Thursday, April 18, 2024

Blind spots – The Malappuram question and Kerala’s answer to it

Malappuram. Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

Arjun Ram

Amartya Sen immortalized the ‘Kerala Model of Development’, substantiating his polemic on freedom, particularly civil and political, as a driver of progress. The South Indian state of Kerala has been a point of interest for various social scientists worldwide for so many reasons. Kerala is a state that has to date from formation seen Left-led and the Congress-led alliances winning public mandate successively in an alternate fashion. When the British left the Indian dominion, Kerala was one of the very few states that had an appreciable literacy rate and a socio-political framework pitted for action. The Kerala Model of Development is oft incorrectly ascribed exclusively to the policies initiated by the Communist governments in the state. Of course, the CPI(M) led ministries have played a great role in formalizing a people-centric, indigenous, decentralized mode of administration. But one must not fail to see the United Democratic Front given its reservations with the left did not scrap the story of development initiated by its political counterpart. Instead, Kerala has seen a very positive interplay of competitive dynamics between the two fronts, placing the state’s motto of development a priority ahead of erasure of previous government legacy.

The HDI-model of Kerala entered the global curriculum much before nations like Singapore and Sri Lanka. Very strong social indicators in healthcare, education, high life expectancy and low infant mortality in
Kerala delivers a unique testament of welfare-driven development in an environment of low per-capita income. The Kerala model was the principal case on point in the recent riveting Sen-Bhagwati debate, wherein Sen advocated for an extrapolation of the welfare-redistribution programmes of Kerala and its culture of political activism. Bhagwati on the other hand cited lacunae in the same, pinpointing pitiful growth indicators in the state. Regardless of the specifics of the debate, women inclusive polity and
decentralized legislation remain hallmarks of the K-Mod, with the state’s recent handling of the COVID19 pandemic being lauded by international organisations like the UNO.

The Blind Spot- The district of Malappuram

Malappuram is the only Muslim dominated district in the entirety of South India, with over 70% of its inhabitants being followers of the Islamic faith. The most populous district of the state was formed on the 16th of June 1969, carved out of the already existing Palakkad (Palghat) and Kozhikode (Calicut) districts. It was formed based on the visible largesse of and incapability of efficient governance in both Kozhikode and Palakkad. The policies behind the formation of the district were spearheaded by the then
Chief Minister of Kerala, EM Sankaran Namboodirippad who himself was from the then non-existent district of Malappuram. More than 50 years later, the Malayali audience spectates today, a symptom of hesitant decentralization. Housing more than 4.5 million citizens, when it comes especially to the cases of education and healthcare, it is visibly bursting at the seams.

Malappuram houses more than 3.5 lakh citizens on average in each of its 135 villages which is light-years away from the state average. Each taluk is burdened with populaces much beyond what their administrative arm-power can handle. Research conducted by the Indian Union Muslim League tells us that for the 12.31% of Keralites that live in Malappuram, only 5.41% of total hospital beds in Kerala are being provided. The ongoing Malabar Students’ Council protests bring to the limelight the lacunae in the
educational infrastructure in the district. The data collected by the League and Socialist Democratic Party of India tells us that only 1 out of 10 meritorious students who pass out from higher secondary
schools expect admission to local colleges. Understanding and interpreting a project of self-determination of Malappuram in the premise of holistic development therefore entails a very political reading of the history of identification in the Malabar.

The South Malabari district geopolitically, is a simultaneity point for three narrations of North Kerala historiography- the Ernad, Valluvanad and Malabari variants. From being a room of engagement for Arab trade entry and cultural transactions, sustaining a unifying palette of secularism has been a unique dimension of the Malabari civilization. But Malappuram is now known nation-wide for other reasons. It is a mini-Pakistan1 for the Brahmanic Sangh Parivar; for the Communist Parties, it is the birthplace of their stalwart E.M.S, the first Chief Minister of Kerala, which has turned into a breeding ground for divisive ‘communal’ politics. For Congress, it is a work in progress that needs heavy tending. So it is safe to say that Malappuram, for liberal imagination is an enigmatic land that doesn’t expectedly fit in the Kerala developmental paradigm.

