The BJP-led Maharashtra government’s reported move to declare madrassas that don’t teach regular primary subjects as “non-schools” has instantly polarised the debate around Muslims’ education again.
It’s a vexed issue, one that reminds me of the French burqa-ban debate. Both issues are complicated by a remarkable confusion about what Islam is and what it isn’t; who Muslims are and who they aren’t.
Some see the move as an assault on minority rights, while others view it as a step towards setting the community on the path to progress. Still others argue that one cannot divorce the move from the larger political reality of a right-wing government rooted in chauvinistic Hinduism.
But let’s first assess the possible fall-outs. If madrassas are going to be de-recognised, then the children who attend these institutions as well as their parents face a legal Democles’ sword. The landmark Right to Education Act stipulates age-specific compulsory education in a school. And ‘school’, under the Act, means an institution imparting elementary education.
The previous UPA government amended the Act in 2012 to solve the problem. Provisions of the Act were made applicable subject to Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution. This meant that the Act could not infringe on the guaranteed rights of minorities to “establish and manage” their institutions. Rules appended to the Act also state that institutions, such as madrassas and Vedic pathshalas, are protected under the Constitution. Maharashtra’s proposal is ludicrous as it could fall foul of both Article 30, a Fundamental Right, as well as the Right to Education Act.
Beyond the legalities is the larger issue of whether the State should enforce a secular curriculum on theological schools.
Linked to that is the notion that Islam militates against modern knowledge and modernity itself. Muslims need modern education, although that alone wouldn’t improve their lot much without an enabling socio-political environment. To most of us, madrassas are monolithic institutions that teach anachronistic Islamic theology. This is not true. Many states have madrassa education boards like the CBSE. They follow an approved mixed curriculum.
For instance, Bihar’s ‘khariji’ madrassas are as ‘modern’ as secular schools with some of their alumni being leading scholars and professionals. There is a growing trend among philanthropic Muslims to set up modern schools that impart secular education with a religious vision. Some madrassas internally debate on how to impart modern education.
The problem is with the so-called ‘azad madaris’ or the independent and purely religious madrassas which are opposed to dilution of their curriculum. Penalising them is no solution. It sharpens the ‘us-versus-them’ debate. While one doesn’t agree with the classic Left position that all solutions must ‘come from within’, governments must figure out creative ways to incentivise education.