata or Marx with equal felicity.

Khan first sprang into the limelight when he resigned from Rajiv Gandhi's government in 1986 in protest against the decision to bow to Muslim conservatives and overturn by legislation the Supreme Court's ruling in the historic Shah Bano maintenance case.

An articulate politician from Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh, Khan was seen as a promising young leader who always took a progressive stand, especially on issues like the uniform civil code.

A former president of the Aligarh Muslim University Students Union, Khan became a Member of Parliament, first representing the Congress and then the Bahujan Samaj Party.

He quit the BSP when that party entered into an electoral alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat in 2002. Khan thereafter had a brief dalliance with Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party when the latter quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance last year.

Thus it came as a bolt from the blue that the jovial and witty Arifbhai, as he is known, has now decided to join the BJP itself and may even contest the Lok Sabha election as a BJP candidate. Sources say that if the BJP returns to power, Khan is certain to be rewarded with an important ministerial berth.

In his personal library stocked with a brilliant collection of books on subjects ranging from politics and sociology to history and theology, and with the telephone ringing constantly to congratulate him on joining the BJP, Khan spoke to Ehtasham Khan in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

All elections are crucial, but the upcoming Lok Sabha poll appears to be one of the most crucial in India's history. Do you agree?

Well, when you say crucial, yes... because India is in a crucial phase of development. Now we are at a stage where everybody is recognising India's potential. In this century, India is going to emerge as one of the developed and advanced nations. New policies have started yielding results.

Some observers say that if the BJP returns to power, it would mean the people of India have accepted the party's alleged anti-minority policies, or what happened in Gujarat. What is your opinion?

For Gujarat, even the BJP leadership has used very strong words to express their pain and anguish. Not just the prime minister who said, 'I don't know what face I will show to the world.' Even the deputy prime minister said that 'for the last five years we had the cleanest government. But the Gujarat incident has cast a shadow on our work.' And then the recent statement in which the prime minister said that 'in India it is not just the government which is almighty. We have other institutions also. I am glad to say other institutions are working very fast and I am sure that the victims will get justice.' This is a very, very significant statement. If these statements are there, it means that kind of thing [Gujarat-like incidents] is not in their agenda. They also feel there should be no repetition of Gujarat.

Are you sure there will be no repetition of Gujarat?

I don't know. If you talk of the BJP, what is the track record of other parties? Bhagalpur happened not during the BJP's time. Instead, I would like to discuss Gujarat from a different angle.

Please go ahead.

I spent 89 days in Gujarat [during the riots]. And when the [assembly] elections came, I opposed the BJP. I supported the Congress. But with my support what did they deliver? Why didn't they deliver? Because they do not have credibility in the masses. They are seen as a party which has all along flirted with minority communalism. They are seen as a party that showed no compunction in playing the Muslim card in the Shah Bano case. Or playing the Hindu card when they tried to offset the reaction which came as a reaction to the Shah Bano case. And the locks of Ayodhya were opened. They can play the Hindu card or Muslim card or Christian card. So their credibility to fight and contain communalism has been eroded.

Politicians and political parties merely reflect and articulate the trends which are prevailing in society. You can blame any individual, you can blame the BJP for whatever happened in Gujarat, but what will you say about the secular Congress and its president Sonia Gandhi when she goes to Gujarat and then under the advice of her colleagues refuses to visit the house of Ehsan Jafri [the former Congress MP who was killed by rioters] to offer condolences to the victim's family? I am not making the charge that the Congress president became communal. But she certainly succumbed to societal pressure.

So which is the lesser evil for the minorities, the BJP or the Congress?

It is not a question of lesser evil, [of] what Congress did in 1986 and the communalism that came as its reaction. What we are discussing are merely symptoms. The disease is the communalism that has taken deep roots in the minds of the people. And the Congress has simply become impotent. By compromising on secularism it has lost its potency to fight communalism.

