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Fighting the Left Government: Who Is Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan?

Who is Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan? And why is he at loggerheads with the state government?

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The tussle between Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is heating up, with the governor using a Supreme Court judgment on 23 October to direct the Vice Chancellors (VC) of nine state universities in Kerala to tender their resignation. The matter reached the Kerala High Court on 24 October and the VCs were allowed to continue in their posts until further orders.

Since assuming office in September 2019, the Kerala governor has been in a state of friction with the state government. The tiff became public with the governor's disagreements with the government over appointments of vice chancellors came out earlier this year. The LDF government in turn alleged that Khan has been misusing his constitutional post to push the RSS' agenda.

The feud seems to be similar to other governor-government tussles – VK Saxena in Delhi and Jagdeep Dhankhar in West Bengal – that have happened in the past.

So, who is Arif Mohammed Khan? And why is he at loggerheads with Kerala government? Here’s all you need to know.

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A Liberal Muslim Who Got Rightwing Support   

Born in 1951 in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr, Khan completed his education from Jamia Millia School in Delhi and later in Aligarh Muslim University, where he began his political life as an activist.

He became the president and general secretary of the Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union in the early 1970s and reportedly, prevented the entry of Islamic clerics into the university. He projected himself as a 'progressive' Muslim who stood up to the conservative clergy, it is said.

He was 26 years old when he first became an MLA on a Janata Party ticket from Siana in Uttar Pradesh. Khan resigned months later over the Janata Party’s handling of the Lucknow riots between Shias and Sunnis.

He then joined the Indira Gandhi faction of the Congress. Khan was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980 from Kanpur and in 1984 from Bahraich.

Khan had famously supported the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case, in which the Muslim husband was asked to pay maintenance to his divorced wife even after the iddat period. Prescribed by the Muslim personal law, Iddat is the time during which a woman divorcee cannot remarry. Muslim Personal Law Board, had opposed the SC judgment in the Shah Bano case.

Though Khan’s views on the Shah Bano case irked some sections of Muslims, he gained the favour of both the rightwing and the progressive sections in India.

Khan worked further on his liberal image, when in 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government brought in the Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce) Act. As the act essentially overturned the Shah Bano verdict, Khan resigned from his ministerial post to express his disapproval.

This was followed by his expulsion from the Congress. Khan then joined hands with VP Singh and became an MP on a Janata Dal ticket. However, after a short-lived stint with the VP Singh government, he joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and became its general secretary.

It was in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots that Khan resigned from the BSP which was then in an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

He had 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.”
Arif Mohammed Khan, as quoted by The Indian Express.

The Gujarat riots, however, did not seem to matter just two years later, when he joined the BJP. In 2004, Khan contested the Lok Sabha election from Kaiserganj seat on a BJP ticket.

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

On the Same Page With BJP, On Warpath With CPI(M) 

The Kerala governor, who has been a vocal critic of “Islamic radicalisation,” has also been on the same page with the BJP-led central government in supporting the ban on triple talaq, and the abrogation of Article 370.

Khan is only the second Muslim, after former Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla, to be granted a constitutional office by the BJP.

However, he has been an ardent critic of the Kerala government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The left party too has voiced their criticism against the governor.

CPI(M) central committee member and former state minister AK Balan has been quoted as saying, “Kerala has had several other governors appointed by the BJP government. But so far none has taken such a confrontational approach as Khan.”

Citing Khan’s meeting with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat last month at the house of another RSS leaders, Balan said, “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.’’

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The Ongoing Tussle With Kerala Government

The controversy began in December 2021, when the governor found fault with the reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran as the VC of Kannur University.

Attacking the LDF government, Khan alleged that Ravindran was given the post only because of his "political connections" and recalled a 2019 protest against the governor at Kannur University.

The governor has since opposed various moves by the state government, especially with regard to the appointment of VCs in state varsities.

He has also staunchly and publicly opposed the University Laws Amendment Bill, which was passed by the state Assembly in September this year.

That’s not all, when Higher Education Minister R Bindu accused him of "acting as per the RSS agenda" to create hurdles, the governor on 17 October issued a threat:

“The CM and council of ministers have every right to advise governor. But statements of individual ministers that lower the dignity of the office of the governor, can invite action including withdrawal of pleasure."

While the court on 24 October ruled that the nine VCs can continue in their posts, it remains to be seen whether Arif Mohammed Khan would continue the tug of war with the state government even while occupying his constitutional post.

(With inputs from The Indian Express.)

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