Anj — State Policies on Muslim Education: A Re-Appraisal*

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*State Policies on Muslim Education: A Re-Appraisal*
*Yoginder Sikand*
That Muslims, as a whole, are one of the most deprived communities in
India,including in terms of education, is a well-known fact. Discussions
about Muslim educational deprivation or ‘backwardness’, as it is sometimes
referred to, often revolve around the issue of madrasas. Even government
policies on Muslim education reflect this concern with madrasas. Often,
announcements by various governments about schemes for Muslim education deal
almost wholly with madrasa education. This, what one can call inordinate
obsession with madrasas, urgently needs to be critiqued.
An oft-heard argument is that Muslims are themselves responsible for their
own educational ‘backwardness’ as they prefer to send their children to
madrasas rather than to ‘modern’ schools. The assumption here is that
Muslims are somehow so ‘fanatic’ about their religion or that they see their
religion as so fiercely opposed to ‘modernity’ that they simply do not want,
or refuse, to send their children to ‘modern’ schools. Muslims thus come to
be framed, interpreted and understood solely in terms of religion, in a
manner that is vastly different from the way the behaviour of other
religious communities is understood. In this way, Muslims also come to be
blamed entirely for their own educational marginalisation, and the fact that
widespread Muslim poverty and the role of the wider society and the state in
perpetuating Muslim economic and educational deprivation is completely
ignored. This assumption runs as a hidden sub-text that underlies government
policies on Muslim education. Since Muslim education thus comes to be
reduced largely to madrasa education, government policies generally focus on
this sort of education alone.
This assumption is, however, baseless and urgently needs to be questioned.
For one thing, as the Sachar Committee Report shows, hardly four per cent of
Muslim children study in full-time madrasas. Secondly, many Muslim parents
choose to send their children to madrasas simply because they cannot afford
the cost of sending them to ‘modern’ private schools or because they feel
that a madrasa education will at least ensure their child a job as a
religious specialist as well as merit in the Hereafter, neither of which
education in a government school can provide. Thirdly, this assumption
ignores the fact of the growing eagerness among Muslims for ‘modern’
education, and in fact, the growing involvement of Muslim religious
organizations in seeking to provide both ‘modern’ as well as Islamic
education to Muslim children. This development is easily observable in any
Muslim locality, with the mushrooming of private schools, often so-called
English medium schools. This phenomenon is, in a sense, also a reflection of
the dissatisfaction that many Muslims feel with the public school system,
whose ethos and curriculum is, in many cases, Hinduistic and sometimes even
hostile to Muslims.
This means that the notion that Muslims are so wedded to madrasa education
that government policies on Muslim education must be primarily concerned
with madrasas is wholly fallacious. Clearly, if only four per cent of Muslim
children go to madrasas, and if many of these do so for want of access to
‘modern’ education or because of the apprehension that many Muslim parents
have of the Hinduistic ethos of schools or of the discrimination that many
Muslims report at the hands of teachers in such schools, instead of seeking
to intervene in the madrasa system in the way it has done so far, the state
must provide better and cheaper ‘modern’ schools in Muslim localities and
address anti-Muslim biases, a task that it has largely failed in doing.
There is yet another reason why the inordinate interest of the state in
madrasa education and its ‘reform’ needs to be critiqued. As many ulema,
managers of the madrasas, see it, the intentions of the state in seeking to
‘reform’ the madrasas are not beyond suspicion. They see this talk of
‘reform’ as motivated by what they regard as an ulterior motive of
interfering in and controlling the madrasas, and, consequently, undermining
their autonomy and their Islamic ethos and identity. They point out that
talk of madrasa ‘reforms’ gathered particular momentum during the rule of
the BJP at the Centre, when, following the release of a report on national
security, demands began made for the state to intervene in the madrasas in
order to combat ‘terrorism’, based on the misleading contention that Indian
madrasas are ‘hotbeds’ of ‘terror’. They look at how the demands for madrasa
‘reform’ by various governments, such as that of the United States, as well
as it client regimes, such as Pakistan, are linked to their quest to control
and quash opposition movements. They see these demands as hypocritical,
since it was precisely these governments that funded and promoted radicalism
in certain madrasas in the wake of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. They
thus argue that the state is not sincere in its protestations of being
concerned about ‘reforming’ the madrasas. If the state is serious about
countering ‘terrorism’, they ask, why is it not seeking to similarly
‘reform’ the vast chain of schools run by right-wing Hindutva forces
throughout the country, which, unlike the Indian madrasas, openly preach
hatred against other communities, particularly Muslims and Christians?
