//Kerala Muslims : Forward Slowly

Kerala Muslims : Forward Slowly

[ Note : This is an extracted version from the cover story of  Front Line Magazine, "Lesser Citizens"]

By R.Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram, The Front  Line Magazine , Dec 2006



IN A CENTRAL SCHOOL in Tirur, Malappuram district. The slow but lasting embrace of secular education has transformed social life and leadership roles among Kerala Muslims.


MUSLIMS of Kerala are an odd lot in unequal India. They are separated by geography, history, language and culture from Muslims in other parts of the country. Also, they share a common language but differ from other communities in Kerala in several respects, for example, in "food, dress, manners, mental outlook and philosophy of life", to quote a popular list.

But what makes them truly different from their brethren elsewhere in the country is their early rejection of traditional Muslim mistrust of and fears about secular education (and, later, communism) and the "dangers" it posed for the faith.

In all regions of what is now Kerala, the south and central parts ruled earlier by the Maharajas of Travancore and Cochin and the north administered by the British as part of the Madras Presidency, government policies had identified "secular education on the Western pattern" as a unifying factor, especially with regard to the integration of `minority' Muslims (a sizable section of the population) with other communities.

Muslims of Kerala are recorded to have lived in cultural harmony with Hindus in the region for the first eight centuries of their history. But early descriptions of the community at the turn of the 19th century are not in glorious terms but as `backward', `moribund', `medieval', `beaten', `conservative' and `defensive', to name a few.

By the latter part of the 19th century, most of these adjectives became unacceptable following targeted government policies and the slow realisation among newly educated community members about the impractical situation they would be in vis-à-vis other communities (significantly Hindus and Christians) if they continued to nurture their traditional opposition to higher `secular' education.

Thus, even though elements opposing education other than rote learning of the Koran, education outside madrassas and education of girls remained dominant, and the literacy rate among Muslims remained a mere 5 per cent, there were 1,497 elementary schools for Muslims in British-ruled `Malabar' by 1931, with a total of 104,000 students (a mere 4 per cent of them were girls), according to researchers. The opportunities for education of Muslims in Travancore and Cochin were much better and came early as a result of the enlightened policies of the rulers and the rumblings of a revolutionary social change already in evidence there by then.

By 1960, nearly three decades after newly educated Muslim leaders began to remark openly that "it was indifference to secular education that was responsible for Muslim inequality with other communities" and that it had "blocked their progress, retarded the community economically, and created a public image and private mentality of backwardness", an estimated 47.3 per cent of Muslim children of school-going age in Kerala were attending schools along with those from all other communities. And, by 1972, the progressive environment in the State had found almost all eligible Muslim children being admitted in elementary schools.

Scholars have described this as the early "definite turn on a new road" for Muslims in Kerala, the widespread involvement in education producing a remarkable change, "its most important characteristic being the thirst for more", even though higher education, especially secular college education and education of girls of older age, continued to be a provocative red rag for a large section of community leaders.

In fact, a well-known study on the community by the Canadian Islamic scholar Roland E. Miller says it took nearly a decade after the first Muslim student from the Muslim heartland, Kozhikode district, received a bachelor's degree in 1939 for a group of progressive Muslims to establish a "Muslim college", which would be acceptable to (though not all) conservative leaders – with a mosque at the centre of the campus and compulsory religious instruction for all Muslim students – even though its approach was proclaimed to be "cosmopolitan", and aim was "all-round development of every student" through "liberal education" offering courses in Arabic, Islamic History and Urdu along with English, mathematics, science and commerce and with the faculty being drawn "from the Muslim community whenever possible".

The Farook College in Kozhikode soon spawned throughout Kerala similar Muslim institutions for education and other progressive social and philanthropic organisations aimed at the social, cultural and educational advancement of Muslims. Its leaders goaded the community "to use their own strength", "to learn from the example of other communities" "even while maintaining cordial relations with them" and "not to continue blaming their past for their present condition". Most importantly, it launched a new tradition of challenge within the community to the forces that drew it backwards, compromised its progress for the sake of power, and hindered its development and integration with the secular ethos of the State.

That was not all. Following their slow but lasting embrace of secular education that transformed social life, leadership roles and faith among Kerala Muslims, a cocktail of enticing forces began to beckon, as they had for other communities in Kerala earlier. Among these forces, importantly, were the opportunity that opened before them, following Partition, to participate forcefully in governance in a small State through their own political party and which gave them a sense of power over their destiny; the simultaneous promise that communism brought before them, "of relief from poverty, of social justice, equity, redistribution of land, jobs and higher salaries and living standards"; and later, the seemingly permanent salvation that migration to oil-rich West Asia offered to a lot of them from the pervasive problems of unemployment and insufficient income in modern Kerala.

Of these, the most significant result of early, targeted and secular mass education was the popular realisation among Muslims that the welfare of the community depended on the intelligent utilisation of opportunities for sharing power with others, especially if they could use their vote bank clout as a committed weapon for community advancement. Coalition-ruled Kerala has seen the Muslim League as a ruling partner in many a government. Even though it brought a sense of power and much-needed attention to many of the community's pressing daily needs, it also gradually led to disenchantment between the League and its usual alliance partner, the Congress, and opened the doors for rival Muslim organisations and the amazing spread of the comm
unist ideology among the Muslim masses.

