Cover Image
close this bookKerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (FF, 1994, 140 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the document1. Introduction to the 1994 printing
View the document2. The land of coconuts
View the document3. Kerala's achievements
View the document4. Behind Kerala's success
View the document5. Food for all
View the document6. Health
View the document7. Education
View the document8. Land reform
View the document9. Helping workers
View the document10. Overcoming caste
View the document11. Women and the Kerala reforms
View the document12. Lessons from Kerala
View the documentNotes
View the documentNotes to the introduction
View the documentBibliography
View the documentInstitute publications
View the documentAbout the institute

7. Education

A major goal of any reform or development program is to increase access to economic and social mobility. Such a goal can be justified both on pragmatic and ethical grounds. Pragmatically, mobility means greater participation in economic activity by all members of society, tapping the talents of those previously excluded by artificial social barriers. Ethically, encouraging equal opportunity means forming a more just society according to widely accepted modern standards Both aspects have been paramount within the Indian independence movement for decades and in the officially stated policies of state and national governments since independence.

One of the most powerful tools for prying loose the traditional social structure is education, which provides training and skills to persons otherwise held back. In addition, education in a progressive political environment can elevate the self-conceptions of the poorest and most oppressed individuals so that they will participate more fully in the development process.

Kerala stands out among all the states and regions of India for its remarkable achievements in raising the literacy level of its people. An overview of this achievement is provided in table 9. It can be seen that Kerala has been well ahead of the rest of India since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, and that the state has continued to expand educational opportunities at about the same rate as the nation It can also be seen that Kerala stands far above the country as a whole in providing education across urban-rural, male-female, and high-caste-low-caste barriers. In addition, Kerala has an active adult education program that makes possible substantial growth in literacy even for groups bypassed by earlier educational processes.74 Kerala's educational achievements are so outstanding that they deserve further explanation.

TABLE 9: Comparison of Literacy Levelsa





General literacy




General literacy




General literacy




Rural literacy




Female literacy




Scheduled Caste literacy




SOURCES: GOK 1984:28-31; Kannan 1988:26; Census of India 1981 :xxv.

(a) Rates are for all ages, the figure available for the longest bme period. All-ludia rates include Kerala, but since the state has only about 3.5 percent of the national population it does not substantially raise the overall numbers. General literacy rates include all age groups and are lower than adult literacy as indicated on tables 1 and 2. The 1901 figure presumably includes areas now comprising Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Education in Kerala: A Historical Overview

Before British colonial annexation of the Malabar coast in 1792, the region that became the state of Kerala in 1956 had a functioning system of traditional village schools. These schools catered only to the upper castes and were focused on Brahmanic scriptures known as vedas, which the male priests learned by rote. In addition, Hindu philosophy, logic, mathematics, ayurvedic (traditional Hindu) medicine, and architecture were taught to some of the highest-caste Brahmin and privileged (high-caste) Nair males.75

The first impact of colonial rule on education came through missionaries, who set upon the princely state of Travancore to convert the entire population to Christianity. Establishing schools in that area, they were especially successful in instructing and converting members of the lowest castes, who had the most to gain by breaking free of traditional Hindu caste controls. Today, many of Kerala's Christians-who total 21 percent of the state's population-are descendants of these earlier conversions.

The rulers of Travancore were favorably impressed with mission education, but wanting to prevent it from becoming a threat to established high-caste interests, they began schools of their own. The most famous early proclamation was in 1817, when the princess of Travancore called for state support for education so that "there should be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment in Travancore, that by diffusion of education the people would become better subjects and public servants and that the reputation of the state might be advanced thereby." 76 For much of the nineteenth century a struggle ensued, with local rulers attempting to spread Malayalam-language government schools against the interests first of the missionaries and then, after the 1830s, of the British colonial government, both of which preferred more elite English-language education. By 1894 there were 255 government schools and 1,388 government-aided private schools, with a total enrollment of 57,314. In the 1860s, attention began to tee focused on education for girls, but progress was slow, and by the early twentieth century females and low-caste persons were still largely excluded.77

In both Travancore and Cochin the turn of the century was a period of precedent-setting developments. In 1894-1895, Travancore began a small program of grants for low-caste children. In 1902 lower grade education in Malayalam was mandated although practically it could not yet be enforced. In 1911-1912 caste restrictions in government schools were formally abolished. Cochin mandated free education in Malayalam in 1908.78

Despite these attempts, education of low caste groups was slow to develop. In 1945 the lowest-caste Pulayas in Cochin had 9.8 percent literacy compared with 0.5 percent in 1911. Local government continued with programs to expand literacy, introducing Arabic language classes for Muslims in 1920 and Hindi-language classes in grade nine in 1937. At independence in 1947, plans were laid for an adult literacy campaign in Travancore.79

Education and Popular Struggles

Kerala's early educational achievements can be attributed to a series of enlightened traditional rulers spurred on by the threat of a large-scale Christian missionary assault that was unique in India. The more recent educational history, however, is one of people struggling for knowledge, dignity, and better jobs. In chapter 4, we described the historical background of Kerala's militant working class and cosmopolitan culture. Education became one of the first and most sustained demands of the twentieth century.80

