Mumbai: As the Congress party woos key constituencies, including India’s estimated 151 million Muslims, a report on Islamic education recommends more government involvement and bringing madrasas into the fold of universal education programme Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA).
The sub-committee of the national minority commission for madrasa education is pushing for systemic, sweeping changes, financed largely by the government’s cash-rich SSA programme. On Friday, finance minister P. Chidambaram endowed Rs13,100 crore for SSA, which is paid for by a cess levied on all taxpayers. Chidambaram also earmarked Rs45 crore to “modernize” madrasas.
While lauding the role of madrasas for providing religious education to students, the report says, “When they come out of these institutions and face the real world, they definitely find it difficult to walk with others and they have to take up only the few selected jobs by which it is very difficult for them to raise their standard of living and to come in the mainstream.”
Inward looking: Students in a Darul Uloom madrasa. The Darul Uloom is unlikely to support any government initiative on Islamic education. (Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/ Mint)
The government report, which is yet to be disclosed to the public, but has been under discussion by the Planning Commission, focuses on the creation of a top-down system, managed largely by the Centre and flush with incentives, such as new infrastructure, higher pay for teachers and recognition and acceptance of schools’ graduates at universities of higher education.
But the reach of government into madrasa classrooms might alienate the very people for whom it was intended.
While many education activists and even advocates for Muslims say the steps are necessary, Islamic scholars say they are suspicious of the government’s motives.
At the heart of this divergence is the role Islamic seminaries play in terrorist activities. Last week, 10,000 clerics gathered at the Darul Uloom madrasa in Deoband to denounce terrorism as “un-Islamic”. They also asked the government to stop branding religious seminaries as breeding grounds of terror.
Before authoring the report, the nine-member sub-committee spent months speaking with madrasas, interest groups, maulanas and muftis across the country. The committee is headed by Zafar Ali Naqvi, former home minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The 15-point strategy rests partly on the creation of a Secretariat of National Monitoring Committee for Minorities’ Education at the ministry of human resource development, which oversees education, and a central seminary board to standardize curriculum. The board would function similar to the National Council of Educational and Research Training which designs curriculum.
The board will form structural alliances between seminaries and other government programmes at three levels: SSA for primary and secondary education, the National Institute for Open Schooling for vocational education and various government-recognized universities for higher education.
The Planning Commission is deliberating these recommendations and will come up with a financial outlay for the programme within one month, a government official confirmed on the condition of anonymity.
Vocational training is critical, observed Sayida Ahmed, vice-chancellor at Hamdard University in New Delhi.
“It helps students learn something that they can directly use to earn their living,” she said. “Technical education like fixing appliances or tailoring will help these students find jobs in the mainstream.”
The committee wants the government to use ministry resources and SSA finances to create infrastructure, such as rooms, toilets, libraries and computer centres. It suggests tapping these funds to give equal pay to madrasa teachers, pay registration and textbook fees for students who want vocational training, as well as part-time instructors in these areas.
M.A.A. Fathmi, minister of state responsible for school education, said the government has already begun a programme aimed at bringing madrasas under SSA in all states. So far, it has managed to bring three states on board: SSA covers 3,700 madrasas in Bihar, 3,000 in Madhya Pradesh and 600 in Andhra Pradesh. Fathmi says it is a good idea. “Among Muslims, there is a very high dropout rate and a very low enrolment, specially among girls. So bringing madrasas under SSA will help bring these children into the mainstream,” he says.
The Darul Uloom madrasa, the largest Islamic seminary in India, teaches 3,500 students and has 1,500 madrasas under its umbrella. Its conference in Deoband last week drew 10,000 clerics. Any government initiative on Islamic education would likely have to gain support from Deoband.
But Darul Uloom spokesman Adil Siddiqui said that seems unlikely: “We do not want the government reaching inside our classrooms. From the time of our inception in 1866, we have not taken any money from any government and we are not likely to start now.”
Still others say the reality of madrasa education and infrastructure across India will force schools to embrace government’s offer.
Rakshanda Jalil, spokeswoman at the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, said the prospect of government recognition and the promise of higher education in universities is a long-time coming. “It is time to go beyond the tokenism. You cannot just give computers that gather dust,” she said. “You have to provide trained teachers because education is education. Teachers must know how to teach.”
The promise of equal pay will also help win over the seminary teachers, whose current salary are equal to a daily wagers’ earnings, said Azim Khan Sherwani, academic director at the Study Abroad program of the School of International Training in Vermont. Sherwani, who travels extensively in India and the US, has done extensive research on madrasa education. “Except in large madrasas like Darul Uloom and Nadwatul Ulema, most teachers get Rs1,500 to about Rs3,000.” By comparison, a tenured government teacher at a primary school earns Rs14,000--more than four times the highest paid madrasa teacher.
Right now, only the brightest and the most driven madrasa students pursue higher studies, generally at universities such as the Jamia Millia and Aligarh Muslim University.
Until now, the biggest ambition of most madrasa students has been to become a mufti. For many students at madras, who hail from poor villages or families, the title, which allows them to issue fatwas or religious decrees, is “becoming somebody”. Students would welcome another way, another path to empowerment, conceded Zahir-ud-din Khan, principal at Mumbai’s Minara Masjid’s madrasa, if they were given the chance. “Our children go out from here, often irrelevant to modern life,” he said. “We can use help.”
Aparna Kalra in New Delhi contributed to this story.