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The rise and fall of Azam Khan

Often a rise in stature is accompanied by the person concerned losing touch with reality. One either forgets ground realities or shuts one’s eyes to them. This was what happened to Azam Khan. He had won recognition for fighting Nawabi elitism, but he himself ended up becoming an elitist, writes Kanwal Bharti

The lotus has bloomed in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, for the first time. Rampur has been a Samajwadi Party (SP) bastion, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could hitherto never get a toehold. However, in the recent Rampur assembly constituency by-election, BJP’s Akash Saxena defeated the SP candidate by upwards of 34,000 votes. This may not be an eye-popping margin, but it does represent a major success for the BJP. Several implications of this victory are being discussed in political circles. It is even being said that the result marks the end of the road for the SP in Rampur and that the Muslims of the area are now leaderless. Rampur, in Western Uttar Pradesh, has the biggest Muslim population among all the districts of the state with over 50 per cent voters belonging to the community. 

Congress bastion till 1977 

Before SP, it was the Congress that held the Rampur seat. Barring an independent candidate Aslam Khan in the 1957 assembly polls, Congress candidates were elected from Rampur from 1952 to 1977. At the time, the Brahmins, Dalits and OBCs formed the wheels of the Congress juggernaut. The Banias were divided, with a larger proportion siding with Jana Sangh, the Hindutvavadi party of that era. But there is no denying the fact that Congress’ politics was confined to Kothi Khas Bagh (the palace of the erstwhile Nawab of Rampur) and would emerge from the palace only during elections.

The ordinary people of Rampur lacked political consciousness and had little interest in politics. The courtiers at the durbar of Kothi Khas Bagh, including Brahmins and Hindu-Muslim landlords, doled out goodies to the people, especially in Dalit settlements, on the eve of elections and were assured their votes. Even without the goodies, the people would not have dared to not back the Congress. The Congress candidates from Rampur, who were either Nawabs or their relatives or cohorts, won with huge margins without much effort.   

Enter Azam Khan 

The scenario changed in the 1980s, with the rise of a charismatic leader called Azam Khan. He was neither a courtier, nor a landlord. He didn’t come from a well-off family or belong to the elite class. He hailed from an ordinary family. Having studied law at Aligarh Muslim University, the firebrand young man took on Kothi Khas Bagh. He forged unions of bidi and textile workers and rickshaw pullers, and took to the streets for their rights, in the manner typical of a leftist leader. Soon, he was the talk of the town.  

Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan

Overnight, he emerged as a leader of the poor and the miserable, and the politics of Rampur, which was imprisoned in Kothi Khas Bagh, burst into the open. Azam Khan was suddenly at the centre of the conversations at street corners and crossroads, at barber shops and tea shacks, on the pavements of Chaku Bazaar and in the gatherings of intellectuals. 

There is little doubt that Azam Khan changed not only the nature but also the orientation of politics in Rampur. Politics was now in the public domain. The result was that after the victory of Congress nominee Manzoor Ali Khan in the 1977 elections, no scion of the ruling family could ever succeed at the hustings. 

Azam Khan ended the political domination of the Nawab family. This was in wider public interest, because despite being people’s representatives, the members of the erstwhile ruling family, for all practical purposes, represented the elite sections. Azam Khan’s politics brought about the demise of the politics of Nawab Kazim Ali Khan alias Naved Mian, the living descendant of the Nawab of Rampur. Naved Khan could never win from Rampur Sadar and even lost to Azam Khan’s son Abdullah from Swar, which had returned him once to the assembly. The arrow of Azam Khan’s pro-people politics dug so deep into Naved Mian’s being that he became Azam’s enemy No 1.

Azam Khan contested assembly elections for the first time in 1980 as a nominee of Janata Party (Secular) and won. He won in 1985 as the Lok Dal candidate and in 1989 as the Janata Dal candidate. In 1991, he was fielded by Chandra Shekhar’s Samajwadi Janata Party and again won. In 1993, he joined the SP and won six elections in a row from then up to 2022. But this year, he was sentenced to three-year imprisonment for making a provocative speech, and his membership of the assembly was terminated. In the resultant by-poll, the SP lost for the first time and the BJP won for the first time from Rampur. It is being said that SP’s defeat is the beginning of the end of Azam Khan’s political career. 

Why the SP lost

There were three major reasons for SP’s defeat. The first was that the areas where SP had a solid voter base were converted into police camps by the district administration. According to newspaper reports, in many areas, the police did not allow Muslims to step out of their houses. At many places, policemen checked the ID cards of the voters and the Muslims among them were turned back – this when only the polling officers are supposed to check the IDs.

