Ajmal Khan AT, Nilambur native poet and development researcher, speaks from Harvard University

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Ajmal Khan AT

Ajmal Khan AT is a first generation graduate from his family in the Kalikavu area of Malappuram district. Born to a daily-wager couple, completing graduation was a big deal for his natives. None of his school friends could make it that far. However, he did not stop with it. Ajmal went to places and is now a researcher at the prestigious Harvard University in the USA.

It is highly likely that Ajmal is the first person from a backward Muslim community from Kerala, if not India, to get into Harvard, which has only five per cent of acceptance rate. He is Raghunathan Fellow in the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University (The Mittal Institute) as well as a fellow of the Kennedy School.

Ajmal, a development researcher, is keen on the issues in Kerala as well. He has edited a book on nuclear energy in India. He is also a published poet.

In a chat with Mathrubhumi Online, Ajmal shared his life journey and also his research.


Let us start with your present role in Harvard. What are you going to do there?

Raghunathan and Family Fellowship is given to researchers from South Asian countries. This Fellowship is awarded for one person for one year for research related to South Asia and South Asian countries. I am currently also affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School, a prominent centre within Harvard that looks at public policy, human development, science and much more.

Your profile on Harvard site says your “project conceives of alternative frameworks/notions of climate and environmental justice.” Can you elaborate on it?

My current work at Harvard is an effort to explain what climate justice means to parts of the world like South Asia, where we have very complex societies. For example, India has a caste system that we will not see anywhere else in the world except South Asia. What does climate justice mean in societies such as ours?

There are universal notions of climate change and climate justice pushed by organisations like the UN. That has been questioned and critiqued by critical scholars.

How does climate change affect indigenious people like Adivasis in India, who have very close connections with nature, and communities in coastal areas, women, poor, slum dwellers in the cities? They are the most vulnerable people to climate change but have negative emissions or no role in causing climate change.

Kuttanad, Alappuzha. Photo: Mathrubhumi/Madhuraj

I've been part of these kinds of discussions for a while now. I have chosen three field areas. Kuttanad is one. How do Dalit communities get impacted by the floods in Kuttanad? In the Sundarban regions in West Bengal, I look at what is the experience of climate change for the tribal communities. And I also study Majuli Island, one of the biggest river islands of the world, located in the state of Assam, habitated by a particular indigenous community called Mising tribes. These are the populations that I'm focusing on currently to try to frame newer formulations for climate justice for South Asia.

My work will also be hopefully coming out as a book by the end of the year.

Climate change is recently a hot topic in Kerala too. Do you follow the discourse in Kerala?

Kerala is one of the most vulnerable regions in the country or even in South Asia in terms of climate. Rising temperature, huge coastal erosion and floods are effects of the changing climate and the ecology. Kerala has to be very cautious about its ecology.

Kokkayar landslide

I visited Kuttanad to make a climate resilient development plan for the region. That's my very brief engagement with Kerala on climate change. However, I closely follow the situation.

Can you tell briefly about your findings from the research on protests against nuclear plants in India?

My PhD work looked at two nuclear power projects in India, namely the Kudankulam as well as the upcoming plant in Jaitapur in Maharashtra. I looked at the protest movements and how these two projects were historically conceived in India. And how the questions of transparency, democracy as well as safety concerns of the local people get undermined. I analysed how the “nuclear state” as a benevolent, powerful and dominant face of the so-called contemporary democratic states get executed in these particular locations. I argued that these grassroots movements led by fisherfolks and farmers and other agencies have a huge role in the process of democratising nuclear energy in countries like India.

Fishermen stand on boats to form a barrier as they protest against the
Russian-built Kudankulam Atomic Power Project (in background). Photo: AP

I edited a book on this, showcasing around 10 protest movements across the country from states like Haryana, Jharkhand, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Even Kerala did have a plan to establish a nuclear power project in the 1980s in Kannur district.

How was the poet in Ajmal born?

I used to read poems since childhood. My worldview was changed when I arrived at Mumbai and got involved in the Dalit and radical Left movements. Marathi writers Anna Bhau Satte and Namdeo Dhasal inspired me and took me to writing.

