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Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh): “Becoming a doctor – that’s what my father dreams for me,” Insha Rajput, one of the many girls sitting in the dimly lit classroom of a madrasa, said with confidence and a beaming smile.
The 15 year old is a class 10 student at Madarsa Jamia Rasheedia (MJR) Girls Higher Secondary School in in Ghaziabad’s Loni district.
Her desire to become a doctor and the support of her father is indicative of a huge shift in Indian society, considering that only 4% of the entire Muslim population were graduates or held diplomas, according to the 2001 Census.
In 2008, the Sachar Committee report found that the literacy rate among Muslims in 2001 was at least 5% below the national average of 64.8%. The gap was greatest in urban areas.
The report also indicated that the worker population ratios for Muslims are significantly lower than other socio-religious categories (SRCs) in rural areas, mainly due to much lower participation of Muslim women in economic activities.
By 2018, the number of Muslim students enrolled in higher educational institutions increased by 37%, with an overall increase of 18%, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education.
But even now, going to schools is a far-off thought for a majority of Muslim girls from poor backgrounds. Meagre income, ghettoisation, and a lack of awareness among the Muslim community keep Muslim children, especially girls, away from schools.
Zohra Yasmin, a resident of Okhla, says that it was extremely important for her to educate her three daughters, even though she herself is uneducated. “I have three daughters. The reason that I left my village in Bihar and came to Delhi is to educate my daughters,” she says, recalling the time she left her village roughly 20 years ago.
“I come from a small village where people do not want to educate their daughters. They think that their sons would grow up, get a job, and earn money, not their girls. Girls are to be married and then become housewives,” she says.
Some of Insha’s classmates share her dream of becoming a doctor while others have aspirations of becoming IAS/IPS officers, engineers, teachers and lawyers. Another student, Saniya, says that she wants to join the Indian Army. Her friend, sitting next to her, tells this correspondent that she would like to become a journalist if she ever gets an opportunity.
The Madrassa girls have big dreams in life — to become doctors, IAS/IPS officers, teachers, lawyers. One of them even wanted to be a journalist. These girls who struggle to pay the monthly fee of Rs. 300 boldly dream of speaking English, not fluent or good, just English. pic.twitter.com/24HuZMotUm
— Ismat Ara (@IsmatAraa) November 8, 2021
This is an integral academic year for them as they would have to choose their future streams next year: science, commerce or humanities. For Insha, studying science after class 10 is of utmost importance as she wants to appear for the NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test), the qualifying test for MBBS and BDS programmes in Indian medical and dental colleges.
However, the madrasa is registered only till class 10, and most schools in her neighbourhood do not offer the subjects of her choice. Therefore, she will have to seek admission elsewhere. “I will apply to the Loni inter-college (government school). They have science stream there.”
“Girls at this institute have performed well in the past decade,” Nawab Ali, the madrasa head, told The Wire, while proudly pointing towards a board that has photographs of 10 female students, all toppers of the academic year 2018-2019.
Among them are Zeenat and Zara with the highest marks, 85% and 84.6%, while Saziya, Jannat and Muskan secured 83%, 82.6% and 81.6%, respectively, in their class 10 UP Madrasa board examinations.
Out of the close to 3,000 girls who have studied in the madrasa since its inception in 1999, only about 25-30 of them are currently working. Most of them are teachers in nearby schools, or a nurses in a hospital, or are working at call centres.
“A few girls went ahead to do training courses and got jobs,” Ali explains. But other girls were married as soon as their inter-college (class 12) was completed, he adds.
Rafat Mirza, social science and pedagogy teacher at the madrasa, says that getting girls to attend school was initially difficult. “When I joined the madrasa in 2005, there were hardly any girls. They slowly started to attend the madrasa after I reached out to their parents. Now 60% of the students are girls,” she said.
