He staked his career at 26, landing in Varanasi jail for leading a movement in Aligarh Muslim University during the heady Emergency days. Today, at 60, he’s staked it all again to oppose his old friend Mulayam Singh Yadav’s comradeship with Kalyan Singh.
Mohammad Azam Khan — one of Samajwadi Party’s founder members — is the tallest Muslim leader from Rampur, a town with 49 per cent Muslim population located 180 kilometres east of Delhi.
There are reasons why his rebellion makes news. The SP counts heavily on the state’s 18 per cent Muslims, and any loss of Muslim support is not good news.
While Azam Khan loves to see himself as a symbol of Muslim opposition to anyone with BJP connections, he had once helped Rajendra Sharma — a former Jana Sangh activist — become MP on a Janata Party ticket from Rampur in 1977. “But this is not hypocrisy,” insists an old acquaintance of Khan who refuses to be identified. “That was 1977. The communal issue had not set in. And there was a strident anti-Congressism in the air.”
But times have changed and Khan remains the fighter he always was, now causing embarrassment to the party he helped build. “He can break but not bend,” says his acquaintance Sarvat Ali Khan.
He is seen as openly opposing SP’s Rampur candidate Jaya Prada, whom he helped win just five years ago. She in turn has hit back at him alleging that he morphed and circulated nude photographs of her — a charge he rubbishes.
Many Rampur residents hold a high opinion of Khan: “un me sharaafat ki dabangayee hai (his immense influence springs from his decency),”says local advocate Rakesh Dubey. “He is an honest man and is very committed to his faith.”
People tend to believe Khan here when he says he opposes Kalyan Singh on principle. They however agree that there are other reasons too. “Amar Singh and Jaya Prada have brought back into the Samajwadi fold some wheeler-dealers who were removed on Azam Khan’s behest,” said a local Congress activist who refuses to be named. “They also inducted former BJP people, like Sarvesh Singh, Dharmveer Singh Rana and Lalla Bhai, on the Thakur caste-card. Azam Khan disliked this hobnobbing with Sangh people.”
Sarvesh Singh is now back with the BJP, taking on Congress’ Azharuddin in Moradabad, just 27 km away.
Azam may have entered politics in the 1970s when Muslims were part of the Congress’ famed rainbow coalition — Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims — in UP, but he charted an anti-Congress course. Locals say Khan spent his early years in poverty: his father Mumtaz Khan ran a small general store in the Civil Lines area. Educated at Baqar High School and Sunder Lal Inter College in Rampur, he went on to study law at Aligarh Muslim University, where he had his first brush with politics. And then prison.
“Azam Khan’s anti-Congressism was partly because of his Emergency experience and partly because of the fact that he always opposed the Nawab family of Rampur, which was pro-Congress,” said Dubey. Khan is perceived as a person who stands with the poor, he added.
Some residents believe that Azam Khan may join the Congress, if his stay in SP becomes untenable, but those who know him deny this.
Khan may have played larger roles — Minister in UP, leader of the opposition and Rajya Sabha MP — but in Rampur people remember Khan as the man who brought development here.
“He made Shaukat Ali and Jauhar Ali roads better. He also improved the sewage system here, built parks and a beautiful municipal hall,” said Sartaj Ali, who runs a general store in Rampur.
This time, he seems to be counting on this goodwill to make a political point. And many are game.