The politics of the madrasa survey
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Any state intervention inspired by Islamophobic views will only help deepen majoritarianism

October 20, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 01:18 pm IST

 A madrasa in New Delhi.

A madrasa in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to undertake a survey of madrasas has raised serious concerns not just over the fate of these institutions but also on the future of Muslim identity. Other BJP-ruled States have also expressed concerns about madrasas. In May, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the word ‘madrasa’ should cease to exist. In September, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhammi said his State would also conduct a survey of madrasas, like Uttar Pradesh. The stated reason is to check the availability of basic facilities for the students. Responding to this, Maulana Arshad Madani, head of the Darul Uloom Deoband, appealed to Ulemas in charge of various madrasas to cooperate in the survey, taking the stated logic of governance at face value.

In politics, the logic of governance has always been a handy tool to achieve ideological objectives. This was the case in the 1905 Bengal Partition and, as some may argue, during the 2014 general election campaign. The ideological aspect of this survey will become clear only after the survey is completed and various political parties respond to its outcomes. What strands of majoritarianism inspired the survey? Is the survey motivated by prejudice towards Muslims? Whatever the answer, madrasas have become a new battlefront between the Hindu Right and Indian Muslims, and the survey has the potential to offer material that could shape Muslim identity.

Views about madrasas

In India, two arguments are often made about madrasas. The first is that Muslims are economically backward because most of them are educated in madrasas. The second argument is that madrasas are nurseries of radical Islam. This view gained momentum globally after the 9/11 attack. The response of the Western states, or the War on Terror, was formulated based on this argument. Despite the fact that the al-Qaeda failed to attract Indian Muslims, the Indian political class was swayed by this view of madrasas. The most surprising endorsement of this view came from former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in 2002.

The Sachar Committee Report (2006) demolished both these arguments with robust empirical evidence. It found that only 3% of Muslim children of school-going age go to madrasas at the national level. It also drew a distinction between madrasas and maktabs. Maktabs are neighbourhood schools, often attached to mosques. They offer religious education to children who attend other schools to get mainstream education. The share of Muslims who attend madrasas and maktabs is not more than 6.3%, the report said. The report’s most crucial observation was that Muslims are aspirational. Muslim parents are eager to see their children enrolled in modern education institutions, but often fail to do so owing to their poor financial condition. The report therefore recommended that scholarships be given to Muslim students so that they don’t drop out of school. This was even implemented by some BJP-ruled States such as Madhya Pradesh, but not by the then Gujarat government. Such scholarships have made a difference, say some researchers, though scholars have expressed concerns over the lack of commitment of various national governments, including the United Progressive Alliance governments that helped formulate the report, in implementing the committee’s recommendations.

A policy for Muslims

It is clear that the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Assam or Uttarakhand have little appreciation for these findings. One BJP leader dismissed the Sachar report as an act of appeasement. Curiously, the authors of the Sachar Committee report deliberately chose to stay away from discussions over party politics or issues of secularism or communalism and the implications of these for the welfare of Muslims. They pretended as if no causal relationship exists between ideology and development. The politics that is expected to follow the madrasa survey will highlight how crucial this relationship is, and how utopian the authors of the Sachar report were in hoping that they could frame a policy for Muslims outside the framework of secularism and communalism.

Madrasas have a long and complex history. In the post-mutiny period, they emerged mainly to help save Muslim identity in the face of growing colonial interventions, which they suspected might impose Christian values on fellow Muslims. Madrasas, particularly Deoband, chose not to seek state support because they suspected that the colonial state, among others, would eventually expect them to produce “loyal subjects for the British Crown” as became the case with Aligarh Muslim University. So, they sought autonomy. Deoband took a political stand and fiercely resisted Partition. While there are issues concerning madrasas and modernity, particularly with regard to issues such as patriarchy and child rights, some of which were raised by the Sachar Committee, to have any state intervention inspired by Islamophobic views will only help deepen majoritarianism.

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