Kerala: Multiple Improbabilities

Kerala, despite being one the poorest states in India, has exceptional rates of adult literacy, life expectancy and health. Image by Shareen Brysac. India, 2009.

Rarely does the Indian state of Kerala capture the world’s attention. It did so in July when a Hindu temple in its state capital was found to contain a royal ransom of solid gold statues and coconuts, piled together in a sealed vault along with sacks of diamonds. The treasure’s value is estimated at $22 billion, which likely makes the temple the richest in South Asia. Still, having recently visited Kerala, a splinter of land at India’s southwestern tip, we wondered whether the excited accounts of the discovery obscured a more relevant and remarkable story.

Kerala’s real treasure cannot be measured in dollars, pounds, or rupees. Its true gold is the example it sets—not just for India—of civilized coexistence among Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Comity has been abetted by Kerala’s developmental success, made possible in part by the empowerment of women and the export of its most lucrative commodity—its people. Moreover, its feats have been accomplished by democratic means, with the Communist Party often leading the way. Add a final twist: Kerala’s progressive example owes much to its past hereditary rulers and British colonial policies, yet currently depends—perhaps too heavily—on remittances from its million-strong work force in the Arab Middle East.

As it happens, we met recently with the incumbent head of the royal family in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, formerly known as Trivandrum. Now 90 years old, Sri Marthanda Varma still makes his daily visits to pray at Sri Padmanabhaswami Temple, where the treasure was sealed in a vault a century ago. His forebears governed this southernmost region from 1663 until 1948, retaining their hereditary titles until 1971, when that distinction was abolished. The ex-maharajah expresses no regrets over his fallen majesty. He recounts with relish his support for progressive reforms and his meetings with Kerala’s chief ministers and visiting celebrities, among them Jackie Kennedy.

Kerala’s multiple improbabilities are evident in its geography, along its roadsides, and in its spoken Malayalam language—a chorus of consonants and vowels that roll like the surf on its popular beaches. Consider its current slogan. When New Delhi’s rulers decided in the 1990s to market their nation as “Incredible India,” their counterparts in Kerala devised a rival brand name, “God’s Own Country,” now imprinted on tourist brochures. Yet for much of the past half-century, Kerala’s ruling coalitions have been headed by the nominally infidel Communist Party. Today, a visitor riding a wobbly auto-rickshaw, adorned with decals depicting Vishnu and Shiva, is likely to glimpse scarlet posters emblazoned with a hammer and sickle. No less ubiquitous are images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, often intermingled with Islamic minarets. Thus the apostrophe in Kerala’s slogan could justly be shifted one space. This is “Gods’ Own Country.”

Or so we concluded while traversing Kerala’s narrow corridor in South India—wedged between the Arabian Sea and a nearly 1000-mile mountain range called the Western Ghats—seeking clues to the state’s unusual achievements. Kerala is among India’s poorer states, as measured by its gross domestic product, yet its citizens live longer (averaging 74 years for women, 68 for men) and lead all others in literacy (98 percent). Among Indian states, Kerala ranks first in the United Nations Educational Development Index and its broad Human Development Index, and is deemed “least corrupt” by Transparency International. All this has occurred in a territory of roughly 15,000 square miles (smaller than West Virginia) whose population of 32 million is roughly the same as Canada’s, and a third larger than Australia’s. Overall, Kerala is renowned for its vibrant yet nonviolent politics, and the absence of venom among its predominant faiths, Hindu (55 percent), Muslim (24 percent), and Christian (19 percent).

This contrasts with the ongoing bloodletting in Mumbai, India’s largest city, where bomb blasts and interethnic riots recur like malevolent monsoons. Mumbai was still recovering from a seaborne attack in 2008 by Islamic militants (toll: 164 fatalities) when extremists struck again this July (toll: 18 fatalities, precise identity of perpetrators still unknown). One of three bombs exploded near the beach where Jawaharlal Nehru famously pleaded for amity in 1951, with these closing words, “If at all I am a beggar, I am begging for your love.” More horrific yet were faith-inflamed riots a decade ago in the state of Gujarat (Gandhi’s birthplace) that claimed some 2,000 lives, razed 230 Muslim mosques and shrines, and left close to 200,000
Indian Muslims homeless.