By the turn of the twentieth century, many groups in Kerala were beginning to seek better lives. Caste improvement associations led the way. An oppressed but somewhat middle-caste group, the Ezhavas, was first to act, with the establishment in 1905 of the Ezhava Social Reform Movement, organized by the famous Kerala reformer Sri Narayana Guru. Just two years later a low-caste Pulaya movement was started by the leader Ayyankali in the southernmost part of Kerala. In 1914 members of the relatively high caste of Nairs organized the Nair Service Society to protect their interests and to oppose the domination of the Brahmin castes. These associations, especially those of the Pulayas and Ezhavas, agitated for abolition of the caste indignities that were especially severe in Kerala. In particular they demanded access to schools and government jobs. They also set up public "interdining" events where high- and low-caste people would eat together, publicly breaking a major taboo. These intercaste eat-ins were designed to break the symbolism of caste purity. Caste reformers also fought for the rights of lower-caste people to dress as they pleased and to walk the roads without harassment by higher-caste persons-two struggles that began early in the nineteenth century-and organized temple entry marches that resulted in 1936 in the Travancore Temple Entry Act, which opened the temples of that area to all castes. Influenced by these movements, some high-caste Brahmins also began challenging caste orthodoxy.81 We describe these caste movements in more detail in chapter 10.

As these movements grew, outside forces began to act on them. Spurred in part by news of the Russian Revolution, caste improvement leaders began working with trade unions and other organizations of the poor, founding magazines and promoting rationalism and scientific thinking, which they believed were weapons for overthrowing the traditional Hindu caste system with its myriad restrictions and indignities based on mysticism.

As the movement spread, literacy became a major component in the strategy of awakening worker and low-caste consciousness. Reading and writing circles were set up in villages. Prominent authors wrote stories and poems with strong Marxist and proworker themes, and workers themselves were encouraged to write and publish poetry and narratives in union-sponsored publications.82 Village libraries were established, and literacy became a major demand of the growing radical movement. Existing first within the Indian National Congress, after 1939, the radical movement became centered in the Kerala branch of the Communist party of India that had been formed by a socialist wing of the state branch of the Congress. The right to literacy in Kerala was transformed from a purely government-sponsored policy to a popular mass movement. By the early 1980s, there were 4,977 officially recognized village libraries in Kerala, supported by community contributions and small state government grants, along with hundreds of smaller libraries not officially listed but operating solely on private funds.83

As education spread in Kerala, tension developed between the earlier government schools, government-aided private education, and the popular movement. This tension reached its height with the election of the first Communist-led government in 1957. That government proposed a sweeping reform of the education system that would have brought private schools more closely into line with the government schools. This latter issue had caused conflict for more than a century. The Kerala Education Bill aroused strong opposition from the Catholic church, which felt threatened by the bill's provisions for secularization of education and imposition of government standards in hiring and firing regulations in govern meet-aided private schools. Along with the land reform proposed by the the education bill became the focus of right' wing protest that finally resulted in the dismissal of the state government by the central government in 1959.84

Today conflict continues between the public and private educational sectors, with the private religious schools claiming government interference in their legitimate operations and the public school supporters arguing that corruption and favoritism are rampant in the private schools.85

In addition to the public-private dispute, Kerala's education system is marked by two other features unique in India. First, unlike all other states, Kerala has focused educational expenditures on the lower levels, spreading basic literacy farther but resulting in higher education's being relatively less advanced.86

Second, the popular component of education in Kerala has also continued to develop. In 1963 the Kerala Peoples' Science Movement (KSSP) was formed with the aim of "mobilization of the people through science." During the 1970s, the KSSP set up study classes, medical camps, and literacy programs in villages. These were supplemented by jathas, or parades, that take science puppet shows, guerrilla theater, and other informal educational experiences into neighborhoods and villages, raising environmental issues and other issues of concern in the state today.87 The organization publishes a Malayalam-language magazine and has established a wide following in the state.

Available data do not allow a quantitative assessment of the quality of education in Kerala, but both left and right observers in Kerala politics frequently decry the inadequacy of the learning available in government schools and the superior experiences given to those who can pay for the mostly private, Englishlanguage schools.88 These observations do not mean that Kerala's indigenous language schools are either worse or better than their counterparts in other Indian states.

Effects of Education in Kerala

Kerala's educational achievements have produced a variety of consequences. First, of course, is the sheer accomplishment itself: high rates of literacy among all groups in the population. Second, Kerala's citizens make great use of their education in a variety of ways. These include widespread reading of newspapers-the highest newspaper consumption in India89-which are available even to the poorest groups in the village libraries and in tea shops where many workers eat their morning meal. There is also a substantial Malayalam magazine' and book-publishing industry.

In addition, education has helped alleviate Kerala's severe unemployment, which is by far the highest of any Indian state (see chapter 9). Kerala exports educated employees to Bombay, Delhi, and the Gulf States of the Middle East. Even Europe and the United States are making use of Kerala nurses, for example, in fairly large numbers.90 Literacy in a progressive and mobilized political environment also enhances political awareness. Poor villagers in Kerala can read about their demands and struggles in Malayalam magazines and newspapers.91