On October 28, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan was disqualified as a member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly. Khan had been elected from the Rampur constituency, a seat he has won 10 times.

A day before he was disqualified, Khan was convicted for hate speech by a special court in Rampur district. The court sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment for remarks against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and then Rampur district magistrate Aunjaneya Kumar Singh as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Congress candidate Sanjay Kapoor while campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The court called the words in his speech “provocative and repulsive”, aimed to “generate hate against the government”.

Khan’s prompt disqualification was challenged by Samajwadi Party leaders and allies. Many suggested the action against the opposition leader was discriminatory. Rashtriya Lok Dal president Jayant Chaudhary wrote to the assembly speaker asking why Khan was out while Vikram Saini, a legislator from the Bharatiya Janata Party who was sentenced to two years in prison for his involvement in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, stayed on. With an uproar in the state assembly, Saini was also disqualified on November 4, about three weeks after he was convicted.

Both Khan and Saini were ejected from the assembly under the Representation of the People Act, in accordance with a 2013 Supreme Court judgement which held that legislators convicted for two years and more should be disqualified from office immediately.

On its own, Khan’s disqualification may have been by the book. But political observers in the state suggest that the BJP’s alacrity in this case may be driven by more than a zeal for procedure.

“The Bhartiya Janata Party sees Azam Khan as a Muslim politcal icon and that is why he is targeted,” said Sudhir Panwar, who teaches at Lucknow University, and is a member of the Samajwadi Party. “They want to satisfy their voters and continue to go after him even after elections because they want to sustain their communal agenda.”

Out of office and facing more court cases, many feel Khan – once seen as the Muslim face of the Samajwadi Party – is now a spent force.

A legion of cases

Khan was convicted under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which prosecutes “promoting enmity between groups” and Section 505 (1), which deals with rumours or statements calculated to cause public alarm as well as the Representation of the People Act, which codifies the grounds for disqualification of legislators, among other matters.

Samajwadi Party leaders have questioned the court order. Party spokesperson Udayveer Singh called the quantum of punishment “abnormal”. In the past, politicians convicted of hate speech had been sentenced to six months or one year in jail, he pointed out, whereas Khan was given three years.

Singh also questioned the immediate disqualification. “They should have waited for some time and allowed us to file an appeal [against the court order],” Singh said.

However, according to the 2013 Supreme Court judgement, legislators had to be disqualified immediately after they were convicted. The judgement struck down Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act, which gave convicted legislators three months to approach the high court for an appeal before they were disqualified.

While this may be the first conviction, there is a legion of cases against Khan. In May 2022, he had walked out of jail after being granted bail by the Supreme Court. He spent over two years in jail, booked in about 100 cases, accused of a range of offences, from criminal conspiracy to dacoity, from land grab to attempt to murder. The charges also include goat and buffalo theft.

Most of these cases were filed around 2019 Lok Sabha elections. They include alleged crimes that took place more than a decade back. For instance, he is charged with grabbing land for the Ali Mohammad Jauhar University, a private institution for minorities set up by Khan in 2006.

Cracking down on a Muslim leader?

Khan has had a long and eventful political career, starting with the Janata Dal (Secular) in the 1980s. In 1993, Khan joined the Samajwadi Party. He quickly rose to the higher echelons of the party and became cabinet minister in state governments led by it. After the general elections of 2009, he was briefly expelled from the Samajwadi Party on charges of anti-party politics but soon returned to the fold.

Over the decades, Khan became known for his controversial statements as well as a politician who fought against the political marginalisation of Muslims.

Aas Mohammad Kaif, a journalist from Uttar Pradesh, points to Khan’s vocal protests in the 1990s, when the Babri Masjid was demolished and several senior BJP leaders were accused of inciting the mob.

“Azam Khan is an exceptional public speaker and he was successful in countering the BJP and RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] narrative against Babri Masjid,” Kaif said. “Now he is being punished for that.”

Then in 2013, when communal riots broke out in Muzaffarnagar, the BJP attempted to portray Hindus as victims and Muslims as the main rioters, Kaif said. “According to them, [Muslims] were shielded by Azam Khan,” he added. “He was made a villain and people bought that image. BJP voters do not like Azam Khan. The sustained action against him pleases them.”

Even after the BJP swept to power at the Centre in 2014, Khan kept up an adversarial stance against the party. The BJP had won after a polarising campaign, wooing Hindu voters with communal vitriol. Muslim votes were barely courted by the party.

According to Amiq Jamie, a Samajwadi Party spokesperson and a close aide of Khan, the 2014 election results were a message to Muslims that even if they had voting rights, they were irrelevant to political equations. “But Azam Khan still looked them in the eye and talked on equal terms and the BJP could not tolerate this. That is why Azam Khan was targeted,” he said.

Many believe the real reversal in Khan’s fortunes started in 2017, when the BJP government headed by Adityanath came to power in Uttar Pradesh. Mirza Aser Beg, who teaches political science at Aligarh Muslim University, feels the BJP wanted to target Khan as a message to ordinary Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. It was to “show even if you are a powerful leader we can do this to you”, he said.

In Rampur, a princely state once ruled by nawabs, Khan was projected as the voice of the people against the royalty. The constituency has been his fiefdom for decades. With his disqualification, the Rampur seat is vacant. The BJP now considers itself “well positioned” to win the by polls that will now be held.

Crushing its own?

According to Udayveer Singh, the alleged targeting of Khan was part of the BJP’s “policy to crush the party leadership and break apart our party”.

“The BJP is playing a politics of vendetta against us, creating fear among Samajwadi party leaders and supporters,” he said.

But some observers hold Samajwadi Party itself responsible for Khan’s waning influence. The party has long been riven by dissensions between the old guard and the new. Many feel that as the late Mulayam Singh, the former party supremo, faded into the background, giving way to his son, Akhilesh Yadav, Khan also started losing prominence in the party.

“Akhilesh has been trying to weed out the old leadership. It’s the Samajwadi Party itself that has marginalised Azam Khan, why blame the BJP?” asked Kanpur-based political scientist AK Varma. “When Azam has been marginalised in his own one house then the other side has a free hand.”

Many attribute the sidelining of Khan to the rightward shift in the country’s mainstream politics since the ascendance of Modi in 2014. “These days no party wants to come across as secular, let alone be seen as associated with Muslims,” said Kaif. “Internally, Akhilesh Yadav arranged lawyers and fought legally for Azam Khan but he could not hit the streets for him.”

Samajwadi party leaders dismiss the notion that BJP has marginalised Khan for good, but Kaif felt that disqualification could be the last nail in his political career. “Azam Khan seems like a broken man,” he said. “Age and health are not on his side.”