No comparable pogrom has occurred in Kerala since 1921, when in a bloodletting known as the Moplah Rebellion, Muslim gangs murdered, raped, and forcibly converted Hindus, reversing the victim perpetrator pattern in Gujarat. Subsequent clashes have been small-scale and readily contained. Characteristically in Kerala, as soon as the temple treasure was discovered, the state’s chief minister, Oommen Chandy, a Christian, asserted that his own Congress Party and its coalition partners had no intention of claiming the bullion. Instead, despite being pressed by deficits, his government planned to hire more police and install a surveillance system to protect the trove. “The wealth belongs to the temple,” he says. “The government will not agree with the view that this belongs to the state.” It is understated testimony to the interfaith empathy that has kept the peace in Kerala.


What explains Kerala’s exceptionalism? Why is its recent history so starkly different from that of Mumbai and Gujarat? To seek explanations, we scoured the state’s major cities and questioned a spectrum of intellectuals, physicians, freedom fighters, coir workers (who process coconut husks), party activists, mayors, journalists, feminist activists, believers, and non-believers. In doing so, we discovered an intricate mosaic of reinforcing ingredients—geography and weather, history and culture, the rise of a knowledge society, and the surprisingly paradoxical role of a caste system that has fostered both repression and fundamental reform. Here, too, we found that Kerala’s propitious access to the Arab emirates threw out a financial lifeline to its straitened economy.

As striking is the fluency and pungent humor of the Keralites. In the words of C.R. Neekeeandam, a 40-something environmental activist in Kochi (also known as Cochin), “We jokingly say that everything we prepare has to be ‘export quality.’ Like cashew nuts, even our children have to be ‘export quality.’ We send them everywhere for jobs.” This is at once Kerala’s strength, and its vulnerability. More than a million Keralites (also known as Malayalis, after the dialect they speak) toil in the Persian Gulf, mostly as technicians and construction workers. Hence when the economic fortunes of the emirates fluctuate, as when Dubai nearly defaulted in 2009, so do migrant remittances. Schools, hospitals, and corporations across the globe also welcome Keralites, but their gain is often their homeland’s loss. “Kerala is a consuming society, not a producing society,” we were cautioned before we left the United States by an expatriate who preferred to remain anonymous. “People are its exports. If you go to Mount Everest, you’ll find a Keralite running a coffee shop.”

“There are several reasons why Kerala is different,” says T. Gangadharan (who like many Keralites, uses only his first initial). Speaking in the northern coastal city of Kannur, using his formal cadenced English, the founder of the Kerala Peoples’ Science Movement continues, “The first, I will say, is geography. On our eastern side, you see, the Western Ghats create a natural boundary, an obstruction, to people from other parts of the country. But the rest of the state is open to the sea. That is why people from the outside, especially the Arabs and later the Portuguese and other Europeans, came first to Kerala. So you see our geographical position contributes to our multicultural aspect.”

“Ours is a very mixed history,” Gangadharan adds, “because different parts of Kerala were ruled by different regimes.” Before the Europeans came, Kerala was a maze of “tiny kingly states,” mutable in every sense. Over time, power was concentrated in regional hereditary rulers. In the south, Hindu maharajas governed in what became known as Travancore. In the 17th century, Kerala’s sole Muslim royal ruler, known as the Ali Raja, once reigned in Kannur. Just to the south, Hindu warlords called Zamorins became masters of a thriving Spice Coast. In the central area, ruled by a Hindu monarch, there flourished what was to become Kerala’s biggest city, Cochin, where according to local tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle arrived from the Holy Land to establish the earliest Christian community in Asia. Cochin is likewise home to the Pardesi Synagogue, founded in 1567 by a Jewish congregation whose origins are said to date to the destruction of the Second Temple. Though most members of the community migrated voluntarily to Israel, a scattering of traders and scholars remain.

