Kerala Governor’s tryst with Kuwait

Indian government announced last week appointment of several new governors to the Union’s states. Among the new gubernatorial choices was Arif Mohammad Khan, who was appointed as the new governor of the southern state of Kerala.

Very few people are aware that Governor Khan had a tryst with Kuwait nearly three decades ago, when he became the last international leader to visit Kuwait, before the vicious Iraqi invasion of the country began on the morning of 2 August, 1990.

Back then, Mr. Khan was the Indian Minister for Civil Aviation in the government of Prime Minister V.P. Singh. A few days earlier, he had been deputed by the prime minister to visit the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to elicit their support for Kashmir, which was then on the agenda of Islamic Summit scheduled to be held on 5 August in Cairo.

“In my talks with Kuwait’s leaders, there were no expressed worries about the events reported to be unfolding at the border with Iraq. Parlays were continuing and some breakthrough was anticipated,” said Mr. Khan during my meeting with him a few weeks later.

However, when the invasion took place, a major problem for India was the presence of thousands of Indians who were grounded in the beleaguered country. The government came under intense pressure and Prime Minister Singh assigned the External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral to visit both Iraq and Kuwait and find a way to rescue the stranded Indians in Kuwait.

Eventually, sensing that the situation was worsening, the government took the decision to evacuate the nearly 170,000 Indians. With no direct flights and open shipping channels, the near impossible task of evacuation fell on the Civil Aviation Minister Khan.

After negotiations that stretched on for days, Jordan gave its permission for a transit route from Amman to Mumbai. When the use of Indian Air Force planes was found impractical for the evacuation process, Mr. Khan took the momentous decision of ordering the national carrier, Air India to take over the evacuation. He also signed off on using the Airbus 320 planes that were then grounded for security audit, to be readied and used for the evacuation.

“It was difficult to convince Air India pilots to fly in the war zone as they too had families. To provide some assurance to them, I accompanied them on the maiden flight and then I remained in Amman for a week to oversee the operations,” said Mr. Khan.

Drawn into politics from his student days, Mr. Khan was elected as President of Aligarh Muslim University and after leaving college became the youngest MLA in Uttar Pradesh Assembly. In 1980 he joined the Congress under Indira Gandhi and was inducted in her ministry, once again as the youngest in the Cabinet. He was assigned the Home portfolio in the cabinet of Rajiv Gandhi. Later he fell apart from Congress over the Shah Bano case and along with V.P. singh formed the Jan Morcha. It was under V.P. Singh that he held his last government portfolio.

After that, for many years he took a sabbatical from active politics and emerged as a leading scholar participating in debates. He advocated reforms within the Muslim community and more than often challenged the traditional clergy. His stand  and support for the Triple Talaq Bill introduced by the Modi government was appreciated by many, but resented by the clergy. Tragically the clergy could not come out of their cocoon as this was a moment they could have rectified their past mistakes.  The Bill was passed and rightfully drew support from many people from all walks of life

At 68, Arif Khan is a voracious reader and loves to take part in debate many of which he will now miss due to his new posting as Governor of Kerala.

S A H RIZVI

The Times Kuwait
Bureau Chief India