Row in Assam over the closure of govt-funded madrasas and Sanskrit schools

Muslim groups have accused the BJP-led state government of interfering in their religious studies; a few scholars also pleaded for more official help to promote the study of Sanskrit

Row in Assam over the closure of govt-funded madrasas and Sanskrit schools
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Ashis Biswas/IPA

Come November, government-aided madrasas and Sanskrit schools (‘tol’) in Assam will no longer function as before. Their proposed conversion into regular, general schools would begin, says state Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma The transition is to be completed within six months.

His announcement a couple of days ago has triggered a fresh round of protests from minority organisations. A few minority leaders had warned to seek legal remedy in a move to stop the Bharatiya Janata Party-run state government from implementing its decision.

The state government made it clear that teachers working in these institutions would not lose their jobs or face pay cuts. Arrangements would be made for them to teach subjects that are taught normally in primary/secondary/higher secondary schools in Assam. Altogether 614 madrasas receive government funds, along with 97 ‘tols’. What separates madrasas from ‘regular’ schools is the special importance given to the learning of the Arabic language, along with some Islamic literature, according to reports. Similarly, ‘tols’ are run mainly to teach Sanskrit at higher levels.

In addition, there are around 2000 madrasas that are not run with official help in the state. These are financed mainly through donations from private donors and organisations. Sarma has announced that the system of education and syllabi in these privately run schools too, would be monitored and suitably tweaked to enable the students to secure the benefits of an updated modern educational curriculum.

The official argument against the running of the madrasas etc is that no government should run any institution that provides religious teaching and training to its students. Sarma argues that if religious texts are to be provided to students, then demands might arise from different groups of people for studying the Gita or the Bible. There was no problem however, if people wanted to learn more about religion or related matters to satisfy their personal interest, at their own expense.

In a secular country, the government could not provide religious texts in schools for only selected groups of students spending its official funds. There was no justification therefore for the state government to appoint teachers of the Arabic language in schools.

The same logic applied to the’ tols’ as well. As things stood, most ‘tols’ were on the point of closure, as not many students chose Sanskrit as a

subject for reasons of future livelihood. To maintain such institutions, meant a wastage of scarce official resources.

The protest over the proposed closure of ‘tols’ incidentally has not generated the kind of heated public protests that have been seen from minority organisations like the All Assam Muslim Students’ Association (AAMSA), the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind and the Muslim clerics, over the closure of the madrasas.

According to the AAMSU, the JUH etc, the BJP-run government was carrying out its anti-Muslim agenda by closing down madrasas and ‘tols’. These schools had been functional since the British times. There were specific traditional rules and conventions regarding their administration, methods of education, curriculum, etc. It was not as though madrasa students only turned out to be Imams of masjids or preachers. All subjects were taught there. Engineers, doctors and lawyers also came from their ranks. The syllabi etc had been updated from time to time.

The BJP’s move was not made on the spur of the moment, these groups alleged. In recent years, the government had not allowed the recruitment of teachers in requisite numbers for the madrasas, while the number of students on roll was very high. There were altogether 13,00,000 Muslim students in the schools of Assam, mostly in madrasas. The madrasas had been exposed to face an artificial crisis of existence.

As for learning Arabic, it was of immense value to students who wanted to study/work abroad, especially in the 45 West Asian/African Islamic countries. It was an aid to economic and educational empowerment for Muslim students. The madrasas therefore needed to be strengthened, not weakened, in India’s own economic interest, it was argued.

A few scholars, supported by minority leaders, also pleaded for more official help to promote the study of Sanskrit.

However, the contrary views could not be ignored. The problem with most madrasas especially in Assam, Bengal or Bihar, has been their essentially insulated approach. In most cases, any inquiry into the methods of teaching or the issues and topics discussed, especially from official authorities or non-Muslim quarters, was not welcomed. Also, this pattern of behaviour was not much different from one state to another. There were allegations that some madrasas encouraged the teaching of an extremist, orthodox type of aggressive Islam, especially of late.

Former Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharhee once admitted that serious complaints had been received about the radicalization among students of some madrasas in Bengal during his tenure, which he promised to examine. However, he was overruled by others in his party and could not proceed in the matter. Minority vote bank considerations had prevailed, observers later said with some justification, as Bhattacharya’s comments produced a vicious reaction from Bengal-based Muslims.

However, Waseem Rizvi, head of the Central Waqf Board in Uttar Pradesh had earlier supported a call to close down madrasas at the primary level, alleging that the radical message of the ISIS organisation was being preached actively in many such ‘schools’.

In Bangladesh again, many madrasas with dubious antecedents and records had been closed following an investigation into complaints of Islamic radicalisation. In neighbouring Pakistan, the FATF authorities repeatedly warned Islamabad to crack down immediately against madrasas run with finances provided by dubious NGOs, shady donors and Islamic extremists under different garbs, if Pak authorities wanted to avoid economic sanctions.

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