As the principal of Farook College at Kozhikode, the first Muslim-run institute of higher education in Kerala, Professor K A Jaleel has witnessed several landmark moments in the history of Muslim education in the coastal state. On a rainy evening in June, at his house near the college that he nurtured and cherishes, he recalls one of those moments that he knew even then would later be described as a 'turning point': the admission of girl students to the college.
Jaleel, who went on to become the vice-chancellor of Calicut University, remembers, "I had been the principal of Farook College from 1957 onwards, and girls were admitted for the first time in 1959. There was much hesitation and anxiety, and there was considerable fear as to what the reaction from the community would be." There were only a handful of girls in the college those days, pioneers who braved traditional norms and societal pressure to seek a foothold in the education field. But today, the situation is different, as even a casual visitor to the college will acknowledge at first glance. "Now there are as many girls in Farook College as there are boys," says Jaleel.
Lest this be seen as the gist of a progress card that the community can proudly flaunt, N P Hafiz Mohamad, a writer who's the head of the sociology department at Farook College, is quick to point out that Muslim girls have to battle many odds even in the 21st century. Through the story of one of his "best students", Mohamad traces what's still an uphill battle for education for many girls. "My student was the first Muslim girl chosen to participate in the Republic Day parade, from Farook College. She was not only excellent in extra-curricular activities, but also scored high marks in exams," he says. Yet, the student's parents forced her to get married against her wishes, ignoring her desire to pursue her studies and chart out a career path for herself.
Almost 50 years separate Jaleel's recollections from Mohamad's account, yet even today, both are accurate indicators of the state of Muslim education - particularly girls' education - in Kerala. Considered a role model for other parts of the country, the state does score above its counterparts in terms of Muslim education. Educationists estimate that almost all Muslim children are in school, at least up to the tenth standard, numbers that compare well to that of other communities.
Professor K A Jaleel, one of the first principals of the first Muslim-run college in Kerala.
Yet, the Muslim community lags behind even the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of Kerala when it comes to higher education and employment. Various studies, including those commissioned by the government, show a substantial number of posts reserved for Muslims in government services lying vacant. This is baffling, in a state that has been largely free of communal violence, and where Muslims have been an integral part of the cultural and social fabric since ancient times. A Kochi-based organisation called the Forum for Faith and Fraternity, which published a study titled A Socio-Economic Survey of Muslims in Kerala and India in 2006 and submitted it to the Sachar Commission, notes this contradiction in the first pages of its report. The study, conducted by a committee comprising of the former pro-vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, K M Bahavuddin, among others, says, "We started with the impression that the situation of Muslims is comparatively better [in Kerala] but after collating the data, we have come to the conclusion that their situation in Kerala has also been deteriorating in the last 20 years".
But first the good news. Kerala has for long had a progressive Muslim movement that has encouraged the community to take up education, says Mujeeburrahman Kinalur, president of Ithihadu Shubbanil Mujahideen, the youth wing of an Islamic reform movement.
While there was some opposition to girls joining educational institutions after India's independence, the Kerala Muslim Ikya Sangha - a consortium of various Muslim organisations - kicked off a renaissance movement that helped in changing many of those initial perceptions, says Jaleel. He explains that the reform movement performed two important functions: one, it helped in ridding false beliefs from the community, and two, it promoted modern education. "This new movement encouraged Muslims to establish more primary and secondary schools, which helped in the community's upliftment and awakening," Jaleel adds.
It also helps that Kerala has history on its side. Unlike in the northern parts of the country, where Islam was associated - and continues to be, particularly by fundamentalist Hindutva groups - with invading, marauding forces, Kerala's first contact with the religion was peaceful and occurred through trade. The Arabs came chasing the spices that the Portuguese and the British would seek later, and not only were they welcomed by Kerala's kings, they even married into local families.
The study conducted by the organisation Forum for Faith and Fraternity, called A Socio-Economic Survey of Muslims in Kerala and India, looks at the Muslim representation in public and private sector companies in and around the Kochi-Kalamassery-Alwaye industrial belt, among other things. Despite being active politically, and enjoying political representation in the area, and in spite of their sizeable numbers, Muslims are grossly under-represented in the companies in this belt, says the study.
