The state’s flawed focus on madrasas

In a scenario where the Muslim community’s impulse for modern education is discernible and madrasas are responding to it, Maharashtra’s move to arm-twist madrasas into modernisation is both short-sighted and outright stereotyping

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:30 pm IST

Published - July 20, 2015 12:31 am IST

A highly polarising subject, madrasa modernisation has its fair share of critics and supporters. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

A highly polarising subject, madrasa modernisation has its fair share of critics and supporters. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Penning the conclusion of my doctoral thesis in education, I couldn’t help notice the irony. Here I was in Oxford closing my research on gender and schooling in girls’ madrasas while, back home, the Maharashtra government had arbitrarily decided to classify madrasas that do not teach modern subjects as non-schools. News reports of July 3-4, 2015, say that the Principal Secretary of the Minority Affairs Department sent a letter to the Principal Secretary, School Education, saying that students in madrasas which do not teach mathematics, social science, science and English should be considered as “non-school going”.

It is easy to club this as another move in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s history at the Centre and States to delegitimise and devalue idioms associated with Muslim identity especially given that madrasas have been a long-time favourite. This unprecedented bracketing of madrasas — a word that literally means ‘places of study’ — as non-schools highlights larger problems in the present policy discourse on madrasa modernisation.

Madrasa modernisation The present government’s focus on madrasa modernisation as a principal means for development of the Muslim community is clear — from the pronouncement in the Presidential address to the new Parliament in June 2014 to the Rs.100 crore allocation for this in the Union Budget 2014. However, the Narendra Modi government is not the first to champion madrasa modernisation. The Indian state’s policy interventions in Muslim education, irrespective of the party in power, have long focussed on madrasa reform. First mooted as a policy measure in the 1980’s, it was operationalised a decade later with the ‘Area Intensive Madrasa Modernization Programme’.

A running thread in the contemporary policy discourse on madrasas is the view that they are more than minority educational institutions. They are regarded as outmoded outliers imparting religion-centric education, which offers little or no employment outside the religious sector, and hence face a ‘crisis of relevance’ in modernising India along with posing the danger of radicalising Muslim youth. Hence, the emphasis on what in policy parlance is termed as madrasa reform or modernisation and mainstreaming of madrasa students.

The excessive emphasis in policy on madrasa reform tends to bracket madrasa education, and hence madrasa graduates, right at the bottom of an artificially created hierarchy of knowledge forms.

A highly polarising subject, madrasa modernisation has its fair share of critics and supporters. Critics argue that given the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee estimates that only 4 per cent of students go to madrasas, policy focus should be on strengthening regular schooling options in Muslim-dominated areas. Their argument is that the policy emphasis on madrasas further marginalises Muslims. On the one hand, policy discourse refers to educational backwardness as one of the main causes for alienation of Muslims and acknowledges inclusive education as a panacea. On the other hand, the interventions confine the question of Muslim education to madrasa modernisation which leads to a further isolation of Muslims and restricts their educational choices to exclusive Muslim-managed networks and services such as madrasas.

The critique from other quarters such as the ulema and prominent religious scholars presents state-led ‘modernisation’ as a garb to deprive madrasas of their independence and autonomy. Similar concerns were also voiced by a section of Muslim parliamentarians in 2009 and cited as a reason for not supporting the Central Madrasa Board Bill (2009) in Parliament that sought to create a national level coordination mechanism as a part of madrasa reform efforts. The supporters of madrasa modernisation, including some religious leaders, point out advantages such as access to education in modern subjects, improvement in teachers’ salaries and, presumably, quality of teaching, and the opening of opportunities for higher education, employment which would enhance the relevance of madrasas.

However, a common critique of state-led modernisation efforts levied by both sides, i.e. advocates and detractors, is the lack of attention in policy to the processes that would translate madrasa modernisation into practice. In June 2014, following the announcement of the Rs.100 crore budgetary allocation for madrasa modernisation, the Deoband school rector publicly stated that there was little clarity on ‘what the government wants to do’ as a part of the modernisation programme. Academic scholars who support madrasa modernisation have expressed similar concerns arguing that one of the biggest lacunae in present policy is a lack of due cognisance to the processes that would operationalise modernisation. For instance, how will the inclusion of secular syllabi in the so-called modernised madrasas be achieved in terms of actual time allocated to the teaching of different subjects; ensuring training and competence of teachers teaching school subjects in madrasas; integration of the differences between religious knowledge and the ‘modern’ knowledge of subjects into an unified whole in madrasas and so on?

