Arif Masood, Congress’s ‘high-voltage vidhayak’ who is taking on his party again

In September 2019, minutes after then chief minister Kamal Nath announced that the new metro project in Bhopal city would be called ‘Bhoj Metro’, after 11th Century ruler Raja Bhoj, Arif Masood took to the stage to deliver the vote of thanks. “Dada bhai, iska naam Bhopal Metro hi rehne do, hamse hamara Bhopal mat chino. Raja Bhoj ke naam per bahut sari scheme aur sanstha hai (Let this be called Bhopal Metro. There are many institutions and schemes in Raja Bhoj’s name),” said the Congress’s Bhopal Central MLA.

Even as his comments embarrassed his party, Masood clarified, “I have been elected to put forth the views of the people in my constituency, and that is what I’m doing.”

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Cut to 2022, and the “outspoken” Masood has once again hit headlines for criticising his party for asking its cadres to celebrate the upcoming Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti festivals. The instructions are part of the Congress’ outreach to Hindu voters ahead of the Assembly elections next year, and were mentioned in an April 2 letter by state president Kamal Nath.

“If the party is issuing circulars to celebrate Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, then it must issue an order to celebrate Ramzan and festivals of other faiths as well,” said the 50-year-old Masood.

Often referred to as a ‘high-voltage vidhayak’ by Kamal Nath, Masood has never minced his words, within party meetings or publicly, said a senior Congress leader.

After completing his Bachelors of Law from State Law College in 1998, Masood entered student politics while pursuing his Master’s at Government Benazeer College in 2000. He learnt the ropes of politics from veteran Congress leader Rasool Ahmed Siddiqui – two-time MLA from Bhopal North, a constituency with a high number of Muslim voters – and Digvijaya Singh, the former Madhya Pradesh CM.

In June 2001, as district president of the youth Congress, he became a well-known name in Madhya Pradesh after attacking a movie theater in Bhopal’s Jehangirabad to oppose the screening of the film Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, which he said projected Islam in poor light. The incident left the Digvijaya Singh government red-faced and Masood was expelled from the Congress for six years.

He went on to join the Samajwadi Party and remained committed to raising “Muslim issues”. He contested on an SP ticket in 2003 against the Congress’s Arif Akeel from Bhopal North, but lost. Later, he also joined the All-India Milli Council and then became an executive member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB).

In 2007, he was brought back into the Congress fold by then state president Subhas Yadav, and was made spokesperson and then convenor of the party’s minority cell. Three years later, he got a ticket from Bhopal Central but lost to the BJP’s Surendra Nath Singh by a small margin.

In 2016, when the BJP launched a campaign against triple talaq (and made a law against it in 2019), he held several rallies against it, even as Muslim law-makers within the Congress refrained from making public statements on the subject.

In 2018, he once again got a ticket to contest from Bhopal Central. While the BJP called him a Muslim hardliner, Masood paired his skull cap with a tilak on his forehead and visited the Hanuman temple during his campaign. His strategy worked and despite a sizable Hindu population in his constituency, Masood won with a margin of over 15,000 votes.

“It is a victory for Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb,” Masood had said after winning the election. Later, he held iftar parties, Holi samaroh and Diwali milan functions for people of his constituency.

“After losing in 2013, Masood remained among the voters and fought for their rights. This is why Hindu voters who were even slightly upset with the BJP voted for him,” said a BJP leader, who did not wish to be named.

With Masood victory, for the first time since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, the 230-seat Madhya Pradesh Assembly has two Muslim MLAs: Arif Akeel and Arif Masood, both from the Congress.

Until 2018, the BJP had never fielded any Muslim candidate in the state. That year the party gave a ticket to Rasool Siddiqui’s daughter, Fatima Siddiqui to contest against Akeel from Bhopal North. But the five-time MLA defeated Fatima with 35,000 votes.

With Akeel’s health deteriorating owing to his old age, Masood has emerged as the only prominent voice of the minorities in the state.

“An analysis of the 2018 results showed that people from all wards of his constituency, irrespective of their religion, had voted him in. The down-trodden have always been his focus and he has enjoyed their support,” said Suresh Pachouri, former state Congress president.

However, his political style has also been criticised by many. Like in November 2020 when he organised a massive protest rally at Bhopal’s Iqbal Maidan to protest French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon row. Several leaders, both from the BJP and even the Congress called his actions ‘unnecessary’ and done to “boost his own politics.”

“Such protests lead to flare-up of religious sentiments and help him stay connected to his voter base,” said a senior Congress leader.

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