But as many researchers have pointed out, the solution to the economic disabilities of Muslims of Kerala, some of which they shared historically with their counterparts in North India, "could only be solved partially through politics". Political power, for example, could help monitor employment policy (not such a novelty in a State where even erstwhile princely states classified Muslims as a "backward community" and introduced communal reservation for them along with others as early as the 1930s) or aid in targeting development activity to areas where a majority of Muslims lived (even unjustly at times at the expense of other regions).

But most of their problems were products of a certain religious inertia and their resultant slow movement from an agrarian, feudal context to a rapidly modernising one, where they found themselves being under-educated, inadequately skilled and ill-equipped for an increasingly competitive job market where the other major communities, Hindus and Christians, already had a lead and were ever moving forward. Moreover, the numerical growth of Muslims in Kerala had continued to be much higher than the growth rate of other communities, adding to their problem of finding education and employment for all.

It is in this context that their early acceptance of communism as a friendly, progressive force becomes the most important and, perhaps, integrating result of secular education among the Muslims of Kerala. Communism appealed to a lot of educated Muslims, as it would brook no discrimination in terms of religion or caste, and especially after it demonstrated a visible commitment to the poor and the minorities (even while it opposed communal parties) by introducing revolutionary land reform and labour laws and welfare policies that offered relief to the poor and the unemployed, irrespective of caste or religion, and by organising successful campaigns for total literacy, decentralisation of State power and on issues of health, population, environment and sanitation.

The response to these State-wide programmes were the most encouraging in north Kerala, especially in Malappuram, which a communist-led State government had carved out in 1969 as a Muslim-majority district and a source of constant political and psychological satisfaction for Kerala's Muslims. Malappuram was one among the first totally literate districts and recently also became the first totally e-literate district in Kerala. And, throughout the State, as in Malappuram, Muslims are today less wary of the messages on family planning, raising the age of marriage for girls and on the need for utilising the services of health and family planning centres.

Interestingly, Muslims once again felt the need for faster educational progress of their community when the initial rush for jobs and money to the Gulf began to include only well-educated Christian and Hindu engineers, doctors, accountants and managers from Kerala. Later, of course, by the early 1970s when the West Asian oil boom required labourers too in large numbers, even if they were semi-skilled or unskilled, the community benefited and began to catch up, with Gulf remittances boosting family incomes and prospects, including educational opportunities.

No doubt the Gulf boom involved all communities and changed Kerala, launching it into the mode of a high-spending consumer State with low employment potential and fewer avenues for economic growth and welfare or development programmes. As "Gulf mansions" mushroomed and land value went up, a strong middle class arose on the one hand and those who were left out fell further into despair and poverty. There emerged pockets of extreme poverty. At the time of the Gulf war alone did concern arise, especially in the Muslim community, whether the remittances that flowed in, in many cases irrespective of the educational attainments of a large section of job-holders, were indeed put to good use for sustained economic or educational benefit of the community .

The answer, in many cases, was `no', a worrying one in a State where it was obvious that governments (even those with sizable Muslim representation in it) could no longer be a large-scale job provider, and where, according to a recent study by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), 15 per cent of the total population are `those below the poverty line', 35 per cent are `poor' and 41 per cent belong to the `lower middle class' and only a thin upper crust of 10 per cent of people consisting of the `immensely rich' and the `upper middle class' have benefited from "the rising incomes" reported since the 1990s.

Certainly, Kerala's evolved political, social and human development context will not allow any sort of discrimination in terms of religion, as any Muslim leader would vouch for today. Such non-discrimination is evident in all walks of life in the State, including in opportunities available for education and government jobs (where Muslims have long enjoyed 12 per cent reservation as one of the eight major backward class communities).

Yet the Rajinder Sachar Committee members who visited the State before finalising their report expressed surprise that a commission (appointed by a communist-led government in 2000) to "study the adequacy or otherwise of representation of the Backward Classes" in public services had found that Muslims (who make up 24.70 per cent of the State's total population) have got only 10.54 per cent representation in the State departments, the judiciary, public sector enterprises and universities and other autonomous institutions.

The three-member K.K. Narendran Commission found that Muslim representation in public services was in almost all cases below the reservation quota, the difference being between 0.3 per cent and about 6 per cent in the four categories. However, it makes a significant observation about Muslims, after pointing out that Ezhavas, the most socially and educationally advanced among the Backward Classes in the State, have, in contrast, universally got better representation, by securing posts in the merit quota too over and above the reservation quota. The commission said the main reason why Muslims as well as other Backward Class communities have not fared well is "nothing but educational backwardness" and that they can emulate the example of Ezhavas "if they pay more attention to the education of their children".

Data from the KSSP study published in September 2006 are revealing in this context: of the total Muslim youth in the 18 to 25 age group in Kerala, a mere 8.1 per cent are in college (Hindus: 18.7 per cent; Christians: 20.5 per cent), 6.2 per cent alone are engaged in other studies (Hindus: 9.9; Christians 14.9); 30.5 per cent are employed (Hindus: 32.3; Christians 32.7) and 55.2 per cent are unemployed (Hindus: 39.1 per cent; Christians 31.9 per cent).

Muslims have clicked `Pause' on education only to their disadvantage even in a progressive society that has nurtured their interests throughout history.


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