The obsession with Madrasas

Less than 4% of Muslim children in India attend madrasas and very few have been accused of having terror links; internationally a disproportionate number of ‘jihadists’ are engineering graduates

UP Madrasas (PTI)
UP Madrasas (PTI)

Furqan Qamar

Madrasas are going through a rough time. In Assam some of the madrasas were demolished, ostensibly on suspicion of links with global terrorist organisations. The official explanation however was that the foundation of the buildings was weak and the structures were unsafe. Both the suspicion and the clarification, coming within days, served their purpose.

Madrasa management and a large section of Muslims believe, cynically or otherwise, that the real intention is to demoralise the community and tell them that they can no longer take the rights and protections offered to them by the Constitution for granted.

Uttar Pradesh has now decided to conduct a survey of all unaided and non-government madrasas in the state to find out if the madrasas have the basic amenities required by law for the protection of child rights. The survey comes in the wake of the state government denying grants-in-aid to newly established madrasas and delays in the release of grants to government-aided and recognised madrasas.

Madrasas therefore have little or no hope that the proposed survey, after identifying their infrastructural deficiency would help them financially to overcome them. Instead, they fear that those deficiencies will be used as grounds to harass and hound them, eventually forcing them to shut down.

These unrecognised and unaided madrasas have largely survived on small contributions made by the community, very often in kind to feed the teachers and the pupils. Built brick by brick as and when they accumulated resources, a majority of them operate from half-finished structures and may well lack several of the basic amenities. But so would be the case surely with a large number of government-run ‘Pathshalas’ and schools across the country.

Significantly, Muslims do not mind if madrasas are brought under the government, as most of them quite possibly have nothing to hide. What they are however afraid of is the harassment and interference in their internal matters. Many Muslims also believe that survey is but a euphemism for surveillance.

Several sections of Muslims have often wondered aloud why governments are so keen on madrasa modernisation rather than focus on the education of Muslims.

The National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) had reported in 2006 that only about 4 per cent of all Muslim students of school-going age were enrolled in madrasas. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) data had also stated that only 2.3 per cent of Muslim children aged 7-19 studied in madrasas.

On the other hand, the Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) report for 2012-13 revealed that Muslims accounted for 15.22 per cent of the total enrolment in class one; but disquietingly, the proportion of Muslims at the higher secondary level declined to 7.14 per cent.

The latest UDISE data shows that enrolment of Muslim students in class one has gone up marginally to 16.03 per cent. The proportion of Muslims at the higher secondary level too has increased to 9.89 per cent. But the fact remains that nearly 40 per cent of Muslim students still drop out before completing their school education. Why then focus on madrasas and not on education for Muslims?

Sceptical Muslim masses see surveys as an excuse to interfere with religious instruction. A large number of madrasas, including some of the bigger and more renowned ones, have therefore remained unregistered to protect their autonomy and retain focus on religious education.

Liberal and progressive Muslims and a large section of the Hindus do believe that madrasas must not churn out students with unemployable qualifications. Madrasas must be brought into the mainstream to equip their students with skills that the contemporary world demands. The idea gained momentum and a large number of madrasas are now registered with the government and follow the prescribed curricula. They have also subjected themselves to examinations conducted by the Madrasa Board to which they are affiliated to. They submit themselves to regular inspections and have adopted government policies, norms and guidelines for the appointment of teachers.

But a larger number still cherish their autonomy and survive on community contributions. Sadly, they are now suspected of engaging in activities detrimental to ‘national interest’.

Madrasas do have a long history of imparting knowledge. But typically, they don’t teach. Instead, they impart dars (loosely, lessons in English) through mudarris, the one who gives the lessons and muallim, the one who imparts knowledge. They prefer to call their students ‘Talib-e-Ilm’, the seeker of knowledge.

Historically most madrasas were centred around an individual scholar. Following the industrial revolution, they evolved into abodes of scholars and students and delivered lessons in religion, philosophy, logic, science, medicine, astronomy, law, jurisprudence and other branches of learning as they emerged.

They are however supposed to focus mostly on religious teaching, helping their students learn, recite, memorise and understand the Holy Quran. Besides, they also teach basic principles and tenets of Islam and the rituals that they entail to enable their disciples to practice their religion.

Most Muslims desire to impart some knowledge about their religion to their children. Such madrasas often run for a few hours in the morning or in the evening to help school-going children learn about their religion, culture and traditions.

A much smaller number go beyond the basics to impart in-depth religious education and skill to understand and interpret the Holy Quran and Hadiths. They prepare their students to preach and help Muslims to practice their religion in letter and spirit. Some of them also provide advisories and edicts, popularly known as ‘fatwa’ on religious matters to those who seek them.

They work within the framework of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the religious minorities the right to practice their religion and preserve and promote their knowledge, tradition and culture.

Many of them have also been keeping pace with the contemporary developments in the fields of science and technology. They have been broadening their curricula to cover subjects beyond the scriptures. Courses have also been integrated to enable students to take high school and intermediate examinations as private candidates or through open schooling; and some universities in the country have recognised madrasa qualifications as equivalent to a specific level of modern education.

Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hartog, in their book ‘Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Extremism and Education’ (Princeton University Press) found that an oddly large number of jihadists had an engineering background. Yet, no nation in the world has placed engineering colleges under the scanner, for it would be regarded as paranoia.

Demolitions of madrasas, therefore, may serve political interests in the short-term but is also bound to breed seeds of distrust that can grow into discordance. Such thoughtless action would be a disaster in the long run.

No individual or institution can be above law. But putting institutions under the scanner merely on suspicion or taking punitive action without following due process can serve no purpose. It can only alienate the community.

(Furqan Qamar is a former advisor to the Planning Commission and a Professor in FMS, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Views are personal)

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