Two weeks ago, a district sessions court in Ernakulam granted bail to M M Akbar, a preacher who also runs a chain of schools. He had been arrested from Hyderabad on February 24, on charges of fomenting communal enmity through a textbook for primary school. Granting bail, the court observed, “The court does not find anything in the offending passage against any other community or religion or group of people, which is an essential prerequisite to bring out the offences alleged in the case.”
Akbar, widely known as Kerala Zakir Naik, is managing director of the Peace International School chain, which has 12 CBSE schools — 10 in Kerala, one each in Minicoy and Mangaluru.
Before the controversy over the textbook, the spotlight had first fallen on his schools in July 2016, when it emerged that a few of the missing youth who had allegedly joined the Islamic State had worked in schools of his chain. One of them, Abdul Rashid, and his wife Sonia a.k.a. Aysha had worked with the Peace School in Kasaragod before they went missing. Besides, his second wife, Yasim Ahamed, who was arrested from Delhi while trying to fly to Afghanistan, allegedly to join Rashid, had worked as a teacher with the Peace School in Kottakkal, Malappuram.
Akbar, 52, who is also the director of Kozhikode-based Niche of Truth, an organisation engaged in propagating Islam through various media, began Peace Schools in 2006 under the Peace Educational Foundation.
Muslim businessmen invested in each centre, while Akbar managed the academic activities. About 90 per cent of the 6,500 students covered by the chain are Muslim; each school offers Islamic and general education under one roof.
All schools under the Peace Foundation have the same curriculum, but the one in Ernakulam was the first to face a police case in the textbook controversy. Although schools in Kollam and Thrissur too faced similar cases, both were stayed by the court later.
A section of the textbook, Islamic Studies for Class II, refers to Shahada, an Islamic creed declaring faith in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as God’s prophet. The section deals with a question-answer session between a teacher and a Muslim. “Suppose your friend Adam/Susan has decided to become a Muslim, what advice you will give?” It is followed by multiple-choice answers, which formed the basis of the police case .
Citing this section, the state education department moved a complaint with local police on September 17, 2016. A month later, police registered a case. In December 2016, Kochi police arrested three executives of Mumbai-based Burooj Realisation, the textbook publisher. Later, they were granted bail.
“That section was in the textbook Islamic Studies, meant for Muslim students,” says Akbar. “It was introduced as part of madrasa education, which we were providing in the school. We taught it for four years, until 2016, when we decided not to continue that section as we felt it was not suitable for Class-II students,” he claims. “When the complaint came up, we had abandoned the entire book, which came in three volumes. However, the police seized the book from the school and registered the case.”
The school in Ernakulam first came on the police radar following media reports that Merin Jacob, a.k.a. Mariam, one among the missing youth, had taught there.
Noor Muhammed Shah, one of the promoters of Peace Ernakulam School, says Mariam never taught there. “She had appeared for an interview and addressed a classroom session as part of a demonstration. She was not selected. Why should we be blamed for her going missing?”
Akbar claims the same textbook has been taught in 400 schools in the country since 2009. Even in Kerala, two schools under Muslim managements have been using it for religious education, he says. Last January, the education department ordered closure of the school; Kerala High Court stayed the order.
Akbar says his school is now in the process of preparing a new text for religious education for Muslim students. “Now, we provide pooled materials taught by various Muslim groups in their madrasa system.”
Akbar used to be a schoolteacher in Malappuram. He had taught physics. As a student, Akbar had been associated with Mujahid Student Movement. Although he is known as an orator, Akbar never had any academic training as a Muslim scholar. In recent years, on debates on religion, Akbar has represented the Muslim side, quoting abundantly from Hindu and Christian religious texts.
“While working as a schoolteacher, I was interested in religious discourses and writings. Twenty years ago, I quit the school and became a full-time preacher on Islam and comparative religion. So far, I haven’t faced any case for fomenting communal enmity with my speeches,” he says.