Gurgaon: Ahmad Rashid Shervani gives out scholarships to Muslim students—small amounts, Rs100, Rs500, maybe Rs1,000 for the lucky—but money is hardly the point. Rather, Shervani wants to reward young Muslims and their schools that are performing on a par with, or better than, the rest of India. The 75-year-old, son of a sugar baron, has retained a single passion: to increase the presence of Muslim students in mainstream education.
In the 1980s, Shervani recalls with laughter, he had to convince a hajji, someone who has taken a pilgrimage to Mecca, to allow girls to enrol in a Muslim school in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), a state where an estimated one-fifth of the population is Muslim.
“He was afraid that he will go to hell if he allows a co-educational school to function. I told him, ‘Hajji Sa’ab, you will go to jahannum (hell) anyway, as not educating girls is against Islam. So why not let girls join your school and then go to hell’,” recounts Shervani with a laugh. Shervani does not tour schools any more to bully them into letting girls in or keeping up their examination results. But through his prizes and awards, he finds his way into nearly a hundred Muslim-managed schools dotting the cities and towns of UP, the state he grew up in.
Thirty million Muslims now live in UP—more than the population of Saudi Arabia—but half are illiterate. The prizes go to students between the ages of 14 and 16 who do well in Class X and XII; the awards are for teachers who improve the performance of their class.
Ahmad Rashid Shervani says his wife Nusrat has been his strongest ally, especially in schools where girls observe purdah
“The money is irrelevant”, says Shervani, who was born in a large family that included his father, a sugar factory owner and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and two indulgent uncles. One of them put up the seed capital for a trust when Shervani turned his attention to Muslim education in 1976. He still draws income from his father’s shares in the sugar mill, now run by his nephews.
“I never kept account of how much I was asking from my uncle,” says Shervani, his voice booming through his Gurgaon house. “If you look at it, it is very little money. It is just enough nowadays to pay the phone bills of a few ministers.”
Shervani selects recipients strictly on the basis of results of examinations conducted by boards such as the Central Board of Secondary Examinations (CBSE), and discourages appeals for donations for school buildings. His formula is a bit more complex.
“What I am interested in is the entire result of the school. I compare it with last year,” says Shervani. “Then I see if percentage of students passed has increased, how many have achieved first division; if it is a co-ed, how did girls perform compared to boys, how did Muslim students do versus Hindus,” he explains.
Shervani’s data sheets, which he collates with the help of an assistant, show neat columns. Schools that fail to send him their results are dropped, replaced with new ones. His stress is on Muslim-managed schools where the majority of children are Muslim. He is dismissive of madrasas, the traditional institutions of Islamic learning; they do not form any part of his prizes and awards scheme.
It is not possible to ascertain what, if any, effect Shervani’s programme has on the success rates of Muslim students. Individually, though, principals say, he is making a difference. In 1976, among Shervani’s data from 18 schools, one Muslim female earned a first division, or 60% marks, in her final year of schooling.
More than three decades later, one school, the Al-Hamara Farooqui Girls Inter College in Allahabad, reports a whole lot more; it collected seven prizes based on the 2007 examination results totalling Rs2,300.
“Out of 41, 38 of my girls got first division in the inter exam (Class XII). But they chose just five girls for the prizes,” the school’s principal Shaheem Zaidi says in a telephone interview. “In high school, two girls got prizes.”
Zaidi, who has been principal since 1999, says the school began receiving Shervani’s prizes in 2004. One of the school’s prize-winners this year is 15-year-old Tahreem Ahmad, who scored 62% in Class X and landed Rs300.
“It does feel good,” says Ahmad, who belongs to a household of seven siblings, and wants to graduate in science. “Everyone in my family congratulated me and told me to work harder.”
It is precisely this kind of encouragement that Shervani wants. Through journals and forums, he drew attention to the lack of education among Muslims long before the government-appointed Sachar Committee statistically defined it in November 2006. The committee said the literacy rate for Muslims at 59.1% was below the national average of 65%. It found that one in every four Muslim children in the 6-14 age group had either never attended school or had dropped out, and concluded that the educational levels of Muslims are close to that of scheduled castes and tribes.
“A Hindu dhobi will educate his children, a Muslim dhobi will not. I can’t understand why,” says Shervani. “Talabul ilm fareezatun ala kulle Muslimin wa Muslimatin” (It is the duty of every Muslim man and woman to aquire knowledge).
Shervani says his wife Nusrat has been his strongest ally, especially when he travels to schools where girls observe purdah. She would go and speak to the girls and insist, “You must study”.
The management of the trust, which gives away the prizes, will go to Saleem Shervani, his nephew and a member of Parliament. But Ahmad Rashid Shervani does not think anyone in his family will adhere to the complicated formulae and criteria he uses.
Eventually, his community, he says, must learn to stand on its own feet.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we are running through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org