Assam government decision on madrasas and ‘tols’ creates a row

Himanta Biswa Sarma, Education minister of Assam recently announced that all government-aided madrasas, Arabic-teaching schools and ‘tols’ (schools that teach mainly Sanskrit) will be closed down

Photo Courtesy: PTI
Photo Courtesy: PTI
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Ashis Biswas/IPA

More often than not, political developments in Assam have an instant ripple effect on neighbouring West Bengal. With the unsettling effect of the Assam NRC updating exercise on Bengal and other states still continuing, another administrative decision announced in Guwahati has set Muslims elsewhere restive and uneasy. First out-of-state reactions from the community have just been made from Kolkata. Himanta Biswa Sarma, Education minister of Assam recently announced that all Government-aided madrasas, Arabic-teaching schools and ‘tols’ (schools that teach mainly Sanskrit) will be closed down. They will be converted into regular schools following standard curricula. During the period of transition, teachers in these institutions will earn their salaries sitting at home.

By way of explanation, Sarma said that the Government had “no business to run schools that provided ‘religious teaching.’” Further if official financial help was available for the madrasas, there was no reason why such assistance should not also be provided to similar schools/institutions that taught the values of Hinduism, Christianity or Buddhism. However, the Government’s decision to pull out of madrasas etc, Sarma clarified, would not apply to institutions sponsored by non-official individuals or organisations.

Assam-based media reports noted that the apparent reprieve extended to privately-run madrasas did not amount to much. . Out of 707 registered madrasas in Assam, including the Kharijia, Hafezi and High (secondary level) varieties, 614 were dependant on official financial help. In contrast, tols numbered 97 only.

A major reason for the almost instant reaction felt among Bengal Muslims over what was happening to Assam madrasas was the relatively higher percentage of the minority population in both states. After the (erstwhile) Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir territory, Assam had the largest population of Muslims in its population, at just over 10.6 million out of an aggregate 31.1 million people in 2011 -- 34.2 per cent of the total. Out of 33 districts, 9 are Muslim-majority now, increasing from 6 in 2001.

Similarly in 2011, Muslims in Bengal numbered 24.6 million out of 91.1 million people, constituting 27.01 per cent of the aggregate number. Out of 19 districts, three were Muslim majority.

Reports appearing in a section of the Bengal-based media quote the prominent Muslim cleric Mr, Fazlur Rahman Qari as saying that Assam Government officials and leaders had violated the Constitution in taking such a decision. The madrasas had a rich tradition behind them. Any democratic government would have discussed such an important issue at a wider public forum before making any announcement. Among other minority leaders in Bengal, Maulanas Abdul Wadud, Abdur Rafiq, Ishaq Madani and others also protested strongly.

Among Bengal political leaders, Siddiqullah Choudhury, President Jamiat-e-Ulema- i- Hind, (Bengal) and also a Minister in the present Trinamool Congress Government, condemned the move to shut down madrasas. He saw it as a part of what he alleged to be an overall design by the country’s rulers to marginalise the minorities. Common people had risen against such arbitrary decisions and results of recent elections accurately reflected their mounting anger against Delhi.. The madrasas did not necessarily teach only the Islam religion, they also provided modern education including computer training, etc. In Assam they had been running for ages. It was time for people to unite against such communally divisive decisions.

Choudhury’s reaction resonated with the stand taken by the Madrasa Board in Assam. Board authorities pointed out that the madrasas had a rich history and a long past. Mr Badrul Islam, leader of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) said that madrasas were set up during the British times in Assam in 1934, keeping in mind the special educational requirements for the Muslims, under the Assam Education Act.

Further, post independence, they had been thoroughly upgraded and their education system brought at par with standard syllabi followed in regular schools, in 1994-95 in Assam. To say that they taught only religion was factually wrong and clearly malicious, he added. The official decision was violative of Constitutional principles, which did not prevent individuals from pursuing either the kind of education they sought or practising any religion of their choice.

Assam Congress leader Ripun Bora went further and warned that his party was prepared to fight a legal battle against the Assam Government on the issue. The majority of madrasas were following a modern system of education these days and did not teach religious matters only. The Assam Government’s move in clear violation of articles 28 and 30 of the constitution, he added.

Interestingly, unlike West Bengal’s Muslim leaders, both Bora as well Assam-based Muslim leaders expressed their concern that tols teaching Sanskrit would also not be helped financially.

Sanskrit they stressed, was ancient India’s unique contribution, a highly developed complex language with its major contribution to modern thought and civilization. Every effort should be made to ensure its survival, not decisions that could only threaten its future and relevance in India, of all places !

The administrative reaction in Bengal has been somewhat different from the political feedback on the matter. Former Home department officials said it was not fair to treat all madrasas as simmering hotbeds of Islamic extremism. However, they had been compelled in recent years to take certain steps against a few of such ‘schools’.

Former Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharji had once gone on record saying that some madrasas in the state propagated Islamic extremism. He was promptly censured within his own party, the CPI(M) and forced not to pursue the matter any more. His remarks had been made against the disquieting backdrop of over 300 new mosques and madrasas that started functioning in several districts, very close to the Bangladesh border, during a five year period in the 1990s. It needs stressing that the catalogue of recorded crimes in which madrasa-trained students or activists were arrested in Bengal in recent years was a long one.

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