K.V. Rabiya: The literary hero of Kerala and now a Padma Shree recipient

Rabiya is a living testament of fearless determination and selfless devotion to spreading literacy among the needy.

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Jitesh Surjiani | 27 Jan '22

After being celebrated in the 1990s and 2000s, K.V. Rabiya, 56, again shot into national prominence when her name was featured on the list of Padma Shri awardees announced on January 25. The prestigious award was being conferred upon her for spreading the joy of education to hundreds of illiterate individuals despite herself being confined to a wheelchair for life.

Rise to Prominence

Rabiya’s journey for imparting knowledge began 22 years ago when she kickstarted the adult literacy campaign back in 1990. Within six months, virtually the entire illiterate population of Tirurangadi was enrolled in her class. Among her students were her mother and grandmother which thrilled her to bits. When the Kerala state government launched the state literacy mission, it made her the mascot of the project. She then started an organisation called "Chalanam", which operates six schools for the differently-abled and intellectually challenged kids in the district. The organisation also conducts public awareness programs against alcoholism, dowry, family feuds, and superstition. She then started 60 neighbourhood self-help groups for women where they received training to make carry bags, pickles, and other products, well before the Kudumbashree became popular. She involved herself in the "Akshaya: Bridging the Digital Divide" project that made 'Malappuram the first E-Literate district in India.

She was also instrumental in getting the District Collector of her village to sanction roads, electricity, telephone, and water connection for her village. The one-and-a-half km road was aptly named Akshara (word) Road.

  Education serves its purpose only if you impart the same to others and empower them - K.V. Rabiya

Personal Struggles

Rabiya’s significant achievements in the light of the odds she overcame make her a fearless fighter who never allowed her physical disability to come in her way of spreading the joys of literacy among the poor.

Born was born to a poor family in a remote village, Vellilakkadu in Kerala. At the young age of 14, her legs were crippled by polio and she was paralyzed waist-down. A few years later, she was diagnosed with cancer for which she successfully underwent chemotherapy. Four years later, another tragedy struck as she slipped on her bathroom floor. The fall broke her spinal vertebral column paralyzing her from the neck below. Subsequently, due to the non-functioning of muscles, she had to resign to life with a urine bag.

The continuing health challenges put a tremendous strain on her family’s meager finances. To secure funding for her treatment, she wrote her memories while lying on the bed and published them in a book - Mouna Nombarangal. Subsequently, she also published her autobiography "Swapnangalkku Chirakukalundu" (Dreams have wings) and uses the royalty from the sale of the book towards her medical expenses.

Recognitions and Awards

Rabiya’s contributions were recognised nationally by the Government of India on multiple occasions. In 1994, the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Government of India awarded her the National Youth Award for her contributions to society.

Rabiya receiving the 1993 National Youth Award from the PM Narasimha Rao
K.V. Rabiya receiving the National Youth Award from PM Narasimha Rao

She was the first recipient of Kannaki Sthree Sakthi Award in 2000 instituted by the Child Welfare Department of the Government of India. The same year, she also won the Youth Volunteer against Poverty, jointly instituted by the Government of India Central Youth Affairs Ministry and UNDP. The highest recognition came in 2022 when she was awarded the Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian award.

She even has a biographic movie on her "Rabiya Moves", made by director Ali Akbar which is translated into 14 languages. In recognition of her achievements, various publications around the world have written more than 100 articles on her work. Her inspiring story is also a part of the school textbooks in Kerala.

Source of Rabiya’s strength

A devout practicing Muslim, Rabiya credits God for her boundless energy and her achievements. Her advice to those who begin to lose hope due to personal challenges is this, “When you lose a leg, you'll stand on the other. When you lose both legs, you have your hands. When fate chops them off too, you will live on the strength of your brains.”

Gems of India brings you inspiring stories of people who have overcome personal challenges to become the best version of themselves and made a difference in people’s lives.


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Jitesh Surjiani

Jitesh Surjiani

Jitesh Surjiani is passionate about progressive change for India and its citizens. He writes about issues that are roadblocks in improving quality of life and interpersonal interactions as well as areas of public governance that fall short in intent and action.

K.V. Rabiya: The literary hero of Kerala and now a Padma Shree recipient K.V. Rabiya: The literary hero of Kerala and now a Padma Shree recipient
K.V. Rabiya: The literary hero of Kerala and now a Padma Shree recipient
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