Gangadharan also stresses the role climate has played in shaping Kerala’s “unique trajectory,” observing that “Kerala is where the Indian monsoon enters the subcontinent, and we receive the maximum rainfall, as much as 3,000 millimeters [10 feet] every year.” Thanks to numerous monsoons, the state is drenched by seven months of rainy seasons that stretch from June to December, compared to the five months that the rest of India experiences. Kerala’s farmland is proverbially fecund. “Kera” means coconut, and no crop is more important than this bountiful tree that yields meaty flesh, potable milk, cooking oil, and sap. The soil is also favorable to tea, coffee, rubber, rice, fruits, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, and cardamom.

By the late Middle Ages, Kerala—then known as Malabar—was the prime source of a lucrative trade with Europe. Venetians purchased spices in Egypt or Yemen from Arab traders who obtained their high-value wares from Malabar’s Spice Coast. This created a triangular supply chain lubricated at each link with profit. Socially, the spice trade brought together distinct ethnic and religious groups, including Christians and Jews, into peaceful and mutually beneficial contact. This set Malabar apart. Although there are long-established religious minorities throughout India, Muslims and Christians arrived in Malabar not as conquerors, but as potential business partners. Through the spice trade, all three minority faiths learned to live alongside the Hindu majority. They became familiar with each other’s rites, and crucially, came to speak a common language, Malayalam.

These links proved durable. In 1947, when Pakistan was hived off by the exiting British from newly independent India, propelling a massive population exchange that claimed a million or more lives, few Muslims in Kerala joined in the northward flight to the newborn Islamic state of Pakistan. Since then, owing partly to the cultivation of multiple ties between religious communities, peace has prevailed—not total and unbroken peace, but an impressive example of civility.

The role of languages has been central to this condominium. “Islam did not come to Kerala by conquest and Muslims are essentially Keralites,” says Professor M.N. Karassery, who describes himself as a “Muslim by tradition.” A widely read columnist, he also holds the prestigious chair in Malayalam studies at Calicut University. Newer Muslims, he observes, “are converts from different (Hindu) castes, mainly lower castes, so they are Malayalis, not outsiders. The main thing is that Muslims don’t have a separate language. Hindus, Muslims, Christians—each and every community speaks the same language, and this is very important. When you go to Bombay (Mumbai) or Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, or Hyderabad, Muslims speak their own language—Urdu. After independence, many in our own communities opened their doors and windows, and everybody came together. You don’t have a special village of Hindus, Muslims, or Christians. In Kerala, you can’t bomb a Hindu or Muslim or a Brahmin area.”

Citing a tradition in North India of patronizing only establishments run by fellow Muslims or Hindus, Karassery continues, “In Kerala, there is no Hindu water and no Muslim water.” All Keralites celebrate the 10-day New Year and the autumn rice harvest holiday of Onam, which was borrowed from Hinduism. “It doesn’t mean that I celebrate Onam here in my house,” says Karassery, “but we’ll prepare vegetarian food and payasam (a coconut rice pudding that is particular to Onam). “We don’t observe Christmas here, but I will go to a celebration with my Christian friends at Christmas, and they will come here for Eid”—the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan.

