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India: Go for secular education, think beyond religious lobbies

by Arshad Alam, 5 February 2009

print version of this article print version, January 29, 2009

Madrasas: Degrees of Populism

One of the key recommendations of the Sachar Committee report was to open quality schools in areas of Muslim concentration. Stating that only about three percent Muslims access madrasa education and that by and large Muslims prefer to enrol their wards in government schools, the recommendation, if made into a policy, would have gone a long way in correcting the abysmal state of education among the Muslims. Rather than doing this, the present government is content to dole out sops, primarily aimed at the madrasas. The recent government announcement of making madrasa degrees at par with a college or university degree is one such example.

There is a lot to be said about this exercise in electoral populism. But first, the economics of it which seems to be fairly clear. The move is targeted at 7000 madrasas controlled by various madrasa boards in India which enrol around 3.5 lakh students. Without spending a penny, the government wants to show the Muslims that it is doing something for them. Providing quality education for the Muslims would have cost the government much more which it clearly does not want to do. The whole exercise of making madrasa degrees equivalent to a regular degree is thus an exercise in vacuous symbolism and will not lead to any substantive benefits to madrasa students.

It is important to understand that there are roughly two kinds of madrasas in India. Some madrasas are affiliated to madrasa boards in various states and apart from teaching Islam, they also teach subjects such as sciences and social sciences. On the other hand, the vast majority of madrasas are independent of these various madrasa boards. They have their own system of examination and they teach their students nothing except Islam. These independent madrasas have successfully resisted attempts from various quarters, including the state, to change their curriculum. Now, the government measure of equivalence of madrasa certificates will only apply to madrasas controlled by the various boards which form only a small part of the madrasa network in India. What is the government doing about the students enrolled in independent madrasas?

There are other problems which should have been thought about before making a policy announcement. Where will the madrasa students gain admission? Madrasa certificates are already recognized for admission in the undergraduate programs of universities such as Jamia, Aligarh and JNU. The latest government move is thus not a novel instrument of policy but merely an extension of something which is already in practice. That apart, most of the madrasa graduates get admission in Urdu, Persian and Arabic departments of these universities. The equivalence criteria will do nothing to change such a state of affairs. If anything else, this academic ghettoisation of Muslim students will only increase in the near future. Without effective curricular reforms, madrasa students would not be admitted in the science or social science departments. As stated earlier, madrasa controlled by the boards do teach modern subjects, but not in English. A madrasa student, entering a university, without even a working knowledge of English, is bound to be involved in a frustrating struggle to cope up with his more fortunate peers.

This frustration can have various political implications. It is important to understand that only few madrasa graduates access regular higher education. Part of the reason is their self-elimination through strategic thinking which tells them that it is futile to think about entering the domain of regular colleges or universities. They have their own religious economy which somehow is able to sustain them. The equivalence criterion gives them false hopes without substantially enhancing their educational capabilities.They would come to institutions of higher learning only to be disappointed with their inability to crack the code of modern pedagogy. The universities and colleges in turn will label them as ’failures’. Cumulatively this will lead to new kinds of frustrations which could be channelised for a political mobilisation of a not so benign nature. It is important to recall here that a similar exercise was done in Pakistan by the Zia ul Haq regime. While the move allowed madrasa graduates to apply for jobs, the market rejected them as they did not have the requisite educational capital. The fallout of such a policy is there for all to see: Madrasa graduates form an important part of the landscape of terrorism in that country.

There are some pre-requisites for the policy of equivalence to succeed. First of all there has to be an all India madrasa Board. All madrasas, including the independent ones, have to be compulsorily part of this board. This Board should adopt a common curriculum for all madrasas, which would include modern subjects and English. Sufficient numbers of trained teachers for this purpose should be provided for the Board. But for all this to happen, one needs to have a genuine political will. It is true that the government did initiate a measure to form an all India Madrasa Board. But sensing opposition from the Ulama, the plan was shelved in no time. It requires no deep thinking that the Ulama would always oppose such a move by the government: After all why would they surrender their autonomy, more importantly, their financial autonomy? The state, however, needs to look beyond the sectarian interests of the Ulama and focus on the interests of poor and destitute students of the madrasa, even if that means bypassing the madrasa system altogether. The Ulama have been playing with the future of madrasa students for a long time. One can only hope that the state does not do so.

Arshad Alam teaches at the Center for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia