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Muslim Education Society, Kerala: A Community Initiative For Educational Empowerment

By Yoginder Sikand

17 March, 2009

One of the major factors for the high literacy rate among Kerala’s Muslims—who are among the most educated Muslim communities in India—is the vast network of educational institutions that Muslim community leaders have established across the state. Of these, the largest and one of the most influential is the Calicut-based Muslim Educational Society. Today, it runs 72 English-medium schools, most of which are affiliated to the Indian Council of Secondary Education, the rest to the Central Board for Secondary Education. It also has 24 colleges, including 14 Arts and Science Colleges, two B.Ed. colleges, two Business management colleges, two engineering colleges, and a nursing and a dental college. Most of these are located in the Muslim-dominated parts of Calicut and Mallapuram districts. The assets of the MES, says its President, Dr. Fazal Ghafoor, a well-known neurologist, amount to some 8000 crore rupees. The total number of students enrolled in MES-owned institutions, he says, is almost 60,000. More than a third of them are non-Muslims.

Set up in 1964, the MES was the brainchild of Fazal Ghafoor’s father, PK Abdul Ghafoor, a medical doctor. ‘He felt that Kerala Muslims were seriously lagging behind others in almost all fields, including education. He believed that building educational institutions was crucial for empowering the community’, says Fazal Ghafoor. ‘That is why he began buying land in the heart of various towns across northern Kerala, where he set up schools and colleges.’ Abdul Ghafoor, he adds, wanted the MES to be a community-based mass organization, not a personal fiefdom of a small clique of people. That is why, he says, the MES has a decentralized system of functioning, with regular elections and committees at the local, district and state levels. All assets belong to the Society, and not to any individuals. Membership is open to any adult Muslim, and presently the number of members stands at almost 13,000.

Fazal Ghafoor hands me a booklet containing details of various institutions that the MES runs. Glossy pictures of vast buildings set in neatly-manicured lawns accompany the text. I ask him the secret of the Kerala Muslims’ remarkable success in the field of education. Why is it, I want to know, that north Indian Muslims continue to lag behind educationally? What can they learn from the Kerala example?

‘Unlike in the north, we Kerala Muslims have had a long series of reformers, starting from the late nineteenth century. They focused particularly on educational progress’ he explains. One of these reformist groups, with whom Fazal Ghafoor himself, as well as many MES leaders are associated, was the Kerala Nadwathul Mujahidin, which stressed the need for Muslims to take to both Islamic as well as modern education, including for girls.

Fazal Ghafoor contrasts the situation in north India with that of Kerala. ‘North Indian Muslim elites, many who claim foreign descent, have little or no organic links with the Muslim masses, the bulk of whom are of indigenous origin from the so-called lower castes. Many of them tend to look down on them. That is one reason why they have done precious little for mass Muslim education. In Kerala, most Muslims

belong to a single ethnic community—the Mapillas—whose culture is characterized by a high degree of egalitarianism, because Muslims never ruled Kerala and they had only a very small feudal class. That is why our leaders have had strong links with the masses and were able to take them along with them.’

Another reason for the stark difference in the educational conditions of Muslims in Kerala and in much of north India, Fazal Ghafoor continues, is what he calls the misplaced superiority complex of many north Indian Muslim elites. ‘They pride themselves on their supposed foreign origins. They wallow in the nostalgic past of the Mughal Raj. Some of them feel that they have nothing to learn from non-Muslims and even Muslims who are of indigenous origin, and have very limited relations with them. Their leaders have only a very narrow set of issues: the minority character of Aligarh Muslim University, the status of the Urdu language, Muslim Personal Law, and so on. They don’t want to do anything for the community, but, instead, expect that everything should be done or given by the state. The attitude of the Kerala Muslims is very different.’
Harsh words, but they ring true and loud as I hear them.

I ask Fazal Ghafoor if the MES has tried to expand to north India, to help Muslims in the same way as it has worked for the community in Kerala. ‘We tried, but we failed’, he replies bluntly. ‘Many north Indian leaders do not want to share leadership with Muslims from other states, probably fearing that their own claims to leading the Muslims of India would be thereby threatened. They look down on non-Urdu speakers.’

‘Happily, however’, he continues, ‘South Indian Muslims and Muslims of so-called low caste origin in north India are beginning to mobilize and speak out, just as Dalits are now protesting against Brahminism.’ This might mean, he concludes, ‘the emergence of a new leadership among Muslims in the Urdu-Hindi belt, which would make education and social and economic empowerment among its major priorities, rather than raking up emotive and controversial matters that inevitably heighten communal conflict.’ Such a leadership, he believes, ‘would be more willing to learn from the Kerala Muslim example.’


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