Now for them [the Congress], it is a question of gaining political power. For me, it is not a question of giving political support. I am seeing the oppressive situation of my people. They are living under oppression. I am not just talking of governmental oppression. I am talking about the oppressive environment when two neighbours are not on talking terms. When there is total communication gap between the two communities. A Hindu is suspecting his Muslim neighbour, that he is a terrorist, and a Muslim is afraid.

I am not coming to the BJP with a political agenda. I have come to the conclusion like Sir Syed [Ahmed Khan, the Muslim reformer and educationist who founded the Aligarh Muslim University] had come to the conclusion in 1857 that it is not possible for you to fight the British because they are much superior to you in all aspects. Therefore he [Sir Sayed] said instead of fighting, befriend them, learn, overcome your drawbacks, and then see if you can create goodwill. Likewise, today I feel the same thing after having spent so much time in Gujarat.

Therefore, by creating an association with the Sangh Parivar, who in my opinion have the capability today, I want to normalise the situation.

The Sangh Parivar has the capability to do what?

Capability [a long pause] to bridge the divide which is currently existing in society.

You mean the Sangh Parivar wants to bridge the gap and you want to help them?

Arif Mohammad Khan wants to persuade them. I don't want to tell you all those things that they have told me because then people would think I am speaking on their behalf at election time. I am convinced that there is some willingness on their part. I am convinced that if I create goodwill with them, then their offices can be used to bridge this gap.

You will be contesting this election?

I have no political intention. I have told them [the BJP] I don't want to [contest]. In fact I have told them that it would be much more effective campaigning if I am sent to Gujarat [to campaign]. I am interested in working for the Sangh Parivar.

What will you do if the BJP gives you a ticket?

I will accept their wishes, but they will also have to consider what I want.

Why only the BJP?

I have supported the Congress and they failed. I have no option. I want to tell the parties that have created a stereotype of Muslims and used them as block votes. I want to tell them we are like any other human beings. Please try to normalise the situation because we have been used by these parties as block votes for a long time.

Secondly, I ask you, people don't have freedom to choose in a democracy?

Of course, you have the freedom to join any party.

No... the kind of atmosphere that has been created [by my decision to join the BJP]. The Congress knows that this group of people cannot go to the other party. Whatever treatment the Congress gave me, I had no option. Should we not try to create a situation where two-three options are available?

You were president of the AMU Students Union...

[Interrupts] So what?

I too was a student there and I understand that people had a lot of expectations from you as a young, dynamic, forward-looking Muslim leader. You have always taken a progressive stand. Now you have joined a party that has been held responsible for the Gujarat riots, for saffronisation of education, and other allegedly anti-minority policies. In such circumstances, you have changed sides. Don't you think your community would feel cheated?

You are talking of the AMU, then it was founded by Sir Syed who was described for more than 30 years as kafir, mulhit, zindique [Arabic expressions for a non-believer in Allah and Islam]. There were 18 fatwas [Islamic edicts] against Sir Syed. Should I live by the example of Sir Syed or should I live by the example of those who have imaginary ideas?

But ordinary Muslims...

[Interrupts again] What ordinary Muslims? Did he [Sir Syed] care about ordinary Muslims? Should he be my source of inspiration or ordinary people? Tell me! There were people who went to Mecca and Medina to bring a fatwa against Sir Syed. For 30 years, he was described as an apostate, as a non-Muslim, as an enemy of Islam. And after 30 years, he became Rahmatullah Alaih [blessed by Allah].

That's okay but...

What okay?

Criticising or opposing the Congress is one thing, but joining and working for the BJP is different.

Today I have no political agenda. I am convinced the Congress does not have the capability to fight those whom it describes as communal forces. I have come to a conclusion after looking at Gujarat. I want to do something. Today the only option available to me is that if I can create some goodwill with them [the BJP and the Sangh Parivar], if I can win their confidence, if I can convince them not to treat me and people of different religions differently. That is the only thing.

What attracted you to the BJP and not to any other party?

You have not visited Gujarat. You are doing an academic discussion and indulging in journalistic quibbling. You want to see things in black and white. If you visit Gujarat, you will understand the pain, the situation. Then you will realise.