The study also quotes from the Narendran Commission report and notes there's an under-representation of 7,383 Muslims in government services, in the reserved quota. The posts that have been filled by Muslims are usually in category 3 and 4, which are essentially subordinate posts, says the study. Muslim representation in civil services such as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS), and in senior positions in public sector undertakings, comes to only about 1.6 percent, which is lower than the Muslim representation in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu - states that have lesser Muslim populations than Kerala. Out of the 414 posts in the state's civil services, Muslims hold only seven, whereas SCs and STs hold 59.
Unlike in other parts of the country, Kerala's Muslim community has almost no connection with Urdu; there are no Urdu-medium schools here either. The state is unique in that it has government-recognised Arabic colleges, where students can pursue Arabic studies up to the post-graduation level. There's an option to do a Bachelor of Education (B Ed) course in Arabic as well.
While madrassas remain a topic of discussion and in certain cases, concern, in other parts of the country, this is not so in Kerala. Muslim children do go to madrassas, but simultaneously, also attend school. "Children go to a madrassa either in the morning or evening, before or after school," says Jaleel. This might dilute their attention to studies at school, he feels, but notes that parents nevertheless appreciate the importance of school education.
The Muslim League in Kerala has played a significant part in the formation of state governments, whether they have been led by the Left parties or the Congress. By its mere presence, as a formidable political party that has a say at the state level, the League has given the Muslim community a feeling of security.
According to Jaleel, even the level of progress now seen in the community wouldn't have been possible without the League. "A number of schools and colleges came up because at one time, the education minister was from the League," he says. Because almost all governments in Kerala were formed with the support of the League, the community benefited even in terms of education. The Muslim Education Society (MES), an organisation that today runs a number of educational institutions in Kerala, largely catering to Muslims, came up because of the League's support, says Mohamad.
Such schools enabled the Muslim community to opt for mainstream education. "Though educational facilities were available earlier, the community was not making use of it. This was because there was some resistance against modern education [and misgivings because of its association with Christian missionaries], and secondly, there was a line of thought that religious training was more important," says Jaleel.
On the other hand ...
Such orthodox views may have changed over time, but recent studies present dismal figures. According to a study released by the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad (an organisation that has actively worked in the state's literacy movement and taken up environment issues, among others) last year, called Kerala Padanam ('Study of Kerala'), only 8.1 percent of Muslims are pursuing higher education as compared to 18.7 percent of Hindus. Comparative figures for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are 10.30 and 11.8 per cent respectively. As the study notes, "Youth from the Muslim community lag behind in education, which obviously affects their employment opportunities and abilities to get government jobs."
According to the 2001 census, 24.7 per cent of Kerala's population is Muslim. Yet, as the Parishad study notes, only 11.4 of government jobs are held by the community. Overall, only 30.5 percent of the Muslim population in the 18-25 age group is working; over 55 percent in the same age group is unemployed, a figure higher than that for Other Backward Castes (OBC), SCs and STs. While backward castes have been able to benefit from reservation policies in Kerala, and concurrently opt for higher education, Muslims have lagged behind, and financial problems that make education a daunting prospect have made things worse, says Kinalur.
While Gulf money - as remittances made by those working in the Gulf countries are collectively referred to - has improved living standards, it has not created a substantial difference. One reason for this is the fact that Muslims, because of their poor educational qualifications, are able to take up only jobs at the lower-level in the Gulf. "A misconception among people is that Muslims have become richer by migrating to the Gulf," Kinalur says. Jaleel adds, "It's the poor, uneducated people who work there, in tough conditions. And nowadays, even those jobs have become unavailable." Despite this, there's a tendency among Muslim boys to drop out of school after the tenth or twelfth standards and then head to the Gulf to look for jobs, says Kinalur. They put securing employment in the Gulf - still seen as a passport to prosperity - ahead of their studies.