My readings also grew through Contemporary Black American poems, works of Mahmoud Darwish, Milen Kundera, Agha Shahid Ali and others. My works reflect life in Malappuram. It may be noted that not many English writers have born from Muslim community in India.

(Read one of Ajmal's poems here)

You are part of the first generation Muslim graduates who have gone to the central universities. How does the ‘Mark Jihad’ row in Delhi University or the Hijab issue in Karnataka influence a Muslim youth in who wishes to pursue higher education?

Cover of Ajmal's book

We have to acknowledge that in education, Muslims are backward in Kerala historically. Situation is better compared to other states. But we are much more disadvantaged than other communities in Kerala.

We have made enormous progress in the last one decade in education, both in school level as well as higher education. State, non-state agencies and community initiatives caused a higher education boom in the community resulting in a lot of people entering central universities and institutions of importance such as IITs, IIM or TISS.

The discourse about these Jihads started in Kerala and is being used by the North Indian media and politicians. Quite a lot newer Jihads have come up recently. It's very unfortunate to confront such things when students from a community that is educationally backward is trying to improve its situation.

If you look at the higher education enrolment rate of women in the country, Muslims are even behind Adivasis. Muslims are concerned about their identity, their dress, their food and life. They may not go to college if they are not allowed to be themselves.

Also, it's been very well documented that ‘jihad’ is a fake campaign. Mark jihad is a political campaign targetted not only at Muslim students, but also other Kerala students in Delhi University. They want to control Malayali students since we are politically aware and will raise questions if we see injustice.

Photo: PTI

You must have noticed that a significant number of youths are going abroad for education and also to settle in those countries. Has the Muslim youths in Kerala started to migrate to Europe and America? How does it influence the community?

I have looked at the migration of Muslims from Kerala for my research work. The highest number of people who migrate from Kerala to Gulf countries are Muslims and are semi-skilled or unskilled. They work for very minimum wages in these countries. They want to come back as soon as they are out of poverty. That is the kind of migration that has happened in the last couple of decades or even more than that. Migration to Europe is predominantly from Christian community from Southern Kerala.

This is changing now a days and a lot of Muslim students are also trying to get into universities in the Europe or North America.

The progress this community made in the last couple of decades is pushing them in these lines. It is a new wave and I see it as a positive sign. Muslim students from Kerala have now reached to even Ivy League universities. I can name students who are studying in the University of Chicago, University of Columbia or University of Pennsylvania.

The rigid sense of Muslims that girls or even boys can't go far to get educated is increasingly changing. The parents of these girls would not have been ready to send them as far as Delhi for higher education a few years ago. I know it's a new trend and this is going to continue since educational aspirations of the Muslim youth, particularly girls, have now been increasing.

How has Kerala influenced you in your journey?

I studied in a Malayalam medium school from my first to 10th in my village, in Anchuchavady in Kalikavu in the Malappuram district. I do read everything that comes across me. Be it fiction or nonfiction. I also used to write in Malayalam. Unfortunately, after I moved out of Kerala, I stopped writing in Malayalam.

Malayalam is the centre of my world. Though Kerala influenced my thinking and my philosophy, my literature, my roots, I also think globally, thanks to the exposure I got.

I also try to give back to Kerala. The government has a program to tap expats to contribute to the development of the state. As a person having PhD in development studies, I look forward to engage in the socio economic development of Kerala.

About Ajmal

Ajmal was born to a conservative Muslim family in Anchachavady in Nilambur. His parents did menial jobs like agricultural labour to raise him.

He did schooling at Anchachavady Government UP School (presently a high school), Vaniyambalam high school and Pullangode GHSS.

He then pursued BA English from MES Mampad college. He moved to Mumbai (TISS) for his masters, MPhil and PhD in Development Studies.

He then went to Delhi, where he taught at Ambedkar University and also at Ashoka University. He was Charles Wallace Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London before joining Harvard.

He has presented research in leading institutions such as the Oxford University, University of Cambridge, London School of Economics and at the annual meetings of the Population Association of America and Australian Political Studies Association, among others.

Books: My Tolerant Nation, The Mappila Verses, Museebat, People Against Nuclear Energy.

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