Yes, Karassery acknowledges, flare-ups erupt on occasion. Indeed, the evening we arrived in Calicut, riot police dispersed hundreds of demonstrators belonging to Hindu Aikya Vedi (HAV), a sectarian political group. The hav partisans had marched within a hundred yards of an Islamic social center. It’s actually a “conversion center,” the protestors shouted as an ominously large crowd led by the Sunni Students Federation approached to protect the threatened Islamic facility. The Hindus had been aroused by a ginned-up controversy over “love jihad.” Was it possible, as some less-than-reputable news outlets claimed, that as many as 4,000 impressionable Hindu and Christian women had succumbed to what one local wit impiously called the “sect’s appeal” of young Muslim suitors? Although no substantive evidence supported assertions that young Muslim males had craftily seduced thousands of Hindu and Christian females to secure their conversion, many Indians continued to believe this politically charged assertion. The city authorities invoked a law banning provocative assemblies, a riot was averted, and the crowds dispersed. (Newspaper accounts carefully noted that during the agitation, Hindu leaders of hav escorted a pregnant Muslim woman to a nearby hospital.) Implicit in this entire episode was the orderly acquiescence to civil authority by both Hindu and Muslim marchers. This surely rests on something more tangible than good manners, a common language, and a shared history.


Ashutosh Varshney, a leading Brown University political scientist, has devoted a decade to researching his comprehensive Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. A key section analyzes the communal riots that broke out in Aligarh, a university town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and their contrast with an absence of such violence in Kerala’s Calicut, both cities having sizable Muslim minorities. “What accounts for the difference between communal peace and violence?” Varsheny asks rhetorically. “Though not anticipated when the project began, the pre-existing local networks of civic engagement between the two communities stand out as the single most important proximate cause” of peaceful outcomes.

Varshney distinguishes between two networks—everyday engagement between neighbors and associational engagement, meaning the inter-ethnic ties nurtured within professional groups, civic organizations, and trade unions. At the village level, neighborly contacts indeed promote communal peace, but in the impersonal urban environments of Calicut or Aligarh, civic engagement, or its absence, is critical. Although Aligarh is the seat of a major Muslim university, an invisible wall has divided its religious communities. In short, crossing sectarian divides to address shared civic and professional concerns trumps small talk at the corner food shop.

Yet something deeper is also at work in Kerala. Varshney and his research teams found that nowhere were the degrading barriers of caste more rigidly enforced than in South India, especially in Kerala, where nearly 70 percent of the Hindu population was once deemed not just untouchable but “unseeable,” since it was once a crime for a lower caste peasant to come within a carefully defined distance of upper-caste Brahmin eyes.

Remarkably, however, these venerable traditions collapsed in a few decades. “From being the most hierarchical society in India a century ago,” Varshney writes, “Kerala today is the most egalitarian in the country. The traditional rules of pollution and deference have disappeared, access to education and temples is now unrestricted, the state will soon be 100 percent literate, and feudal landlordism has been abolished. All this has been achieved in a democratic framework.”

Among Kerala’s achievements, none ranks higher than the nonviolent abolition or mitigation of these long-existent codes, a reform owed to sustained campaigning by caste associations, political parties, trade unions, intellectuals, and religious leaders. Two individual reformers stand out: Sri Narayana Guru, a devout Hindu and champion of the Ezhavas, his own caste; and EMS Namboodiripad, a Brahmin by birth, Marxist revolutionary by conviction, and shrewd pragmatist in practice.

The son of a farmer learned in Sanskrit, Narayana, who died at the age of 72 in 1928, was initially a teacher, but later assumed a new life as a Parivrajaka, or “wanderer in search of truth.” From his meditations flowed this maxim: “One Caste, One God, One Religion for Mankind.” Even today, his words are painted on the neighborhood shrines dotting Kerala that house statues of the guru.

By an improbable twist, Sri Narayana’s secular counterpart proved to be the freethinking Brahmin leftist Nambooddiripad, born half a century after Narayana, and commonly known until his death in 1998 by his initials, EMS. Although a committed Marxist, he chose the multiparty path rejected by both the Soviet Union and Communist China. EMS and his comrades adjusted orthodox Marxism to Kerala’s political realities. Since no single religion, caste, or political party could realistically expect to win an electoral majority, common sense argued for left-led coalitions based on reciprocal compromises. Having had their first elected government ousted in 1959 by New Delhi and its ruling Congress Party leaders, EMS turned “the Centre” into their prime target, with Congress’s local functionaries as its servile appendage.

