One of my most vivid memories of Delhi forty years ago is of a neighbourhood quarrel. Two ladies were squabbling, the volume increasing with the intensity of the argument, and one of them said, "You can't treat us like that! We are educated people!" Those last four words were ones that I would hear quite often. (Curiously, it seemed to be mandatory to speak them in English even if the rest of the dialogue was in Hindi.)
I had spent my formative years in a small village in Kerala. Even Ernakulam, which was the nearest large town was a fairly sleepy place at the time. But I think we Keralites led the way for the rest of India when it came to education, and my own generation was blessed with some fantastic teachers. (The principal of my village high school, our revered and beloved Abraham-master, was so fine a man that he would rise to become governor of Andhra Pradesh several decades later.)
But however seriously we took our schooling -- and believe me we took it extremely seriously -- I don't think we ever boasted about being "educated people" as those Delhiites did. Education, truly good education, was so freely available that there was no excuse for anyone not to take advantage of it, so being 'educated people' was nothing out of the common.
Kerala's literacy rate has risen since my own schooldays. I cannot help wondering, however, if we have not started to confuse mere 'literacy' with true 'education.' Mahatma Gandhi once wrote something to the effect that reading and writing, while undoubtedly essential, were not ends in themselves, the ultimate goal of education being to build up character. Which is why, when I look at my home state today, I wonder what has gone wrong.
I was shocked when the Election Commission released some statistics after the 1999 general election. Bihar, as one might expect, had reported the largest number of incidents of poll violence. (This was before Jharkhand was spun off as a separate state.) But Kerala was second in the list of infamy. The unhappy trend has shown no signs of diminishing in the five years since as a cursory reading of the headlines demonstrates.
Muslim League workers assaulted reporters at Kozhikode airport. In Thiruvananthapuram, RSP sympathisers beat up journalists. It is only fair to say that it is not just the media which is at the receiving end, Kerala's politicians are equally happy to vent their anger on each other. The fight between K Karunakaran and his opponents degenerated into brute violence at Aluva where district-level Congress leaders were manhandled by their own partymen, and in an uglier incident two men from the Karunakaran wing were disrobed on the road.
And now the culture of violence has oozed from the political sphere into the religious world. I have heard reports of physical clashes over church property thanks to the eternally schismatic sects, and some even in the SNDP (which I recall as one of the most revered organisations of my youth).
But the latest news is perhaps the most shocking. There are reports of a ship making its way stealthily towards the coast of Kerala. The authorities suspect that there it is carrying guns in its hold, and the DGP has put the police in Kochi and its vicinity on a vigil.
Violence is not the ailment to strike Kerala. Women were treated with a respect that was almost unknown in the rest of India. Now, sex scandals come so frequently that you almost lose track. The Kozhikode Ice-Cream Parlour Scandal is making the headlines but it is far from being unique. For readers who may not be acquainted with the details, this case began in 1998, and one of those whose name was linked to it was the Muslim League's P H Kunhalikutty (currently serving as Kerala's industry minister). Regina, one of the four witnesses, now claims she was offered several lakh rupees to keep his name out of the case.
More recently, on November 13, Shari S Nair, died in Kottayam Medical College following complications after delivery. Her father says his daughter was sexually abused by political heavyweights. Kottayam Chief Judicial Magistrate P D Rajan has discovered that relevant files from two private hospitals and the Kottayam Medical College are missing. The leader of the Opposition, V S Achuthanandan, says a doctor told him that the girl's condition worsened after the visit of a 'VIP.'
No political party in Kerala has clean hands -- not the United Democratic Front, not the Left Democratic Front, not even the BJP and its allies. It is useless to expect politicians to wield the broomstick. It is up to the citizens of India's most literate state to do something. May I suggest that we start with a genuine effort at 'education'?