But, Mirza says, things have not entirely changed as many parents still need to be convinced to send their daughters to schools. “Many parents still ask how education will be useful in the kitchen. I give them my own example and tell them that their daughter can become a teacher, fend for herself and live a life of dignity.”
Before her marriage, Mirza used to run a small coaching centre in the area where she taught girls for free. Now she wants to restart the centre, but there are too many financial challenges, she says.
She has not received her salary for the past five years. Out of the total salary of Rs 15,000, the share of Rs 12,000 is released by the Union government and the rest by the state government. Under the Madrasa Modernisation scheme, the Union government pays 60% of the teachers’ salaries. These teachers have only been receiving Rs 3,000 each month.
At least 50,000 teachers across 16 Indian states who work under this scheme have also not received their salaries.
Despite having a Master’s degree and a Bachelors in Education, Mirza and her husband barely manage to run their household and take care of their two children.
Thirty-year-old Samreen, the receptionist of the madrasa, is divorced and has a nine-year-old son. She says that her family does not object to her working as they believe that it is safe. Soni, one of the caretakers of the madrasa, also says that she faced less resistance from her family members while taking this job.
Despite her 15 years of experience in teaching, Soni had to take up multiple extra jobs such as tutoring to make ends meet. She has taken multiple small loans and is struggling to admit her five-year-old daughter to an affordable school or a madrasa.
Madrassa ke "Pandit Principal"
Ram Khiladi, a Hindi teacher in a UP madrassa, lovingly called "Pandit Principle" by all, lives under a tin shed. With few charpayis, utensils and bare brick walls, it is difficult to overlook his misery. He hasn't been paid his salary since 2017. pic.twitter.com/Zu5z4kSfnV
— Ismat Ara (@IsmatAraa) November 8, 2021
Similarly, the senior-most teacher at the madrasa, Ram Khiladi, who teaches Hindi and also functions as the principal of this institute, is living in dire conditions. His house, covered with a tin shed and with unpainted brick walls, and his few belongings strewn across the room including charpayis and utensils, reveal his woes.
Post lockdown, Ali started charging a fee of Rs 300 for those students whose parents could afford to keep the educational institution afloat. He says that madrasas are important because, for a section of Muslims, education is inaccessible.
“Madrasas give a chance to the poorest of the poor to study for free. We go from lane to lane and house to house and ask about parents who are unable to afford education, and ask them to send their children to us,” he said, adding that at least 250 such children are currently enrolled here.
Despite infrastructural issues and technical disadvantages such as lack of space, no access to computers and a backlog of salaries, the teachers here are determined to not let it affect the students.
But having joined these jobs with the hopes of earning a decent salary and helping modernise the education system in madrasas, they are dejected and frustrated.
Due to non-payment of salaries, the quality of education will inadvertently get affected as teachers are under immense mental stress because of financial difficulties, Ali adds.
Union minister for minority affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi says that state governments are responsible for preparing a list of madrasas and uploading them on a web portal.
He told The Wire, “The problem of non-payment [of teachers’ salaries] is only in those states which have failed to give the Centre a verified list of madrasas. We are consulting with the state governments and working to fix it, but it is the state government’s responsibility to give us the list.”
But Ali says this is a case of clear neglect since both the state and the Union governments in Uttar Pradesh are led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “If the matter is between the state and Centre, why should the poor teachers suffer? The BJP is at the Centre and in UP too, so why this blame game?” he asks.
‘Madrasa teachers are no scholars’
The quality of education in madrasas has always been subject to criticism. Kamal Khan, a senior reporter with NDTV, has a keen interest in Islamic theology and education among Muslims. He says that unlike the rest of the world, Islam in India is not taught by scholars.
“In the rest of the world, Islam is taught as an academic subject by scholars, historians who have done research. In India, most teachers do not have a well-rounded understanding of Islam as they have not read academic work on Islam. They also do not engage in diverse and conflicting views on religion,” he said.