Heading into a second term as Chief Minister in 1967, he put together a diverse seven-party coalition. While he recognized there might be complications working with various caste associations, the Muslim League, and rival leftists, forging ties with a wider network, he argued, would encourage the different groups to work as partners, not enemies. His strategy succeeded, and in five-year cycles, Kerala’s voters have regularly switched their favors from Communist-led to Congress-led coalitions, with Muslims and Christians holding the balance of power. Kerala’s Marxists are not regarded as extremists. EMS belongs in the pantheon of Communist prophets who sought an electoral exit from the totalitarian labyrinth. Within India, Kerala’s brand of Communism exists in civilized contrast with its nominal yet murderous comrades, the landlord-slaying Naxalites of Bengal.


A wider reality is illuminated by Kerala’s example. Bipolar tends to be riskier than multipolar. In our own survey of ethnic conflicts, many if not most appear to arise when two distinct communities struggle for dominion of the same territory. In such cases as Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Belgium, and Israel-Palestine, two scorpions vie for mastery of the same bottle. When more communities are involved, there is a palpable incentive for building coalitions, as in Switzerland, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Obvious exceptions include Afghanistan, Lebanon, and former Yugoslavia, but in each case outside powers have supported proxies and sown disunion, whereas Switzerland’s neighbors decided two centuries ago that they mutually benefited from Swiss neutrality. In short, if no religious, ethnic, or interest group has a dominant majority, the more obvious the incentives for balance and deal-making.

To be sure, special circumstances continue to widen the path for the electoral victory of reformist regimes in Kerala, among them the blessings of literacy. For nearly a century, Protestant and Catholic missionaries nurtured a thriving network of schools and colleges (including Victoria College, founded in 1866, which EMS attended). Just as important, the maharajas of Travancore and Cochin long promoted quality education and literacy campaigns. By 1931, Kerala’s inhabitants were by official count India’s most literate: Cochin (34 percent), Travancore (29 percent) and Malabar (14 percent), while the figure for India as a whole was eight percent.

Simultaneously, Kerala’s budding caste associations began pressing for emancipation through strikes and protests. In Malabar, the landless Muslims known as Moplahs vented their rage not only against the British but against their despised Brahmin landlords. In 1921, in what was subsequently diagnosed as a class-based revolt, not necessarily aimed at all Hindus, a hundred or more Hindu temples were sacked. Among the rebels, 2,226 were reportedly killed, 1,615 wounded, 5,688 imprisoned, and 38,256 surrendered, giving some sense of scale in the worst outbreak of violence in Kerala’s modern history.

Nevertheless, and counter-intuitively, sectarian strife in Malabar quickly ebbed. In Asutosh Varshney’s judgment, this was principally due to the gathering mobilization of lower castes. “Hindu-Muslim issues simply could not match the passions aroused by caste inequalities and injustices,” he points out. “A restructuring of mass politics took place. Communal bitterness increasingly disappeared from the political space. Politics, memory, and emotions were reconfigured.” And in this transformation, EMS and his Marxist cadres played a vital role, culminating in the 1947 victory of a Communist-led coalition in Kerala. It is said to be the first time anywhere that Communists came to power through free elections in a populous territory. And its victory owed much to the fact that upper-caste Brahmins and Nairs had taken up the grievances of lower castes, Muslims, and Christians.


Kerala’s ancient capital of Trivandrum remains a work-in-progress, as elastic as its expanding name. (By official decree in 1991, it was renamed Thiruvananthapuram, meaning “The City of Sacred Serpents.”) Its 900,000 inhabitants are spread over seven hills linked by a tangled web of tree-lined avenues clogged with auto-rickshaws. The capital city vibrates with unfocused energy, recalling John Kenneth Galbraith’s description of India in the 1960s as “functioning anarchy.”