Complex linkages My research with madrasa students across North India indicates how the very premise of the madrasa modernisation policy is divorced from ground reality. The linkages between madrasas and the education of Muslim communities are far more complex than the simplistic view expounded in policy framings which prejudges madrasa education in binaries of traditional versus modern and religious versus secular. The assumption that merely introducing modern curricula will instantaneously modernise madrasas betrays little understanding of the micro processes at work.

The current policy discourse presupposes the educational demand of Muslim parents in terms of madrasas versus schools, ignoring intersecting factors that shape their choices such as socio-economic marginalisation, a lack of alternative schools, a desire for a culturally appropriate mahaul [milieu] and a combination of dini [religious] and duniyavi talim [worldly education]. The emergence of madrasas across denominations embracing motifs of ‘modernisation’ without state aid highlights this changing demand emanating from within the community.

A wide spectrum of madrasas across India have adopted so-called secular, modern education by enacting measures such as an inclusion of subjects taught in schools in madrasa curriculum; seeking recognition of their degrees from mainstream universities, incorporation of skill-training courses and so on. However, policy documents tend to conflate the madrasas’ scepticism and/or rejection of the state-led modernisation programme with an ideology positing madrasas and their leadership as opposed to modernisation. Academic work on the engagement between the Indian state and madrasas has revealed how the adoption of state-led modernisation is not a question of ideology alone but a complex interplay of several factors such as financial incentives, trust, how engagement with the state impacts the position of madrasas and access to community resources, maslak -based denomination and related questions of organisational affiliation. A shift in attention from the top-down state-led modernisation programme to the bottom-up processes shaping the increasing voluntary move of madrasas towards so-called modernisation would be better. It would allow the policy to become more attuned with the complex processes shaping the demand for education emanating from the community and the response of madrasas.

A movement Second, far from typifying one end of the polarising spectrum of traditional versus modern and religious versus secular education, my research shows the constant movement between madrasas and mainstream educational institutions. The girls I researched had studied in secular schools before joining madrasas. Several of them while in the madrasa were simultaneously appearing for open school examinations through the distance mode. Many of them on completion of their madrasa education opted for higher education in Central universities, which recognised madrasa degrees. Madrasas foster peer networks and linkages, which aid students aspiring for more mainstream education in complex and unanticipated ways. The Muslim community’s impulse for modern education is discernible and madrasas are responding to this demand emanating from within the community. In such a scenario, the recent move of the Maharashtra State government to arm-twist madrasas into modernisation can be a policy short sight at best, and outright stereotyping at worst.

Insensitivity of secular spaces If policy is genuinely committed to its stated aim of mainstreaming madrasa students, it needs to pay closer attention to how transitions from madrasa to so-called mainstream spaces are experienced by Muslim students. The experiences of students who I interviewed revealed the insensitivity of secular educational spaces to the religious-cultural endowments that students possess due to their madrasa education and family and community backgrounds.

The excessive emphasis in policy on madrasa reform tends to bracket madrasa education (and hence their graduates) right at the bottom of an artificially created hierarchy of knowledge forms. Policy haste to mainstream madrasa students by applying not well thought out ‘universals’ from above often proves counterproductive. It impairs the learning process of students and ends up alienating them, as the places where they are supposedly mainstreamed (such as universities) have little sensitivity or regard for the knowledge they possess. This is particularly pertinent in a scenario where there is dismal participation of Muslims in higher education (the Kundu Committee Report, 2014). Rather than the conventional perception of madrasas as barriers, there is increasing acknowledgement of their role in facilitating higher education (National University of Educational Planning and Administration 2012).

In a larger landscape of increasing communalisation, where Muslims continue to face social discrimination and exclusion in education, housing, employment and developmental schemes, what would the product of modernised madrasa stand to gain? Or maybe the entire point of these constant attempts to meddle with madrasas is to detract from these larger questions.

(Hem Borker is a Clarendon Scholar and D.Phil Candidate at the Department of Education, University of Oxford.)

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