By Antara Dev Sen
Jul 03, 2015
As you sit reading this, diligent officers of the Maharashtra government are scurrying about counting students in the informal sector. A bit like Wee Willie Winkie running through the town, upstairs and downstairs with a busy frown. Knocking on the windows, bursting into schools — are kids learning maths and stuff? No? You’re so uncool!
Because the Maharashtra government has decided that schools that do not follow curricula approved by the state government will not be accepted as schools. This would include madrasas — and probably other institutions focused on religious education. And the Wee Willie Winkie-like officers are bustling about today to mark students attending these schools as non-students, i.e. as “out of school” children. Sure, most of these students would be Muslim. But it’s for their own good! The government is doing this “to ensure that every child of the minority community gets a chance to learn and come into the mainstream, get good paying jobs and have a prosperous future,” said Eknath Khadse, Maharashtra’s minorities affairs minister. “We are even ready to pay madrasas for giving students formal education and are ready to provide them teaching staff as well,” he declared. Trust me, he was saying, we mean well.
So why are people cribbing? By threatening to derecognise madrasas that only teach the Quran, the state government was forcing madrasas to broad base their curriculum and improve their education system. What’s wrong with that?
Come on! Do you honestly believe that the BJP government in Maharashtra is suddenly enormously concerned about the education of Muslims? That labelling madrasas as irrelevant, brushing off their students as uneducated children who do not go to school, implying that studying the Quran is no study at all and refusing to acknowledge that madrasas impart education, unless they teach certain courses approved by the government, is going to make Muslims swell with pride and dignity?
The fact is, the BJP’s general hostility towards Muslims and the carefully built myth of madrasas being terrorist-factories, doesn’t encourage trust. But let’s set that aside. If indeed the government wishes to improve the education system and give more formal credibility to madrasas, we should not complain.
But it seems curious. For one, the government seems quite confused. For example, recently, the state government had asked madrasas to include subjects like English, science, mathematics and the social sciences in their curricula if they wished to continue getting government funds. In short, madrasas that do not swiftly morph into such an institution of secular learning would be denied funds. Now Maharashtra’s education minister Vinod Tawde says that madrasas not teaching these subjects would still get aid. “According to the Right to Education Act, schools not teaching the national school curriculum cannot be considered as schools,” he said. “Yet, we will continue to give madrasas aid — but they cannot be considered as schools.” It would be interesting to see under what budget head these non-schools would get aid from the education department.
Meanwhile, minister Khadse announced: “If a Hindu or Christian child wants to study in a madrasa, they will not be allowed to study there. Thus, madrasa is not a school but a source of religious education.” Now this is wrong on many counts. First, schools for religious education are schools too. Second, Hindus and Christians do study in madrasas — not only are they allowed to study, they are also allowed to teach in and head madrasas. Not in Maharashtra, because the state has a history of sectarian polarisation. But in Bengal, for example, about 10 per cent of students in madrasas are Hindu. And some madrasas have more Hindu students than Muslim.
But perhaps Bengal is special. It has a long tradition of “secular” madrasa education, starting from the Calcutta Madrasa or Madrasah-i-Aliah set up in 1780 by Warren Hastings that taught a huge range of subjects from mathematics to law to science to oratory to philosophy to astronomy to medicine (later, when the Calcutta Medical College came about, students of medicine from the Calcutta Madrasa qualified for admission). And of course Islamic theology. It’s interesting that the Calcutta Madrasa has now been renamed the Aliah University. Then the West Bengal Board of Madrasa Education Act of 1994 helped bring madrasa education at par with the West Bengal Boards of secondary and higher secondary education, with similar subjects and syllabi.
But there are basic madrasas too, dedicated to studying the Quran alone. These are special schools. Many Muslim families send one son to study in a madrasa to learn the scriptures, while other children go to general schools to learn other skills. But very often madrasas offer children what general schools offer — including mid-day meals and free uniforms for the poor.
Most importantly, madrasas offer the most neglected children in the forgotten pockets of poverty a chance to get an education, however meagre that may be. Poverty-stricken Muslims do not want to be uneducated; they are forced to remain unlettered because of government neglect. Muslim dominated poor areas have far less schooling options than Hindu-dominated poor areas. And very few teachers in the available schools. Here, madrasas — often running on charity — keep children away from child labour, in classrooms and out of trouble.
If the Maharashtra government is serious about improving madrasas, they could choose a constructive way to improve madrasa education, instead of brushing them off as irrelevant. Like by implementing government proposals like the scheme for providing quality education in madrasas that has been promising funds to strengthen and modernise madrasa education since 2009. This offers to pay for teachers and build capability as well as infrastructure for madrasas that volunteer for the scheme.
“I am surprised as to why a progressive decision of the government is being criticised,” said Mr Tawde. Sadly nothing surprises us. Not even the fact that Mr Tawde himself is in a fake degree row. Or that human resources development minister Smriti Irani is in a fake degree row. Or that Delhi’s law minister Jitender Tomar is in a fake degree row.
Our education system is in a mess. As we speak, teachers in Bihar are resigning in droves scared of being jailed. Patna high court has asked schoolteachers with fake degrees to quit before July 8 to escape legal action. So 1,400 teachers quit immediately. More will follow.
Given this education system, focusing on derecognising madrasas seems a little precious.
Antara Dev Sen is editor, The Little Magazine.