In Islamic terminology, there is a term, istarari halaat. It means a situation when you are faced with death or great crisis and you have no way out. In such a situation, you are allowed to do things that are forbidden. If you are suffering from a disease and you have to take a medicine having alcohol, you can do it.

If secular parties can adopt a soft Hindutva line, why can I not make friends with Hindutva?

Even if the Ram temple is on their agenda, even if they are going ahead with the saffronisation of education...

I am saying it is all there. The Congress is adopting a soft Hindutva line and you are supporting the Congress.

I am not supporting or opposing anybody here.

By you I mean Muslims. So the Congress can adopt a soft Hindutva line, but I can't persuade them [the BJP] to look at things from my perspective. The Ram temple is on their [BJP's] agenda. Shall I tell you what [the late] Ali Mian Nadvi [former president of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and renowned Islamic scholar] had said? Shall I tell you what Rajiv Gandhi had said? This was a package deal during the Shah Bano case. You will get a court order changed under public pressure.

Fawayl-ul-il mutaf-fa-feen. In the Koranic verses, those who adopt double standards have been condemned.

You are talking of saffronisation of education. You know how many allegations have been made during 50 years of Congress rule for saffronisation of education? The entire Muslim leadership was accusing the Congress of saffronisation of education. Our perspectives change with time.

Give me the name of one individual who claims to be the leader of Muslims who visited Gujarat during the riots. Give me one name. Politicians who claim to champion Muslim interest.

Zubandarazi ne sab satyanas kiya hai. Zubandarazi ke peeche kuch bhi nahi hai [Hollow discussions have destroyed everything. There is nothing behind these discussions.]

You give me one name. Syed Shahabuddin [former diplomat, MP and member of the AIMPLB] went there. Did any Muslim Congress leader go there?

I went to Gujarat when not just the smoke but the fire was alive. I cannot take an academic stand. I cannot keep analysing and diagnosing. I have to describe some remedy. I have supported the Congress. This remedy failed. Shall I try an alternative remedy or shall I just sit with folded hands?

Your stand in support of the uniform civil code has been praised...

But that is why I have been described as a kafir.

That was a small section...

That was not a small section. The Muslim Personal Law Board is not a small section. The Congress party has made them the representative of Muslims.

Young Muslims who are getting educated and entering the mainstream see you as a progressive leader. So what will be your stand on the uniform civil code now? Will you go with the Sangh Parivar version?

The BJP has repeatedly said, repeatedly, that the uniform civil code is not on their agenda. Recently I read a report in which a senior BJP leader said that even if tomorrow there is a broad consensus this can't be an imposition. This can only be something as a code which drives the best of all codes. I can comment on it only when a draft is there. Imaginary fears will not help anyone.

There is an impression that the BJP is trying to open its gates for the minorities. What do you think?

My action [of joining the BJP] is a reply to your question. I can't speak on behalf of the BJP.

Do you think there is a change in their hearts and minds?

I don't want to say what they have told me because then you will say I am doing propaganda on their behalf. But I will tell you that there is some willingness on their part and they have assured me.

And you trust their assurances?

One should trust Allah. And one should trust himself. The situation in which we are placed, you will have to trust people. You immediately jump to a conclusion because you are a journalist and in journalism there is no gray area. You will either paint somebody in black or in white. Because unless there is some sensation, it does not make news. I am not a journalist.

By giving unconditional support, I want to surrender myself to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. I will describe it as surrender. Because I don't see the capability to fight them. The Congress is totally devoid of capabilities. I want to win the confidence of the party that today enjoys the confidence of the majority.

Please try to understand my pain and my feelings. I have lived the tragedy of Gujarat.

Maybe I will fail. But should I not try? They have assured me.

When they are in government, they know that this divide between communities can never be a blessing for any nation. I want to bridge the gap.

Do you think politics has the capability to bridge the gap between communities in a society?

I do not know. But if something is not existing in society, should we not try to do it?

How do you see yourself politically after the Lok Sabha election? In Parliament, in the Cabinet...

I don't know. I am an ordinary worker. You see the potential in me.

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