Mumbai: When 12-year-old Muhammad Imran’s widowed mother did not have money to feed her son, she put him on a train from her village in Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai’s Minara Masjid madrasa. Many of the estimated 1,035,000 children who live in Islamic seminaries across India arrived in the same way—shelter and food are as important to their parents as education.

Now, as India’s rising prosperity stirs new desires and gives birth to new dreams, the government’s initiative for modernization of madrasas is forcing a catharsis in the community about the kind of education they want to offer their children.

Winds of change: Students in the newly opened computer lab at the Minara Masjid madrasa in Mumbai. (Ashesh Shah / Mint)

Like so many Indian schools, madrasas must surmount financial constraints, infrastructure problems and a paucity of good teachers.

“Our children have been left behind because they are not equipped for the outside world," said Zahir-ud-din Khan, principal at Minara Masjid’s school for 46 years. “We want to give our children the skills to live well."

Later this month, India’s premier madrasa, the Darul Uloom in Deoband, will host a conference of more than 1,000 madrasas to discuss how to incorporate formal education subjects such as math and science into existing Islamic curriculum.

The madrasa’s official spokesperson, Aadil Siddiqui, said: “We are already teaching these subjects at our school. We are telling others also that children need this to survive in the world outside." He believes that this change will also help dispel the notion that madrasas teach terrorism in their classrooms.

The discussion itself reflects a turnaround. In 2003, when the government announced its Scheme of Assistance for Infrastructure and Modernization of Madrasas to encourage formal education in madrasas, it was met with resistance among the maulanas, or those who studied under Islamic scholars, who saw it as “government interference in a religious institute". Some scholars felt madrasas were being targeted for teaching terrorism and that any government aid would come at a price.

The Sachar committee report, which investigated the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in India, noted that “many madrasas have stayed away from this scheme because the fear that madrasa autonomy may be compromised."

The conversation has changed. Madrasas such as the Darul Uloom have about 10,000 students, who have passed an admission exam that tests their knowledge of Quran—and mathematics. These students undergo five years of primary education where they are taught modern Indian history, Islamic history, civics, geography, general sciences and computer applications. “After the primary education, they are taught Islam for eight years," said Siddiqui.

Core concern: A Quran class in session at Mumbai’s Minara Masjid madrasa. The real challenge for madrasa reforms, apart from overhauling curricula, is the tangible issue of infrastructure. (Ashesh Shah / Mint)

“Madrasa as an institution has become the biggest child rights violation in our country," he said.

While not putting it in the same terms, Maulana Syed Hussain Nadawi, convener of the All India Madrasa Board concedes, “We recognize there is a problem. And it’s necessary for them (maulanas) to accept these changes for our children. Many of them are coming to understand this."

The real challenge, apart from overhauling curricula, is the tangible issue of infrastructure, educators say. Maulana Hafiz Ather Ali, Nazi-e-ala of the Darul Uloom Mohammadia in Mumbai, said since most madrasas run on charity and grants, few have the resources to teach in the way they would like to. Last year, the demand for infrastructure was so high that the entire government budgetary provision of Rs29 crore was disbursed.

The Sachar committee report said giving computers to madrasas alone is not going to help the community. To really make a difference, it said, the government will have to provide for recurrent grants and “work out a mechanism for madrasas to be linked with a higher secondary board so that students wanting to shift to regular/mainstream education can do so even after having passed from a madrasa."

The government’s new modernization programme intends to add vocational education, a national policy of open schooling, and more frequent discussions with high-level, reputed madrasas, such as the Darul Uloom. Sunil Kumar, joint secretary at the ministry of human resource development, which oversees education, is at the helm of the modernization plan. He declined to discuss the financial specifics, but said they should be unveiled in about a month.

“A government-appointed group of experts has gone around the country meeting madrasa managements, stakeholders and educationists and has come up with a bunch of recommendations which are being considered by the ministry right now," he said.

The stakes to succeed are high, said educator and vice-chancellor of Jamia Hamdard University in New Delhi, Sayeeda Ahmad. “Success breeds a sense of belonging. It cultivates internal courage. It is important for these children to succeed and it’s our job as a society to make sure they have the tools to do so."

At the Minara Masjid, 13-year-old Mohammed Salman shyly says he looks forward to two things in his week—meeting his father who is a handcart puller and turning on the computer and typing a letter in English to his mother who lives in a village in Uttar Pradesh.

She cannot read, he says, but he will read it out to her.