Bengaluru: Until some years ago, only a few students would turn up for classes, let alone graduate with high marks, in a public school close to a forest in one of the largest tribal settlements in Kerala, ‘Aralam farm’ in Kannur district. Now, not only do most of those tribal children keep coming to classes every weekday, to be taught with high definition projectors and the fastest internet in the town, they come even on weekends to party.
The juniors spend their weekends in a mall in the city center playing video games made free and unlimited for them, while the seniors explore bigger malls in cities like Kochi before flying back to town. Those students got the best results in their school’s history this year, with the Class 10 topper scoring 93%.
Meet the new Kannur. After decades of murderous political violence and underdevelopment, Kannur is slowly realising its potential under a 31-year-old collector, Mir Muhammad Ali. A slew of his initiatives ranging from getting tribal children back to the Aralam school to fighting fake news about measles-rubella vaccine killing children, have been taken up in an attempt to change Kannur’s image from being the country’s bloodiest battleground between the left and right.
Kannur often hogs the national spotlight for a violent turf war, going on for decades, between two powerful political forces that bookend India’s political spectrum, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPM, and the Bharaitya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (BJP-RSS). Both sides have lost almost equally, about 30 people in the last 16 years, with two killings as recently as in early May.
Children from the most marginalized community going to school may not be the best indicator of overall development of Kannur, except that it is just one sign of progress. But the collector thinks such initiatives can help focus on development as an agenda for the region, than being categorized as “Kerala’s killing fields", the way one news organization addressed Kannur recently.
Ali, a Chennaite engineer who wanted to do journalism if not selected for civil service, landed in Kannur at a time that the killings had escalated, as the BJP-RSS’ main enemy in Kerala, Kannur-born CPM leader Pinarayi Vijayan became chief minister with a landslide victory in 2016.
“I have to mentally separate everything and then work on it. We cannot let the violence take over everything that we do, because that is not everything that is to the place.... The actions of the very few should not sit on the shoulders of many who are extremely peaceful, loving and caring people," Ali said over phone.
One of his first initiatives was to make people reduce tons of plastics on their own and announce the city plastic free in six months. Kannur is dotted with picturesque rolling green pastures and pristine beaches that have not been exposed to mass tourism. Plastic was one thing it could do without, much like political murders. “It brought everyone together, the district panchayat, president, grama panchayat, the school children," Ali said.
His next focus was to reach out to schools, like Aralam. Next month, he is going to start a major campaign against fake news on social media, focusing on students, as many parents in Kannur were unwilling to give measles-rubella vaccines to children last year, solely because of damaging rumours spreading on Whatsapp.
“About 150 schools will attend a session (on fake news on social media). It is not about fake news and anti-fake news alone. We want to teach children that you have to be skeptical and if a lie is propagated around you it needs to be called out," he said.s
Children learning about fake news on social media may not reduce political violence, but it may help to develop critical thinking, he thinks. Does that mean the next generation will grow up to be skeptical of political murders? “It is a political problem and needs a political solution… The lack of enquiry needs to go, at least among the children. I believe if you put it in their minds once they will remember for their life." In other words, he is showing a mirror to the politicians who are planning their next kill.