By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
29 September 2020
The recent announcement by Assam government that it is planning to close down madrasas in the state has led to considerable anxiety amongst Muslims. The unease with madrasas has to be seen in the broader context of how the political rhetoric on this institution has evolved over the years. There was a time when madrasas were hailed as nationalist institutions par excellence. Such an idea had some merit as the Deoband Ulama had whole heartedly supported the national movement. However, over the years, and especially since 9/11, the linkage of the institution with terrorism brought it global disrepute.
In India, madrasas became singed with this association much before and were consequently targeted by various governments, specifically with reference to alleged promotion of Islamic radicalism in their teachings. Within India, such insinuation with regard to madrasas has a long tradition, which started much before the western preoccupation with this institution. The parties of the Hindu right have long blamed madrasas for teaching hatred towards the majority (Hindu) community and engaging in what they claimed were anti-national activities.
In 1995, the VHP declared that it would not tolerate the ‘nefarious designs’ of madrasas as they were teaching ‘anti-Hindu’ ideas to their students. They argued that madrasas were ‘dens of terror’ and that they intended to train Jihadis to massacre Hindus and turn India into an Islamic nation. During the first NDA government (1999-2004), a ministerial committee report of 2001 stated that madrasas were engaged in systematic indoctrination of Muslims in fundamentalist ideology which was detrimental to communal harmony.
However, such ideas on madrasa education were not the monopoly of the Hindu Right alone, but were voiced on different occasions even by the Left led government in West Bengal. The current unease within Assam about madrasas and their teachings must be seen within this context.
To be sure, the state government has just made its intent clear; so far we do not have any notification to this effect. However, observers believe that the government is serious and that a notification to this effect will be out soon. The official reason which is being given for such a drastic step is that the government cannot allow religious teaching to continue as these are government funded madrasas. The state government is right in the sense that madrasas do teach Islam to their students. However, in the Indian case, the relationship between state and religion has never been so clear cut. Various governments, for example, have intervened into religious matters from time to time in the name of maintaining public health and social order. State governments in India are known to maintain a number of temples and organise religious congregations like the Kumbh. So, if the Assam government is trying to say that the state should not have anything to do with religion, then this argument does not hold much water. The real reason for taking such a decision has to be the abiding suspicion of these institutions.
Although suspicious, various governments have wanted madrasas to modernise their syllabus, to include modern subjects so as their students become relevant in the contemporary economic structure. The problem is that most madrasas have refused to modernise their syllabus under the pretext of cultural and religious autonomy. It is pertinent here to note that there are two kinds of madrasas: one controlled, financed and regulated by the government and the other which are controlled and regulated by the community. While the syllabus in state controlled madrasas is roughly at par with government schools, the real problem lies with the community controlled madrasas. These institutions are resistant to change; upholding an archaic notion of Islamic education which still teaches hundreds of years old syllabus to students.
In the context of Assam, the decision to close down madrasas will naturally only apply to government regulated ones. The community madrasas will not be affected due to this measure. Paradoxically, it is these madrasas which have raised suspicion about the intent of its pedagogy. Since they are largely outside the purview of government regulation, they are free to teach religion any which way they deem fit. Moreover, the numbers of these madrasas are much larger as compared to the government controlled ones and hence the majority of all madrasa going students in fact study in community controlled ones which are hardly regulated at all. If various state governments wanted to reform madrasas, it should be the community controlled ones in which they should intervene. What one sees is the exact opposite: that in the name of doing something about madrasas, governments have mostly targeted their own madrasas which are hardly any different from government schools.
This situation has only benefited the sectarian Ulama who maintain such institutions as their personal fiefdoms. Millions of Muslim students who access these institutions face a bleak future. But then, who cares. Muslims are not just oblivious of this immense harm to their own future but in fact celebrate the existence of such madrasas as examples of their over increasing piety. The government, without any public pressure to reform these institutions, is only too happy to oblige the Ulama.
To be fair, the Assam government has also decided to close Sanskrit Tols/Pathshalas, but since they are so few in number, the message is not lost on anyone that the real of effect of such a move will be on madrasas. It is certainly a good idea to accommodate teachers and students of these madrasas within the regular school system, but without the exact notification, nothing can be certain as of now. Moreover, if the stated objective is to keep religion out of schools, then what will happen to madrasa teachers of Arabic and Islamic Studies? The government must see to it that they are rehabilitated suitably and that no one loses their jobs for no fault of theirs.
There will be little effect of this move on the overall structure of madrasa education in the state. The government is intervening where there is hardly any need of it while at the same time it is reluctant to intervene where it is most required. It appears that the real purpose of this move is to send a message that the government is ‘putting Muslims in its place’. A convenient way of doing this is to target madrasas; against whom a considerable negative sentiment has already been built by various political forces.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com
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