Inventing a Good Samaritan

From the collective memory of 1921 Malabar Rebellion to the rise of the Indian Union Muslim League in Malappuram, many historical events that are inconsistently remembered by the Malayali populace has precipitated a lexicon of xenophobia. The district houses a territorial imagination that has been constructed by a fusion of political imperatives.

Just as “the historian paints the landscape of the past in the colours of the present” so the surveyor, whether consciously or otherwise, replicates not just the “environment” in some abstract sense but equally the territorial imperatives of a particular political system.

(Harley, 1988).

The Muslim majority that has the most hands-on political steering wheel in the district has a very unique responsibility. It has to constantly engage in furnishing an inclusive and secular image that the Kerala model is famous for. Why this is important to note is because it stands testimony to liberal expectations from an already persecuted minority in the nation. The trade-based cosmopolitanism that sets Malayali Muslims –the Malappuram ‘Mappila’ specifically- apart from the other Indian Muslims also has a history of transnational political ties with countries like Oman and Turkey (Ilias, 2020).

The Sunnis and Salafis of Kerala, specifically in Malappuram are positioned in a mire of political cacophony lost between the historically ‘secular’ iconoclast in the Indian Union Muslim League and then the Jamaat-e-Islaami (Hind). Why the two factions remain separate in the political realm is best explained by citing contextually, the Good Muslim-Bad Muslim (Mamdani, 2002) binary, a product of the modernity project. The IUML represents for the liberal Malayali world, the ‘good Muslim’ bulwark i.e.
the political denomination of the minority Muslims of the nation that ‘strives’ to digest secular existence. The Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI) or even the Welfare Party for that matter which has strong connections with the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH) represent, again for the same liberal audience, the fundamentalist ‘bad Muslim’ who are inevitably expected to pan out as pan-Islamist agents rooting for a theocratic Khilafat state. This binary opens Pandora’s Box for political Islam in Kerala, placing Muslim assertion in a Kaleidoscope of expectations and performance. The search for the Islamic good Samaritan in Malappuram, therefore, prompts an inquiry of why patrons and developmental missions prefer delineating such a binary.

Constant Binaries

The Good Minority-Bad minority or Good indigenous-Bad indigenous binary isn’t necessarily a feature endemic to Malappuram. Such a patronizing position has been taken by colonizers and ‘civilizin missionaries’ -almost by most historical conquistadors. In 1494, when the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the Americas between the Portugese and the Spanish, a very implicit negotiation took place citing the civilizing potential of the colonizers and the nature of ‘radical’ inhabitants in both the Latin American territories. A Good Civilizer-Bad indigenous binary helped brainwash the subjugating republic which fell right into the trap of the suggestion of relative civilization.

The same Spaniards and Portugese sent Columbus out on a ‘civilizing’ mission, to spread modern Christian values amongst regressive, ‘bad’ Jews. The Iberian Peninsula also witnessed for nearly 800 years, a war of Catholicism with the rest of Islamic ‘deviation’ during the Reconquista period. The patronage syndrome had elevated to such an extent that by the time the Spanish Inquisition had formally completed, the norm was to either accept Catholic Christianity or leave!

Islamophobia as a monolithic entity gained modern currency post the declaration of the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11. The global democratic expectations of secular existence took a turn for the worse, as the War on Terror revealed itself as Bush’s attempt to patronize and nefariously interrogate a section of society. The ‘Saviours’ of the modern world thus effectively medievalized an entire community, whose vocabulary and grammar was delegitimized forcefully.

“Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilizatrice”

(Said, 1978).

Single Stories and Agreed Histories

Chimamanda Adichie, diasporan litterateur has a very relevant take on the archiving of history and how it influences the present. She cautions the liberalizing world against narrating ‘single stories’ and denouncing indigenous agency. Such narrations construct very dangerous ‘others’ and consequently suppresses them with malicious intent. She says that power can be used for mal-intent through controlling ‘how stories are told, who tells them and how many stories are told’. Hence it is imperative we deconstruct most isms and ideologies that govern current globality and accommodate anew organic retellings. Demonizing ‘others’ by inducing a polarity of genuineness amongst the same thus is an erasure of history, suppression of agency and denial of fundamental assertive rights.

Interesting Intersections

Through an Attention Calling Motion in the State Legislative Assembly on June 25, 2019, MLA from the Vengara constituency of Malappuram district KNA Khader of the IUML raised the demand that Malappuram district should be divided on the basis of population. He proposed that a new district should be formed with Tirur as the administrative headquarters, citing disproportional development to the population of the district. This raised a huge commotion as it is rare that the IUML takes a stand identical in social issues to the ones of parties like SDPI and Welfare Party. The MLA who tabled the attention-seeking motion was absent in the zero-hour when it was actually to be discussed at length in assembly. This was in response to the dissatisfaction of the Indian National Congress, the IUML’s ally in the UDF and other stakeholders in Khader not having run the issue through them before advertisement.

The Left Democratic Front vehemently dislodged any aspirations for the partition of the district, alleging the ‘good’ Muslim League had now started liking fundamentalist ‘bad’ flavours which it tastes from the JIH. The issue itself, being rooted in developmental concerns was not deliberated upon at all. All the data collected by the R&D wings of the League as well as the SDPI (which was actually the first political party to demand the partition publicly as early as in 2010) lost value and girth, now having been delegitimized
by having given the ‘bad Muslim’ label.

Development- Cultural Coefficients

The Malabari land has innumerous stories of assertive imagination embedded in its history. Being one of the strongest of identities that helped formulate the state of Kerala, Malabar but has always had to struggle with escaping the above-said labelling agenda and at the same time stake its claim in matters linked to development. It is a ‘secular’ Muslim whose demand the Kerala liberal audience wants to listen to. As long as Malappuram doesn’t homogenize its politicization in tune with ‘secular’ expectations of the progressive Keralite, any demand that rises from the land is demonized, vilified and ignored.

Territorial imaginations thus become the most sensitive of matters Malappuram or Malabaris as a whole is least expected to engage in, let alone partition of a Muslim dominated district. The IUML, therefore, plays an important role as the age-old secular ‘Indian’ representative of the Muslim minority. It has historically chartered a promisingly inclusive yet vigorously assertive path towards the realization of minority assertion. How it deals with the proposal of the partition of Malappuram, which has a pluralist society known for its secular atmosphere, as a democratic player is something the liberal audience is waiting to watch.

The demand for partitioning Malappuram by various political parties like the SDPI is in a quagmire of politics and agendas of communalism (Arun, 2019), allegedly; this but does not negate the data that
evidently shows that the district is in dire need of inclusion in the state government‘s plans of development. In all sectors, be it the health or more importantly, the educational sector, a very pronounced lacuna in the people to access ratio inhibits potential progress in the region. When compared to the districts of the Travancore-Cochin area, the Malabari districts are considered to be backward with inter-regional disparities pertaining to development. With an inherited imbalance, the developmental measures implemented in this area had aggravated the situation. Any deliberate effort to reduce the disparities among the regions calls for such policy measures to stimulate the lagging regions (Anvar 2003).

Reading the language of labelling that has turned normal parlance in the district along with actual developmental anxieties, therefore, promises the latest take on the Kerala Model as a whole. Political maturation and involvement of the civil society in Kerala is governed by certain aspects and normalities of a populist tendency that is also rife elsewhere in the world today. How it engages with the secular developmental image of the state lays the foundation for a more critical enquiry of the K-Mod’s intricacies.

“From time to time the question has been raised, when I, sometimes people say that I talked about a Kerala model. I would defy anyone to find a single statement of mine where I quoted the Kerala model. I did say there is a lot to learn from Kerala. But, in those days Kerala has a lot of bad lessons to offer, as well. And, you have to take a much more positive constructive policy about the market along with all the things they were doing.”

(A Lecture delivered at the launch of the International Centre for Human Development on 04th January 2012 at the Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi)


  • Anvar, P. (2003). Regional Development in Kerala: A Study of Malappuram District (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation). Cochin University of Science and Technology, Kochi. Retrieved from

  • Arun, K. (2019, August 28). The demand to bifurcate Malappuram district and the political tussle around it. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from The News Minute:
  • Harley, J. B. (1988). Maps, Knowledge and Power. In D. C. Daniels, The Iconography of Landscape (pp. 277-312). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from
  • Ilias, M. H. (2020, August 11). Opinion. The shadow of Hagia Sophia . New Delhi, India: The Indian Express. Mamdani, M. (2002). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism. American Anthropologist, 104(3), 766-775. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from

  • Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. Downloaded from

Arjun Ram is a research intern at Institute of Social Science, New Delhi.


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