By Samudra Gupta Kashyap
December 14, 2016
Last week, Assam’s BJP government forced a change to a 72-year-old tradition: hundreds of madrasas stayed open on Friday, the day of congregational prayer for Muslims, and were shut on Sunday.
The state Secondary Education Department ordered the change on December 8, following an announcement by Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on November 28 that madrasas would no longer be shut on Fridays.
The government had recently discovered that most madrasas were closed on Fridays instead of Sundays, Sarma said. “This is totally against the law of the land. The government will not hesitate to take action against the heads of such institutions if they do not immediately give up that practice. Madrasas are closed on Fridays in Pakistan and Bangladesh, not in India. In our country Sunday is uniform weekly off for people of all faiths. Madrasas too have to remain closed only on Sundays,” he said.
Despite complaints by some Muslim leaders and madrasa teachers about religious sentiments being hurt, most madrasas indeed remained open on December 9, and all were shut on Sunday. Most madrasas said they had to, after all, “follow the government’s order”.
Interestingly, government-recognised madrasas have always been closed on Fridays in accordance with the annual academic calendar published by the State Madrasa Board at the beginning of every year. The calendar issued by the Board on January 21 this year had clearly mentioned all Fridays as holidays.
The government’s December 8 notification, however, noted “that the holidays pattern, timing, duration etc of these institutions are different”, and it was “considered desirable to maintain uniformity in… working hours and holidays of all such provincialised/Government educational institutions”. The institutions would henceforth observe “mandatory holiday” on Sunday, and “no institution shall observe holiday which are not prescribed by the General Administration Department”, it said. (In Assam, ‘provincialised’ institutions are those that were begun by local communities, but had subsequently been taken over by the government.)
Dating to 1934
The practice of a weekly holiday for madrasas on Friday instead of Sunday dates to the Raj, when the provincial government of Assam set up the Madrasa Education Board in 1934, with 9 schools under it. After Independence, it was renamed as State Madrasa Education Board, Assam. According to the state Education Department web site, the Board has over 700 madrasas under it, including pre-senior madrasas (equivalent to middle school, up to Class 8 level), senior madrasas (equivalent to Classes 9-12) and title madrasas (equivalent to MA in Arabic). There are also Arabic Colleges, teaching MA-equivalent courses.
Apart from these, there are hundreds of non-provincialised madrasas run by private organisations and religious bodies, on which the government has no data. Private madrasas are of two types — Khareji madrasas and Hafiziya madrasas, both of which are purely religious institutions where no math, science, English, history, geography or social studies are taught. Assam is estimated to have over 500 such madrasas. The government has no control over them, and the students generally become imams and preachers, or teachers in such institutions.
On April 6, 2000, then Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta told the Assembly that some people working at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI had allegedly misused madrasas and mosques in Assam. “Some of the top arrested militants have been connected with the activities of mosques or madrasas. (But) nobody should jump to the conclusion that all these sacred religious institutions have been maligned,” Mahanta said. His statement detailed activities of 17 persons including at least one Pakistani, many of whom were allegedly linked to, or frequently visited, madrasas in Assam, Uttar Pradesh, and Bangladesh. Most had links with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.
In 2007, the Border Security Force reported a mushrooming of mosques and madrasas along the Bangladesh border — there were at least 955 mosques and 445 madrasas in the border districts of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya; and 976 mosques and 156 madrasas in 28 districts on the Bangladesh side, most of them within 100-200 metres of the border, the BSF said.
Two years ago, when the Congress was in power, the Assam Police had put a number of non-government madrasas, especially in lower Assam, under the scanner. They were on the Brahmaputra’s char areas (islands), close to the Bangladesh border. The action followed the arrest of several individuals associated with the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and the Burdwan blast of December 2014. The police found that some top JMB leaders had visited a madrasa in Larkuchi village in Nalbari district to motivate students to create JMB modules in Assam similar to the ones already existing in West Bengal.
No Modern Education
While madrasas affiliated to the State Madrasa Education Board teach regular school curriculum subjects, the private Khareji and Hafiziya madrasas do not. Their students, therefore, have no chance of a career in engineering, medicine, management, law, etc.
Even in his earlier avatar as Education Minister in the previous Congress government, Sarma had expressed serious concern over the future of students attending private madrasas, and had started schemes to provide funds to raise their standards of teaching. In 2012, Sarma had awarded financial assistance of Rs 3 lakh each to 640 such private madrasas. “Students studying in the madrasas have to keep up with the changing times. Only religious education is not enough. There is need for introducing vocational courses in the madrasas,” Sarma had then said.
While Muslims comprise 34.22% of Assam’s 3.11 Crore population — next only to J&K (68.3%) — very few Muslim students attend the provincialised madrasas. In 2016 for instance, only 10,119 students appeared in the High Madrasa examination, compared with the 3.81 lakh who wrote the High School Final (Class 10) examination under the State Board. While most Muslim students indeed attend general schools, the numbers attending provincialised and private madrasas are not insignificant — between 4 lakh and 5 lakh.