The reason for this, he said, is the intent with which most teachers join madrasas. “They mostly come from poor backgrounds and have families to feed. They start teaching in madrasas because it will sustain them and also make them respectable in the society, not because they want to get knowledge on Islam, study theology or write papers.”
Recalling his experience of reporting on Indian madrasas, he said that most Indian madrasas are sectarian. “Teachers in most Indian madrasas do not teach by giving historical or scholarly references but are too invested in teaching about the sect of Islam they follow. Sunni, Shia, Barelvi, Deobandi and Wahabi are some of them,” Khan noted.
Recalling a report Khan had done for NDTV, he said that there have been many cases of fraud where individuals have registered other properties as madrasas to get government benefits. This means that the available resources become even more scarce for small madrasas.
Resistance to formal education
Another problem is that madrasas are generally resistant to new ways of education, Khan said. “Sometimes, modern education is seen as something that will corrupt students,” he explained.
A major reason for such resistance is the rising insecurity among Muslims in the country, he added. “The government can say that they want to reform madrasas, but it will be interpreted as government interference, laced with the possibility that they may shut the madrasas altogether,” he said.
Teaching Islam in an academic manner, ensuring that the students learn English and making scholarly debates on religion accessible to the students are some of the things, in his opinion, that may help reform the education system in madrasas.
Union minister Naqvi seems to understand this issue. While speaking to The Wire about a plan to introduce ‘smart classes’ in madrasas, he said, “We have asked madrasas to send us proposals and we have already received some. We are trying to modernise education in madrasas with mainstream and formal education. We will assist them, if they want these things.”
He further said that dedicated committees in the ministry are interacting with the madrasa authorities to make them aware of the merits of modern education. This will not be forced on any madrasa, he added.
However, the negative perception of madrasas needs to be changed, he said. “Because of wrong narratives about madrasas, the future of students studying there may become vulnerable.”
“Quran in one hand, computer in the other”
In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The Government of India is leaving no stone unturned in empowering the Muslim youth. We want them to have the Quran in one hand and a computer in the other.”
Referring to this statement, Ali, the madrasa head, says, “We have been trying to get computers for the children for a few months.” He has not been successful so far and is still thinking of the way forward.
This is not a new thought. The need for modern education for Muslims has been around for over a hundred years with Muslim leaders and modern educationalists like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who started Aligarh Muslim University with a similar thought.
In 1993, the P.V. Narsimha Rao government recognised the need to modernise madrasas, and the Madrasa Modernisation scheme was a result of this thought. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has also been credited with the growth of madrasas in the early 2000s.
Ghettoisation of education?
Naqvi said that the Ministry of Minority Affairs encourages more and more Muslims to receive formal education. “This will enable them to participate and get equal employment opportunities.”
But given the ghettoisation of Muslims in India, some scholars worry that sending Muslim children to madrasas might segregate them further educationally and cut off their access to mainstream educational institutes.
Ajaz Ahmad, national president of the IMASS (Islamic Madarsa Aadhunikikaran Shikshak Association), an organisation working towards the modernisation of madrasa education, disagrees. He says that only about 3% of Muslims study in madrasas.
“Madrasas are important institutes for those Muslim students who want to get an Islamic education. Hardly any schools teach Islam as a subject. We understand and encourage modern education besides Islamic studies because it will help them get jobs,” he said.
Ali pointed out another problem: that the Madrasa Modernisation scheme allows funding for only three teachers per madrasa. “When we started this institute, we had fewer students and only two teachers. Now with hundreds of students here, we need at least 20 teachers.”
At least 800 students are now enrolled in the madrasa, spread across roughly 5,500 square feet and eight rooms. Sometimes two batches are seated in the same classroom due to lack of space, and some students are made to study in the dimly lit basement.
In the hallway, students sit with their knees bent to the back, repeating Alif, Baa, Taa – the Urdu alphabets after the teacher. As I was leaving the madrasa premises, all the girls in hijabs looked at the the board on top with the names of the toppers and smiled.