The decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Maharashtra to derecognise madrasas and institutions imparting vedic education unless they are also offering formal education including in subjects such as science, mathematics and social sciences has, predictably, created a controversy. More than a lakh of students — most of them studying in madrasas — could be affected. The decision to declare them “out of school” has drawn flak. The suspicion among critics is that this decision is in line with earlier moves by the State government that were seen to have been taken with a communal bias, such as the ban on beef. But looked at dispassionately, this particular government action does not seem totally without merit. It is clear that many madrasas — often the only resort for poor Muslims dependent on community support — require reform: education in these institutions needs to be modernised with the introduction of curriculum related to subjects beyond religious education. Less than 10 per cent of all Muslim children study in madrasas, according to data released by the HRD Ministry some years ago. In Maharashtra, of 1,889 madrasas, about 559 teach courses in science, mathematics and English, and depend on state support. Religious teaching in many madrasas is found to be largely sect-driven, where education on various interpretations of Islam is imparted. Some of the sect-driven madrasas, such as those affiliated to the Deoband school, have refused to make changes to the curriculum. But others have welcomed state and community support to reform and expand the scope of studies.
Theological education, while preparing Muslim children to take up religious vocations, does not equip them well enough to cope with the modern world, even if there are some exceptions to the situation. This brings out the need for madrasas to expand the gamut of their teaching to other subjects that are taught in non-religious schools. There has been a long-term imperative in education policy in India to standardise education to conform to secular and modern values. State governments should work towards realising this need. It is another matter whether the Maharashtra government’s decision to declare religious schools as ineligible for funding is the right way to persuade them to modernise. Instead, the government could have taken an approach that is proactive and inclusive, allowing for more time for madrasas that were already funded by the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party-led government to modernise and to involve the Ministry of Minority Affairs to help with the process of reform.