Assam’s education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently objected to some madrasas in the state observing Friday as a holiday. He added that the government had taken note that “some madrasas in certain districts” are closed on Friday and this was against the law. If this practice was not immediately stopped, the government “will not refrain from suspending the headmasters of such institutions,” Sarma threatened. He went on to add that madrasas remain closed on Fridays in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and not in India. Indians, according to Sarma, observe a common weekly-off on Sunday; that should be adhered to by people of all faiths.
Sunday, however, is not a common weekly off in India for all organisations. No law of the country declares Sunday a holiday. In 2012, while replying to an RTI application, the department of personnel and training had stated, “As per records available in JCA section of the department of personnel and training, there is no information regarding declaration of Sunday as a holiday”. Order no 13/4/85-JCA of the department of personnel and training, dated May 21, 1985, which initiated the five-day week in civil administration offices, declares the working week from Monday to Friday, with Saturday being a holiday. Sunday is not declared an official holiday, even by this order. The reference here is to civil administration offices, schools are not covered under this announcement. At the School of Open Learning at the University of Delhi, for example, classes are held only on Saturdays and Sundays. As historian Jim Massellos writes, “it was the British administration that started the practice of Sunday as an off-day”. Sunday as a holiday has roots in the Christian traditions. It is not any more secular or less religious than Friday as the day of prayer for the Muslims.
Given the context of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, Sarma’s reference to Bangladesh and Pakistan is provocative. His recent book, Anya ek drishtikon (A different perspective) describes a not so distant future where the ethnic Assamese community will be outnumbered by “illegal” Muslim migrants. Sarma produces unverified data to show how in a few districts of the state this fear is increasingly becoming a threat. Is it any surprise that the districts mentioned in Sarma’s book were picked out to drive home his point about holidays in madrasas?
It is not difficult to fathom why a reference was made only to Pakistan and Bangladesh. After all, Israel’s official working week stretches from Sunday to Thursday. Nepal has a working week that begins on Sunday and ends on Friday. Friday was an official holiday in Pakistan during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime; but now Pakistan follows the Monday to Friday official working week.
Assam has seen volatile public debates on the Citizenship Amendment Bill. This proposed piece of legislation seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 and pave the way for “illegal” Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Christian, Buddhist and Jain migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan to be eligible for Indian citizenship. Muslims have been kept out from the proposed amendments. A reason that has often been cited for such discrimination is that “illegal” Muslim migrants are already a significant number in Assam.
The Right to Education Act — which after the ruling of the Kerala High Court in the Sobha George case, this year, is applicable to minority educational institutions — prohibits a state-aided minority educational institution from discriminating against any student on grounds of religion, race, caste, language in matters of admission. Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution guarantee minorities rights to their culture. Sunday is not an officially-declared holiday in our country, as evidenced by government records. Arm-twisting government-aided madrasas to remain open on Friday and during the month of Ramzan is a violation of rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It is nobody’s case that Assam’s madrasas are in fine shape. Given Sarma’s track record, he is skilled enough to revive them. But forcing them to remain open on Fridays is not the right move.