The debate on Indian madrasas is highly polarised. On the one hand, the Hindu right consistently tries to portray them as dens of terrorism; on the other, sections of Muslims passionately defend them as if there is nothing wrong with them. The recent Maharashtra government decision to count certain madrasa students as “out of school” children provides an opportunity to start a meaningful and dispassionate discussion on madrasa reform and the future of the thousands of children who study in these institutions.
But first, we must understand that madrasas themselves are not homogeneous. There are madrasas controlled by madrasa boards in different states. There, the syllabus is at par with state government schools. The other category of madrasas are those that are termed as “azad (free)” madrasas. They shun state patronage and their curriculum is mostly religious. More like theological seminaries, they are also divided along sectarian lines. Deobandis, Barelwis and Ahl-e-Hadis, all have their own network of madrasas. Though at loggerheads with each other, they are nevertheless united in their opposition to reform. It is difficult to justify the learning that takes place in these seminaries as proper education. The curriculum does not and cannot equip students to negotiate the structures of modernity. This ossified mode of learning had some merit hundreds of years ago, but to defend it now in the name of minority rights is a gross injustice to the thousands of students who study in them.
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Since 1993, there has been a madrasa modernisation policy, primarily designed for azad madrasas. The idea was to convince them to teach modern subjects in lieu of state grants for books and additional teachers. But the policy treated madrasas as homogeneous, so grants were also cornered by state-funded madrasas. Also, a majority of the grants to azad madrasas have been utilised to hire part-time untrained teachers, which defeats the purpose of introducing quality education in these institutions. To top it all, madrasas affiliated to Deobandis and Ahl-e-Hadis completely refused to take part in this initiative. It was due to this stiff opposition of the ulema that the previous government dropped the idea of having an all-India madrasa board through which reforms could be implemented. In a move that can only be called a travesty of justice, the previous government also exempted madrasas from the provisions of the right to education act. So while everyone else has a fundamental right to education in this country, Muslim children studying in madrasas have become casualties of a perverted form of secularism.
Ever since the publication of the Sachar report, it has become commonplace to argue that madrasas are not a problem because only 4 per cent of Muslim children study there. But the Sachar Committee data on madrasas is a gross underestimation. The committee only counted students enrolled in state-funded madrasas. NCERT data tells us that students studying in azad madrasas far outnumber those in state-funded madrasas. A 2013 report of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions found that total enrolment in madrasas was nearly 10 per cent, more than double the Sachar estimate. The same report also tells us that there are 68 districts where madrasa enrolment was as high as 25 per cent. Going by the available data, Muslim dropout rates are considerably higher than those of other communities. There seems to be a correlation between madrasa enrolment and high dropout rates, as the training in madrasas does not equip students to make sense of school pedagogy.
RTE provisions clearly state that every child has a right to age-specific education. This means that, with some variation, every eight- or 10-year-old child should be, more or less, at the same level of learning. Azad madrasas do not equip students with such knowledge. Therefore, there is nothing wrong in counting them as “out of school” children. Given the political context, there will be apprehensions about the intention of the Maharashtra government. But political context should not become an excuse to prevent a discussion on the educational future of poor Muslim children.
The writer is assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, Delhi