Madrassa Reforms

The Minister for Human Resource Development, Kapil Sibal, opened the Pandora’s Box in June this year by suggesting educational reforms in Indian madrassas. Madrassas, for the uninitiated, are orthodox Islamic schools that provide religious education to the Muslim children and youth. Their curriculum largely consists of passages from the Quran, the Shariat (Islamic law) and Arabic literature. After undergoing this training, pass-outs usually get jobs as imams of mosques and earn a paltry income of less than Rs. 5000 per month.

Mr. Sibal’s initiative was welcomed at the outset due to its progressive and inclusive nature. On the suggestions of the Sachar Committee, he proposed the introduction of modern subjects such as English, Maths, science and computers in the madrassas. Ostensibly, the objective is to equip Muslim students with a broader world view and better prospects for higher education and employment. The Minister asserted that the government would leave the religious component strictly alone. As of today, there is only a handful of madrassas in the country that offer modern education in addition to a study of the scriptures. Some are governed by state boards, but here too the quality of education is low as is in most government schools. West Bengal is one such state, and its government recently announced a similar strategy of English medium education for the madrassas under its State Madrassa Board.

The Minister sought a consensus from the 30 Muslim MPs for the formation of an All India Madrassa Board to oversee the reforms. Only 18 of them showed up at the MHRD meeting on the 4th of October, where the majority vehemently opposed the move. Their main point of contention was that only 4-5% of Indian Muslims attend madrassas, and hence the government ought to concentrate on opening new schools in Muslim suburbs and providing vocational training to the other 95%. Other objections were related to the method of selecting board members.

There have also been outcries from Muslic Muslim clerics in various pockets of the country, such as the Darul Uluum seat of learning Deoband, UP. The Darul Uluum has a reputation for being buried deep in Islamic tradition and they are clutching to their familiar roots as this new wave of thought sweeps by them. Clearly, the big madrassas are not welcoming change or political interference, as they see it.

What is of concern is that many of the big schools have an iron grasp over smaller madrassas who depend on them for support, since most of the funding comes from within the Muslim community. Naturally the imposition of a Central overarching authority would negate some of their power and cause uncomfortable shifts in the hierarchical structure. It is ironic that a seminary such a Darul Uluum which has started computer and journalism courses within its own walls is opposing the introduction of such a system in smaller madrassas!

The job is tricky, but it has to be done. The Ministry has a valid point that the implementation of a modern curriculum will greatly increase the professional prospects of Muslim students. It is no secret that a large chunk of the Muslim population lives in poverty and squalor. Education is the key to improving the future of a people. In the modern world, a purely Urdu/Arabic education does not carry much weight, and the same goes for Hindu or Christian priestly training without any other exposure. No doubt that vocational training is practically useful, but one would definitely like to see more students rising out of a low economic stratum and competing academically with the brightest urban minds in mainstream colleges.

Moreover, there is a sensitive issue which is carefully avoided being raised in the Parliament. Post the terror attacks of 9/11 and the Islamic insurgencies, bomb blasts etc in the years that followed, governments around the world have come to look warily upon traditional Muslim schools as terrorist recruitment grounds. This rhetoric was even taken up enthusiastically by Hindutva hardliners. Questioning the values being imparted under the veil of holy teaching is like treading on a landmine, especially since a lot of the mistrust is baseless and panic-driven. Of course it is unjust to assume that madrassas instill religious fundamentalism and intolerance in their students without any concrete proof pointing to such a specific example. The Darul Uluum publicly denounced Islamic terrorism with a fatwa a year ago, and one would like to believe that its stature in the Indian Muslim community would influence other heads of madrassas to adopt a similar attitude. Nevertheless, one can be sure that the Indian government would be happier if it had a small say in their functioning.

The Minister has listed a few incentives for madrassas who subscribe to the central Madrassa Board, such as funding, supply of teaching material and affiliation to the CBSE board. The tuition costs of students electing for modern subjects will be borne by the centre – this is crucial, since one of the reasons Muslims continue to send their children to madrassas is that the education there is free. Islamic universities such as the Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University already consider madrassa qualifications at par with regular schools, and if the All India Madrassa Board comes into existence, all other universities will follow suit. Another privilege that has been promised is the evaluation of students’ performances by the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). This will ensure a standardised education and assessment pattern for madrassas across the length and breadth of the country, enabling the board to judge the quality of a particular institution and make improvements where necessary. Currently many madrassas have their own syllabus which is often disconnected from the needs of the hour.

As an added benefit to the government, there will be more transparency in the administration and teaching process in the madrassas. State sponsorship will bring in a degree of accountability as well. There are approximately 30,000 madrassas in India, and any institutions imparting knowledge should be governed by an apex body consisting of qualified educationalists who work for their welfare. The madrassas in Pakistan, though reputedly more orthodox and infamous, enjoy the patronage of wealthy Middle Eastern nations which has led to the modernisation of many of them. Surely the ones in our country would benefit from central backing as well.

Although the recent meeting of the MPs did not bear any fruit, Mr. Sibal optimistically stated that “this is just the beginning’’. The proposal that was cleared by the CABE had the following structure – the autonomous All India Madrassa Board will consist of six members, including two women. Three of these shall be religious scholars and the other three will represent the three main sects in Islamic education – Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahl-i-Hadith. All of them will be appointed on the basis of their contributions in education, social sciences, science etc. The board will assist madrassas in conducting exams, awarding qualifications and devising curricula for non-theological subjects. Besides these, it will actively promote the education of Muslim girls. It will have no hand in the daily functioning of these madrassas, but only maintain a registry of the same and submit annual progress reports to the government.

All in all, it seems like MHRD is offering the imams and maulvis a fair deal. It is wise of Mr. Sibal to speak of reforms in times of peace, so that they cannot be perceived as a crusade against Muslim identity. When the previous HRD Minister Arjun Singh came up with the same plan in January, it was too soon after the Mumbai terror attacks. Now it is the right climate to make a radical proposal and Inshallah, the Muslim community will accept it.

Kruttika Nadig

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