There is now much talk about the Central Madrasa Board that has been mooted
by Justice Sohail Aijaz Siddiqui of the National Commission for Minority
Educational Institutions. Although it has been made clear that madrasas can
affiliate to the proposed Board voluntarily and that the Board will not
interfere in the functioning of affiliated madrasas, a large section of the
ulema have opposed the proposal. There is some merit in the arguments of
both the proponents as well as opponents of the proposed Board, but that
need not detain us here. The point is that, as considerable opposition to
the proposal indicates, the state should seek to evolve a consensus with the
ulema on what it can or should do regarding madrasas, rather than imposing
anything on the madrasas in the name of ‘reforms’. In the absence of this,
and without the cooperation of the ulema, schemes for madrasas funded by the
state are unlikely to be effective.
There is much more that can be said about the merits or otherwise of the
state’ policies on madrasa reforms. But, instead of going into that, I would
like to make some concrete suggestions, based on my interactions with the
ulema of different schools of thought in various parts of the country.
Firstly, efforts must be made to arrange for more universities to recognize
madrasa degrees. This will help broaden the career prospects of madrasa
graduates as well as help expose them to aspects of social reality that they
have been sheltered from. At present, only a few universities, particularly
those with some sort of historical Muslim association, do so. For this
purpose, madrasas may be encouraged to arrange for their students to
simultaneously enroll in open school examinations. Further, senior madrasa
students could be encouraged to enroll in courses offered by open
universities. At present, there is a distinct lack of awareness among the
ulema and madrasa students about these possibilities. Literature about this
should be made readily available to the madrasas, particularly in Urdu. The
state could also launch scholarship schemes for madrasa students who enroll
in universities. In universities that recognize madrasa degrees, special
free or subsidised English classes can be organized for students from
madrasa backgrounds. For students enrolled in madrasas, the National Council
for Promotion of the Urdu Language could consider preparing special texts
and related study material for social sciences and English that are based on
and reflect their particular cultural worldviews. The state could also open
technical training centres attached to madrasas, which could cater to
madrasa students or graduates. Non-governmental organizations, Muslim as
well as others, can be encouraged by the state to work along with madrasas
on common projects, including those funded by the state. In these and other
ways, the state would be able to play a positive role with respect to
madrasas without being open to the accusation of seeking to interfere in the
madrasa system.
To repeat a point made earlier, the state must make the promotion of
‘modern’ education among Muslims its priority in place of seeking to
directly intervene in the field of madrasa education. This calls for many
more good quality public schools in Muslim areas, scholarship schemes for
Muslim students, hostels for girls and boys in Muslim localities and so on,
on the lines of similar programmes for similarly marginalized communities
such as Dalits and Adivasis. In addition, the government’s general schemes
for education must have some sort of Muslim component to ensure that
adequate funds are allocated to Muslim localities. There also needs to be a
social audit of institutions set up and programmes launched by the Central
and state governments that are meant for minority welfare and education. No
reliable research has been done on precisely what these institutions and
progammes have actually done, in practical terms, for promoting Muslim
It is obvious that the welfare and development of the country as a whole
itself demands that the state pay much more attention that it has hitherto
done to Muslim education. But for this, the state must move beyond mere
symbolic vote-grabbing sops. Ultimately, however, it is for Muslim community
leaders to creatively engage with the state and non-governmental
organizations to make Muslim education a priority, both in their demands on
the state as well as in their own involvement with the community.
The author works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia
Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted on ysikand@gmail.com