Opposition to this high-handedness was met with lathis. Out of fear, Muslims remained confined to their homes and the polling booths in Muslim-dominated areas remained deserted. Voting percentage was consistently low in such polling booths. According to newspaper reports, there were at least 45 booths where less than 100 votes were cast.  

According to SP candidate Aasim Raza, in 252 booths, the police did not allow voters to exercise their franchise. In four polling booths, the number of votes polled was 25, 28, 34 and 40 respectively while the total number of voters in these booths was 900-1000. What does this mean? Clearly, the voters were deliberately not allowed to exercise their right. The SP candidate has formally complained to the Election Commission, which though is unlikely to act on the complaint. 

The second reason was Congress leader Nawab Kazim Ali’s revolt. He not only openly supported the BJP candidate but also canvassed for him. Many top leaders of the BJP and members of the Yogi Adityanath ministry made it a point to call on Naved Mian at his residence Noor Mahal, when they came to Rampur to campaign for the BJP candidate. The Congress has suspended him from the party’s membership for six years. But this would make little difference to Naved Mian. The elite classes are known to play second fiddle to those in power. Naved Mian will have no qualms in joining the BJP.     

The third reason is that since the Yogi Adityanath and the BJP assumed power in the state, the Muslims here have been living in the shadow of terror. Joining the BJP is the best way to keep oneself safe. That is the reason why many Muslims from Rampur have joined the BJP and turned “nationalists”. The BJP has a Muslim wing which mobilizes Pasmanda Muslims. The number of “nationalist” Muslims in Rampur is still small but all of them backed the BJP candidate in the by-election. Then, there were Muslims who suffered under Azam Khan’s high-handedness – they joined the BJP to seek revenge. Though members of both Hindu and Muslim communities have been victims of Azam Khan’s tyranny, Muslims made up most of them. Many of these people have taken Azam Khan to court and the cases are ongoing. Obviously they could not have voted for the SP. 

Victory or defeat is not the key issue here. In any election, one candidate wins and the others lose. The bigger issue is Azam Khan’s downfall. What brought about the fall of a leader who was popular among the people, who rose as a trade-union leader and who fought for the rights of bidi workers, rickshaw pullers and others? 

Azam Khan’s downfall

Often a rise in stature is accompanied by the person concerned losing touch with reality. One either forgets ground realities or shuts one’s eyes to them. This was what happened to Azam Khan. He had won recognition for fighting Nawabi elitism, but he himself ended up becoming an elitist. 

During SP rule in Uttar Pradesh, even the head of the government did not interfere in the affairs of Rampur. Many political leaders and intellectuals of Rampur complained to then chief minister Akhilesh Yadav against the murky deeds of Azam Khan, but nothing came of it. Azam Khan was the uncrowned chief minister of Rampur. No one could dare oppose him. 

When Azam Khan was busy extorting money and grabbing land for Jauhar University, BJP’s Akash Saxena was meticulously documenting all his misdeeds and irregularities. Naved Mian was also helping Saxena. They were writing the script for Azam Khan’s downfall. The latter, however, was oblivious to it. Unfortunately for Azam Khan, by the time the script was ready, the SP had lost the assembly elections and BJP had come to power in the state. With Yogi Adityanath taking over as the chief minister, the execution of Saxena’s script began. As many as 90 cases were filed against Azam Khan. In many of them, his wife and son were also the co-accused. A district magistrate of Rampur, whom Azam Khan had insulted from a public platform, also chipped in. The result was that Azam Khan had to surrender along with his wife and son. He could get bail only after spending two and a half years in jail. The judgment in the very first case went against him and he was sentenced to three years in jail. He filed an appeal in the District and Sessions Court but he still had to forgo his membership of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, bringing his political march to a halt. 

It will be premature to say that Azam Khan’s political career is over. But what is clear is that he may have to spend his life defending himself in the 90 cases and filing appeals against convictions, if any. But I am not in agreement with the contention that Azam Khan’s downfall signals the end of Muslim politics. In my view, there was nothing like Muslim politics in the country in the past nor is it there now. The Muslims have yet to develop their politics. 

(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)

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About The Author

Kanwal bharti

Kanwal Bharti (born February 1953) is a progressive Ambedkarite thinker and one of the most talked-about and active contemporary writers. Dalit Sahitya Kee Avdharna and Swami Achootanand Harihar Sanchayita are his key books. He was conferred with Dr Ambedkar Rashtriya Award in 1996 and Bhimratna Puraskar in 2001

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