Most impressive are the capital’s immense pharmacopoeia of hospitals, clinics, Ayurvedic pharmacies, and spas. Keralites are known for their health consciousness. In villages and among the elderly, the practice of Ayurvedic medicine, deriving from ancient Hindu practices which seek to balance wind, fire, and water within the body, prevails. Keralalites have led India in primary care, but increasingly they want tertiary care—pills, joint replacements, open-heart surgery, and chemotherapy. It is not clear how these diverse pressures will be resolved, especially given the state’s reliance on foreign remittances and the increased fickleness of annual monsoons. Some worry that returning overseas workers, who are predominantly Muslim, will bring home radical Islamic ideologies, but so far, the most obvious consequence has been the outsized villas built with remittances that crop up on back country roads.

In effect, Kerala is reaping the unanticipated results of its own successes, and the frustrations resulting from expectations its own politicians have encouraged. Certainly few anticipated that a million or more Keralites, almost half of them Muslims, would wind up as engineers, construction workers, and service employees in the Gulf emirates, and that their remittances would exceed the state’s fiscal revenues from New Delhi. And arguably no group remains more ambivalent about the vaunted “Kerala model” than millions of its semi-liberated women. This is the only Indian state where females outnumber males (51 to 49 percent) and where birth rates have declined to levels of advanced industrial societies. Many analysts attribute this to Kerala’s exceptional literacy, which has given women greater influence on family decisions than their sisters elsewhere. Keralite women have fewer children, live longer, and survive at birth more frequently than male infants. Yet women still do not play a role in public life commensurate with their numbers.

So yes, there are tremors in Kerala that augur trouble. Yet, however vulnerable the current Congress-led coalition is to the fluctuation of remittances, there is a sense of pride, of being different, that bodes well for this remarkable state. This is personified in the calm dignity of Sri Narthanda Varma, nominal custodian of Kerala’s newfound treasure, with whom we shared tea at Patton Palace, his family’s ancestral home. This lean nonagenarian with sculptured features, also a proficient amateur photographer, describes himself as a “pensioner” and takes pride in being invited to take part in 300 public events a year. He is at once an observing Hindu and a secular-minded progressive. Concerning women’s rights, he likes to point out his own family’s matrilineal tradition, saying, “I became the maharajah because I was my mother’s son, rather than my father’s son.” He readily recalls his engaging encounters with Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy, as well as with Kerala’s leading feminists.

To be sure, the state has yet to achieve substantive gender equality. Women are routinely shunted into the lowest-paying jobs while a glass ceiling blocks their ascent to higher political and corporate posts. But the egalitarian ferment is unceasing, as we found in our visit to SAKHI, a resource center for women, whose staff provides everything from counseling to a well-stocked circulating library for a subscription of roughly $6 a year. The center, located in the capital and partly funded by the Ford Foundation, began by helping to unionize the women who bring and sell fish.

In almost every office, different religions and cultures have been integrated peacefully. During one meeting with a sitting Communist official, Chairman K.P. Raveendran, who heads the municipal council of a mid-sized coastal city, Thalassery, we ask the chairman where his Marxist party gets its votes, since there are more shopkeepers than factory workers in Kerala. “We welcome the votes of whoever supports our goals,” he says. Then how does his party differ from European Social Democrats? “Our party has an international Marxist ideology,” he frowns, adding that it’s also less dependent on a single leader and is quite ecumenical. “I’m a Hindu; my number two is a Muslim.” We ventured an offbeat question. We had been told Keralite Communists consulted astrologers to determine auspicious dates for important decisions. Is this true? A nervous buzz passes through the room. The chairman consults a colleague, and then replies yes, out of respect for local traditions, “All practices continue.” Scientific Marxism obviously marches to a different drummer in this tropical state—one more measure of Kerala’s priceless exceptionalism, more valuable than all its temple treasures.