“My years as a student in the Darul Uloom madrasa were the best training I could get to be an effective MP (Member of Parliament). Because the madrasa taught me that serving people is the biggest act of devotion to God,” said religious scholar and educationist Maulana Asrarul Haque of his 1866 alma mater in the North Indian town of Deoband.
The sentences were characteristic of the moral lens the soft-spoken 66-year-old parliamentarian seemed to view the world through.
Haque, who has founded 160 madrasas across four states and a girl’s school in an ill-connected village in his constituency of Kishanganj in Bihar, said, “Education can empower and help build bridges.”
Haque is the sort of Muslim leader the government is now looking to, as it attempts to craft a consensus in a divided Muslim community to help push through a sticky piece of legislation to set up a Central Madrasa Board.
The board — stillborn for a decade — is meant to design a modern curriculum for India’s estimated 100,000 Islamic seminaries. These numbers are private estimates; the government has no definitive information on how many such institutions exist. Under 20,000 are registered under various laws.
There are also no definitive surveys, but official estimates say that between 4 per cent and 6 per cent of India’s Muslim children in the school-going age study in such seminaries. Attending the institutions between four to seven years, they study a three-centuries old curriculum (see box).
Institutions like the madarsa at Deoband are renowned and possess the funds and skills to modernise. But most seminaries cater to areas with concentrations of low-income Muslim households, where the government school system is broken and private schools have no commercial incentives.
Like Haque’s constituency of Kishanganj, a backward district of small farmers and landless labourers with 70 per cent Muslim residents and a female literacy of 14 per cent, the lowest for any district in the country.
While some states such as West Bengal and Bihar have instituted madrasa boards to run such institutions, most seminaries are funded by charities and run by decades-old trusts, which guard their independence from the government fiercely.
Abdul Noumani, based in New Delhi, typifies this strand of thought in the community, which has opposed the formation of a central board as interference in the Islamic faith.
At his office overlooking graceful arches in the headquarters of the 1919 Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind, which runs over 10,000 madrasas across India, Noumani said, “The Sachar Commission found that every fourth Muslim child has never attended, or attended and dropped out of school. Why does the government not focus on these children? When only 4 per cent of Muslim children study in madrasas, why is Kapil Sibal (Minister for Human Resource Development) so interested in our affairs?”
“Our experience of government and bureaucracy has not been good in states which have set up their own madrasa boards. It opens the door for corruption and meaningless rules. We can modernise our own curriculum.”
But, National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions chairman Justice M. Siddiqui whose office drafted the Bill for the proposed board (see box), argued that the government should help lead that change whereby a madrasa student can learn about Islamic law as well as the Indian Penal Code, Arabic as well as English.
Siddiqui said the board should go beyond matters of content to improve the quality of education. “It should be given a seed fund of Rs 500 crore by the state and then allowed to function independently. Madrasas currently pay their teachers Rs 500 to Rs 1,500 (per month). How can that attract good people? The board will ensure pay parity with government schoolteachers. We have drafted the Bill. The ball is now in the government’s court,” he said.
For now, the government is treading carefully. In a bid to build a consensus, Sibal has been open to suggestions to people the board with as many educationists as theologians. He has said affiliation to the board will be voluntary. On October 3, at a meeting on the issue with Muslim MPs, he will lobby for the board.
The Kishanganj MP, Haque, said the government’s revived efforts will be successful only if “the benefits of the policy are explained clearly to the Muslim community. The key will be to take all the ulema (religious scholars) along.”