Ironically, some of those who have benefited by going to the Gulf have put in some of their savings to start educational institutions. "That's a trend that we are seeing today - people use their Gulf money to start educational institutions, or these are run with the support of Gulf-based organisations," says Mohamad. However, while this has created the necessary infrastructure, it has not been backed up with other logistical support such as good, creative teachers, he rues. "Usually, these schools have retired teachers as principals, they make do with staff with inadequate qualifications - there's no use of imagination at all," he says.
The fact that just like its counterparts across the country, the Kerala government has also curtailed its budget for education, hasn't helped matters. As the Forum for Faith and Fraternity study says, the education budget was slashed from 37.2 percent of the total budget in 1982-83 to 22.56 percent in 1999-2000. The study notes that social changes have always preceded the demand for education in Kerala. "The job opportunities in the Gulf countries brought modest prosperity to the Muslim community. The realisation that education is important and that their children should be educated at any cost has increased the demand for education. All other backward communities have also come to the same realisation. Ironically, it is at this stage that the government started reducing the state budget for education, making it difficult and expensive for the poor to educate their children, especially at higher classes," says the study.
It was around the same time that Kerala started seeing the mushrooming of private educational institutes. This put education - especially higher education - out of the reach of poor Muslims. It's commonly accepted that those in the community who send their children for higher studies belong to the upper class of the Muslim society. As Kinalur points out, many Muslim students are not able to clear the entrance tests for engineering and medical courses as it requires the support of coaching classes. Adds Jaleel, "Only well-to-do people can send their children to coaching classes, a necessity for clearing entrance exams."
Besides, the Malabar region of Kerala, where most Muslims live, is facing a shortage of seats at the 'plus two' (eleventh and twelfth standards) level. Jaleel says there's a wide disparity in the number of seats available in Malabar and in other parts such as South Kerala. "In 2002, when the plus two system was introduced, a large number of plus two schools were sanctioned in the South," says Jaleel. In contrast, very few were started in the Northern areas. In districts in the Malabar region, such as Palakkad, Kannur and Kozhikode, even those with a first-class therefore end up being denied admissions. "In other parts such as Thiruvananthapuram, seats are going empty at the same time," says Kinalur. While this has affected all communities, the Muslim community has been struck the most as their numbers are higher in these areas.
Looking ahead, looking back
The lack of education among Muslims, resulting from various causes, has clearly affected their social mobility. Going by the report of the government-appointed Narendran Commission, set up in 2000 to study whether Backward Classes are adequately represented in state government services, the community is grossly under-represented in government jobs (also see box). The report says, "Ezhavas, a major community among the Backward Classes, have secured better representation in more than one category by securing posts in the merit quota over and above the reservation quota. At the same time, Muslims, another major community among the Backward Classes, have not fared so well." The committee says the reason for this is "educational backwardness", and points out that Ezhavas have been able to compete for government jobs because of their "better educational standards".
Though the Muslim community has seen several positive changes over the past two decades, including those brought about because of Gulf money, much more needs to be done. Muslims need to take a more scientific approach towards popularising education, and to ensure its importance percolates down to all levels, says Mohamad. He recalls conducting a study in an orphanage with Muslim children, as part of which he asked the children about their career dreams. "Most said their ambition was to go to the Gulf. The second popular career choice was to be a bus cleaner. It just shows what their level of thinking is," he says.
That the community lags behind other groups in Kerala is shameful, for this has occurred despite Muslims having political clout in the shape of the League. Mohamad attributes this to the fact that Muslim organisations have still not charted out a long-term plan to consider aspects related to education and other social issues. There's no space for intellectual thought, or for a think tank, even in the Muslim League, he adds.
As a thumb rule, the community falls prey to 'trends', with little or no thought given to what following them would achieve. This, Mohamad says, is reflected in the way schools are started with poorly qualified teachers, with no attention being paid to the qualitative aspects. A 'trend' earlier was to start Arabic colleges, and now the focus is on opening B Ed institutes, says Mohamad. The community itself needs to take the initiative to work out a concrete plan to improve its own, he adds. The Narendran Commission report echoes this line of thought. "If the Muslim community and its leaders take more interest in the matter of education and make a concerted effort, this community can also reach a similar level of educational advancement [as the Ezhavas] in the not-distant future," it predicts.