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What Indian Muslims have learnt: Education is empowerment

At a time when Indian Muslims are disturbed by what they see around them and are introspecting political choices, there is a trend visible in the community - a desire to convert the crisis into an opportunity by focusing on internal reform.

india Updated: May 31, 2017 20:47 IST
Prashant Jha
File photo of schoolgirls in Mumbai, India. The only way of empowerment of Muslims is to increase their capabilities educationally, economically and socially.
File photo of schoolgirls in Mumbai, India. The only way of empowerment of Muslims is to increase their capabilities educationally, economically and socially. (Shutterstock (Representational picture))

Rashid Nehaal is a harried man. As the director of the Aligarh Muslim University’s Kishanganj campus, he is running an academic centre starved of funds, with non existent infrastructure, in one of the poorest corners of India with little linkages with industry and the market for students to leverage.

And Nehaal, 48, senses prejudice from the central government.

Yet, Nehaal’s advice to younger Muslims and the community at larger is to ‘stop complaining’.

“Muslims need to understand that every community in India has struggled. You cannot keep blaming the government and parties 24 hours a day. They must stop expecting pampering, reservations. They must understand that they have to compete in the marketplace. All that we should do is create an enabling environment and give them educational facilities.”

At a time when Indian Muslims are disturbed at what they see around them, at a time when they are introspecting about political choices, there is a third simultaneous trend visible in the community - a desire to convert the crisis into an opportunity by focusing on internal reform. The unanimous refrain, across North India, among older and younger Muslims, among men and women, among middle class and poor, and among urban and rural Muslims, is that the only way to do this is through a single-minded focus on education.

Increase capabilities

Mohammed Adil Faridi is in his thirties, and works at the Imarat-e-Sharia, an influential Muslim organisation in Patna’s Phulwari Sharif. He is working on a computer, shuffling between checking his email and editing an Urdu newspaper.

When asked if Muslims are feeling like a ‘defeated community’, a refrain one had heard elsewhere, he replies, “No. Muslims know that education is the only route to mobility. And anyone who wants to study can study. Yes, if someone can succeed with 30% work, a Muslim may have to put in 50% work because of certain prejudices. But no one is stopping us from doing that.”

The institute runs madrasas across Bihar. With education, did he refer to traditional Islamic education? Faridi replied, “At most, five or six percent of Muslims are in madrasas. Earlier, they were outside the education system entirely. Even now, the majority of Muslims who are studying are in the mainstream education system. We see a value in both.” He however acknowledged that modern education imparts technical skills, which in turn helps improve standards of living.

But is this an apolitical outlook, given the current circumstances? “There is a concerted call to spread hate. The smart thing for Muslims to do is to stay out of it. Increase your capabilities educationally, economically, socially. If you don’t give it too much value, if you ignore it, their politics itself will see a setback.”

Slow advances in school education
Muslim student enrolment in India14.3% Muslim population in India. Most of them are in mainstream education, very few are in madrasas
Dip in enrolment in higher classes
  • Muslim enrolment within schools (public and private) is representative of the religion’s population in India
  • Representation of Muslims, however, falls as they enroll in higher classes
Source: U-DISE (District Information System for Education) 2015-16, HT Analysis. Nos. exclude Andhra Pradesh due to incomplete data

The common aspirations

Whether by design, or through a natural process, this focus on enhancing capabilities is happening.

In a minority hostel for Post Graduate students in Patna college, Nishad Ahmed from Motihari said that Muslims are insecure. “But the only way of empowerment is through intellect. And we can gain this through higher education. There is no other way.”

There are fewer Muslim students than their population share would suggest in colleges. (HT FIle Photo)

In Bareilly, a group of Muslim students - boys and girls - are pursuing chemical engineering from the Rohilkhand University. They come from different background. Hiba Roshan’s father is a businessman, her mother is a teacher, and women in her family have been teachers. A bright, enthusiastic student, Roshan wants to go on to teach engineering.

Farah is in her late teens, and is the second year topper of her batch. But getting to college was not as smooth for her. Her father is a tailor who has studied till Class 12 himself, her mother a homemaker who is not literate. “In my locality of Azamnagar, most people think that there is no need for girls to study. My parents supported me. My father pays a fee of Rs 75,000 every year.” If she gets a job outside Bareilly, will her family allow her to go? “Yes, of course,” replies Farah.

There are fewer Muslim students than their population share would suggest in colleges in Bareilly. And even within that cluster, there are very few girls. Yet, Roshan and Farah represent a new generation of Muslims who seek to find a space in the modern Indian economic system, with a degree in hand. Their families have broken out of community traditions, taken risks, and invested resources in education.

Nehaal, the AMU Kishanganj director, points out that the aspirations of the young Muslim are the same as any other young Indian. “From here, students go to Patna, to Delhi, to Kota for education and coaching. Their problem is their economic baggage. Can we help with that? Can we provide more scholarships, more aid, set up residential coaching centres? Let us talk about these issues. This is the single most pressing need.”

He adds that Muslims need to stop being demoralised. “No one is shooting you physically. Some people may want to shoot you mentally. Fight it. How long will you keep weeping and wailing? There is no other instrument but education to battle it.”

(With inputs from Chandan Kumar in Bareilly)

(Part 1 of the series talks about how Muslims feel distrust the BJP government after the party’s victory in 2017 assembly election. Part 2 focuses on community’s political options and choices in contemporary India.)