He is one of India’s longest serving MLAs — a rare Muslim who has never lost an election in a constituency where Muslims do not make up even 1 per cent of the voters.
Meet Habibullah Khan, the 74-year-old MLA of Nabarangpur, a son of the soil and symbol of national unity in this remote tract of Orissa, 450 kilometres southwest of the state capital of Bhubaneswar.
Khan — who has won all eight Assembly elections since he first began contesting in 1971 — would have won again, his voters say. But Nabarangpur is now reserved for a tribal candidate, following the delimitation or redrawing of constituencies. Khan is not unhappy.
“I will now have more time to spend with my people,” he says, sitting in a plastic chair on the pavement outside the Congress office on the town’s main street.
Shoppers walking by stop to wish him good evening. He replies to each one, often addressing them by their first names.
“He has family-like relations with most people in this area,” says Krushno Mohan Choudhury of Anchalaguma village. “He is always around, be it a wedding or on on funeral.”
Nabarangpur is a predominantly tribal district with a substantive population of Dalits. Khan’s ability to be counted among them is evidence of the sense of unity and integration he has fostered.
Khan’s maternal grandfather, Tariq Hassan Khan, migrated from Afghanistan to settle down in Tara Gaon, 12 kilometres from Nabarangpur town, more than a century ago.
As a child, studies did not interest Khan, and that was a big worry for his parents. Making it worse, he did not want to work under any one. So Khan chose to make his own fortune.
After an apprenticeship with a Muslim merchant, he started a string of businesses, from selling groceries to running rice mills.
Success in business propelled Khan into politics. From heading a local cooperative society of grain stores, he emerged as a big sponsor for community functions.
“In 1961, they pushed me to become sarpanch (village head),” Khan says of his villagers. A year later, he was president of the zilla parishad (district administration) — a job that stayed with him until he contested and won his first Assembly election in 1971.
The first two terms, he served as an Independent and Swantantra Party candidate respectively. Ever since, he has been with the Congress.
All these years, Khan says, Nabarangpur has never seen a religious riot. “I have always done what my grandfather used to do: Never give them a pretext to fight,” he says.
It was his grandfather who first extracted an oath from the villagers that they would stop slaughtering pigs — a delicacy for Dalits and tribals — and in return, Muslims in the area would stop slaughtering cows.
“Even today, no cow is slaughtered here, no pig is killed for a feast,” says Khan.