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Some Issues of Muslim Religious Schools in India

Shirin Dalvi is a journalist and former editor of the Mumbai edition of Awadhnama, an Urdu daily. 

Modernisation” of Madrassas has become a regular catch-phrase for governments, yet there has been negligence in meeting the educational needs of the Muslim minority. It is high time that Muslim institutions and intellectuals come together to work out Madrassa modernisation which meets the needs of the community.

This article was originally written in Urdu, which is available as a PDF. The article has been translated into English by Manjari Katju of the University of Hyderabad.

There is a Hadees which goes like this: “Attain knowledge/education, even if you have to go to China to accomplish it.” Here “China” has been used as a metaphor which stands for both distance and secular education. Before discussing issues related to madrassa education, a caveat is essential. There is anger among the Muslims about the government’s stance on madrassa education.

Madrassa and Education

The main point of debate is about modernisation of these institutions. The government’s stance is that madrassa education would not be considered equal to school education unless it includes formal education and accommodates subjects like English, Mathematics, Science, Computer Science etc. In this connection the government has also made it clear that only those madrassas that comply with this formal course structure and academic curriculum (along with religious education) would be given the status of schools and their students would be considered equal to students of formal schools.

In the recent announcement of the Maharashtra state government, two points need to be kept in mind. One, people with madrassa education usually get employed as imams, muezzins, religious priests etc and as such they are not able to get the desired monetary returns and also are unable to use their expertise to the fullest potential.

Two, because of this education, a large section of the Muslim minority is not part of the mainstream and has to face a situation of unemployment. Because of a lack of formal education they are unable to find work in any other sector except those mentioned above. This does not mean that religious education should stop; rather it should happen simultaneously with formal education.

Moreover, wherever there are avenues of formal education for Muslims, religious education should also be imparted. If religious schools have provisions for vocational training and formal education, those educated there can be employed in various sectors and will not remain backward anymore. According to all figures available, it is clear that minorities in India, especially the Muslim minority, have a much higher unemployment rate than others.

The Muslim intelligentsia is of the opinion that by focusing on the issue of modernisation of madrassas, the government is deflecting opinion from the real issues and needs of Muslims in education. They opine that governments—both central and state—need to have Muslim representation while making and implementing educational policies.

We cannot ignore the fact that about 95% of Muslim children go to formal (non-madrassa) schools. However, the opportunities and conveniences that should come as a result of such formal education are not available to them the way they should be. Talking about the progress of madrassas is a convenient way for the government to put a veil on the discriminations faced by them in formal schools and the shortcomings of its own policies. There is also a feeling among Muslims that one of the reasons the government focuses so much on madrassas is because it remains unaware of the needs and objectives of educational institutions where Muslim students go.

Education is extremely important for human welfare, progress and cultural accomplishments. Education becomes easily accessible when it is free, and free education in the present day context of Muslims in India is given only through madrassas. Governmental schemes have remained unsuccessful in bringing education to all, particularly to the poor and marginalised communities. But religious madrassas have made education a reality for all sections of Muslims in villages as well as towns.

Government Failures

Despite this, it is a fact that needs to be remembered that the country’s minorities have also contributed to the development of the education sector in India. In the last three decades, some prestigious and highly esteemed institutions have been established which have benefitted students of both minority and majority communities. An illustrative example would be Mumbai’s century and a half old Idare-Anjuman-Islam; hundreds of similar educational institutions exist all over the country. However, till today they have remained largely bereft of the resources and help that are provided by the government.

In policy making institutions, minorities have negligible, often token representation. This leads to its own problems. For example, in the  12th Five Year Plan, the government announced that 100 girls hostels would be built in areas of high minority concentration and a large sum was also allocated for this purpose. Yet, for want of allocation of land, not even one such girls hostel has been built to date. Similarly, many progressive programmes and policies are announced for the development of minority educational institutions but most of them suffer from neglect after the announcements are made.

In such a situation, a singular focus on intervening in madrassa education creates doubts among people. Once Taj Mohammad Khan, chairman of the Federation of Minority Educational Institutions had said that the government’s entire focus is only on the “modernisation” of madrassas. In the name of such “modernisation” the government doles out a computer set to one madrassa or some random teaching equipment to another and assumes that it has fulfilled its responsibility towards the modernisation of madrassas. Yet, the main issue for the minorities remains the availability of proper formal education which as stated above the government neglects.

Take the Initiative

In the recent instance, the plan for madrassa modernisation has received much greater public attention also because the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had announced, in a show of great generosity, an allocation of Rs 100 crores for this. However, in comparison the previous UPA government had allocated Rs 150 crores for the same purpose. What needs to be remembered is that it is a matter of record that till today never has this allocation been fully utilised, nor has the government thought through a plan for such modernisation, nor has it ever clarified as to the criteria/benchmark that would define this modernization.

In this context, it is also necessary that the management of madrassas and scholars come together to identify how and how much formal, modern education can be made part of the madrassa system. It also needs to be discussed whether modern formal education should be introduced in conjunction with existing religious education in madrassas or should religious education itself be strengthened by modernising it? Whenever one is faced with a problem, the solution lies in studying the problem, debating the issue, identifying the consequences of the problem and various solutions as well as in adopting reason and scientific method to find a way out. Thoughtless opposition, finding faults and nitpicking will only lead to a waste of time and energy and  not lead to any solutions. 

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