“You are overqualified to be someone from Malappuram”, said one of my professors at Medical school. “You are mistaken”, I replied with a smile. I didn’t explain further because people who are prone to hasty judgements do not understand beyond their level of perception. Yet I could not help but think, “Why would he pass such a remark?”
I hail from Malappuram, a district in Kerala, India that has lately been depicted in the mainstream news as a communally violent and rigidly traditional district almost entirely due to the fact that Muslims make up two thirds of the population. As a practicing family medicine specialist I have often had to answer hundreds of versions of the above question, some of them more blunt than others.
Kerala has a sizeable Muslim population, mainly concentrated in the Malabar region. Malappuram has more Muslims in India than any other district. The district once considered the most educationally backward in Kerala has in the last ten years seen a significant positive change. Let us look at the major factors that contributed to the development of this district.
Muslim educational institutions were established in the early days of Islam in Kerala. Mosques were used to impart religious knowledge to people. It is an irony that despite acquiring knowledge being a religious obligation on every Muslim, the Muslim society in Malappuram was educationally stagnant. People were reluctant to send their children, especially girls to school.
Voluntary organizations played a key role in molding the social and educational aspirations of the people of Malappuram. The first organization that was established for the education of Muslims was Kerala Aikya Sangam in 1922; soon after independence, the leaders of the Sangam established the Farook College at Calicut. It was the only college in the central Malabar region at the time of its inception and today it is the largest residential post graduate institution under the Calicut University.
There emerged a few state-wide organizations like the Mujahid Movement, Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim Educational Society and the Muslim Service Society. These institutions have been making persistent efforts for improving the standard of education among the people of the district for the last seven decades.
When the Mujahid Movement was established, they decided that the education, especially that of Muslim women, would be given greater importance. This movement was one of the driving forces behind the setting up of major educational institutions and schools in Kerala; they encouraged men and women to acquire education, and this helped in transforming many cities of Malabar into highly educated areas.
They formalized the Madrasa (religious school) system in Kerala to cater to the religious education of boys and girls. They were also instrumental in starting several Arabic Colleges. These colleges today teach secular subjects along with Arabic language and the religious sciences.
Jamaat-e-Islami was another important reformative organization working for the upliftment of Muslims. It was formed in 1941 under the leadership of Maulana Sayyid Abdul ala Maududi, and had several wings and sub organizations for its various activities. Their publishing house for instance, published hundreds of books on different Islamic subjects. Their efforts to make Islamic literature available in regional languages have been instrumental in creating greater understanding about Islam among the Muslims of Malappuram.
Their publications, aided by a strong network of volunteers have helped disseminate Islamic knowledge, educate the youth, and create a favorable attitude towards women’s education which had been neglected by the community for a long time. Moreover, through their activities, the organization has helped in creating a political and cultural consciousness among the Muslim masses.
The organization created institutions where Muslim students could have the benefit of both religious and secular education. Having realized that education is the best medium for empowering a society, they developed a wide network of madrasas, schools and arabic colleges. These institutions are administered by an Education Board called ‘Majlis-al-Ta’aleemil’, constituted in 1980. Matters such as publication of textbooks, designing of the syllabus, and conduct of exams are attended to by the Majlis.
In addition to these organisations, the Indian Union Muslim League leaders, who linked their political activities with social and educational upliftment of Muslims have contributed towards improving the standard of education for Muslims in Kerala, especially in Malappuram.
Though there were lots of efforts to improve the educational status of Muslims, these efforts were inadequate to eradicate the problem of poverty which was one of the major reasons behind their educational backwardness.
It was the Gulf migration and the resultant economic progress that proved to be the last piece of the puzzle for an educational renaissance among the Muslim community in Malappuram. Emigration and the large sums of money that came home because of it made these communities economically capable of providing better education to their children which led to remarkable progress in literacy.
The 1990s saw a boom of self-financing educational institutions managed and supported by emigrants. Thus without doubt it could be said that religious movements, social organizations and Gulf emigration were instrumental in changing the outlook of the people of Malappuram towards education and employment. The establishment of a number of local educational institutions, both in public and private sectors made it more acceptable for parents to educate their daughters. Currently, Malappuram has become a hub of education in the state of Kerala, with three universities, two law colleges, and various medical, engineering and art colleges.
I am a testimony to this educational renaissance that Malappuram has witnessed. Born to parents from Malappuram who gave tremendous value to education and later migrated to the Gulf in search of greener pastures in the 1970s, I am among the hundreds of thousands fortunate enough to have received an education from some of the best schools and universities in Kerala.
When the results of the tenth grade state board exams for 2020 were announced in June, Malappuram district emerged with the highest number of students with an A Grade. Though securing good grades is not the be-all and end-all of education, it does serve to demolish the narrative that the people of Malappuram are filled with communal intolerance and rigid tradition.