One of the very few downsides to being a Malayali is that people often expect you to explain some aspect of social, political and economic life in Kerala with deep, insider knowledge. “So Sidin," someone will suddenly say when you are standing in line for a coffee or trying to mind your business near the ragda pattice counter at some Diwali party, “this Kerala Model thing is real or fake or what? You tell honestly, you don’t look like a Communist type."

Few of us do, comrade. Few of us do.

These questions usually revolve around topics like literacy, diaspora, the remittance economy and so on. Most of the time I just shrug my shoulders and say, things seem fine. There are many problems in Kerala, of course. But better to have problems and literacy and remittances, than have problems without remittances or literacy. 

I do this for two reasons: First, because I actually don’t really know. I am interested in certain narrow aspects of Kerala history. But no more. Second, I find that there are many unobvious questions to be asked about Kerala and the Kerala Model that are much more interesting than the usual ones.

For instance, the question of how Kerala achieved high literacy is interesting. However, Kerala already had a fairly high base, with total literacy of 47.18% in 1951. A more interesting question could be what happened to the levels of literacy in the two major states that followed Kerala in the literacy rankings in 1951: Maharashtra and West Bengal. 

According to the 2011 census, Maharashtra is now in 12th place, though it is separated from Kerala by a host of small states, Union territories, and Himachal Pradesh. West Bengal, however, is now in 20th place, with a literacy rate only slightly above the national average. While overall literacy rate in India expanded by 9.21% in the decade from 2001-11, West Bengal achieved a growth of 8.44%.

One of the many common reasons given for high literacy in Kerala is the fact that it has had several Communist governments that focused on the poorer sections of society. But then why doesn’t that logic work for West Bengal, which has arguably had a much stronger legacy of Communist politics?

The latest issue of the Studies In People’s History journal has an interesting article by Amiya Kumar Bagchi titled “Failure Of Education Policies In West Bengal, Since 1951: An Analysis". The article asks precisely some of these questions about why, when it comes to literacy, policy outcomes in Kerala and West Bengal seem to diverge.

Comparing West Bengal to both Kerala and Tripura, two other states with a history of Communist governments, Bagchi says that from its very foundation, political elites in West Bengal “neglected primary education and concentrated on higher education which their children would take up". Thus even as schooling at the primary levels in the state stumbled along, West Bengal became host to a number of new and enhanced higher educational institutions: Jadavpur University, University of North Bengal, Rabindra Bharati University, Indian Institute of Management—Calcutta, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and so on.

This, Bagchi says, was of a piece with what was happening in several other states in India where investments poured into elite institutions. What Bagchi found remarkable, however, was that this focus was maintained in West Bengal even after the Left Front came to power in the 1970s. Even as governments in Kerala and Tripura focused on the most basic levels of education, West Bengal continued, and continues, to build universities. 

Eventually, Bagchi writes, primary and secondary education did begin to get a bigger and bigger share of the money spent on education as a whole in the state. But then the efficient utilization of this money became a challenge. One statistic quoted in the paper makes for unsettling reading. In 1988, of all the primary schools in West Bengal, 4.9% were classified as having “No Rooms". By 1997, this percentage had zoomed to 18%.

Thus, after two decades of Left Front rule, one-fifth of all primary schools in West Bengal had no infrastructure. How, Bagchi asks quite rightly, were teachers supposed to hold classes when it rained?

But that is if teachers taught at all. Absenteeism and politicking were rife in the teacher community. Many spent more time running private tuition classes than in their schools. “Politics of the wrong kind," Bagchi writes, “pollutes the educational environment." Poverty, prevalent cultural norms, access and other factors all only helped to compound the problems.

Thus, by the census of 2011, Kerala and Tripura, both ‘Communist’ states so to speak, had achieved overall literacy of 93.91% and 87.75% respectively. West Bengal lagged behind at 77.08%. Many comparisons are possible. But the most striking is that as recently as 1971, West Bengal led Tripura by almost 8%.

The paper is well worth a read. From the perspective of the history enthusiast, the conversation should point out three broad things. First: We should try to ask the unobvious questions sometimes. Ask why A is so good, but also why B is not (India is one of the best places anywhere to do this).

Second: Similar political ideas, in this case communism and Communist educational policy, can manifest in different ways in different places. It is rewarding to ask why this is so without resorting to the trite cliché that proscribes investigation. 

And third: It pays to keep in mind that Indian history exists simultaneously, at various levels. Don’t miss the wood for the trees. But also don’t miss the trees for the wood.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

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