As a journalist born and brought up close to Malappuram in Kerala, I have travelled extensively in this lone Muslim majority district of South to write about its pluralistic and composite culture. So for me the impressive response of the residents within minutes of the Air India repatriation flight crash was really taken for granted, and in fact, would have been surprising if they had done any less.

Whatever be the right wing campaign in recent years projecting this district as the Kashmir of the south ---in derogatory terms of course-- Malappuram has a long history of unity and amity, which develops into highly efficient crisis management during adversities. A similar kind of rescue work was witnessed here in June 2001 when the Chennai bound Mangalore mail derailed at Kadalundi in Malappuram killing 41 people and injuring over 250 others.

Unity in the moments of adversity is etched in the minds of the people of Malappuram since time immemorial, it is their DNA. I have been hearing real life stories from my childhood about how Muslims of the district doused flames when Hindu temples caught fire and vice versa.

We felt extremely proud of Malappuram during the Babri Masjid demolition days in which the rest of the country was burning. People here with a long history of social solidarity and communal amity maintained it, an oasis of harmony.

Not many weeks have gone since Maneka Gandhi accused people here of a tendency towards “criminal activity” after a trap set with explosives killed a pregnant elephant. As we know, the elephant died in the neighbouring district of Palakkad and the farmers who committed the crime had no religious or communal intentions. It was yet another episode of man-animal conflict in which poor human beings and animals with lost habitats treat each other as enemies.

On Friday night, hundreds of Malappuram natives stood in long queues at hospitals to donate blood for the flight crash victims. District administration had to urge people from containment zones not to turn up.

After the accident took place, many ambulances rushed to the incident spot in Malappuram from the nearest city Kozhikode. But they all returned empty as locals had already transported the injured passengers to nearby hospitals using their private vehicles.

All the baggage and belongings of the passengers were recovered safely from the spot and kept in safe custody by the locals themselves before the arrival of police and fire and rescue workers.

In the rescue operations, the residents risked harm to themselves from possible fires and of course the spread of coronavirus. Those who conducted the rescue work braving heavy rains had spent their own money on fuel to ensure immediate hospital access.

The accident occurred at 7.41pm and the rescue work began within five minutes although the area was under a pandemic lock down, having reported several cases. Over 100 youngsters from Kondotty town and the vicinity, formed a well coordinated team to carry out the rescue work that lasted about three hours.

As the boundary walls of the airport remained locked, the local community had to plead with officials to get permission to engage in the rescue operations. They were not rescue experts. But their first instruction to all was not to use LPG stoves and electricity lest this sparked off a fire in the aircraft.

According to Kerala’s health minister K K Shailaja, the depth of the disaster could be reduced only because of the good people from the neighbourhood.

It was during the last Lok Sabha election, that the Union Home Minister had described Malappuram as a Mini Pakistan. There have been several instances in the past when right wing leaders have described the district as a breeding ground of terror.

But for all other communities in Kerala, Malappuram is a rare example of human possibilities. Sceptics can visit Moonnakkal village located on the outskirts of Valanchery town. They can see hundreds of women with different religious identities forming long queues in the premises of the local Jama Masjid at least thrice in a month.

Significantly, these women represent over 28000 poor families settled in 171 mahals (localities) spread in 21 grama panchayats located around Valanchery and they all are beneficiaries of a unique food security mechanism centred around the mosque for several decades.

As per custom, rich Muslims who reach the Masjid for prayers must donate maximum quantities of fine quality rice. There are over a dozen rice shops outside the masjid and the devotees can easily buy and donate rice any day depending upon their financial position. The masjid managing committee has a huge facility outside the mosque for collection and processing of the rice before distributing it free of cost among the families depending on their monthly needs.

Based on a token system, women members of the selected families reach the masjid premises on specified dates to collect their allocated quota of rice, which is often supplemented with wheat and sugar.

Edakkulam is located a little away from Moonnakkal and this Muslim majority village comprises Kerala’s lone lotus-growing community. Since times immemorial, lotus flowers tended to by Muslims here have been supplied to all major Hindu temples in Kerala including the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple, Thrissur Paramekkavu Temple, Kozhikode Tali Temple and Kadampuzha Bhagavathy Temple.

Last year village resident Chakkalaprambil Musthafa and his neighbours had supplied 112 kilogrammes of lotus flowers to Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple to perform Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Thulabharam. As per customs of the temple, thulabharam is a religious offering in which a person is weighed against a commodity such as flowers, grains, fruits and similar articles and the equal value or quantity is offered as a donation. For Modi, the preference was the party symbol of blooming lotuses.

“Amit Shah and Maneka Gandhi might not have heard about the annual festival at Kaliyattam Kavu Bhagavathy Temple at Munniyoor in Malappuram. Devotees who form part of the festival procession would first go to the Maqbara or mausoleum of Islamic scholar Mamburam Thangal for offering prayers. The procession would reach the temple only after paying respects to Thangal, who was a powerful symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity,’’ Thoppil Shajahan, who directed the short film 'Unseen Malappuram’, pointed out.

At Thunchanparambu near Tirur, the birthplace of Thunchathu Ezhuthachan, father of Malayalam language and Literature, over 6000 children are being initiated into the world of letters every year as part of the Vidyarambham ritual. A number of children attending the ritual are Muslims. There is also a strong presence of Muslim volunteers who supply milk and snacks to all the children here.

At Palappuram Masjid in Kottakkal, its famous mimbar is a donation of P S Varier, legendary ayurvedic expert and founder of famous Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Salai. Till last year, the famous Angadipuram temple and adjacent Perinthalmanna Jama Masjid had a common fireworks expert, who managed crackers and other explosives during annual festivals. T Pariyani, a devout Hindu who won the confidence of the masjid committee, died last year after serving the temple and mosque for over 45 years.

At Puthiyangadi Thangal Makham, offerings like fruits and coconut oil always come from the nearby Pullooni Bhagavathy temple. At Kurumba Bhagavathy temple at Thanur, the appointment of the chief priest must be ratified by a local Muslim landlord family as per the custom.

With over 70 percent of the population as Muslims, Malappuram is one of the largest Muslim pockets across India. In South India, it’s the lone Muslim majority district.

Right from its formation in 1969, Hindu fundamentalists have been doing their very best to project Malappuram as Kerala’s most violent district. Even mainstream media organisations in other parts of the country have swallowed this theory without conducting any reality check.

Amidst all the vilification campaigns, police authorities in Kerala say the district has the least number of crimes such as murder, dowry deaths, rape attempts, murder attempts, extortion, abduction and kidnapping in the state. There have been no communal riots here, despite the propaganda outside.

The unfortunate air crash is helping the district to dispel the negative stereotypes created by vested interests. The hate mongers who were active since the district was carved out of Palakkad and Kozhikode on June 16, 1969 got a boost ever since the BJP came to power at the centre. But in the last two days, the situation is changing.

In all these years, Malappuram has achieved high economic growth largely because of the inflow of funds from expatriates in the Gulf region. The district has heavy stakes in agriculture and infrastructure sectors as well. In the public health sector too, the district has made rapid gains.

The beauty of Malappuram can be experienced only by those who try to relate with the people of the district. It has a long tradition of communal harmony which is still not recognised properly. To know about a region, its culture, its environment, its traditions and history, it is not necessary that one should have been born or have lived in that region. One needs to be sensitive and tolerant to understand and appreciate the diversity of India that Malappuram characterises.