At a rally in poll-bound Karnataka, Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma said in a thundering voice that his government has shut down more than 600 Madrasas and he intends to close all the remaining ones. The statement was clearly aimed at impressing his party the BJP’s vote bank.
Earlier in January Sarma said that the state government is working with the minority community on this issue and that they are supporting the state government to reduce the threat of radicalisation. As an education minister in the previous government, he tabled the controversial Assam Assembly law which planned to convert all state-run madrassas into ‘regular schools’ in 2020.
The modernisation of madrasas is advocated by a section of Muslims too. It has even found the support of Muslims in Pakistan.
For Muslim youth to tackle the challenges of the 21st Century, madrasa education is not enough, they need exposure to various subjects, especially scientific education from their very childhood. In many ways, Sarma’s actions will be beneficial for the larger Muslim community and the country. The Muslim leadership should read between the terse lines of the Assam CM.
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My experience with madrasas
Madrasa reform has always been a controversial issue in India. On one side, a section of Muslims see it as a culture war due to the historical significance of such institutions. This is despite the fact that they don’t send their own kids to madrasas. On the other side is the narrative, which has been blown out of proportion, that madrasas are a threat to internal security because they radicalise Muslim youth.
I have observed that non-Muslims see madrasas as a place where Muslim kids learn about jihad. This is far from the truth. I have studied in two madrasas. The first was a small one in my village, Mangalpur in Varanasi where I went for a short period of time during school vacations. I mostly studied the Quran, Urdu, and other subjects like English, Hindi, science, and geography. At the madrasa, we also used to celebrate Independence Day and Republic Day. However, the standard of education was not up to the mark. Later, I was sent to a madrasa in Azamgarh for a year, to study Islamic studies. This was a very different experience. Here I learned what jihad is for the first time — a struggle to achieve certain goals.
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A tool to keep Pasmandas uneducated
Madrasas don’t fit into the modern secular education system. Also, let’s not forget that it’s poor Muslims, mostly Pasmanda Muslim children who rely on madrasas for education. Muslim intellectuals who want to keep madrasas alive will never send their own kids here.
Even Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who founded the Aligarh Muslim University to promote scientific education in line with the British education system did so to serve Ashraaf interests, not Pasmandas. His attitude towards the emancipation of lower-caste Muslims through modern education is well documented. He was once invited to attend a function organised by the Madrasa Anjuman-e Islamiya in Bareilly where poor, low-caste Muslim students studied. In a speech, the madrasa authorities suggested that students should study modern disciplines, not just traditional Islamic subjects. As a response, he said
In your address you have mentioned that we should not hesitate to acquire the knowledge of other communities. Perhaps by this is meant the teaching of English. But, I tell you, with regard to madrasa like yours, teaching English is a very grave blunder…No one is a greater supporter of the spread of English education and sciences among the Muslims than me. But there is a time and place for everything…Given the status and the class of these boys [that study in this madrasa], it is useless to teach them English. Keep them busy with the old system of [madrasa] education—that is better for them and for the country
This is a clear sign that those who defend the madrasa system are not going to be affected even if they’re shut down. According to the Sachar Committee report from 2006 around 4 per cent of Muslim youth from poor families rely on madrasa education. A crackdown on these institutions without bringing alternative systems will not just hinder an individual’s access to education, but their entire family and their future generations’ prospects.
However, shutting down madrasas is not a move I’m opposed to as long as the government provides an alternative outlet for the Muslim children who will be left in the lurch to access modern schooling and secular education.
Amana Begam Ansari is a columnist and TV news panelist. She runs a weekly YouTube show called ‘India This Week by Amana and Khalid’. She tweets @Amana_Ansari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)