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What is the religion of learning?

Minority Education

Mohammed Imamuddin was the reason for the cancellation of his annual class picnic to Mumbai’s Water Kingdom amusement park. The 17-year-old stays and studies in central Mumbai’s Madrassa Jamia Qadriya Ashrafia while attending regular school at night. Since he is one of few such madrassa students, his teachers try to ensure that attending night school does not interfere with his religious education—they ruled that the idea of the amusement park was not right and since several of his madrassa classmates were also enrolled with regular schools, the trip was cancelled.

But Imamuddin, who has spent nine years in madrassas, says his options are not limited because the double education means that he could possibly study or work elsewhere. Around 3% of Muslims study at madrassas, where students could spend two to eight school-going years getting religious education. While many stay on to work as clerics, madrassa education opens up only few doors for these students to schools and colleges.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board opposes the Right To Education (RTE) Act, which makes education a fundamental right for children aged between 6 and 14. According to Muslim leaders, RTE conflicts with their constitutional right to give religious education and would lead to government interference in madrassas.

With Uttar Pradesh elections looming, All India Congress Committee General Secretary Rahul Gandhi has assured the Board that RTE Act would be amended to keep madrassas out of it. Union Minister of Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal has only assured the Board of changes. But it could be a missed opportunity to push madrassas to update their curricula or allow their students to attend school elsewhere—as Imamuddin does.

“RTE Act’s main strength is the treatment of all children under one category,” says Krishna Kumar, professor of education at Delhi University, adding that “such an amendment could undermine it”. RTE Act allows only an approved curriculum, specifies the infrastructure a school should have, including boundary walls, separate toilets for boys and girls, qualified teachers, playgrounds, etc. Madrassas tend to not meet these norms because they are mostly funded by charitable donations, usually create their own syllabi—mainly religious—and award their own graduation certificate.

The fear of a change has caused a backlash. “Some people want American laws here but that is not practical,” says Mohammed Adeeb, an independent Rajya Sabha member who is also with the Board. Others see deeper reasons. Maulana Athar Ali, who runs a madrassa at Mumbai’s iconic Minara Masjid, calls RTE Act “a conspiracy by the government to interfere in the running of religious schools”.

Others community leaders agree that there is a need for modernisation but stress that it should come from within the community and with the government’s stamp. “We cannot kill our soul to modernise,” says Ata-ur-Rahman Qasmi, another Board member.

Madarssas mainly teach religious subjects and languages although many have added English, Hindi and even computers to their curricula. But while religious education is rigorous, secular education is typically of a lower standard compared to regular schools with mathematics and science often getting a miss. This factor, along with socio-economic disadvantages the community struggles with, led the Sachar Committee to conclude that Muslims often lagged in national educational standards. For instance, the Committee said that 25% of Muslim children had either never attended school, or dropped out, and literacy levels among Muslims were lower than the national average.

While the Committee’s report underscores the need for bolstering education in the community, any government role in modernising madrassas is seen as interference in religious matters. Therefore, the government has largely taken the delicate approach of offering aid to those madrassas that are ready to modernise their curricula.

“I used to believe that change would come from within the community, but I have given up the hope,” says Arshad Alam, who teaches at the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University. “The state has to act as a modernising agent. But on one hand, the government says the community is backward, on the other, it takes populist decisions that will not lift Muslims out of backwardness,” he says referring to the possible amendment in RTE Act.

With the school system beginning to conform to RTE norms, the chasm with madrassas could widen. “Why does anyone think it is okay to run a school without a boundary wall, a toilet or any of the things the Act asks for?” asks Krishna Kumar, former Director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training.

Meanwhile, change is already palpable at madrassas. Darul Uloom Deoband, probably the most influential madrassa in the country, recently started a two-year English course for 20-30 of its graduates. Others, in Gujarat and Rajasthan, offer vocational training courses along with religious studies. Athar Ali also plans to start a vocational training school at his Mumbai madrassa where students would be taught translation, and trained in mobile repair, electrical wiring among other trades—the school will be open to students from every religion.

“The largest number of vacancies in madrassas these days are for English-speaking people,” says Waris Mazhari, who edits Tarjuman-i Dar Ul-Uloom, an alumni magazine for Deoband. “Apart from teaching English at madrassas, preachers now want websites and brochures in English. And they would like madrassa graduates, with beards and kurtas, to do this.”

There are also a growing number of madrassa graduates who have now made their way into few universities that accept their certificates and some who have been transferred to other universities. Currently, madrassa certificates are accepted only by a handful of universities and usually only for degrees in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. But these students face the problem of belonging to a world that is cut off from the mainstream educational system.

“I wanted to study but since my parents got me enrolled with a madrassa, I am worried about my future,” Imamuddin says. After six years in another madrassa, he joined Jamia Qadriya Ashrafia—located in a grungy by-lane of Mohammed Ali Road—when he was told that he could also attend night school. Now, he attends madrassa classes till noon, English and computer classes in the afternoon and goes to night school. He spends the nights completing homework assigned by both the madrassa and the school. And, pre-dawn prayer call means he sleeps for only a few hours. But Imamuddin feels he is not missing out on anything. “Now, I can work with the clergy and if I don’t get a job, I could work elsewhere,” he says. Ideally, he wants to use his education to teach at a madrassa.

Maulana Moin Ashraf, who runs Jamia Qadriya Ashrafia, says that others from the madrassa community like his school, but are fearful of replicating it. “Maybe, they feel that if another curriculum is introduced, then our religious education will get a short shrift. But that has not happened; children like following both.”

Tehelka, 15 December 2011

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