It is a fact that Kerala leads India in Human Development Index (HDI). It is also understandable that Malayalis (people of Kerala, speakers of Malayalam) are proud of their state’s high standing. What is unfortunate, however, is the recent propaganda by Communists to the effect that the high quality of life and prosperity of the state is a result of the Communist party having come to power here. Both Communist Party of India and Indian National Congress use the contrast between the HDI of Kerala and North Indian states (often ruled by their arch-rival, the BJP) to show how Kerala is doing better by keeping BJP out. To point out the flaw in their logic, it may suffice to ask them to how other Congress and Communist ruled states have fared. The latter haven’t ruled many states, but they have so completely ruined the one state where they were in power for the longest, that most of the manual labourers in Kerala now come from that state. On a lighter note, it is said that the greatest contribution of Communism to Kerala is the availability of cheap labour from Bengal. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, let us dive a little deeper into the history of Kerala and seek out at least some of the real reasons behind the state’s enviable standard of living and exemplary Human Development Index.
The first factor to consider is the geographical location of Kerala, well shielded by the western Ghats. This has helped Kerala maintain its identity and evolve a culture that is different from its neighbouring states. This is also why it is perhaps the only Indian state where Deepawali is not (or was not, until recently) widely celebrated. Another consequence of this fortified position which is at least as important, has been that it has had a relatively peaceful past. No major wars have threatened Kerala except for the invasion by Tipu Sultan of Mysore, which was fortunately contained thanks to the British engaging him on another front. Absence of war and longer periods of peace allow people to turn to more constructive vocations, leading to progress in arts, literature and science. For example, the contribution of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy is well accepted by contemporary experts in these fields.
Another important positional advantage has been the port at Kochi, which is referred to as the Queen of Arabian Sea. This port enabled trade with far lying countries from very early ages, improving prosperity of the state as well as promoting cultural and intellectual exchange with other countries.
Role of Brahmins
One aspect that the Communists would hate to accept, but which cannot be overlooked in any study of the history of this state is the role of Brahmin settlers in developing this state into what it is today. It was around 8th Century AD that Brahmins came to Kerala and settled across the state in 32 villages. They came to be known as Namboothiris. (There are 32 villages in Karnataka which were also settled in the same wave). Folklore has it that these villages were gifted to them by Parashurama himself. It was an oligarchy of these Brahmins, or rulers appointed by them, that ably governed the state as it evolved through what may have been its golden age. This is quite different from how Brahmins were given land and title by the rulers in other parts of India. This model, where decision making power lay in the hands of the most learned, proved very successful for the development of arts, literature, architecture, science and mathematics in Kerala. The powerful influence of Brahmins in the state continued even after governance changed hand to royal families and can be seen even during the time of British rule in the state.
One important distinction in the culture of Namboothiris when compared to Brahmins in other parts of India, is the system of sambandham. The eldest son in a Namboothiri family would marry from the same caste, and their offspring will continue the family line. The younger sons would marry a woman from another caste in what is called a sambandham. This close interrelation between Namboothiris and other castes in Kerala has helped in spreading knowledge and learning beyond the boundaries of the Brahmin caste. In fact, some of the greatest scholars in Kerala have come from these other castes at a time when their counterparts in other states will not have had access to even basic education. This has helped Kerala achieve the wider literacy base that it maintains to this day.
Benign Princely States
Royal rule in Kerala has mostly been very benign, with the focus mostly on well being of people, barring a few exceptions. In fact, many of the major industries in today’s Kerala (especially the ones in public sector) were established in pre-independence era by the then rulers (which includes the British in Malabar and princely states in other parts). Notable examples include Travancore Titanium Products and Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore (FACT). Of course, Communists have done their best to prevent new industries from coming up (and even forced closure of some of the existing ones), which is another reason the state hasn’t done so well in the industrial sector post-independence. The same can be said of colleges such as His Highness Maharaja’s University College in Thiruvananthapuram, Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur, or the even older Government Victoria College at Palakkad.
Christian Missionaries and other Religious Organizations
If we turn to the nearer past, much of the credit for the high level of literacy and education in the state should go to several religious organizations. Of these, the role of Christian missionaries and the development they have brought (often with support of the British) is paramount. The role of social reformers such as Sree Narayana Guru is also remarkable. The organization founded by this great spiritual leader, though it may have strayed off the path shown by the Guru, has done a lot to further the cause of education of the masses. Other religious and community groups like the Nair Service Society (NSS) have also done much to make Kerala a leader in education. Mata Amritanandamayi Mutt is another new, yet major contributor to this field in the state.
These same groups again, primarily Christian missionaries, are to thank for making healthcare affordable and accessible to all in the state. With education and healthcare being major parameters in calculating Human Development Index, a major share of the credit for Kerala’s high HDI should go to these religious and cultural organizations.
The ‘gulf’ impact
Petroleum powered sudden growth of Arab economies created a huge demand for skilled labour. Given Kerala’s historical connection with Arabia and a surplus of educated, employable youth (Communism can be given some credit for lack of employment opportunities within Kerala), this led to a large section of Keralites finding well paying jobs in those countries. Much of Kerala’s prosperity today can be attributed to the wealth flowing in from Gulf countries. In nearer past, Kerala has also exported skilled labour (of which medical nurses form a large percentage) to the UK and the US. Much of this has been possible only due to the high levels of education in Kerala and its remaining well connected with foreign countries throughout history.
The Bottom Line
There are surely many other factors that have played their part in making Kerala already a leader in education and social development at the time of independence. Since then, this beautiful state has done remarkably in maintaining that lead in spite of the toxic work culture cultivated by Communism, and the corruption and apathy of successive governments!