Former Congress minister Arif Mohammad Khan says that Narasimha Rao had once told him that the Congress was not in the business of social reforms, but in the business of politics.
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted former Congress minister Arif Mohammad Khan to target the Congress’ appeasement politics. He quoted an interview where Khan revealed that when he had resigned over then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to reverse the Supreme Court’s order in the Shah Bano case, he was told by Narasimha Rao that it was not the job of the Congress to reform the Muslim community and “if they were happy to live in the gutter, let them be”—one reason why Modi quoted this speech is the Triple Talaq Bill which is being opposed by the Congress. NewsX Senior Executive Editor (Politics) Priya Sahgal caught up with Khan for this interview where he made some more startling revelations about the Congress’ mindset. For, as he said: “Such a statement cannot be the view of an individual alone. It reflected the party’s general attitude.” Excerpts:
Q: Can you tell us in some details about the incident referred to by the PM ?
A: When Shivraj Singh (BJP leader) told me that the PM had referred to this incident, it took me two minutes to recall it.
Q: You don’t remember, but the Prime Minister remembered it!
A: (Smiles) I was questioned as to what made the former Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) oppose the Supreme Court. The protests at that time were spurred by the (Muslim) Personal Law Board. A call was given by the law board to break the legs of the Muslim MPs who are against us. Their supporters who were inside the Parliament called the Supreme Court’s judges “teli-tamboli”. They asked: will these “teli-tamboli” tell us what a law is? They used derogatory language. But a bigger factor than this was that senior leaders of the Congress followed a certain type of politics, such as Narasimha Raoji, Arun Singh, Narain Dutt Tewari. There was a pressure from them as well. They said, why should we disrupt our political constituency?
Q: So you resigned against the decision. What happened then?
A: The day the Law Minister introduced the bill, I wrote my resignation, sealed it and delivered it to the Prime Minister. The next day around 10.45 a.m., I went to the Parliament; immediately, Arun Singhji, called me and took me to the PM’s waiting room. He applauded my decision, saying very few people can take decisions whereby they give up power, but if I can just think about the party and reconsider. When I said no, he walked away. Then Arun Nehruji came, he also tried to pressurise me and walked off when I refused.
When he left, some ministers were sent with whom I had worked as a junior. N.K.P. Salve told me—you are young and have a good career, why do this? I told him that if at the age of 35, I can’t take a moral stand, then will I take a stand at 70?
In the end, Narasimha Raoji came; he spoke to me the way an elder talks to a junior. He told me that even Shah Bano changed her stance, why are you so stubborn. He said that we are not in the business of social reforms; we are in the business of politics. He said that if some people want to stay in the gutter, let them. Why are you resigning? When they understand it, they will get it. He said all this and while the conversation was going on, I realised that the attitude was this. I told him that my problem was not Shah Bano. I am not known for fighting for women’s rights, my problem was that for about one hour I had defended the SC judgment in Parliament. Then, the Law Minister said that his bill will reverse it. So, I am not Akbar’s Birbal that I say one thing a day and another thing the next. In fact, when Arun Nehru put up pressure on me, I said ok, I will take back my resignation, but I will not come to Parliament. It was then that Rajivji called me. He told me that as I am not budging, he will accept my resignation.
Q: Did Rajiv ever come to know what Narasimha Rao had said?
A: A statement like this is not Narasimha Rao’s stand alone. This is the general attitude (of the Congress) and it is not related to just Muslims, but in every issue we have a “managerial” approach. We don’t think beyond the five years. The Satanic Verses was banned here; it was banned two months after Shah Bano. When you ban a book, what is the message that is sent? Before the ban, someone sent me a copy; I read a few pages and kept it aside. Then this book was banned, there was a controversy and everyone got curious. A book shop in Khan Market told me before it was banned, only seven copies were sold. After the book was banned, 10,000 copies were sold.
Q: You said this was a “managerial” decision. What were they managing? The Congress accuses BJP of polarising, but from your talks, it seems the Congress was managing the minority vote?
A: Polarisation was high in 1986-87. I think these decisions created an even more serious situation than 1947.
Q: So, you are tracing this whole politics of polarisation back to 1986 ?
A: Actually, by the time we reached 1975, we had forgotten 1947, especially during the Emergency. In 1971, after Bangladesh was created, this whole anger that was towards Pakistan had subsided to quite an extent. Then in 1985, the Muslim Personal Board started a movement that our whole identity is different. But I ask, is my community identity dependent on triple talaq? At the time of Independence, Hindus and Muslims were two different nations, now according to the Muslim Law Board, they are two different identities.
Q: Can you help us understand the opposition to the Triple Talaq Bill. Given the fact that JDU is a BJP ally, it still says it won’t vote for the Bill because it criminalises triple talaq.
A: Not just JDU, but everybody in Parliament is raising this aspect. This is the case because Muslim law is not clear to people. The Muslim Personal Law Board in an affidavit stated that triple talaq is a bidaat, which means innovation. It means that there is no provision for this in Quran or Prophet’s tradition. Next, it is haram, which means prohibited. This is sinful, it is barred in religion, but good in law. The first person who made it good in law was Hazrat Umar. A woman complained that her husband gave talaq to her, but before completing three months, he kept forcing himself on me. So, this guy was using talaq because a provision of Quran states that a person has to stay together for three months. After completion of three months only will the talaq be valid. And in three months, you will have an option of reunion. So, when he was asked whether he had given triple talaq to this woman, he said yes. Quran says that this procedure can only be opted for twice. Now, this woman wanted to be rid of her husband. He was whiplashed 40 times. So, if it was considered a civil offence, could there be physical punishment? Since day one, there had been physical punishment. Why is this so? Because it is haram, because it is sinful, divorce is a civil matter, but triple divorce is a criminal matter. It had been treated as a criminal offence right from the beginning. When the Supreme Court introduced the Triple Talaq Bill, it was said that there were more than 100 reported cases of triple talaq. Even after the Supreme Court’s judgement, triple talaq was being practiced, there was no respect in people’s mind for the apex court. The Muslim Personal Law Board had said that let the court pass the Bill, triple talaq will continue. But since the Ordinance was introduced, not a single case has been reported from anywhere.
Q: Then objection is not from the minority but from a minority section within the minority community?
A: I have no idea what’s the reason for the objections. The day the Bill was introduced, I went to Central Hall and sat down with my fellow Congressmen. I told them that after 1986, this was their chance to mend their mistakes. This somehow worked on them. They didn’t allow any of their members to speak in the Lok Sabha. But when the Bill was to be presented in the Rajya Sabha, the Muslim Personal Law Board put pressure and met Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmed Patel and Kapil Sibal. After the meeting, the Law Board issued a statement that the Congress would oppose triple talaq. That was why Congress took one stand in the Lok Sabha and changed it in Rajya Sabha under pressure.