The Maharashtra government’s decision to ‘derecognise’ madarsas as schools if they do not teach primary subjects such as science, social science and mathematics has generated a lot of criticism from opposition parties as well as a considerable section of the Muslim community.
The government says its only aim is to bring madarsa students into the mainstream and that the latest move should not be considered ‘anti-Muslim’. For a variety of reasons, however, its explanation has not satisfied critics.
As per the Sachar Committee report, only 4% of Muslim students across India go to madarsas. The number is slightly higher in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while in Maharashtra, the figure is less This effectively means that given a chance, an overwhelming majority of Muslims would want to send their kids to normal schools.
But the Sachar report also says that 60% of urban Muslim kids do not attend any school – government, private or even a madarsa. In Maharashtra, according to the Mahmood-ur-Rahman committee report, only 19% of urban Muslim girls and 10.9% of rural ones are enrolled in post-primary schools. There is no convincing explanation for why the government should care only about the 4% and not the 60% of adolescent boys and more than 80% of adolescent girls who have been excluded from proper schooling of any kind.
It is important to note that the Sachar committee in its recommendations had advised the then UPA government against any madarsa modernisation initiatives. On the contrary, it had asked the government to open a school close to a madarsa and let people choose what type of education they wanted for their kids. But the government did not pay heed to the advice and went ahead with its plans of ‘modernisation’ by allotting funds in subsequent budgets. The Modi government has continued with this ‘tradition’, allotting Rs 100 crore in its first budget. In fact, on a similar pattern, the previous NDA Government (1999-2004) had tried out a program named ‘Area Intensive Madrasa Modernisation Programmme’ (AIMMP) but did not succeed due to stiff resistance from various Muslim leaders and clerics.
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 turned the spotlight on madarsas because of the link between 9/11, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Indian madarsas too were looked at with suspicion since they were perceived to have allegiance to the ‘Wahabi’ ideology which the Taliban claim to be pursuing. While Wahabi influence exists and may even be growing, Indian madarsas have never believed in its military manifestations. Even today, political Islam remains an unknown phenomenon in India.
In order to neutralise the post-9/11threat perception, voices from outside and within the Muslim community advocating reforms in the madrasa educational system became louder. But ‘modernisation’ initiatives were taken without any serious attempt to understand the structure, administration and future of these institutions.
If we take a closer look, the government’s attempts to make religious education ‘secular’ do not go beyond tokenism. Let’s take the example of UP where government recognised madarsas are given Rs. 1 lakh every year for each subject that is taught. But there is little support for physical infrastructure, and teacher pay is lower than in government schools. The government’s involvement in the teacher selection process has also led to the appointment of undereducated candidates. All of this is proof of the state’s lack of seriousness towards ‘modernising’ madarsas.
We also often do not realise that Indian madarsas are not monolithic. Education is a state subject and the state government decides the education policy of its state. Therefore, a madarsa in West Bengal will work in an entirely different way than one in Kerala. West Bengal madarsas have many non-Muslim students – in some cases as many as 40% of their pupils – and enjoy the reputation of imparting better quality education than even government schools. In Kerala, on the other hand, students attend madarsas for a few hours before or after attending regular school. In both these states, madarsas work under a State Madarsa Board whereas Maharashtra does not have such a board at all.
In Maharashtra, most of the state’s 1,900 madarsas are registered with state Waqf board. In 2013, the state-government appointed Mehmood-ur-Rehman committee said only 2.3 per cent Muslim children are attending madrasas in the state. The committee had advised the government to take steps to elevate students from traditionalism.
There is visible distrust between the government and madarsas about each other. While the government is usually suspicious about the functioning of madrasas and wants to keep a close tab on what happens inside, the maulvis and clerics want to resist any government interference – academic or administrative. Most of the unregistered madrasas run on zakat money given by Muslims. Either for fear of government interference or to avoid the audit of unaccounted money, these madrasas try to maintain a low profile and do not actively work to get themselves registered.
Some argue that by bringing the madarsa issue issue back to the centre of the debate, the entire objective of the BJP-led state government is to keep the ‘pot boiling’ and strengthen its core Hindutva vote bank. This perception is reinforced by the fact that the madarsa issue has been raised soon after the Maharashtra government’s earlier decisions of scrapping 5% reservation to Muslims in education and banning beef – leaving thousands of Qureshis (butchers) unemployed.
The unusual social media euphoria among Muslims over two madarsa graduates qualifying for the UPSC exams is symptomatic of how the community perceives the government. There is a growing sense among the Muslims that the ‘system’ is working against them. Is it healthy for religious minorities in the largest democracy of the world to think their government works against them? That they will have to try and improve their lot not with the support of the government but despite it? There is a great churning going on within the Muslim community about embracing modernity while keeping intact its religiosity. Though keeping roza and doing namaz five times a day, Muslims do not want to miss out on the opportunity of being full partners in ‘Digital India’. Young Indian Muslims are as anxious as young people from other communities to be a part of India’s success story. But can this be done by threatening or penalising them? The government needs to listen to them, take them into confidence and make them part of its decisions. Can’t we walk together and be a part of this historical journey called India?
The writer is a senior anchor with Rajya Sabha TV