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Kerala – a model of harmony, sustaining secular traditions

Besides the high literacy rare, Keralites are distinct because of their belief in secularism

Cruising along the backwaters of Allappuzha - BENEDICT LOPEZ/ALIRAN

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India, with a population of 1.4 billion, is multilingual and multicultural, with diverse religions and castes.

Against such a backdrop, political and socioeconomic issues constantly arise in many parts of the country. Some are contained while others fester.

Kerala has so far bucked the trend. A possible contributing factor is the different mindset of Keralites, thanks to the state’s high literacy rate. About 94% of the state’s population is literate: male literacy currently stands at 96%, while female literacy is at 92%.

Kerala is ahead of other states in India in various socioeconomic indicators like productivity, infant mortality rates, population growth rates, life expectancy and healthcare facilities.

The state’s 35 million people are 55% Hindu, 26% Muslim and 18% Christian, with other religious minorities making up the rest. No other state in India is as diverse as Kerala. Despite its imperfections, Kerala’s democracy is fair to all religions.

People in Kerala think differently. “I feel Kerala is the safest place in the world for me and my community,” a young Roman Catholic told me.

The late former chief minister Oomen Chandy, a Christian, was the longest serving member of the Kerala state assembly, serving 50 years. That Chandy, from a minority religion, was once chief minister, speaks volumes for the state. Chandy received an award for public service from the UN in 2013.

Secularism prevails

Besides the high literacy rate, Keralites are distinct because of their belief in secularism.

Secularism affords the people the right to follow any religion or otherwise. The state is committed to sustain neutrality, especially over religious issues: it is not permitted to legally favour any religious affiliation.

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Keralites support the secular system because they want to live in harmony in an Indian democracy – although there are some non-Keralites undermining it.

Although the Hindus are the majority in Kerala, they coexist with the Muslims and Christians amicably. In this respect, Kerala is a model of religious harmony – a far cry from many countries and even some other parts of India.

Religious harmony is best exemplified in Elavaramkuzhi, a village in Kollam, about 70km from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. Here, the Juma Masjid and the Mahadeva Temple stand just 250 metres apart, sharing a history of mutual respect, which no misinformation or disinformation can erode.

Harmony is conspicuous during the yearly Onam celebration, the harvest festival celebrated in Kerala. A celebration of unity and inclusivity, it brings together people who set aside their differences to celebrate. This captures the egalitarian and secular traditions passionately conserved by Malayalis over centuries.

The need for peaceful coexistence and communal harmony, especially in current times, is crucial.

I was in Kerala for a week recently and visited Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kochi (Cochin) and Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the capital city. While there, I noticed various captivating facets of life.

Alappuzha’s iconic backwaters

Cruising along the backwaters at Allappuzha – BENEDICT LOPEZ/ALIRAN

My first stop in Kerala was taking a trip in a houseboat across the iconic backwaters. In fact, it was my fourth visit on the backwaters and once again the serenity and tranquillity mesmerised me.

Alappuzha, known as Venice of the East, is at the heart of Kerala’s backwaters. It contains a vast network of backwaters with more than a thousand houseboats.

Kerala is among the most popular tourist hotspots in India. National Geographic Traveller, named Kerala – famous for its ecotourism initiatives and its enchanting backwaters – as one of the ten paradises of the world.

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Kochi’s unique history

A fishing boat at Kochi – BENEDICT LOPEZ/ALIRAN

Kochi, popularly known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, is a city that has one of the finest natural harbours of the world. It was the centre of the world spice trade for many centuries and today, places selling spices remain conspicuous in Kochi.

The city has been culturally identified by the Chinese fishing nets which were introduced during the 14th Century. Today, they are a part of the city’s cultural heritage and have become a prominent landmark and tourist attraction.

Amazing women motorcyclists

The name Thiruvananthapuram is an amalgamation of Tiru and Anantha-pura meaning “The town of Lord Anantha”, the deity of the Hindu temple at the centre of the city.

The city bustles with activity, and it’s a common sight to see many women riding motorcycles. The women ride confidently, cool and composed despite the challenging traffic conditions. They navigate through the alleys and narrow roads self-assuredly with no sign of fear.

The city is also a book-lovers’ paradise. I visited no fewer than six book shops and bought four books (two hardcovers) for only 3,000 rupees (RM172). The price I paid is a fraction of what I would have paid in KL.

As we were driving through the city, I saw a Catholic cathedral diagonally opposite a mosque. It enlightened me a lot about this city as a beacon of religious harmony.

I am proud to be Malaysian. But I am also equally proud that my roots trace back to a small village called Valiathura, near the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.

Many from this village who migrated to then Malaya worked as teachers and civil servants. They worked hard for an honest living and their children served Malaysia as doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, journalists, teachers, police officers and civil servants.

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I was happy to visit BenLyn, the house designed and built by my maternal grandfather. (Ben is from his name Benedict – I am the only one proudly carrying his name among the 19 grandchildren – and Lyn is from my late mother, Evelyn.) It is still in good condition and is now occupied by nuns. The visit filled me with nostalgia.


I also visited Pax Villa (House of Peace), a kilometre away, built by the grandfather of Aliran president, Anil Netto. Like BenLyn, this house, since renovated, is in good condition and the present occupant is one of Anil’s aunts.


It is good for everybody to take a walk down history and trace their roots. After all, all of us originate from somewhere.

As the state’s tagline goes, Kerala is “God’s Own Country” because people in this state want its inter-religious harmony to be a model for India and other countries.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Benedict Lopez
Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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Sree Kantan Nayar
Sree Kantan Nayar
10 Dec 2023 11.02am

Under the veneer of inter-religious harmony simmers unease and discontent mainly, but not only, of the Hindu group. When Kerala became the first communist state in the world to be voted to power, an egalitarian society meant that the Hindus lost out the most. Land tillers became landowners. Beef, a taboo in Hindu cuisine became a statewide favourite. Alcohol consumption is highest in Kerala, comparatively. I cannot imagine a Muslim majority allowing pork to be most popular dish amongst their society. It is difficult to imagine, for example, a Nordic country, willingly allowing a substantial growth of other politico-religious creeds until political power is totally relinquished. There are areas in North Kerala which resemble Gulf States.

Sree Kantan Nayar
Sree Kantan Nayar
13 Dec 2023 10.54am
Reply to  Benedict Lopez

Kindly appreciate these facts:
1. Pork is not a favourite in Muslim majority Malaysia
2. Banning alcohol a single day in a month is mere lip service
3. This aspect of not violently reacting to usurping the politico- religious dynamics vis a vis Manipur in Kerala is a credit to the largesse of the majority in Kerala but which mostly is being taken for granted.
What jewel, for whom, in India’s crown?

Chandra E Chelliah
Chandra E Chelliah
7 Dec 2023 1.57am

Last month I visited the beautiful island of Mauritius. Here after the introduction of indentured labour from India , East Indies and even from China by the British following the abolition of slave labour, people of Indian descent are the majority with the Malays and the Chinese along with Creoles forming the minority groups. The Hindu Indians have ruled this state since the country’s independence. There is full equality with no discrimination of Malay or other minority groups, in favour of the majority Indian group. Opportunity in education and work is open to all. There is freedom of religion with no indoctrination camps. It is a country living in harmony.

Mildred Lopez
Mildred Lopez
6 Dec 2023 4.20pm

Thank you for presenting Kerala as fittingly God’s own country a country of well educated harmonious people.

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